Whale Sharks: Giants of the Ocean

I painted this close encounter of a scuba diver swimming with whale sharks (Rhincodon Typus) in the Philippines as part of a series of commissioned oil paintings in 2016.* 
 
I included a scuba diver to highlight the incredible size of the whale shark compared to a human, as well as its majestic presence. I wanted to suggest their meeting as a wondrous yet intimate moment in time between humanity and nature.
 
*See more in the section ‘Whale sharks and biodiversity in the Philippines.’

Elusive and mysterious

Adult whale sharks are often found at the surface, making them popular with snorkelers and divers. Despite their friendliness, these creatures remain enigmatic to scientists and conservationists; their maximum size, lifespan, and age of sexual maturity unconfirmed. Researchers are also unsure why they have spots.*
 
*See more on these topics in the following sections.

Ocean giants

Whale sharks (Rhincodon Typus) are the largest known extant fish species in the world. They are not whales, but their size is comparable. They dwarf great white sharks in size; the average size of a whale shark is around 32 feet, whereas great whites grow to around 20 feet. However, whale sharks are believed to grow over 40 feet (20 metres), similar to that of a bus. They can also weigh up to 20 tonnes. Whale sharks do not have any natural predators.

Habitat

Most sharks prefer temperate climates, except for Greenland sharks, which live in the Arctic and Northern Atlantic. Some whale sharks have been found in colder North Atlantic water near New York, but most are found in warm, tropical waters such as the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

According to this National Geographic video, titled ‘Investigating the Mysterious Whale Sharks of Mafia Island,’ whale sharks help support small ecosystems, as they are often found with schools of smaller fish alongside them, presumably hoping to catch small morsels or plankton when the shark feeds.

My painting shows a school of smaller fish following one of the whale sharks:

Interestingly, this phenomenon has inspired local fishermen living on Mafia Island, Tanzania, to work alongside whale sharks to catch the fish without harming the sharks.

Deep divers

Although often found at the surface, whale sharks can dive further than 1000 metres. In one study, based in the Saudi Arabian Red Sea, researchers used three types of satellite-transmitting tags to track the movements of 47 whale sharks.

Their findings were impressive:

  • The whale sharks made frequent deep dives to at least 500 metres (1,640 feet);
  • Three of the tagged sharks made excursions below 1,000 metres (3,281 feet);
  • The deepest dive they recorded was 1,360 metres (4,462 feet).

Distinctive and unique spot patterns

Whale sharks are the only species of the genus Rhincodon, part of the family Rhincodontidae. They are classified within the order Orectolobiformes, which contains seven families of sharks and includes the carpet sharks. Carpet sharks are given the name due to their mottled body patterns, evocative of carpet-like designs.
 
Whale sharks are easy to identify due to their size and distinctive pattern of white spots and stripes. The patterns are believed to be as unique to each individual as a fingerprint is to a human. However, the purpose of their spots is a mystery. Typically, patterns occur to aid camouflage; wobbegongs (a common name given to the 12 species of carpet sharks within the family, Orectolobidae), use the spots on their bodies as camouflage as they rest on the seafloor, and to help them blend in with the reef.
 
Intriguingly, it has been suggested that the spots on whale sharks help protect the sharks from harmful ultraviolet rays.

Feeding habits

Most sharks are carnivores, but some, like the whale shark, are filter-feeders. Inside the whale shark’s mouth are several hundred rows of small, hook-shaped teeth. Although it has a mouthful of teeth, the shark doesn’t use them to bite or chew food.
 
The whale shark is one of three species of filter-feeding sharks, namely the basking shark, and the more mysterious but aptly named megamouth shark. The whale shark actively swims through plankton, sieving these organisms through its gills; it has been observed ram filter-feeding and at times, nocturnally. Whale sharks are migratory animals who appear to move to areas in conjunction with fish and coral spawning.
 
Sharks within the order Orectolobiformes have eyes set far back behind a small mouth. Unlike most sharks, where the mouth is underneath the snout, the whale shark’s mouth is nearly at the tip of its nose.
 

