Raking Leaves commissions & publishes contemporary art projects. These take
the popular form of the book. All book projects are mass-produced and internationally distributed to reach as wide an audience
The Incomplete Thombu
The Incomplete Thombu poses as a bureaucratic document file. Thombu was a term used by the Dutch to describe a public land registery, derived from the Greek tomos, from which the Latin word tome, or large book orginates. The Incomplete Thombu covers the subject of Tamil displacement during the civil conflict in Sri Lanka between 1983 and 2009. Though numerous documents of statistical data have recorded the displacement of civilians from the north and east of Sri Lanka, few have highlighted the personal plights of those involved. This project records the stories that removed civilians from their homes and the memories that they took with them. T. Shanaathanan examines the subject of displacement through a series of drawings that overlay ground plans of houses drawn from memory by displaced Tamil-speaking civilians, with architectʼs renderings and dry pastel drawings. The attempt to register one document on top of the other, maps out further displacements between what is remembered, what has been taken away and the stories left behind in a conflict that has torn apart its land and its people for over thirty years.
The Speech Writer
The Speech Writer is a fictional documentary presented in the form of ten flip books. The contents follow a day in the life of a retired political speech writer. Surrounded by the memories of his family and his vast collection of speeches, he is a creature of habit, idiosyncratic behavior and reclusive existence. Retired from a lifetime of public service work, his connection with the outside world takes the form of a daily broadcast from the comfort of his home. Passersby, now accustomed to the perplexing array of loudspeakers wired to the outside of his house, stop to listen for a few moments each day. As they move on, the speakers continue to broadcast the voice of the speech writer across the neighbourhood. We cannot hear him speak but witness instead a moment of ultimate freedom in the life of a man who formulated the rhetoric, visions, dreams and declarations of others. The connection between what he may have said in his service as a speech writer and what he says now is deliberately left in abeyance. We engage instead in the lingering pathos of a man of words, whose muteness sounds the joy of other kinds of public address.
Name, Class, Subject
Name, Class, Subject by Aisha Khalid is inspired by the exercise or 'copy' books used by government schools in Pakistan to teach writing in Urdu and English. Khalid’s book project recalls her experience as a child growing up in Pakistan under the imposed hierarchy of a society shaped by a bilingual culture. The book project can be experienced starting from either the front or back cover, blending the formats of two exercise books into a single book project. The book is produced from over three hundred original two-sided paintings of ruled pages painted in the traditional Mughal style of miniature painting, making each printed page unique. ‘Errors’ in the printing and discrepancies in the lined sheets highlight distinctions between the Urdu section and the uniform English-ruled pages. Void of images the lined pages of the book speak of an unwritten narrative. The book is also meant to be written in.
Name, Class, Subject by Nada Raza
Just looking at the dotted lines on the cover of Aisha Khalid’s book raised a pang of that dreaded childhood feeling, that the long lazy summer afternoons were numbered and it was time to go back to school. Every year after the holidays, our new books would arrive from Tariq Book Stall in Karachi, filling up the house with their smell, and my mother and I would spend the day writing my Name, Class, and Subject on the front of each ‘copy’ before covering it in plastic. We called them copies, not notebooks, and we learnt how to write in them by copying out words from the blackboard, writing in cursive with bayonet sharp pencils, fitting it all neatly between the lines. Most books opened the ‘right’ way, with a margin on the left, but those for Urdu and Islamiyat opened the other way round. Aisha has forged them together – this copy opens both ways – an intersection for the Urdu and English mediums of instruction. If you look for it, there is a fold, a liminal figure that passes through the middle, tracing a path perhaps, which appears in the English section but furtively sneaks off the page. The public system of education in Pakistan is in Urdu, while the privileged send their children to private schools where ‘O’ and ‘A’ levels are taught, effectively creating an increasingly defined linguistic class divide in a nation polarised by political conflict. While Aisha found the English language awkward and alien, my mates and I found ourselves reading Austen and Wordsworth, often eschewing Urdu literature, poetry and idiom, a secret shame I still carry with me. Turning the book over, I remember my grandmother teaching me how to perfect the diamond shaped ‘nuktaa’, which made me the slowest writer in the class. Good handwriting was rewarded and mistakes had to be erased, or else they would be crossed out in red ink. It is easy to assume that such nostalgia at seeing lined pages must be universal, but it is only familiar to those blessed or cursed with literacy.
Each empty page, each line, is meticulously painted in, a silent text that both denies answers and asks for a response, the absence of words evoking the urge to write as we used to before everything became digital. Notebooks were sometimes cheaply printed on grainy pulp, and when we went to secondary school and began to use fountain pens, there would be a dot of blotted ink showing where the writer had paused to think or look out the window. Lines were overprinted, margins missing, pages blank or badly trimmed. Aisha has painted in all the irregularities, in both languages, the imperfections of each way combined, like us unevenly bilingual folks who share a country but struggle to communicate. I want to write something in these pages, but in which tongue, from which side, should I begin? Its hard to choose when I often start a thought in one language and finish it in the other.
