Burning Sage

NB This is a blog post which was first published on Barcelona in a Bag, my art blog about the Spanish Civil War. 

The refugee crisis is now fully in the public mind. Last week proved decisive in a process of galvanising compassion and propelling large numbers of citizens into action. We marched, made banners, donated clothes, listened to speeches and cried.

People in the UK, Europe and across the world demonstrated against government policies. I personally have not felt this way since Greenham Common. On some level I felt connected to my 20 year old self. But I am now middle aged – I am a mother, and my children are becoming young adults.

Probably it is as a mother and a daughter that I most reacted to the events that have created this international forcefield of empathy.

I’m a refugee’s daughter and I CAN’T stand by while refugees perish in camps, at sea or at closed borders. BUT I am a mother and like so many others the image of Aylan Kurdi’s tiny body washed up on a beach proved a tipping point. This has been an image whose potency has proved to be that of other seminal captures in the context of war, such as Robert Capa’s falling solider for the Spanish Civil War and the image of the napalmed child in Vietnam. I include none of these images to illustrate my blog.

The power of the Aylan image is extraordinary. The eye at first appears to register a sleeping infant – how many times did I check my beautiful little boy in his cot to find him in this pose. There are some who claim the image has been manipulated, this child victim moved and rearranged to pull our heart strings. I can’t go there.

When the content of the image reaches the decoding centres of the brain it dawns that this child is dead, washed up like so much flotsam and jetsam yet the wholly innocent victim of a war he did not start, did not ask to be part of and could not conceive of, other than to be a member of a family in flight, in terror, and in mortal danger. That would be enough, but not enough. Aylan would both know but not know about war.

I have been stimulated by Dr Fiona Noble to think most carefully about this image, to try to understand in more depth the complex moral questions about it’s capture and dissemination. You can read her thoughtful blog on the link below:

The Politics of (the Image of) the Dead Child

I am torn in two about this image, knowing that without it we would not know what we know. Reams of footage and newsprint have rolled over our eyes without the same power to ignite us. They didn’t bring the same kind of knowing as the photograph of Aylan. And if this is happening in our world we should know it – we should know it in ways that matter and register in our guts and lead to action. Yet I feel appalled at the way this image has been used and gained currency being disseminated endlessly and even worked upon in sand sculptures and cartoons. From the moment I saw it I knew I would write and respond creatively – but NOT replicate the image. I knew I would make an art piece – a mediated image, or in this case an iPhone video capture.

My piece for Aylan remains undedicated, a choice I made paradoxically as a mark of respect. The only hint at my subject is that #refugeeswelcome appears as the final credit. I chose to make a cleansing ritual in my studio – a ritual cleansing of a space with burning sage. In this case the space I work with is the internet – space of the endless repeat of images, a space where a dead boy’s body can become a meme.

Probably I’ve written enough about such a paradox – such a should and shouldn’t have situation, where we struggle with ethics and fears of exploitation yet the message is one we need to hear. How can an image be both so crucial and yet the thing we wish never to have seen. I reflect that it can never be unseen – this is also it’s power. But the truth is that this image is not Aylan. I don’t come form a place of answers – only questions. My work seeks to separate my understanding of Aylan as a soul from the image of him I can now never un-see. My ritual does not attempt to undo the image, or wash it away. My ritual is one of purification of a space – wordless, symbolic and open. It is in the end all I can do.

I see myself


Objects vibrate, resonate, empathise and chatter. Objects speak.

I’m so very grateful to Steve Silberman for introducing me to Amanda Baggs (now Amelia/Mel) on p16 of  NeuroTribes.  In 2007  a CNN video entitled ‘In My Language‘ featured Mel’s autistic language, consisting of wordless singing and stimming with objects and in response to the environment. In my house we call this form of vocalisation ninging. We have our very own ninger in the family and it was extraordinary good to hear another.

I’m sorry that this encounter has derailed my reading of Steve’s seminal work for the time being (I’ll be diving back in very soon) BUT Mel Baggs kind of stopped me in my tracks. Always distractable, this epic read would have had to be non-sequential in any case – there’s so very much to process AND I could probably spend a lifetime inside of NeuroTribes, meeting and greeting all these wonderful autistic characters. It’s going to be a long read.

Just to warn you that if you are new to In My Langauge, and you google Amanda Baggs wanting more, you will immediately stumble upon a false controversy. My one concern is that NeuroTribes will bring many newcomers to Mel’s video who may then be confused by some hateful propaganda that remains extant online. Don’t go there, and if you stumble into this vile corner of the internet don’t tarry. I’ve been there and spent some time learning exactly how base, intrusive and adhesive this stuff can be. I wish there were some way of cleaning it up so that the purity of Mel’s language can be the focus for first time viewers. Because what’s most interesting and important IS Mel’s language.

Immediately I saw (and understood) not only the powerful validity of an unrecognised tongue, but also the artistry of such an existence. By this I mean that Mel lives, what many artists hope to achieve in their work, and for this Mel deserves recognition too. What I mean to say is that the contribution of, In My Language, to autism is one thing and it’s relevance to object art and performance art (to give but two examples) is another. To my mind Mel is a pioneer in both, and once more we see an example of the autistic mind pushing forward and contributing to what people think of as the conversation, to what’s so often called the mainstream. Again, it is a neurotypical culture which can learn from an autistic one.

So why does Mel sing to me so sweetly? I am a neurodivergent woman with a quiet body in the everyday (meaning I don’t have obvious stims), yet I recognise what I see. I see myself. Witness to Mel’s intense conversation with the objects and elements in the environment I find a reflection of my own artistic practice and my own intense engagement and fascination with objects as containers of meaning.

Mel says of this language,

“It is about being in a constant conversation with every aspect of my environment…”

Not for nothing do artists talk about developing visual languages – for me objects vibrate, resonate, empathise and chatter. Objects speak.  Our conversation is without words, based on touch and vision. I often loose myself as I move these objects around, grouping them in ways which feel harmonious and respectful. These objects are my friends and give me great pleasure. Old suitcases are my special friends, humming and singing from the corners of my studio, creating a positive forcefield in which to work. I too believe that this is a form of thinking, with my hands and eyes, listening intently to wordless harmonics and making sense of the space around me.

My feeling about the video is that Mel’s conversations with objects and elements (such as running water) come from the same source as my own artistic conversations – only Mel’s seem purer, more direct and more powerful to me as a viewer (I have no idea how I appear to others in performance). There are three sections in a film collaboration I made last Summer in which I play with sand, and make two assemblages. These were the moments I felt wholly comfortable on camera – entirely engaged and myself. For the first time I find parallels in what I’m doing. Those parallels are with Mel’s language. This is beyond exciting!

I can only observe and be amazed at the beauty of what I see in this short capture of a life lived in poetic communion with the environment. It promises to stay with me and deeply influence many aspects of my work – particularly performance and assemblage. I feel my thinking around my creative practice shifting in relation to the video in ways I can’t yet articulate – I simply feel it as a deep vibration. The objects gather around me filling me with joy. I think they agree.

NB Mel’s blog is withasmoothroundstone. There is a post called Okay here’s the deal with pronouns which details Mel’s preferred pronouns and why pronouns are problematic in the context of autism, and gender assumptions. For this reason I have avoided the use of pronouns in this blog post.

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