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Making global artistic bridges

The Banyan Project explores the unique artistic creativity of children

and adults from diverse socio-economic and cultural contexts to build

transnational artistic networks

©Lise Benoit-Capel

The twining trunks of a banyan tree.

In rainforests across Australasia, Latin America and Africa, the banyan tree thrives off other life forms. The tree climbs up into the canopy via surrounding trees, twining around their trunks and branches, and extends itself across the forest for hundreds of metres, dropping back down into the undergrowth at random points to set down new roots and sprout new trunks.

Like the organism from which it takes its name, The Banyan Project, which opens at the Meta House tonight, spans continents. It does not discriminate between cultures, ages, genders or social status, but spreads upwards and sidewards, across hierarchies and geographies, to germinate at arbitrary locations.

The brainchild of artist and curator Alfred Banze, this five-year artistic endeavour includes works by more than 50 artists from more than 20 countries - among them, Cambodia's Srey Bandol.

With media ranging from paintings to sculptures, videos, photography and installations, the artworks originate from locations as disparate as an Amsterdam studio and a Bangkok ghetto.

The exhibition is the product of a number of workshops run by Banze in Europe, Africa and across the Asia Pacific to Latin America.

Using pieces submitted by international artists, Banze conducted creative sessions in various cites and villages in which he encouraged participants to produce a new work modelled on, or inspired by, a featured artwork.

[The banyan tree] lends itself to be a powerful

global symbol of cultural communities and diversity.

Workshops were conducted with both children and adults from diverse socio-economic and cultural contexts - from orphans to the privileged sons and daughters of diplomats - and were inspired by the idea of the intercultural portability or malleability of art.
"The question for me was whether a painting from South America could work in a village in Africa," Banze said.

Photo Supplied

Children play in one of the photos taken at a workshop in Phnom Penh in 2007.

Cultural contexts

Like the biology of the banyan tree, the project aims to be "horizontal in geography and vertical in hierarchy". So too, it sprouts, spreads and regenerates through other life forms in multiple locations.

"Through a process of cultural translation, new things become possible, so I thought it would be interesting to try and mix cultures, ages, genders and social statuses," Banze said.

As an artist, Banze saw himself as "intercultural mediator", facilitating this transnational leap. "I think the artist is a good cultural translator or ambassador. People are more able to experiment with me because I am outside their social hierarchy. They know I'm leaving."

The resulting artworks were imbued with their own unique cultural prejudice or meaning. Like the pieces presented in workshops, the symbolism of the banyan tree alters according to cultural contexts.

Where the tree is revered in some parts of Latin America as a house of spirits, in other countries its implications are distinctly political. In Vietnam, for example, the image of the tree was adopted as an emblem by communists, while Indonesians associate it with the conservative party.

Yet outside of these equatorial zones, the plant was also transported to European climes, where it proliferated in shopping malls and living-rooms across the continent during the ‘50s and ‘60s.

"I remember the plant from my childhood in Germany. It grew easily through hydro culture, and was a bright, industrial green - a manufacturable symbol of tropical paradise," Banze said.

In contrast to its cultivated Western counterparts, when Banze came to the tropics, he "discovered the tree could grow big!"

With these multiple forms, myths and modern associations, he suggests, the banyan tree "lends itself to be a powerful global symbol of cultural communities and diversity".

By expanding cultural, geographical and artistic boundaries, Banze hoped to maximise the possible number of stories produced.

Encouraging expression

The Banyan Project has been able to foreground those normally excluded by, or at the margins of, the artistic sphere.

In Cambodia, Banze went to the extremities of marginalisation to work with HIV-positive children at Wat Opod, an orphanage run by Catholic priests in Takeo.

"These were abandoned and isolated children who ten years ago would not have lived, but now have access to medicine to keep them alive," he said.

The life-expectancy of many of these children does not exceed their teenage years, and yet Banze perceived that "within this time, they can live a whole lifespan".

"They all had their individual life stages and experiences, some who seemed old and some young, and their own social hierarchies. All this within their own high-speed lifetime," he said.

"It was amazing to see the way they cooperated and cared for each other."

However, while Banze sees the inclusion of those at the social margins such as the children of Wat Opod as invaluable, he is also aware that for most, the fringes of society and art is where they will remain.

"It is always the same, isn't it - the freak gives something to normal society."    

With the kaleidoscope of extremes of wealth, poverty, suffering, power and dispossession the project has witnessed over the past five years, world-weariness or disenchantment would seem inevitable.

"It is true that sometimes after workshops I just need to sit for a few days in my room and not talk to anyone. Artists are introverts after all," he said.

However, he sees a degree of idealism as inherent in the project.

"I think in some ways it is a very naive project; but after September 11, I felt very sad and depressed about the world, about the state of art and fundamentalism in politics, and made a lot of depressing art, and so this project is a good change."

Whatever the motivation of Banze and his collaborator of one year, Christine Falk, they plan to continue disseminating, or growing, The Banyan Project for sometime yet.

"As it gets bigger, some parts of the banyan tree become more important or interesting than where it started and, well, it is just nice to see people playing," he said.

The Banyan Project opens at Meta House at 6pm this evening and runs until March 22.

A performance featuring artists from Wat Opod will take place on Saturday March 15 at 2pm. 

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