Where paintings paint themselves

A closer look at ‘Mystery Painting’ – a special art form practiced in silence
By Marisa de Silva

“People are always looking to divide. To judge. Sinhala, Tamil. Black, White. Good, Bad.Beautiful, Ugly. Normal, Abnormal etc., What we need, is to come to realise, that there really is no such difference or division. We need to acquire a sense of humanity and inner peace, for which we need to change how we see things. Nobody can do this for you, as it needs to come from within,” says Presley Homer, Programme Manager/Head Teacher - CRIPpLED CROW (Kora Kaputa) CENTRE for Contemplative Art and Narration.

“The people behind the centre are just as diverse in background, as the students themselves are, and of course the work they create. From social activists, to three-wheeler drivers, to carpenters, office workers, and small businessmen/women, all who of course share a common interest in helping to rebuild post-conflict Sri Lanka with the use of art and narration as tools promoting national reconciliation and healing. Although not professional artists themselves,they are committed practitioners of contemplative and narrative art. The approximately 100 students per week also represent a wide spectrum of backgrounds, many who’ve been marginalized by the civil conflict, disasters, displacement, physical disabilities, domestic abuse and even imprisonment. Others of course are youth seeking new avenues of expression and originality,” elaborated Presley.

‘Mystery Painting’ is the special art form practiced at Kora Kaputa, which is practiced in silence and can be regarded as a form of Samatha (concentration of one’s mind on a suitable meditation object in order to prevent one’s mind from wandering) which results in a calmness of the mind.

This art was introduced to the centre by the Founder of the Centre – Paul Hogan, a Canadian artist. It is one of the Seven Seed Practices of the Garden Path which have evolved from the experience of the Butterfly Peace Garden, whilst working with trauma affected children in Batticaloa. This art form is specifically designed to help adult community workers engage their own creative processes, whilst also training others to do so, so as to foster peace, reconciliation and well-being in the wider population, said Presley.

The Centre articulates its core creative programme around the first four of these seed practices - Meditation, Mystery Painting, Mythography (narration) and MettaMapping (image-based programme planning). According to psychologists the reason why the first four mind- centred seed practices of the Garden Path are effective in healing trauma is that they create channels between the unconscious centres of the foundation brain where trauma occurs, and consciousness. This is achieved not through rational processes or counselling therapy, but, through play, which for adults includes, qigong (Chinese term for various Chinese systems of physical and mental training for health, martial arts and self-enlightenment.), art and story-telling.

The process of Mystery Painting has three components: Cloud Seeding, Cloud Watching and Cloud Walking. Cloud Seeding is a contemplative process where the practitioner opens his or her heart and connects with breath, emptying long-held images and stories and clearing mental space by sitting quietly and participating in simple physical exercise such as qigong.

Cloud Watching is a painting process in which images are discerned and represented in black and white “breathlines,” comprising four random brush strokes/scribbles on the canvas. Cloud Walking is a narrative process in which the images speak to the artist.

Artists are then left to stare at their scribbles and allow the picture to speak to him/her, instead of extracting ideas/images already in stock and envisioning it in the picture, explained Jayanthi Dandeniya – Coordinator & leading human rights activist, who pioneered the establishment of Family Members of the Disappeared (FMD) and Kalape Api Solidarity Centre. Apart from their regular classes held four times a week, they also conduct outreach programmes at the Negombo Correctional Institute for Youth Offenders, Nisala Diya Sevena, a facility for women affected by domestic abuse, and at Vocational Training Centre for disabled youth in Seeduwa, she added.

On speaking to a group of current students as to what they liked so much in a class where they needed to stay quiet for three hours, they said that the silence helps them concentrate and stay focused on one thing. “This method not only helps us with our art, but also with our studies and other extra-curricular activities. Also, usually when we paint, we have some sort of idea what to expect. Here, due to this new art form we’ve learnt, we never know what to expect, so it’s always new and interesting for us. We’ve also learnt how to combine colours and make endless numbers of colours from just the six colours that we’re given at first. Using Emulsion (wall) paint is yet another unique aspect of this class, as we never knew that you could actually paint pictures with emulsion,” said the enthusiastic group of budding artists.

In the words of two former students – “The paintings drew me out. They called me back to life by showing me that there was something more to me than cancer. There was a dream in me that could survive anything. I caught on to this. Whatever happens before your eyes, I told myself, just watch it carefully and face facts squarely from now on,” Janith* (A few days after he told Jayanthi his story, *Janith passed away peacefully at his home.)

“The instructions were strange. I am a goldsmith, an artisan so I am used to the way artists work. But this was different. We were told to let the painting paint itself. Not to impose ourselves. Not to get in the way. We were told that the paintings were our soul’s messages to us. We had to watch and to listen very carefully. Well, this was all news to me. This was like discovering a whole new world. The new world was me. It was my childhood rediscovered.There was so much to it. It was like an encyclopaedia. I learned to take my time and enjoy the process of learning and discovery,” *Naren, a single parent who came to better understand and bond with his son at class.

Kora Kaputa, based in Negombo, has been around since its inception in 2007, to promote peace, reconciliation and creativity among people of all communities in Sri Lanka, through the cultivation and practice of the arts. It is a partner organisation of the Butterfly Peace Garden, Batticaloa, which has been providing healing programmes for children affected by the conflict and other disasters, since 1996, and Kalabala Bindhu, a similar centre in Hambantota. Furthermore, Kora Kaputa, in collaboration with its’ sister facility, the Monkey’s Tale Centre for Contemplative Art in Batticaloa, provides training in image and story creation, as well as other innovative approaches to problem solving, for communities in transition, explained Presley.

The methods pioneered at the Monkey’s Tale and CRIPpLED Crow Centres for Contemplative Art and Narration, are now emulated in similar programmes internationally, e.g. the Mango Tree Garden in Phnom Penh, Cambodia and among Northern Cree at the Lac La Plonge Reserve,in Saskatchewan Canada. It is hoped that with time these practices can flourish among not only within the diverse population of Sri Lanka but among marginalized people throughout the world by training more students and teachers to open new centres of contemplative art in other communities.

Help Keep Kora Kaputa from Shutting Down!

Although the sole partner for the Kora Kaputa Centre since its inception, has been Arbeiter Samariter Bund (ASB / Deutschland), however, ASB has decided to redirect their funding toward the displaced population in the Vanni.

As a result, the Centre has funds only until June this year, after which they face the risk of being shut down. Please help in any way you can, and feel free to contact either Presley on 031-2278828 or korakaputa@yahoo.com / presleehomer@gmail.com, or Jayanthi on 0773-929812 or jayanthigamage@yahoo.com, for more information.

* Names have been changed to protect the student’s identities.

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