Reproduction and longevity

The whale shark is usually solitary, however, it is sometimes found in schools of up to hundreds of individuals. These animals are found mainly in the open sea, but they sometimes come near the shore. Their age of sexual maturity and reproductive biology is unconfirmed, however, scientists presume that whale sharks are ovoviviparous, where the females incubate fertilized eggs inside her before they hatch,  giving birth to fully formed live young. You can read more about ovoviviparity, and how it differs to viviparity, here. Each litter contains about 16 young, but litters of many more are possible. In the mid-1990s a female whose uterus contained nearly 300 young was caught near Taiwan. Like the other mysteries surrounding whale sharks, they have never been observed giving birth, and it is not known where this may happen.

It is thought that whale sharks are born between 40-60cm, but there are few sightings of individuals below 3m, and no one has yet determined where they go before reaching this size. However, one whale shark measuring just 38cm was found in the Philippines in 2009, suggesting it was a birthing ground and not simply used for feeding.

The gigantic size of whale sharks suggests they can live up to 100 years.

Whale Sharks, biodiversity, and conservation in the Philippines

As mentioned, the commissioned painting featured in this blog is part of an ongoing series of paintings of the Philippines.

Aside from its abundant natural mineral resources including gold and nickel (the country has the second largest gold deposit in the world), the Philippines is a biodiversity hotspot and a popular place for whale sharks to congregate; it is an archipelago consisting of more than 7,000 islands and is the smallest of the 17 megadiverse countries in the world. The Philippines covers only 2/100 of the total land area of the earth, yet 20,000 species of plants and animals have been recorded here, half of which are found nowhere else in the world. Read more on its biodiversity here.

Donsol, in the Philippine province of Sorsogon, has been identified as a whale shark hotspot, hosting one of the largest aggregations of whale sharks on Earth. 491 individual whale sharks have been identified at Donsol, this equates to 44% of all whale sharks identified in the country. Other large aggregations include Ningaloo Reef in Australia, Mexico, and Mozambique.

15 years ago, WWF Philippines partnered with Donsol and other tourism stakeholders to develop the Community-based Whale Shark Ecotourism Program and establish guidelines for whale shark interactions. Scientists are responsible for researching and studying individual sharks in an attempt to conserve them.

 

Endangered species

There are over 440 species of sharks in the world. These awesome creatures have outlived the dinosaurs, but many are now sadly threatened with extinction.

Due to threats to their ecosystem, whale sharks have been listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as endangered since 2016. Like all sharks and large fish, whale sharks are vulnerable to bycatch (becoming caught in fishing nets).
 
It is estimated that 100 million sharks and rays each year are killed by humans. If not victims of bycatch, most are killed by commercial fishermen for their fins and flesh. They are also sometimes illegally hunted and eaten as a delicacy in certain parts of Asia.
 
Sadly, sharks are greatly misunderstood. For instance, the orca whale is the ocean’s top apex predator, not the great white shark. On average, one person dies each year in the US from a shark attack. Cows, bees, wasps, dogs, and snakes are responsible for far more deaths each year in the US than sharks.

Indeed, whale sharks have no natural predators apart from people.

We need to remember that the ocean is their territory, not ours. Predatory species such as the great white, bull shark, or tiger shark, only attack if they confuse a person for their prey, usually fish or seals. It is best to bear this in mind if we choose to swim in areas of the ocean where they are present.

All sharks are vital to a healthy ecosystem

All marine life is essential to a healthy ecosystem and that of the planet as a whole. Sharks are vital as they maintain the species below them and are indicators of ocean health. The apex predators feed on weak and sick animals and ensure biodiversity.

Coral reef ecosystems, seagrass beds, and commercial fisheries have all declined due to the loss of sharks. Without sharks, larger predatory fish, such as groupers, increase in abundance in the coral reefs and feed on the herbivores. As the herbivores decrease, macroalgae increase and expand, leading to the loss of coral and the detriment of the entire reef system.

Majestic and awe-inspiring, yet vulnerable

I recently completed a four-week online course with the University of Southampton on ‘Exploring Our Ocean.’ One of the tasks was to upload an image, title, and description, to represent what the ocean meant to me; I uploaded my painting of whale sharks and titled it, ‘Majestic and Awe-Inspiring, yet Vulnerable.’ The wonders of nature surround us. For it to continue to inspire us, we should try to protect it from threats and exploitation.

Shark Week

With Shark Week upon us (9-16 August 2020), I thought it apt to share my painting of whale sharks. Created by the Discovery Channel to raise shark awareness, the event has grown online, with over one million hashtags on Instagram alone.
 
