Tomé Pires: not a ficcione

Tomé Pires, author of Suma Oriental, the earliest extensive account of the East written by a Portuguese, was born around 1468. The son of an apothecary to King John II (1455-95) of Portugal, he himself became apothecary to Prince Afonso (1475-1491). In September 1511, Tomé Pires was appointed feitor das drogarias (factor of drugs) at Cochin in India. He was also in charge of a botica (supply of medicines) worth a considerable amount of money. Tomé Pires' next appointment was as Writer and Accountant of the trading fleet in the newly acquired Portuguese possessions of Malacca and Java. During these various appointments in Estado da India, Pires gathered the vast amount of information on trade, geography, commodities and pharmacology contained in the Suma Oriental.

It is not known if the book was compiled in Malacca or Goa; probably, by stages, in both ports and on board ship as well. On his way home to Portugal, having made his fortune, Pires was delayed at Goa and then sent back to Malacca, and thence, in 1517, as the first Portuguese Ambassador to China. He was unfortunate in that, not long after his arrival, a Portuguese ship’s captain named Simão Peres de Andrade caused some trouble in Canton; the Chinese decided Pires was not an ambassador after all but a spy, and seized him and the twelve men with him. They were tried, sentenced, flogged and tortured; five of them died, eaten by lice, in prison; and the rest were banished separately into internal exile. Nothing was heard of Tomé Pires for many years.

Then, in 1543, the great Portuguese traveller Fernão Mendes Pinto, arrived by river boat, a prisoner himself, in the Chinese city of Sampitay. Here the wife of the chifu – mandarin – who had bound and flogged Mendes Pinto and his companions, fell ill, delaying the party in the town. The Portuguese, still in their chains, were allowed ashore to beg alms from the people. While they were thus begging in the streets a young woman, seemingly Chinese, came forward and, unbuttoning the sleeve of the purple satin coat she wore, showed a cross tattooed on her arm – like the brand of a Moorish slave. Mendes Pinto and his men all fell to their knees, whereupon the woman uttered a cry, raised her arms heavenward and began to repeat the Lord’s Prayer in Portuguese.

Mendes Pinto spent five days at the house of Inez de Leiria, as she called herself, who was a wealthy woman and had her own chapel with a wooden crucifix finished in gold leaf, silver candlesticks and lamp; she was, she said, the daughter of Tomé Pires, who had met her mother during the period when the Chinese first entertained him as ambassador and later, when they decided he was a spy, contrived to be exiled near her. The two had married and lived a very Catholic life together for twenty-seven years, converting over three hundred local people and meeting every Sunday to worship in the chapel. Their marriage was only ended by Tomé Pires’ death at the age of about seventy years.

When Inez de Leiria heard Mendes Pinto’s own story of shipwreck and loss, she remarked, sounding very Chinese: Men who seek their livelihood at sea find their graves at sea. That is why the best and surest thing is to value the earth highly, and labour on the earth, since it pleased God to create us out of earth. Afterwards, Mendes Pinto passed on to the many other adventures related in his Peregrination, also known as The Travels of Mendes Pinto. He himself died, an old man surrounded by family, at Pragal near Almada on the opposite bank of the Tagus from Lisbon, in July, 1583 at the age of seventy-four years.

Who the people are who traded in Malacca and from what parts

Moors from Cairo, Mecca, Aden, Abyssinians, men of Kilwa, Malindi, Ormuz, Parsees, Rumes, Turks, Turkomans, Christian Armenians, Gujaratees, men of Chaul, Dabhol, Goa, of the kingdom of Deccan, Malabars and Klings, merchants from Orissa, Ceylon, Bengal, Arakan, Pegu, Siamese, men of Kedah, Malays, men of Pahang, Patani, Cambodia, Champa, Cochin China, Chinese, Lequeos, men of Brunei, Lucoes, men of Tamjompura, Laue, Banka, Linga (they have a thousand other islands), Moluccas, Banda, Bima, Timor, Madura, Java, Sunda, Palembang, Jambi, Tongkal, Indragiri, Kappatta, Menangkabau, Siak, Arqua (Arcat?), Aru, Bata, country of the Tomjano, Pase, Pedir, Maldives.

