My desk seats a diorama of odd objects half dripping in paint: forks, skewers, string, coins, and safety pins. Rather than working with traditional tools like brushes or canvases, artists from the Dada and Fluxus movements preferred to use everyday household items. I gravely channel the spirit of Marcel Duchamp as I push around a safety pin, drenched in black acrylic paint, with the self-assuredness of a monk reciting a prayer. It is when I enter an almost trance-like state that Anjali zips into my room.
‘I wanna make some art too!’ she shouts at me, tugging my sleeve.
I affectionately succumb to her wishes. Anjali was the first friend I made when my family and I first moved to the neighbourhood. I found her sitting in our backyard, a little girl dressed in My Little Pony overalls with pink ribbons in her hair and a buoyant smile. Our miniature fox terrier licked her fingers and she screamed happily. Despite our fifteen years age gap, she simply grabbed my hand and declared us best friends.
Anjali often comes to our house after school to play. My parents coo to her in a baby voice, feeding her cookies and handing her the TV remote to watch Bluey. I, however, can’t bring myself to raise my voice several octaves higher, preferring to speak to her as if she were an adult. I would listen curiously when she tells me about her school friends and why her Mumma says she should avoid a certain person in her class.
Anjali is here today after school. I fetch her crayons, coloured pencils and printer paper as she requested. Once I set her up, she is comfortably amused for a record six and a half minutes. It’s not long before she creeps up beside me and says she wants to do what I’m doing – using paints. Her unfinished rainbow, filled in with two jagged red and yellow curves, told me that she was insulted by the primitive set of crayons I had laid out for her.
My mouth automatically opens to refuse her pleadings, but I consider the array of messy, abstract pieces that lay before me, some of which were indeed finger painted. Who else is better placed to understand the spontaneity and instinctive art making language of Fluxus art than a child? Dada: a child’s babble, meaning nothing at all.
I hand her my cheapest brush and tell her she can use one colour. She chooses cobalt blue. I pour her a 20c coin sized pellet and we begin. I think about my hero, Yoko Ono, as I work. I think about how we only remember her husband, and how she will always be called ‘John Lennon’s wife’. I think about how he wrote his song ‘Imagine’ after being inspired by her conceptual art, and how he never gave her credit for it. I think about whether Adam ever wished he had his rib back. If Yoko wished she had never married him.
When I first showed my parents my Fluxus art, they were silent. They looked at each other and then at me.
Mumma asked, ‘Are these actually going to be exhibited?’
We considered the twenty pieces of paper strewn over every available floor space in my room, filled with scribbles, finger painting, and nonsensical lines that twisted and turned as if following the flight path of an injured bee; first manic, then resigned, and eventually plummeting to the ground when both wings gave way. Rembrandt was never innocently questioned, ‘So what’s that meant to be?’
I swiftly met my parents’ doubts before they were even voiced, armed with my (very expensive) art history knowledge. I told them that Renaissance art, the work that they pedestal as ‘real art’, is actually elitist. I told them that I was making art accessible for the everyday person. I was encouraging audiences to reach within the art to make their own meaning, to paint the negative spaces of the art with the brush of their life experiences, thoughts and emotions. But when they looked at the art, they saw languished photorealistic possibilities compressed into confused spirals.
Anjali taps my leg.
‘I got paint on me,’ she whispers.
My heart rate quickens as I scan the line of blue paint slashed across her amaranth-red school dress, and I regret giving her the paint at all. When a wet tissue fails to remove the paint, I helplessly call for my Mumma. She assesses the situation and retrieves a hard-bristled brush and stain remover. She deftly applies the stain remover and scrubs Anjali’s dress using short, precise strokes.
Mumma has always been an artist. In the guest room drawers there are the few remaining pieces of mumma’s artworks, paintings of vibrant Hindu gods depicted with bold colours and careful detail. Lakshmi sits atop a lotus throne, her four hands outstretched in offerance of prosperity and fertility. I suppose Mumma took Lakshmi’s offer; she never picked up a paintbrush again after marrying my Papa. Her practised hands scrub away the paint until there is only a faint blue mark left on Anjali’s dress.
Anjali’s parents arrive and I rush to collect her belongings. I survey the artwork she had been working on and my stomach settles with a thud of surprising disappointment. I was expecting an array of scribbles or lines, much like the art I’m making currently. But the paper I gave her is almost entirely splashed with cobalt blue. A child’s babble – perhaps it truly meant nothing at all. My smile soaked in shame, I hand Anjali’s parents the artwork and damp school dress before she leaves. I wonder how many school dresses my Mumma had scrubbed paint off of.
On Sunday mornings, Mumma often asks me to dye her greying hair. I would begin by sectioning her hair and applying the colour from root to end, but my strokes would quickly crescendo into impatient sweeps, the chestnut dye flicking into different directions and infecting the ground with tiny spots of brown. Although Mumma warns me to be careful, my messy application tinges the tips of her ears and the sides of her neck, the pigment staining her skin like messy lipstick kisses. There are always paper towels at the ready. When Mumma touches up my balayage with copper box dye, my hair is meticulously sectioned and slathered with formula before expertly pinned up. Under my smeared fingernails and her smudged latex gloves, we mix a palette of time, at once
The next time I visit Anjali’s home, her Mumma tells me how happy Anjali is when we make art together. Anjali runs to me and proudly produces an artwork she’s made: a Sharpie portrait of us two and my dog, our heads sitting comically large on our shoulders, with wide smiles stretched across our cheeks.
‘I love it,’ I tell her. And this time, I really do.
Her Mumma laughs and pins it to their fridge where it sits beside her cobalt blue painting. It reminds me of the launch of my Fluxus art exhibition, when my parents quietly showed up without telling me. When I explained to the audience that the negative space of my art is to be filled in by the brush of their experiences, my Mumma’s eyes were wet with tears. Under the light, the collection of Anjali’s artworks atop their fridge may as well be at the MCA. Equally honoured artworks framed in their own, respective galleries.