The Natural History Museum and the American Museum of Natural History have a ‘Nature Drawing Club’ and have included ‘Shark Week,’ so I have tagged them in the image on Instagram to help raise awareness of the vulnerability of whale sharks and the need to protect them.

Gallery exhibition at the National Trust’s Leith Hill Place, Surrey

‘Flowers appear on the earth; the season of singing has come, the cooing of doves is heard in our land.’ Song of Songs 2:12

I am thrilled to be exhibiting at the National Trust’s Leith Hill’s inaugural open call gallery exhibition every Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Bank Holiday Monday, 11am-5pm, from 3rd May to 30th June 2019.

Entitled ‘Awakening,’ the exhibition celebrates the arrival of spring at Leith Hill Place and the beautiful surroundings of Leith Hill, part of the Surrey area of outstanding natural beauty. 

My original framed oil painting, ‘Bluebell Woods at Leith Hill,’ is available for sale, alongside limited edition prints. It is featured at the start of the exhibition. I feel extremely honoured that the National Trust have used my painting to promote the exhibition on their website.

‘Awakening’ exhibition on Leith Hill’s website, featuring my oil painting.

My painting featured at the start of the exhibition; ‘Bluebell Woods at Leith Hill,’ oil on canvas, 85cm x 60cm, plus frame.

View of my Bluebell Woods oil painting from the stairs.

The start of the Awakening exhibition.

58 artists submitted entries, however only 31 were selected for the exhibition. The artists I am displaying my work alongside include printmakers, sculptors, painters, ceramicists and jewellery makers, resulting in a wide variety of art on view at the gallery. The majority of the work is for sale. The exhibition is being held in the drawing room upstairs, with glorious views overlooking the countryside.

Initial view of the exhibition.

A selection of paintings, ceramics, prints and jewellery.

Textiles are also on display, alongside ceramics and drawings.

Prints, illustrations and ceramics.

View from the exhibition, overlooking the garden at Leith Hill Place and the Surrey Hills.

As a member of the National Trust, I feel very honoured to be participating in their first open call exhibition. I have thoroughly enjoyed exploring their properties and walks over the years, and have never tired of returning to favourite places. It’s also a delight to discover new ones.

For readers outside the UK who may not be familiar with the organisation, the National Trust was founded in 1895 to look after and conserve special places of historic and environmental interest and heritage throughout England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Leith Hill Place was bequeathed to the National Trust by one of England’s greatest composers, Ralph Vaughan Williams, in 1945. Vaughan Williams grew up at Leith Hill Place from the age of two until he was twenty, when he left to study at Cambridge. His violin composition, The Lark Rise Ascending, has twice been voted as the nation’s favourite classical piece of music.  He also favoured folk music, and folk singing evenings are regularly held at the house.

Leith Hill Place was home to Ralph Vaughan Williams’ grandparents, Josiah Wedgwood III and Caroline (née Darwin), who moved here in 1847. His great uncle, the famous naturalist Charles Darwin, was Caroline’s brother, and conducted experiments in the grounds.

Josiah Wedgwood III was the grandson of potter, Josiah Wedgwood, who founded the Wedgwood company in 1759, specialising in fine china, porcelain, and luxury accessories. A strong academic and musical influence has remained at the house to this day. 

For nearly 40 years since Vaughan Williams bequeathed Leith Hill Place to the National Trust, the building had been tenanted as a school boarding house. In summer 2013, it was opened to the public for the first time since the 1960s. 

The 16th century palladian style house is only open on a Friday, Saturday and Sunday each week, as well as Bank Holiday Mondays. The house is closed to the public throughout the week, however there are special workshops for those interested in art, history, music and theatre. 

In the month of June, there are sculpture workshops, folk singing evenings, willow weaving, life drawing classes, architectural talks, baking classes, stone carving and outdoor theatre, to name a few.

With its stunning setting overlooking the Surrey Hills, the gallery exhibition, alongside other events at Leith Hill Place, is set to be a fantastic spring/summer day out in the countryside. Unique to the house, there is a working kitchen, where fresh cakes and scones are baked on the premises, giving a warm welcome to travellers and walkers.