Besides a great number of islands there are other regions from which come many slaves and much rice. They are not places of much trade and therefore no mention is made of them, only of the above-mentioned people who come to Malacca with junks, pangajavas and ships; and in cases where they do not come to Malacca, people go there from here, as will be said in detail under the title for each region. Finally in the port of Malacca very often eighty-four languages have been found spoken, each one distinct, as the inhabitants of Malacca affirm; and this in Malacca alone, because in the archipelago which begins at Singapore and Karimun up to the Moluccas, there are forty known languages, for the islands are countless.

Because those from Cairo and Mecca and Aden cannot reach Malacca in a single monsoon, as well as the Parsees and those from Ormuz and Rumes, Turks and similar peoples such as Armenians, at their own time they go to the kingdom of the Gujurat, bringing large quantities of valuable merchandise; and they go to the kingdom of Gujurat to take up their companies in the said ships of that land, and they take the said companies in large numbers. They also take from the said kingdoms to Cambay, merchandise of value in Gujurat, from which they make much profit. Those from Cairo take their merchandise to Tor, and from Tor to Jidda, and from Jidda to Aden, and from Aden to Cambay, where they sell in the land things that are valued there, and the others they bring to Malacca, sharing as aforesaid.

Those from Cairo bring the merchandise brought by the galleasses of Venice, to wit, many arms, scarlet-in-grain, coloured woollen cloths, coral, copper, quicksilver, vermilion, nails, silver, glass and other beads, and golden glassware. Those from Mecca bring a great quantity of opium, rosewater, and such like merchandise, and much liquid storax. Those from Aden bring to Gujurat a great quantity of opium, raisins, madder, indigo, rosewater, silver, seed-pearls, and other dyes, which are of value in Cambay. In these companies go Parsees, Turks, Turkomans and Armenians, and they come and take up their companies for their cargo in Gujurat, and from there they embark in March and sail direct for Malacca; and on the return journey they call at the Maldive Islands.

Four ships come every year from Gujurat to Malacca …

from The Suma Oriental of Tomé Pires vol. 2, p. 268


The Dorak Affair: A Movie

James Mellaart, the excavator of Çatalhöyük, is a Dutchman of Scots descent. His surname is a version of Maclarty, a sub-branch of the MacDonalds of the Isles; the family fled Scotland in the 17th century. Mellaart was educated in Holland during World War Two but, in 1944, having turned eighteen and therefore become eligible for call up by the Nazis, he went to the Swiss Consul for help. The Consul found him a job in Leiden, mending pots in the Egyptology department. His tertiary studies took place in London after the war; then, in 1951, he won a scholarship to the British Institute in Ankara.

Mellaart spent his Turkish summers hiking Anatolia looking for ancient mounds, hoping to prove that the fabled Sea People had been based on the shores of Asia Minor. His first significant discovery was the Neolithic site near Hacilar, which he found by tracing local gossip to a coffee house where he met a chauffer by the name of Şevket Çetinkaya who took him to his house and showed him two strangely decorated pots. Şevket later became a millionaire by trading in Turkish antiquities.

In the summer of 1958, Mellaart was on a train going to the ancient Mediterranean port of Izmir to complete a survey of potential sites there, when, in an empty compartment, he was joined by an attractive young woman. On her wrist was a solid gold bracelet of ancient design - the kind of thing that had thus far only been found at Troy. Mellaart asked to have a closer look at it, the two fell into conversation and the young woman, whose name was Anna Papastrati, invited him to her home to see more ancient artefacts.

They crossed the harbour by ferry at night, then Mellaart spent three or four days at her house, not going out once, making detailed sketches of a range of objects there: goddess statues decorated with gold and silver ornaments, jewelled bracelets, ceremonial axe heads and sceptres in marble, lapis lazuli, obsidian, amber and gold, a woven rug upon which a king had lain, a dozen or so swords and daggers: the contents of two royal tombs found on a hill near Dorak, on the shores of Lake Apolyont, south of the Sea of Marmara and excavated between 1919 and 1922 during the Turko-Greek war.

One find dated the hoard: fragments of a sheet of gold which had once covered a wooden throne. The hieroglyphs upon it identified the throne as a gift from the Pharaoh Sahure, who ruled between 2487 and 2475 BC. This seemed to prove that the Yortan culture, a neighbour of Troy, to which the tombs belonged, had been in contact with the Egypt of the Third Millennium.

