Art Installation inspired by Memoir
|Amaia van Dommelen
Through the Lens, 2018
Cardboard, paper, metal wire, lemongrass, leather, magnifying lenses, rocks, wooden sticks and wooden dragonflies
As a little girl, most of my childhood was based in the heart of África: Rwanda, where I lived at the time. Every five weeks or so, my family would travel a path of about 30km to get to the gate of Akagera National Park, a wildlife reserve on the border of Rwanda and Tanzania. We often camped there amongst the wild animals and spent our weekends tripping around the area with our clunky Toyota Land Cruiser. One day my dad introduced me to the invisible world of critters when he gifted me a yellow magnifying cup (the same yellow-lidded cup found in the box). All the elements inside the suitcase are very tactile, representing how kinesthetic I was: the grass, the rocks, the magnifying lenses and even the wooden dragonflies. The clippings of text found throughout the suitcase are excerpts of my memoir that interweave both things together. My suitcase symbolizes how I saw the campsite as a girl, too intrigued by all the magnificent bugs to be aware of the birds and larger animals that surrounded us in the National Park.
The Things I Carry
The things I carry are largely determined by necessity. Amongst my necessities or what I believe are necessities are messy bracelets, a three-year-old Casio watch, two hair ties (just in case one of them decides to break), a red swiss army knife, a complete deck of cards, my Apple earbuds, thoughts I keep to myself, a pack of tic tacs, and a 50 spf bottle of sunscreen.
I carry my tight braid down my neck with the same loose strands of baby hair at the top that I always tuck behind my ears. I carry my dad’s cute little nose, his dirty blond hair and his almond-shaped eyes with the mixture of my mom’s laugh, smile, and her gaze. I carry my mom’s rhythm and feet that tingle whenever music springs to life, urging me to move. I carry my little wrists with twiggy fingers that are ideal for precise tasks and I carry my sturdy legs that support my body and can withstand days of hiking.
All I carried as a kid was limited by the size of my own palms. I carried pretty seashells from the long walks across the Basque shores with my grandma, I carried smooth pebbles or lucky pennies I would find on the sidewalks, I carried colorful leaves that had fallen to the ground from the trees above. All fourteen of my stuffed animals, I carried, each named and taken care of as if they were real pets. I also carried my magnifying cup everywhere I went. That was the object I used the most.
While my dad always kept his head high up in the clouds, I was always busy burying my nose under the grass and soil beneath our own feet. Right before our trip to Mutumba Hills, my dad had gifted me a teleportation device that allowed me to shrink down to the same size of the critters that were concealed by the blades of grass, petals, twigs, that no one bothered to notice. A plastic cup, nothing spectacular, just a plastic cup with a magnifying glass on the top. The lid was a pale yellow and the plastic was molded into a flower form with large petals that suck out just a bit on the edge of the container. Nothing too fancy. Trapping bugs, or “bichos” as Ama would call them, in the container just to examine them, was all I did as a little girl on the top of this hill. A plastic cup with miniature black markings that indicated size was what it was.
Eight pointy legs with a little abdomen and an even smaller head. Eight matching eyes, beady and shallow, with superficial intelligence, positioned one above another. Four blue blotches stained its body that was black everywhere else, black, like the color of the unharmed night sky, black, like my mom’s trimmed hair, black.
Aita had shown me his magnificent encyclopedia of bugs & buzzers & beetles. Page after page he’d flip with his coarse fingers, each new one revealing a close-up photo of a beetle or a bug or a buzzer, mid-action shot, as if it just froze in space and time and would never be able to reach the next flower or leaf. Never again to come to life. Colors stained my fingers, clothes, eyes, tinting my vision with hues so contrast I thought I’d go blind.
Identical to a twig, it balanced itself to the best of its abilities to try convince me that it was somehow just a simple stick with legs. But it didn’t fool me, for I knew this critter only wanted to camouflage into its surroundings that were conveniently not there, making it look dumb in a way.
It was finding them, that was the hard part of this process. Finding the bugs that needed to blend into their environment in order to survive, and if they didn’t do that job properly, well, that was the end of that. Either their predator would come, or they’d be lucky enough and a little boy or girl like me would capture them with their curiosity only to release them a few moments later back into the safety of a bush or tree.
Its uncomfortable studs as legs bent in awkward ways as the critter stumbled around in the transparent container. Its flossy armor returned an ancient emerald green into the palid world of Akagera, made of mainly yellows and browns as if burnt to crisp by the flaring sun. Without a neck, the head stuck from under its wings timidly wishing it could retract into the safety of its armor.
It waddled back and forth, trying to find its way out of the invisible force it was enclosed by that was somehow keeping it in.
“Look up here! It’s another weaver bird with its yellow belly and wings – it’s making a snake-proof nest.”
Its minuscule head seemed to tilt slightly as if inspecting its surroundings, trying to understand a concept far too complex for its tiny brain to wrap around.
“Look! It’s a weaver bird with its yellow wings – it’s making its snake-proof nest.”
“Amaia! Come look!”
“Quickly, or it’ll fly away!”
What I carried varied from day to day. Three out of the five days I would carry my bulky rubber and rope bracelets. I usually forgot them at home or would lose them for a week before finding them in my bag or in my desk at home. Two out of the seven days I would carry a bandana with doggie bones or with flowers on them; the bandana-phase was what my mom called it where all I would wear where those pieces of cloths on my forehead as if I were a three-year-old. Only once a week I would carry a necklace only to hide it in my shirt for one reason or another, but one thing I carried every single day was the thought of learning something new in school. I loved coming home and telling my dad and mom about how time travel exists or about how long a tortoise can live in the wild; 100 – 150 long years.
