Advent in Art 11: The Road to Bethlehem

Nicola McMeikan
Sunday, 4 December 2011

Advent in Art presentation 4 Dec 2011, Nicola McMeikan



To view the video, click here.


This is called the Road to Bethlehem and I’ll play it twice, each time with a different soundtrack and speak about it in between. The first soundtrack is “Saramaya” by Habib Koite and Bamada from Mali. I chose it because when I first heard it recently it made me happy and feel like dancing.

Slideshow is played.

If I had to call this something I’d call it a visual narrative.

When I first had the idea for some photographs it involved me being in some of them, so I asked my sister Julie to take those ones I couldn’t take myself, and that ended up being quite a few of them. For some reason it seemed more important to me to be “in the scene” than to be the photographer. Julie showed great patience over the course of three afternoons at her place, coming when called to take photos and handing back the camera to check they were what I wanted. Julie has given me great encouragement along the way as well as being an integral part of the process.

When asked if I would like to contribute something to the art in advent I said yes to make myself rise to the challenge, and I almost immediately had the idea of images from the story coming out from a suitcase. So that was something of an instinctive response to the nativity story. When I went into Luke to have a bit more of a read I was somewhat drawn by Mary’s “yes” to the angel and her “Let what you have said be done to me,”, but I think I was more taken by the idea of growing expectation relating to the birth and the emotional journey towards this event.

I found myself approaching the nativity story in its mythic sense, as poetry almost. And that perhaps explains the simple mythic images of the journey that came to me – a cloak to wear, an angel that appears like a guide, a path to tread, water to drink, a fire for warmth, a stone to rest on, some kind of shelter or tent, perhaps the basics of an arduous journey in ancient times. These were going to be a series of about six images, but I’ve ended up making a bit more of a narrative of it by stringing together more footsteps, making it much more directly representing Mary’s journey on the road to Bethlehem, and then adding quite a lot that happens in Bethlehem itself. But as the images arose for me they were both very concrete - things I could make, and touch and see - and I feel they were also communicating things that I could find within the story. Here I can find a path. Here I can find water. Here I find fire. Here I find stone. Here I find a shelter and an inner room of light and so on.

The use of a spectrum of colours seemed to be important to me at first. It all starts off quite colourfully but as it turned out it soon refined down to quite a narrow range of colours. I wasn’t going to use any black, but black crept in as the journey got harder and then there was quite a lot of white. Even the colours of the tent, which were much richer in real life, are muted in the final product and I quite like the way that things simplified down. Maybe here it can represent going from the bright innocence of girlhood with its colourful cloak to womanhood and experience.

It was about halfway through the project that I realised how the form that I chose related to the subject matter of the nativity. They intersected at the point of my wonder as a child.

My wonder as a child- singing in church while my mother played the piano at Christmas for the Sunday School. “Children, go where I send you. I’m gonna send you. ….” And so on until I got to sing my heart out on the words “born, born , born in Bethlehem” and there were so many verses I could do it again and again, filled with pure joy.

And also there was my wonder as a child of about eight when a group of visiting performers arrived to perform a play in my classroom in Tokoroa– someone put up a ladder and covered it with fabric and it was a mountain. I don’t even remember the story but this act of transformation filled me with delight and left an indelible impression on me. I think I suddenly saw with my imagination in a special way and that was a wonderful gift those performers gave me.

I use these fabrics sometimes in drama in my work with children with special needs – for example, recently I’ve used them to help enact the story of how Tangaroa gives Paua his colours. They also formed part of the heavenly gates that are opened when Morning Star visits Evening Star in a Native American legend. So I guess they were materials I had on hand. But now I recall their historical link to my childhood wonder at what the imagination can do, how it can transform things.

I can also link this form to more recent wonder, that found in noticing colours and light, in leaves, in clouds. One day earlier this year I was in a classroom where the light was streaming onto some of these fabrics and it was like I was looking at a burning pile of glory. After that I’d sometimes make a feature installation of a swatch of colours strewn over the back of my desk so I could rest my eyes on them. And I went through a phase of turning to people in the office with my hands full of certain combinations and saying, “look”, like I was offering them something quite amazing.

And the dancing - that was all added later and probably reflects my recent joy in dancing around my lounge. The angel was there in the sequence at the beginning, static, almost like a signpost pointing the way, and that was going to be that, but then the angel came back and wanted to dance and rather took over, hogging about half the shots. This was the part of the project that was the most fun and least effort – about four minutes of dancing and taking photos and Julie and I were both really pleased with the results.

In 2000 I was in London and went to a mythodrama workshop at the Globe, in which we were invited to take on roles and enact sequences in Hamlet, applying these things to our own lives. I subsequently leant about storymaking and role method, forms of dramatherapy, in which people choose and embody roles in stories, to express aspects of themselves and gain insight. Any person or object in a story can be explored in this way.

In this case, I’m not saying that I was deliberately doing any mythodrama or dramatherapy here but, if I look back on it now and see the different characters and images of the story as different parts of myself or roles to explore, at a certain point the angel takes over, or I should say, I wanted to be a dancing angel … in this case I think the angel is joy - my own joy. Other shots involved still poses, rather than paused moments in some action, but through the dancing, you could say that this was the role that had the greatest energy for me. I’m not saying that I am a particularly joyful person, just that, when I was invited to create something for advent, something arose that is significantly about joy. This concept fits with the idea of wanting to be in the whole thing myself, rather than photographing someone else, it was about what I wanted to make and to embody.

I learnt last week that the elements of water, fire, stone and air have certain meanings in western tradition; water is the emotions, fire –the imagination, stone is earth or groundedness, air is mind --- air could be, perhaps fancifully, referenced here indirectly by the angel or the light.

These could be seen as the elements of Mary’s experience – the emotions generated by her pregnancy, her imaginings about what might happen / who her son might be, her physical experience of journey and birth - and her thoughts (we are told that when the shepherds tell Mary what the angels said, “she treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart”).

But more, these can be seen as the four elements of our journey to the birth of the sacred in our lives – or life in all its fullness. Or for me, a journey to having all parts of myself – my emotions, my imagination, my senses and my mind engaged in life in this moment.

The doorway, the tent-like opening was nearly the last in – I was wanting some idea of shelter and, as it stands in the sequence, it became a bit more like a portal, with the white backlit fabrics now becoming a kind of inner room.

The last photo to go in was the baby. This one was a fluke. I was photographing a pile of discarded fabrics just for fun, because there was a lovely nut-like shape and the light was falling so beautifully on the green, when Julie looked over my shoulder and said that it looked like an embryo. I thought it might as well go in. We decided it also looked like a baby under a mosquito net. I really like the softness of it, just the suggestion of a baby.

I’m going to play the slideshow again and I’d like to play “O Come all Ye Faithful”. This was my favourite carol as a child, and we would sing it around the piano as my mother played. This will be from Amici Forever and we’ll just keep the song playing to the end. I invite you to come to Bethlehem, resting if you wish at any stop along the way.