I would also recommend visiting the exhibition downstairs, ‘Minding the Women: reflecting Caroline Wedgwood,’  which has researched the life of Caroline Wedgwood, thought to have been the driving force behind planting the woodland garden on Leith Hill in the mid 1800s. My friend, contemporary printmaker/installation artist and founder of the award winning Ochre Print Studio, Julie Hoyle, is displaying her beautiful prints alongside Leith Hill Place’s current artist in residence,  sculptor Philippa Hall, until 30th June. Julie was artist in residence in the summer of 2018.

Leith Hill Place and its exhibitions are free to visit for National Trust members, however admission charges do apply for non members.

Panchi Sayargyi U Thu Kha, Centenary Art Exhibition – The Strand Hotel, Yangon, Myanmar

ပန္းခ်ီဆရာၾကီး ဦးသုခ ႏွစ္ ၁၀၀ ျပည့္ ပန္းခ်ီျပပြဲ

I’m honoured to have been invited by my friend, internationally renowned Burmese artist Min Wae Aung, to join him in an art exhibition celebrating the centenary birth year of Saya U Thu Kha (1918-2007), a seminal figure in the arts movement in Myanmar and a teacher of Min Wae.

The exhibition, comprised of international artists, will take place at The Strand Hotel (Ballroom) in Yangon, from 13-15 November 2018.

My work has actually been held at Min Wae’s gallery, the New Treasure Art Gallery in Yangon since the beginning of August 2018 before it is exhibited at The Strand.

Thank you to Min Wae, who provided the biographical information and resources related to this article on Saya U Thu Kha.

SAYA U THU KHA

Born Muang Thu Kha on 11 November 1918, his family lived in the west end of Yangon and owned a food stall at Scott Market, now renamed Bo Gyoke Market. His parents, U Pu and Daw Mya Hnit had no artists among their ancestors but they were related to those involved in art; his mother was a niece of Daw Mya Shwe, a cousin of Daw Mya May, the wife of a commissioner who strongly supported the art movement and is known as the Mother of Myanmar art.

Whilst under British colonialism in 1910, nationalism and political awareness began to take root in Myanmar, propelling literature and the arts into the 1920s. Various national newspapers hired Myanmar illustrators, increasing public awareness of the art movement. After the country’s first strike, Daw Mya May and her husband U Hla Aung opened a Buddhist Middle school for boys on Pagoda Road in Yangon and one for girls on Canal Street; U Thu Kha attended his great aunt’s Buddhist Middle School for boys when he was of school age. Whilst studying, his growing interest in the arts could not be contained. He broke school rules during 6th grade by covering the school’s freshly painted latrine walls with his drawings which resulted in a harsh caning from his teacher that was so severe the school doctor was called and he spent the next three days to recover. Upon his return, he explained to the teacher that his passion for art compelled him to paint. Seemingly regretful, his teacher immediately wrote a note for Muang Thu Kha giving him permission to attend classes at the Burma Art Club and become a life member until 1928 without paying any fees. It seems this incident had unexpectedly opened a door to his future.

In pre-war years, Muang Thu Kha was the general secretary of the art club of the State High School for four years. He entered the annual competition for art, crafts and technology held at the Jubilee Hall in Shwedagon Pagoda Road, and won gold medals and prizes every year; he also exhibited in artist group shows sponsored by U Ba Nyan at the Burma Art Club. Aside from painting, he was a talented sportsman, playing football, basketball and boxing. His father’s uncle was a famous athlete of the time, U Ba Than (Sando).

He became a teacher in 1938, passing the examination held by the all Burma Education and Information Department. After independence in 1948, he became a member of the newly established Artists and Sculptors Union. He was the in-house illustrator of the English-language version of the New Times of Burma and the weekly Business Review in 1950. In 1952, he participated in an art exhibition held on the premises of the Rangoon Gazette Press on Bo Aung Kyaw Street (now the offices of Myanmar Times), at the Sarpay Beikhman Art Exhibition in 1959 and later at the annual art exhibition held at the Envoy Hall (now the Tatmadaw Hall) by the National Art and Sculpture Council.

