In conjunction with our current exhibition, The Power of Labeling, we are pleased to present you with Exhibit Focus Fridays! Every Friday for the next few weeks, we will highlight an aspect of the exhibition, for example, a specific piece, an interview or commentary by an artist or advisory committee member, a reflection regarding our process, and so on. This week, The Power of Labeling artist, Becca Guest, responds to another piece featured in the exhibit, Hunting Heron by artist Nishali Nanayakkara.
Looking through the wide array of art that was contributed to the Incluseum’s The Power of Labeling exhibit, Nishali Nanayakkara’s Hunting Heron seemed to leap of the page, demanding a closer look. Candidly, I am drawn to nature themes in art, particularly birds. I spend my working life in the outdoors with youth, and the occasions where I have been able to share moments gazing at “big wildlife”, such as a Great Blue Heron, with youth are always momentous – and perhaps even magical.
Hunting Heron is deceptively simple, long lines that come together to form the bird’s outstretched wings to its long body and neck, as well as the only colors being shades of blue, black and white. The simplicity of color and line use magnifies the use of symmetrical patterns that decorate this heron’s body. Nanayakkara explains the significance of the heron and its patterning in their artistic statement, “This piece is done in the traditional batik style of Sri Lanka, which has a combination of influences from Sri Lanka and Indonesia.” The importance of using this style to create Hunting Heron is reflected at the end of her artistic statement, “…a lot of labels for certain fashions is based on colonialist and orientalist visions of the exotic other; I want to help create an alternative to those visions by bringing this style into a contemporary context.”
With this knowledge in mind, the Hunting Heron is not only a testament to how striking herons are as wild birds, but also that this piece is reclaiming an artistic style that was stripped from its original artists in Sri Lanka violently, and now passively sits on shelves as clothing underneath white names on its tag, to be consumed by predominately white people. The overlap of labels, from Sri Lanka, to “fashion”, and now reclaimed and re-envisioned by Nanayakkara gives this hunting heron great depth in its feathers.
This piece is steeped deeply in this reclamation, and I also was drawn to it, unknowing of its cultural implications, because it is also beautiful. This heron hunts like no heron that I have seen in the wild. Hunting Heron seems to be diving – and is successful, as can be seen by the fish in its beak – its wings outstretched, its body curved downward. Herons that I have observed hunt with their legs in the water, long and lean with their wings folded.
Nanayakkara’s heron is triumphant, not held by a typical imagining of a bird with its prey. Perhaps it is in mid-flight, caught between the act of catching its food, and its lift off to a safe place to eat it. Or perhaps it is diving down, aggressively reclaiming the patterns on its feathers, resilient despite the history of appropriation that has attempted to label it as other.
Becca Guest is an artistic educator and recently received her Master’s Degree in Education from the University of Washington. With her time she supports and delivers a variety of youth development programs that incorporate arts, music and environment. Adventuring in the outdoors and searching for the most delicious and well-illustrated bottle of wine are among her many pursuits.
Thank you so much for the thoughtful and well written review, and for the genuine compliment on my piece as well. You hit on exactly the point of reclamation, which is what inspired me to evoke this style in a more contemporary way. I am currently working on an animal series to later incorporate into another long-running project that needs an update. You are welcome to follow along at meylah.com/nishnish. Thanks again for taking the time to write this evocative review! – Nishali