Friday, November 21, 2008
alpanas and henna
Jan Hamilton, Youth Services Librarian at Prince Memorial Library in Cumberland, and Lupine Committee Chair, invited me to speak this past week about Rickshaw Girl and draw alpanas in combination with a henna demonstration by Genevieve Levin. What an inspired combined program. Henna designs are commonly found in Indian culture, particularly around weddings and special occassions, applied as a paste to the skin. The designs bear a resemblance to alpanas, the ephemeral decorations created by Bangla women with rice paste, and applied to walls and entrances of dwellings. Both employ similar floral and paisley motifs.
I find the concurrence of design similarities and impulses among different cultures completely fascinating. I came across an academic discourse while teaching a 2D design class years ago. In "Symmetries of Culture" authors Dorothy Washburn and Donald Crowe examine the use of style to decifer information codes or ethnic identity markers, a mission of both anthropologists and art historians:
Style is not a theoretical concept like evolution or gravity. Design is a multifaceted phenomenon which can be subject to a number of different categorizations. The problem of why people do things similarly is pervasive, profound, and not trivial.
So in the spirit of exchange and interaction, a group of girls and women explored pattern-making from another culture, making it their own, in this very sweet library setting.
Nev gave a brief talk about the history of henna and it's characteristics. Girls signed up for applications and I gave a quick slideshow on the backstory of Rickshaw Girl, including my formative work, sketches, references, all the unpublished elements that contribute to a book. I included this recent unprompted doodle by my daughter that seemed relevant.
It could be an alpana, or a Pennsylvania dutch motif. Radial symmetry, either way.
I brought colored paper, pastel pencils, and an open mind. The group was small, so I could just hang out with half a dozen girls, drawing and waiting their turn for henna.
Sarah drew an alpana, quite naturally.
And I drew her:
Another young artist, Hannah, captured amazing detail in her drawing of an Indian girl.
Olivia asked, "How do I become an artist?" I said, "Draw all the time. Study art, and persevere!" She's already there, posting her drawings online. I drew her as she watched the henna happening.
She obeyed the instructions: don't smudge the henna paste. And returned to drawing, with her left hand! That's perseverance.
Nev has a steady hand and exquisite ability, even with girls clamoring around the table.
She did a design for me, once the girls departed. Thankyou, Remarkable Blackbird!!!
I am delighted to be part of this cultural exchange of custom, beauty, and story. Anything that broadens a child's sense of the world, in a hands on way, is worth every minute. I'm grateful for the intrepid librarians that bring these programs to life.
Tomorrow I'll be drawing alpanas, and kids, at Many Voices, the multicultural book fair at Breakwater School:
A Multicultural Book Fair
For Families & Educators
Saturday, Nov. 22
10:00 AM – 1:00 PM
Breakwater School Gym
865 Brighton Ave., Portland
Come shop for children’s books depicting the cultures of China, Korea, Japan, Southeast Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East, as well as African American, Native American, Latino American, Jewish American,
Muslim American and immigration books.
AND meet author / Illustrators Cathryn Falwell and me, fold Japanese origami, draw Bengali alpanas, munch on Chinese dumplings, and OH SO MUCH MORE.
It's all good!