In 1963 he was inaugurated as an instructor at the Yangon State School of Fine Arts, later becoming a principle until his retirement in 1984. He was known to be very patient, teaching his students basic skills and anatomy, emphasising their need to draw first in pencil before using colours. Whether they were good or bad, he treated his students as friends, often buying them tea, meals or a bus fare. In 1972, he studied block printing and mosaic in Germany and then toured Egypt. Whilst he was teaching at the SSFA Yangon, he was also taking classes at the Rangoon University Art Club. Until his death, he served as the patron of the Traditional Artists and Artisans association. In 1997 he was awarded an honorary professorship by the Department of Fine Arts.

When his student, Min Wae Aung, opened the New Treasure Art Gallery, U Thu Kha acted as patron, coming there to paint regularly until his very last days. After suffering a brain haemorrhage in 2000, he came three days a week to the gallery, painting every time he came.

Aside from painting, he wrote articles and books on art. One well received publication was his translated book ‘International Methods of Figure Drawing,’ complete with illustrations.

A popular teacher, his students had begun paying homage to him through an annual Homage ceremony to Elder Artists from 1978 until 2006, twenty nine years in total. Initially they went to his house but later changed the venue to the New Treasue Art Gallery after it was established.

Saya U Thu Kha is known to be one of two Burmese artists, the other Saya U Thein Han, to teach art well into their retirement years. Compelled by the desire to further the arts in Myanmar, both artists opened private classes after retiring from teaching.

Many of his students achieved fame, including Min Wae Aung, Thein Shwe Kyi, Win Thaw, Ngwe Kyi, Shwe Min Thar, Zaw Min and Aung Min Thein amongst others.

U Thu Kha passed away in 2007 at the age of 89 and is survived by his wife Daw Khin Ohn and their eleven children. Long may his legacy continue.

My contribution to the exhibition is a 1m oil painting on canvas board, entitled
‘Bluebell Woods’:

 

End Plastic Pollution – Earth Day, 22 April

‘The Earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world and those who live in it; for God founded it on the seas and established it on the rivers.’ Psalm 24:1-2

Every 22nd of April, environmental revolutionists and conservationists worldwide gather in solidarity to help protect and restore the health of our natural environment.

Since it was officially recognised in 1970, one billion Earth Day supporters have petitioned world leaders, national governments and local legislations to combat the (often) human made issues that have afflicted our planet.

The event this year addresses a topic that is difficult to ignore: Plastic pollution. According to Earth Day Network, over 300 million tons of fossil fuel created plastic is sold each year and 90% is emptied in landfills or ends up as litter. Chemicals seep into the ocean and soil, severely damaging our environment, wildlife and our own health by contaminating the fish we eat or water we drink.

I chose to use my oil painting, ‘Night Waves,’ to illustrate Earth Day, as over 70% of the earth is made up of water, with 96% consisting of the ocean’s salt water and the rest of arctic ice, groundwater and fresh water. The oceans are similar to rainforests in their biodiversity, they also produce more than half of the world’s oxygen and absorb more than half of its carbon. It is a precious yet fragile natural resource.

Historically, there has not been much regard for the ocean as a place to protect, and waste disposal has been rife. Disturbing facts seem to get more and more prevalent in recent years in relation to this last frontier of exploration; it is estimated that 4.6 billion tons of plastic are poured into the ocean worldwide per annum, suffocating marine animals which cannot digest it and polluting the environment. According to the National Geographic, one garbage truckload of plastic is dumped into the ocean every minute.

Plastic is no longer the miracle storage packaging, as its very longevity makes it virtually indestructible and non biodegradable. It is estimated that it takes around 10,000 years for ordinary plastic bags to decompose. Did you know that 4.5 billion coffee cups so far have been found in the ocean and around 8.5 billion plastic straws are thrown away each year, finding their way into the seaIt is estimated that over 100,000 sea mammals die each year from eating plastic.

Who didn’t feel upset at the sight of this sperm whale in Spain, who had been found washed up on shore having suffocated after eating 5 tons of plastic, fishing nets and garbage bags? Or the now famous image of a seahorse clutching onto a cotton bud in Indonesian waters?

The filmmakers of Blue Planet II said there was rarely a moment when they dived and didn’t encounter plastic in the sea. Alarmingly, we may also have been ingesting it in the form of microplastics, tiny beads of plastic that are found in many cosmetic products and when washed away down the sink find themselves in the ocean and into the bodies of sea creatures which we may be ultimately eating. In a recent study, over 83% of tap water samples worldwide was found to be polluted with microplastics.