Side by Side
Side by Side brings together two books, The True Path and Moderate Enlightenment, both rendered in the traditional Mughal style of miniature painting. The concertina format of The True Path allows the viewer to unfold the pages of a painted landscape to a full eight-metre length with the simple instructions “please join the dots from number 1 to 566”. Moderate Enlightenment, the smaller of the two, is a collection of twenty paintings depicting figures dressed in traditional Islamic garb shown in habitual postures and ordinary contexts. In contrast to the stereotypical notions of Islam from a Western perspective, a natural piety, and a passive sense of devotion gives spirit to the religious subjects of Moderate Enlightenment. Side by Side is intended to be seen and experienced as a single book project.
Side by Side by Elba Mannes-Abbott
Side by Side is actually two equally interesting books. One is called The True Path and the other Moderate Enlightenment. The True Path is a dot to dot puzzle with a catch, and comes in a bright cover going from pink to green. It is very interactive which makes it fun and good for kids. The book follows the journey of a line through a series of imaginative scenes, including dragonflies flying and minding their own business. As much as the book is dot to dot, it has no rules and lets you freely doodle whatever you want. For instance, I didn’t always do connecting lines, I also did extras like my name, more rockets and missiles. I never took my pencil off the page doing any of this. If you keep to the dots they sometimes make shapes of their own, like an umbrella, a tree, even a tunnel. This makes it even more fun because it makes you think that the line is crawling through the tunnel. Although there are drawings of missiles in the book I don’t think that Imran particularly loves missiles. They may be there just to express his feelings about missiles, or purely for the enlightenment of the readers. The thing I like most about this book is that the scenery is fantastically unique. If I were that line when I got to the end of the dots my eyes and mouth would be open with amazement at the magic of my voyage through the wonderful pages of this book. My boat in which I had left marks on the page would also be rocking and as I fell asleep I would drift back to my own land and then leap to another book and start the same exhilarating journey again. At the end of the book on dot 566 the line stops on the drawing of an amazing crescent moon. Moderate Enlightenment is the second, smaller book. It is a series of Imran’s paintings that are of typical every day things. The True Path is a large and literally long fold-out book. Moderate Enlightenment is much smaller and only 20 pages, but contains a series of marvelously detailed paintings of typical everyday things. One of my favourites shows two bearded men blowing bubbles. One difference between them is that the man on the right has a red and white Nike bag while the man on the left has an army gear bag. Both have slightly different faces. On the right side is a growing tree. My idea is that maybe the tree is not growing on the left side because the man has army gear and war is not exactly nice. Referring to earlier when I said typical everyday things I didn’t mean the book was boring I just meant that it portrayed this. Along with this I noticed that the book had a nice tinge of curiosity in it. What I perceive as my favourite thing in the book is that it is not like the books that the majority of people read which have writing in them, but it has a sense that you can float into the place. When I say that I don’t mean to criticise books with writing, as I read them myself. Another thing is that it is intricately detailed and has little things that lead on to a story. For example with the bubble blowing picture the ground looks like leaves so this leaves you to wonder for quite a while what could possibly happen in another time. Those are my favourite things about the book.
The One Year Drawing Project
The One Year Drawing Project is an experimental publishing project that follows a 29-month period of drawing exchange between four of Sri Lanka’s most significant contemporary artists. The book relates back to the creation of four drawings that were simultaneously drawn in May 2005 and charts the exchanges that ensued between the four artists in response and as a consequence to the initial four drawings. In common with the technique of the Exquisite Corpse used to great effect by the Surrealists, The One Year Drawing Project belies similar outcomes of subversion and fraught association when viewed against the context of the current political climate in Sri Lanka – where all four artists live and work. A diary of events, exchanged between the artists, provides a subtext to the volume of 208 drawings brought together in the book.
The One Year Drawing Project by Virginia Whiles
‘The One Year Drawing Project’ set out to document the responses of four Sri Lankan artists to each others' drawings, an exercise reminiscent of the 'cadavre exquis' played by the Surrealists. The four artists: Muhanned Cader, Thamotharampillai Shanaathanan, Chandraguptha Thenuwara and Jagath Weerasinghe each made a drawing and posted it on to one of the three others, who then responded by sending on another drawing in a game of 'consequences'. This lasted the time it took for each artist to receive and send 52 drawings. But this is no parlour game. The works were daily performances undertaken in the spirit of diarist documentation: 208 pages of 52 sketches by each artist manifesting his reaction to the war-mongering factions which have tormented Sri Lanka for the last decade. The concept is fascinating for its potential fusion of art and politics in a form which may offer the reader some understanding of the complexity of this particular context. These drawings are presented in sequence on creamy vellum paper bound in a thick brown paper cover evoking a parcel, complete with stamps and handwritten layers of the artists’ names and addresses. On the back is a brief introductory text describing the content as documenting 'an exchange of viewpoints-artistic and ideological- sustained during a period of violent conflict in Sri Lanka'. It adds that the chronology, slipped inside the cover, was compiled by the artists to 'recall' the background of events.
