Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Xanana Gusmao's 'Tunnel of Time'

Xanana Gusmao is famous for his inspirational role in the struggle for independence, and founding of Timor-Leste.  As an accomplished artist he is less well known.  I've been lucky enough to meet him and discuss this part of his life, as a result of which ICS has been conserving a number of his paintings.

The amazing aspect to this is that Gusmao is self taught. As he explained to me, he was at the time imprisoned by the Indonesian government in Cipinang prison in Jakarta for his role in leading Fretilin, the Timor independence militia.  Fellow prisoners were encouraged to yell abuse at him in his cell, and one day his food delivery flap opened but instead of the usual tirade, it turned out to be a friendly warder asking what he was spending his time doing in the cell. Suggesting he might like to try painting, the warder gave him a blank canvas, a brush and some paint tubes. When Gusmao protested that he had not a clue as to how to start, the warder told him to just try it out and if he didn't like the result, he could just paint over the top again.

Thus began an artistic journey that was quickly encouraged by his Australian wife, Kirsty Sword Gusmao, who sent Gusmao  various 'how to' books.  Given the time he had on his hands, and progressively relaxed conditions allowing access to materials he became increasingly skilful.

He decided to draw images of his early life growing up in Timor, but also to illustrate the pain of being separated from his wife. He did this by painting Kirsty from behind looking into a mirror, creating a new image with a further mirror  as each year of separation passed (see image below). In all he painted six of these highly evocative images, a series of paintings now known as Gusmao's 'Tunnel of Time'.

Last December the restored paintings were placed in their permanent position in the new Gusmao Reading Room in the cultural centre in Dili, unveiled by his sons (see image below) , where they rightly have now become part of the artistic patrimony of this young nation.

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