The race to produce renewable alternatives has begun. DowDuPont scientists are revolutionising plastic bottles by creating a molecular chain that derives from cane sugar rather than petrochemicals. This sweet alternative is sustainable and will never run out, as chemist Paul Fagan says, bio-plastics are like returning to our past, where everything was made from plants. Engineer Toby McCartney is also pioneering a way of using recycled plastic instead of oil as a bidding agent in asphalt, creating longer-lasting roads and decreasing plastic waste. Scientists have also further improved a naturally occurring enzyme which can digest plastic; originally found in Japan, this enzyme can break down PET, the strong plastic most commonly used in bottles, in just a few days as opposed to hundreds of years.

Until a permanent solution has been found or a new plastic becomes commonplace, there are many quick solutions that can be adopted, such as investing in recyclable materials, refusing plastic cutlery, reusing bags or coffee cups. and using paper straws. A ban on microplastics in cosmetics has already been passed in the UK and cotton buds and plastic straws could be banned next year.

We all depend on a healthy ocean but currently only 2% of our seas are fully protectedYou can sign a government petition here to help end single-use plastics or make a personal pledge for Earth Day.

It’s time to save Nemo!

Environment Trust Secret Art Sale: 2017 Results

I’m delighted to share that the Environment Trust has held another fantastic Secret Art Sale. 234 artists anonymously donated a record making 375 A5 sized artworks to the sale; more than half were sold by lunchtime on the first day, with many visitors queuing for several hours before the doors opened.

Over £13,000 was made over two days on 21-22 September, which is a substantial increase from the first Secret Art Sale held by the Trust at the RACC last year. All proceeds benefit the charity’s work in local wildlife and environmental conservation across south west London, in particular supporting their work enabling wildlife corridors.

Results from last year are covered in my previous blog alongside a more in depth look at wildlife corridors and the themes covered in the Secret Art Sale so far.

I arrived at the event in Parkshot, Richmond, towards the end of the Private View on the first day and was thrilled to see that my own oil painting had already sold.

Donations were made by architects, artists, celebrities, students, jewelers and RA members. Wildlife photographer and the Trust’s patron, Gordon Buchanan donated an artwork, as well as another much admired patron, the Gruffalo artist, Axel Scheffler.

You can view all the revealed artists from the 2017 sale here, see if you can spot my contribution!

A close up of all the individual panels displaying the artworks are now available to view on Flikr.

I’m very pleased to have heard from the art collector who bought my painting and revealed they were excited to have it framed and displayed prominently in their home.

I look forward to donating another art work next year, I hope you can join us and support a great cause!

 

The Environment Trust: Secret Art Sale, 22-23 Sept 2017

‘No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.’ Aesop

I’m delighted to have been asked to participate for the second year running in the Environment Trust’s Secret Art Sale. This is a two day art exhibition with a twist, where acclaimed artists, jewellers, photographers, architects, scientists and art students all contribute an A5 painting anonymously. Each painting is priced at £35.00, giving you the opportunity to purchase an original work of art by a renowned artist or celebrity at an affordable price. Only once the artwork has been purchased will the name of the artist be revealed! Most importantly, all proceeds benefit the charity’s conservation work in educating and encouraging communities to protect our natural environment and green spaces for posterity, particularly in urban areas. Submissions for 2017 can be viewed here. The artist biographies are also now on the website.

I posted my A5 oil painting at the local post office in the picturesque village, Bourton-On-The-Water, whilst holidaying in the Cotswolds. This is me beside the post office in Bourton’s exquisite model village, built in 1937 and an exact miniature replica of Bourton- a masterpiece by some very talented artists and craftsmen!