The drawings are intriguing in their range of styles, shifting page by page from the intense neo- expressionism of Shanaathanan’s convulsed torsos and clutching hands to the patterned plant forms of Thenuwara, from the highly imaginative sketches of Weerasinghe to the doodle -like pop dog logos of Cader. Demanding close contemplation, each artist’s style gradually becomes familiar and recurrent, with occasional surprises. The chronology makes compelling reading due to the juxtaposition of truly grim events with curiously worldly data, more often 'art worldly' data such as dates of biennales or of cultural missions. The link between the images and the chronology seems to hover in a limbo, perhaps awaiting connection by the reader, yet this proves impossible simply because the majority of the drawings are not dated. It might be conjectured that this 'missing link' provides a clue to the conundrum of Sri Lanka. Perhaps the reality of the context lies within the paradoxes of a social life battered and bruised by conflict but where artists still attend biennales, build new houses and, above all, go on working.
Many other questions arise. How do the drawings inter-relate? What is the nature of the exchange between the artists? Where are the links between the formal and the ideological? Such questions seem redundant when simply examining the images because they sustain scrutiny through their wide vocabulary of sensorial gestures depicting pain, anger, bone-weariness and black humour. As a pictorial conversation between close friends, the collection insinuates a sense of voyeurism in the reader who peers in from the outside, longing to know more.
Pearls is a full colour photographic record of Simryn Gill’s ongoing bead-making project which she began in 1999. The book brings together over sixty sets of beads, each hand-rolled from torn pages of books given to the artist by friends and acquaintances from titles such as Gandhi’s autobiography, Freud’s essay on Anxiety and the manual 'Ikebana for Beginners'. The compelling beauty of Pearls wrestles with the disturbing reality that each set of beads exists at the expense of a book’s destruction. The transformation of books into beads ponders what is gained and what is lost when objects or bodies of knowledge are traded, exchanged and circulated. Gill gifts each set of beads back to the person who gave her the book, completing, in her words, a ‘transaction’ that lies at the heart of the Pearls project. Whether or not these hand rolled beads are curious artefacts, items of jewellery, artworks or paper garlands, Gill's book project ultimately makes us think about where these categories begin and end.
Pearls by Quddus Mirza
Simryn Gill’s project ‘Pearls’ involves taking books given to her by different people and transforming them into beads which she links together to make necklaces. It is an intricate and difficult endeavour, that is meaningful in more than one respect. From materials to concepts and customs, reuse has become a fad in our age, often carried out on the basis of ecological necessity, cultural requirement or consumer need. Old songs, dated fashions, and ancient artefacts are resurrected for their nostalgic value. Consumer society methodically converts the sublime into the mundane, philosophical ideas and revolutionary figures are transformed into saleable items. Che Guevara is a prime example, as indicated ironically in ‘Pearls’, where his book ‘Bolivian Diary’ is modified into a piece of paper jewellery by Simryn Gill. If Pearls raises questions about what this readapting process gives rise to it also appears to answer it with a predicament of how ideas circulate and in what form.
Gill’s work can be ‘read’ as a critique on this custom of making and remaking. Yet this technique of recreating works of art from words is intriguing, because it suggests a reversal of the usual order of things. Normally an artwork is created first, inviting a commentary or critique in its lieu (following George Steiner’s statement: “The critic lives at the second hand. He writes ‘about’. The poem, the novel or the play must be given to him; criticism exists by the grace of other man’s genius”). Gill challenges this progression, so that now instead of visuals generating script it is the text that provides material for making art.
Her work further investigates the realms or divisions of art and craft. The necklaces are made in an immaculate fashion, yet in terms of substance, utility and authorship, these are different from conventional pieces of craft. Interestingly the separation of art and craft, challenged in her works, is also questioned in the selection of books. These vary from examples of high literature, such as ‘Heart of Darkness’, works of philosophy and cultural studies like ‘This Matter of Culture’ to mundane texts such as the guidebook for Ikebana and French Country Cooking.
Jorges Luis Borges, in his lecture on ‘One Thousand and One Nights’ (discovered on page 87 of ‘Pearls’), explained that to him the addition of the ‘One’ after ‘One Thousand’ in the title reflected the continuity of the narrative till infinity. ‘Pearls’ embodies a similar type of circular sustainability. Every book, no matter if it is a work of exquisite literature or a manual to aid daily existence, is converted into an artwork. These are then printed in the book ‘Pearls’, which subsequently leads to more words (like this article). Simryn Gill’s Pearls project is a continuation of inter-textualities, such as those experienced in ‘One Thousand and One Nights’.