Announcement for two workshops by one of MFTW’s inspiring artists, Jacqui Dreessens.
Kayak, Mangroves, Poetry
Do you like kayaking? Ever written poetry? Have you ever seen the mangrove forest on Wadawurrung Country between Barwon Heads and Ocean Grove? Come and witness first hand this incredible ecosystem that clears the water and puts oxygen in the air for all of us Beings to breathe. So hardy and yet so fragile. A different World awaits from the Water.
This is Part A of an exciting afternoon/evening: 4pm-6pm. Where the River meets the Sea – Kayak, Mangroves, Poetry
Zahidah Zeytoun Millie is all about roots: her Syrian roots, mangrove roots, and the roots she sets down in each country she moves to. As an artist and curator, she ties them together in her artwork and her activism.
Here at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, as part of the United Arab Emirates program, Zahidah leads workshops on painting mangrove trees. When I arrived at her tent, ten or so children, drawn by the inviting sight of colorful watercolor palettes, sat in a circle on the ground. In the center was a large glass jar of mangrove saplings. The children drew outlines with a watercolor marker, then softened the lines with a wet brush, and finally added a wash of watercolor from the pans. She walked around, commenting on line quality or color choice. Her own paper was covered in swirls of green and brown that coalesced into the tangled roots of a mangrove.
Zahidah’s artist website shows almost 200 mangrove watercolors. They’re visually tantalizing pieces, varied but unified. Some are more figurative while others lean abstract: mangroves naturally dance between organic body and graphic design. Sometimes she paints wet-in-wet, letting the pigment flow and blur so that the painting only implies a tree as its subject. Other paintings are crisply detailed, with bold dark strokes for the branches.
Mangroves gave Zahidah hope and purpose in a time of crisis. In 2012, when civil war broke out in Syria, she was living in the UAE.
“I was very scared about my family, my homeland,” she said. “But as an artist, you always survive with your art.” She began kayaking through the marshes in the UAE to relax, and there she found the mangroves. “I thought, okay, what can I do? There are two things—the mangroves and my country—and I linked them in one. I organized an exhibition about the mangroves. And the funds I sent to Syrian children and refugees in Syria. That was my little contribution.”
Zahidah spent many years working as both an artist and environmental activist. When she moved to the UAE in 2000, she became interested in issues of native plant conservation and sustainable architecture. Mangroves are native to the UAE—the country has significant coastal regions, despite popular perception as a purely desert biome. Unlike many trees, mangroves thrive in saline waters. They support aquatic and terrestrial life, purify surrounding waters, and act as carbon sinks. The beautiful trees both inspire us and protect against climate change, but they are in danger. According to the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi, the rate of mangrove forest loss is three to four times higher than that of terrestrial forests.
As the Syrian war raged on, Zahidah refocused. She recalled thinking, “I can’t do anything for the manmade war in my home country, but I can try to do what I have in front of me.” She involved herself fully in the cause of the mangroves. Gathering a group of fellow artists, she curated another multimedia art exhibition, Mangroves from the Water. She received funding from an environmental agency in Abu Dhabi, and her work eventually culminated in a 2017 mangrove festival.
Now, Zahidah and her family live in Australia. Upon moving, she found that Australia had the same issue of mangrove loss. Making Australian people care, however, has been more difficult. “In the UAE, I tried to work from the roots of the thing. I found a story,” she said. “But moving to Australia, I couldn’t find a story. Different politics, different history.”
She needed to find roots in Australia, something to connect the people to the trees. So she chose to expand her project, Mangroves from the Water, into a PhD at Deakin University.
“I keep trying to see what is right, what is wrong, what is going on. This is the meaning of life for me.”
Zahidah Zeytoun Millie teaches us to look closely at the world in front of us: to notice its beauty, to learn to love and protect her. Join her at the Story Majlis to see her art and learn about mangrove conservation.
Author Sophie Henry is a writing intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and an art history major at Yale University. She also studies Spanish, German, and chemistry.
Zahidah ran a successful workshop with school students on Thursday 18 November 2021.
The nine Year 11 students from Thomas Carr College, along with three teachers, joined Zahidah on kayaks through the mangrove forests in Victoria.
The workshop is about a two hour trip: 20 minutes to kayak around the mangroves, then stop in a sheltered spot within the mangroves, then to sketch the scene using watercolour technique. The aim of the workshop is to create a bond between the kayaker (student) and the mangrove trees by sketching them and to build greater understanding of the mangrove forests in Victoria, Australia.
In the build up to our upcoming exhibition (26 July!), we check in with some of our participating artists on how they are preparing their works.
This story from Nicola Cerini about her inspiration and work process is particularly enjoyable:
— “The work was inspired by a couple of fun kayaking trips through the Mangroves at Barwon Heads in Victoria with all the artists in 2019 and 2020 arranged by the curator Zahidah. Despite getting pretty wet in my leaky kid-size kayak on my first trip I went back for more. On the next trip in a grown-up sized kayak I managed to take lots of photos which helped me decide how I wanted to represent what I’d seen. It’s such a unique ecosystem down there in the Mangroves. I had no idea the Barwon Heads Mangroves were there until I became involved in this project. In my early twenties I spent some time on Lizard Island in far north Queensland and also on the mainland and was fascinated by these murky mysterious landscapes that came and went with the tide. I’d always associated Mangroves with a tropical climate so it was exciting to find that we had our own cold climate Mangroves very close to home.
I was drawn to the various textures and layers from the water, up through the muddy root systems that almost reached the low lying branches of the large Mangrove trees. There were beautiful light spaces filtering through the branches often creating silhouettes and bands of horizontal colours in the distance representing the sky and banks of green brackish friendly plants. The contrast of the solid ancient Mangrove trunks against the delicate leaf and flower silhouettes was striking. Looking into these landscapes was like exploring a new world, exciting!
My work will be printed on linen and there will be two pieces, both 1.4 x 2m.–
Mangroves from the Water opens on 26 July 2021, Gordon Gallery, Geelong, Victoria, Australia