I carried the fascination of unexplainable phenomenons or riddles that no one could answer and the characteristic of it being unknown was what intrigued me the most. Pondering about these mysteries I would dream for hours off-end with my dad of what the truth could entail. I carried National Geographic Kids magazines that would talk about these mysteries: The disappearances in The Bermuda Triangle, the Loch Ness Monster, The Walking Stones in Australia; these myths where what fueled my imagination as a little girl. I carried a box of magic tricks that promised anyone could be a magician but must’ve forgotten to mention me as the exception. I carried my grandma’s mystical rainstick that I was convinced was a pure form of magic when I played with it.
There it leaned, against the Guatemalan tapestry that clad the Spanish walls of Amama’s apartment, her evidence of having escaped the safe borders of her hometown and out into the land beyond. It leaned against dynamic colors-reds and blues and greens and yellows-that intertwined and netted her latin memories into the home she so dearly cared for. If her husband were still alive, he would’ve taken it down by now and would’ve replaced it with an abstract work of art in shades of blues and purples, showing nothing but an eerie agony she always hated in him. But there it hung, securely, knowing he wouldn’t ever take it down.
A pipe at most, from the outside at least, wooden but with a polished texture, too glossy for it to be genuine wood from a forest. Tiny knobs poked out on the sides randomly which made it look like it was sprinkled with black polka dots or little droplets. It wasn’t until I asked Amama what it was that I found out what this magical instrument could really do.
Dusk, maybe 9 pm, the sun took forever to settle under the skyline but it finally did and the apartment began to glow with its yellow lights my grandma adored. Ama was outside with her old friends. Aita was somewhere near her, laughing loudly and telling them about our family adventures and how he had three kiddos. Amama was tucking Kepa and Unai into bed, reading them a bedtime story with her soothing voice that would lull them to sleep.
Clad in my long-sleeved PJs I sat on the carpeted hallway, criss-cross applesauce, facing the rainstick that just leaned lonely against a corner of two walls. The door to their room was shut and my ears couldn’t even pick up the slightest whisper from the other side.
Curiously I reached for the rainstick and flipped it upside down quickly, just to lean it back against the wall to pull back my hands in an instant and allow the magic to take place.
Instantaneously a noise filled my ears soft at first, like a hum, but became louder as the seconds passed by. The noise became a rattlesnake with its dense eyes and its maraca tail that shook back and forth hastily with its split red tongue that could smell me standing in the same hallway. The noise started growing louder and louder as the snake grew three times in size. All of a sudden, the snake swiftly hid under the rug for the numbing noise became a thunderstorm, pounding its millions of droplets onto the floor, penetrating the wood with an unthinkable fury. Afraid I’d become deaf I covered my ears with my hands but kept looking at the furious downpour that was taking place before me. The noise kept going until it calmed down, slowly coming to an end as it formed a smoldering fireplace with a heap of wood that was crackling under the touch of the flames as they licked the wood that forced them to break under their own weight. And that was when it stopped.
I sat still for just a bit to listen to the dead silence in my grandma’s little house. I still didn’t hear a peep from behind the bedroom door. Not even the radio was on in the kitchen, something that I thought was built into the apartment walls permanently. And then I’d do it all again.
Magic was what it hid within. A magic that made me believe until my father killed it by telling me how it really worked. Hollow was what it was on the inside, home to millions of pebbles or kernels or beads – no one really knew – that would trickle down the tube when flipped hitting hundreds of horizontal rods or pins to make a noise similar to the numbing sound of rain. After that, the rattlesnake never returned and the thunderstorms never formed in the hallway nor did the fireplace appear any time soon.
But, there it leaned, against a corner of the hallway, one wall bare, the other coated in the Guatemalan tapestry of Amama’s apartment; the rainstick.
The things I carried depended on my age. At 5 I started by carrying snuffy around: my worn out stuffed animal I dragged my entire life by one of its four old paws, as well as Duplo blocks, chupetes, my brother’s baby toys and colorful crayons I would use to draw abstract pictures with. Before then I never carried anything long enough to remember apart from my stringy bangs that were left behind for a good reason. At 6 I carried ziplock bags everywhere I’d go. Ziplocks with those sticky cheerios, or salty pretzels or even fresh apple slices my parents would prepare for me to bring to school and munch up. Ziplocks was all I knew of at that age.
7 years old was when I started carrying a dangerous amount of Silly Bands on both arms: those colorful rubber bands that were all unique shapes and colors that choked my arms leaving red marks I simply ignored. Silly Bands were what we traded as kids in the playground during recess time and the more you had, the cooler you were. Then I was 8, and I started carrying my mom’s habit of wandering around the house aimlessly with a toothbrush in my mouth as a behavioral inheritance, while my dad just stood in front of the mirror complaining how pointless it is to do so. 9 years went by too fast to remember, apart from a few cookie cutters and playdoh. 10 years was when I carried both hands up in the air exposing all the little fingers on my hands to prove I had finally made it to double digits.
And when I finally got my Apple iPod Touch I knew I was 11, old enough to carry addictive childhood apps like Temple Run and Dumb Ways to Die that I would play with my school friends in fifth grade. Before I knew it, I was 12 and I carried a large appetite everywhere I went. I carried the age of a teenager at 13, but felt nothing different than twelve. At 14 I started carrying my name proudly telling everyone that I’d never wish to change it. And 15 is the age I carry to this day knowing nothing better than to wait and see what’ll carry next.