An Indian adventure with visual artist, Mairead McCormack
Visual artist Mairead McCormack, who specialises in textiles, was selected by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and the British Council Northern Ireland to travel to the prestigious Sanskritti Cultural Centre in Delhi to undertake a six week residency at the beginning of 2019.
The residencies are awarded annually to artists to give them dedicated space and time to develop their artistic practice and are the result of new links forged with key cultural institutions in India by the Arts Council and British Council as a platform for creating, sharing and promoting the creative arts.
Here’s her thoughts on her trip…
“Where to begin…
It’s an odd thing to arrive in a strange land in the middle of the night, not speak the language and not have google to turn to, to answer your many queries. But true to their word, the Arts Council had arranged a taxi driver to meet me at the airport and take me to Sanskriti - my new home for the next 6 weeks. I met a lovely man at the airport who was holding a sign with my name on it “Sanskriti welcomes Mairead McCormack from Northern Ireland.” He didn’t speak a word of english so I politely namaste’d and tried to hide my shock as I was immersed in Delhi traffic for the first time, in an unharmonious choir of horns and flashing lights.
I arrived at my studio around 2.30am and was given a key and a prompt ‘shubh ratri’ (goodnight).
The next morning I woke up to very heavy rain and glanced worryingly at my suitcase, knowing I hadn’t packed anything waterproof, never mind a coat. Who knew it’d be cold in Delhi in January? But the rain didn’t last long and I ventured out to the dining hall to get some breakfast and meet the other artists. I met ceramicists, writers, visual artists and sculptures from all over the world - Paris, Sydney, Melbourne, New York, San Fransisco and Washington. It took them a while to acclimatise to my Northern Irish accent and we soon adjusted to each others colloquialisms.
I was lucky to arrive when I did as it was the 40th anniversary of the Sanskriti Cultural Centre and the 90th birthday of the founder O.P. Jain. It was a huge celebration with guests associated with the foundation over the years and friends and family of Mr. Jain. It was also my first real experience of Indian food. As a vegetarian, there was no shortage of choice. My favourite was the gajar ka halwa, a sweet dessert dish made from red carrots.
I spent the rest of the week settling in to the Sanskriti way of life. Lunch was served every day at 1pm and dinner at 8pm. I spent time getting my bearings and travelling on the metro to explore Delhi.
A few days in, I went with some of the other artists on a tour of Old Delhi with the Salaam Balaack Trust. I could not recommend this enough. The trust works with street children to get them off the street and into education. Our tour guide, Roshan took us around Old Delhi, venturing in to narrow streets and temples, havelis and places we certainly would not be able to find by ourselves. We went to the spice market and took in the view of Old Delhi from above. I also tried chai and Indian street food for the first time. Despite all the horror stories I had heard of 'Delhi belly’ it tasted delicious and I didn’t get sick.
This was my first real experience of India outside the sanctuary of Sanskriti. The people, the smells, the food, the cows, the traffic, the noise. It can be hard not to get overwhelmed.
But needs must and my next venture was in the hope of finding an Indian sim card. You might think that this would be a simple task but as I quickly learned in India, assume nothing.
To acquire an Indian sim card, you have to have a number of very formal and very specific documents with multiple signatures and it is only issued from specific vendors. Who knew?
As the days went on and the weeks went by, I settled into a routine of exploring in the mornings and spending the rest of the afternoon in the studio.
The textiles in India are overwhelming. Everywhere you look you can see hand embroidered scarves, hand woven saris, woodblock printed shirts and naturally dyed fabrics. Textiles are literally woven into everyday life in India and represent so much more than they would in other cultures.
It took me a minute to centre myself and realise that I was there to experience and absorb the culture, not replicate it or comment on it necessarily. So I set about making my own artwork and enjoying the liberating feeling of going (mostly) off the radar. Power cuts in Delhi are very common and the wifi can be hit or miss. This suited me just fine as one of the reasons I wanted to do a residency was to focus on making art and not be glued to my phone/laptop/devices.
As my trip went on, I got more adventurous and spent some time in Agra, visiting the Taj Mahal at sunset. I also travelled to Jaipur and visited the Temple of Galtaji, locally known as ‘The Monkey Temple’ - a pre-historic Hindu pilgrimage site and home to hundreds of monkeys!
I got the opportunity to try some traditional Indian crafts including aari embroidery and woodblock printing and seen an incredible range of work at the Indian Art Fair and the Sarajkund Mela - the largest crafts fair in the world.
Before I knew it, 6 weeks had been and gone and I’ve never been more glad to see my own bed.
Thanks to The Arts Council Northern Ireland and The British Council for the opportunity. It was a truly unforgettable experience!