SITTING IN THE GARDEN, WATCHING THE BIRDS WITH MUM…

Sheila Ghelani

There are so many ways I could start this bit of writing…

I could start it by telling you about my Checklist of Care – written for myself in 2016 after a new participatory artwork hit problems and I found myself abroad and alone. Burnt out and worried about how best to proceed I remember realising that there were several points in the process when I could have taken different decisions – not least turning the invitation down when it became obvious that the commission money wasn’t quite big enough to realise the idea properly. The gamble I’d taken on everything working out – one I often took – hadn’t paid off this time and it was painful. In the end the piece itself was delivered and the commissioner was happy but this felt irrelevant. The journey towards making it had felt unbearable…

“Checklist of Care” in This Book is Yours: Recipes for Artistic Collaboration by Sally de Kunst

Reflecting on the experience afterwards I resolved not to make work like that anymore. I didn’t want to labour more hours than I was paid for. I didn’t want to be filled with anxiety when something went wrong. I didn’t want to not be able to afford to pay for the technical and producing support I needed… Because, as Annie Dillard so succinctly puts it in A Writers Life;

‘How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.’

Or, I could start it by telling you about my beautiful mother Carol-Ann who died at the end of May this year, at home, aged 74. That on the morning of the day of her death I travelled to London to host some students in a studio space. That I was in two minds about going – knowing how ill she was, but then reasoned with myself that I could jump on a train if I needed to, and that mum, having been a teacher all her life, would want me to be there… So I sat with those students and we talked about colonialism and objects – discussing their relationship to extraction, and had an interesting time. Only for me to then receive a phone call, whilst packing up, to come home urgently…

The point being that nearly six months later I still haven’t been paid the honorarium I was promised by that university. That as I write this now it’s November. That the cheque I was originally sent by them, several months after the work was completed, was in dollars, and my bank won’t cash that, and so I need to fill out more forms for a bank transfer. That last week, although I most definitely need the money, I debated whether or not to bother pursuing the payment – whether it was worth my time. Because, as my mum taught me in May (her final lesson it turns out) time is life… Time is literally life.

Or I could start it with the words I wrote for a short film I made way back in 2009:

‘Live art is like being in love
with a very difficult lover
who will debate everything
who is careful with their cash
but keeps you hooked
because of the dirty
sweaty panting love
they make to you
in secret
after dark
and because their pillow-talk
makes it all make sense
keeps you calm
because they understand
you are trying to
make a difference
and putting yourself on the line
and risking saying too much
and sometimes going to extremes
because the ideas
you want to communicate
demand blood
demand sweat
demand tears
demand being naked
being vulnerable
letting it all hang out
because what you are
trying to say
is political
and could change things
couldn’t it?’

Even then, only some six or so years into making my own solo work, I clearly knew that art as a field of practice wouldn’t take care of me. Couldn’t perhaps – stretched too thin. Yet despite that, I would still continue to demand everything of myself to make it. Because I love it. Am seduced by it. Because it offers a mixed heritage person like myself, from humble origins, a means to be heard and work towards creating change (however small, however slight).

Passionate feelings.

Dangerous feelings?

Or I could start this piece of writing in countless other ways, drawing further on experiences from the past, right through to the present where care was lacking. There are lots to choose from… Too many in fact.

Is it the sector around the freelancer that hasn’t improved?
Or is that I just haven’t got any better at self-care?
Or that care is just too hard enact – truly, deeply. Because it involves going slow when everyone and everything around you is going too fast?
Or fast when the institution is moving too slow (‘I need to speak to the palliative team now, I’m calling about my mother. I called an hour ago and nobody has called me back’).
Or that mostly, more often than not, time isn’t seen as life. It’s seen as money.

I’m not sure what the answer is.

I do know that care isn’t glamorous, that its mundane, hard work, full of heavy labour, liquids leaking out of eyes and bodies, trembling and deep feelings.

But, if you’re on the receiving end, it’s everything. It can fill your heart. Make life possible.

Nowadays, a particularly strong sensation I get as I read my Checklist of Care out loud to others, is of overwhelm, mixed with resignation and a bit of anger – a little ball of fury popping around in my belly.

Still?

Do I still have to ask ‘Will I be looked after? Will I get paid?’

I’m 48.

Still?