Each year, the Secret Art Sale has a unique theme to support the charity’s conservation work. With 24% of Greater London made up of private gardens, the 2016 exhibition was aimed at heightening the awareness of the importance of gardens as a vital resource and habitat for wildlife. The event saw contributions from the Environment Trusts patron, Gordon Buchanan, as well as Quentin Blake, Alan Titchmarsh, Nobel Prize Laureate Sir Paul Nurse, and Axel Scheffler- the Gruffalo artist and another patron of the charity. I’m happy to share that 90% of the paintings on display last year were sold and over £7000 was made, which has been a fantastic asset to their conservation work. The funds generated enabled them to work directly with school, local communities, and others to highlight the use of gardens and other green spaces in urbanised areas as habitat that will encourage the return of once common species such as the hedgehog. You can read more about last years event on their blog. You can also view the paintings and revealed artists from 2016 here. Continue reading “The Environment Trust: Secret Art Sale, 22-23 Sept 2017”

Preserving Vanishing Cultures through Art

“We are all visitors to this time, this place. We are just passing through. Our purpose here is to observe, to learn, to grow , to love. And then we return home.” Australian Aborigine Proverb

August 9, 2017 marked the 10th anniversary of the UN Declaration of the rights of indigenous people around the world. It was a landmark decision to actively protect the 370 million people that make up the worlds population of indigenous cultures, including the Inuit of the High Arctic, the Eagle Hunters of Mongolia, the Dayak of Borneo, the Honey Hunters in Nepal, the Tuareg people of the Sahara desert, the Australian Aborigines, the Polynesian Maori of New Zealand, the First Nations of America, the Sami tribe in Scandinavia and the myriad of nomadic hunters and semi-nomadic pastoralists and hunter/gatherers around the world. This number may only total 5 per cent of the global population, but the unique contribution these people make to our world far exceeds that number in terms of cultural diversity, knowledge enrichment, sustainable development, enhancing scientific knowledge and tackling climate change.

Indeed, environmental conservation paired with the intellectual legacy of humanity has never been so crucial. With a myriad of challenges currently threatening the planet, including climate change and depleting global resources, this present time is a pivotal opportunity to actively protect indigenous peoples and learn from them. Not only will learning from them help to protect our environment, but recognizing their different histories, ways of life and traditions will help us to reject a generic modern culture, faced with the seemingly inexorable progression of technological advancement and globalisation. Alarmingly, out of the approximately 7,000 languages spoken on earth, one language becomes extinct every fourteen days. My project, ‘Vanishing Cultures’, for which I won the Surrey County Council Art Award, focused on my desire to highlight the gradual effacement of indigenous identities in the face of globalisation and consumerism. By raising awareness of the need for mutual understanding, I hoped to help preserve not just their legacy but also that of humanity, as we are all custodians of one fragile planet.

The project initially evolved as a result of my seeing some students at school getting tattoos depicting Japanese calligraphy without understanding its meaning, their only concern was that it was perceived as a mark of social status. After researching the significance of tattoos and other cultural emblems in certain societies, I realised that their meaning was lost when adopted by another society. I began exploring ‘vanishing cultures,’ a topic already of interest to me as a result of my subscription to the National Geographic magazine. I wanted to highlight the gradual effacement of a strong cultural identity and connection to history, retained most significantly by members of indigenous communities. My project aimed to resist a generic modern culture, whilst maintaining a dialogue between diverging communities and their personal histories.

I discovered a beautiful photo of a Filipino tribal girl in the National Geographic magazine and being of English and Filipino heritage (amongst others), I wanted to represent the closeness and distance of my knowledge with that of indigenous peoples. I  decided to paint the tribal girl’s tattoo on my sister’s arm; we frequently used each other as muses but this was especially significant as it was in a sense a self-portrait, but also an objective painting. The Tatak ng Alon tattoo (‘wave imprint’ in Filipino) is symbolic for the tribe and the wearer as each tattoo has a meaning and significance for the individual, consequently that meaning would be lost if adopted by another culture or inscribed on another person. The fact it is being washed away on my sister’s arm represents the gradual disappearance of that history when appropriated without an understanding of the said culture. 

Indigenous cultures only disappear when external forces, such as the deforestation of rainforests, engulf them. The final piece aimed to project a future without these cultures and the loss of their knowledge; it depicted a barren and drought devastated environment, akin to a photographic negative. Without the knowledge specific to a particular location, all significance is lost to the interpreter and that knowledge vanishes.

The final painting was on display at my school from 2005-2012 when I wanted to reclaim it for my portfolio. There is far more meaning that I included in the painting that there is not enough space to write here without being verbose, but now that I am working as an artist fulltime, I do feel a burgeoning desire to reinvigorate the project and continue exploring the theme of vanishing cultures. I would like to investigate more ways in which I can use my art to promote the beauty and importance of indigenous communities, and hopefully help preserve their heritage and knowledge for posterity.