Mellaart later wrote a sixty thousand word account of his find and published a summary, with his drawings augmented by another hand, in the Illustrated London News of 29 November, 1959. After a strange hiatus of a couple of years, all hell broke loose among the Turks, who have never forgiven Schliemann for his rape of Troy. Schliemann, a seminal contributor to the genealogy of the swastika as the Nazi symbol, carried away vast amounts of loot in the late 19th century.

When the artefacts Mellaart had drawn could not be found – they have not been seen again from that day to this – he was accused of having aided in their removal out of the country. Further progress of his excavations at Çatalhöyük, discovered soon after the Izmir incident, was impeded in various ways, as were the digs of many other archaeologists working in Turkey in the early to mid 1960s.

Mellaart has always denied any wrong doing and it seems possible, on the basis of the investigation by the two Sunday Times journalists ten years later, that he was in fact used: the hoard probably mixed genuine and fake artefacts, as well as items from different times and places. Anna Papastrati was a honey trap; Mellaart’s role, which he fulfilled to perfection, was to authenticate the treasure for some wealthy, anonymous, overseas buyer who, we must assume, has it still.

Anna Papastrati has never been seen again either; the only family of that name in Izmir were Greek tobacco dealers who lived in the commercial district during the Greek occupation in the early 1920s – at the same time that the items were allegedly recovered from the graves. Nor has the house where she entertained Mellaart been found. Number 217 Kazim Dirik Street is unlocatable because in the ensuing years both the street name and the street numbering have been changed not once, but several times.

There is, however, a letter from Anna Papastrati to Mellaart. It is typewritten, dated 18.10.1958, and reads in full: Dear James, Here is the letter you want so much. As the owner, I authorise you to publish your drawings of the Dorak objects, which you drew in our house. You always were more interested in these old things than in me! Well, there it is. Good luck and goodbye. Love ...

Reading this, it is impossible to disbelieve in the existence of Anna Papastrati, whoever she was; further, it is difficult not to wish to recreate her somehow: in a movie, perhaps, as the young Gina Lollobrigida, with Mellaart played by Peter O’Toole.

Matthias Grünewald's Crucifiction

Among his surviving works are four Crucifixions. The earliest, at Basel, shows five people gathered around the cross: three Marys, John and the armoured centurion, Longinus. The Marys are the Virgin, the Magdalene and either Mary wife of Cleophas or the mother of Zebedee. The John is the Evangelist, not the Baptist, who appears in the next Crucifixion, on the great alterpiece formerly at Isenheim, now in Colmar; here the Evangelist holds the swooning Virgin in his arms; at their feet the Magdalene kneels and holds her clasped hands up in lamentation; while the Baptist stands on the right, a book in one hand and the finger on the other raised in admonition, with a text behind which translates: He must increase, but I must decrease. In the third version, sometimes called the Little Crucifixion, now in Washington, the Virgin and the Evangelist stand either side of the cross, hands clasped, he looking up, she, shrouded, looking down; while the Magdalene kneels with her two hands raised but separated. In the last version, at Karlsruhe, simply called Crucifixion, there remain only two attendant figures, the Virgin and the Evangelist, hands clasped, either side, as before, she downcast, he looking up. The Virgin in each picture is the same Virgin; the Magdalene too (though none of the portraits of women is very detailed); while the Evangelist, a thin, tall, flaxen haired man with a tragic face, in the last seems younger and has grown a beard. So: a family group, which decreases, from five figures, to four, to three, to two. While the monstrous and monstrously tortured Christ increases towards the overwhelming physicality of the Kalsruhe version, swollen with mortality, gross with suffering, atrocity made flesh.



Nepenthe is forgetfulness, she brings the herbs of oblivion. Ariadne is guidance, she shows how to thread the labyrinth. Mary is mourning. There are three Marys: the Mary of forgetfulness, the Mary of guidance, the Mary of yearning. In the winter gardens, a statue of Nepenthe, cold stone under a rainy white sky. Ariadne wears gold bracelets on her graceful arms. She dances on the tiles at Knossos, and she laughs. There are three Marys, Mary mother of god, Mary Magdalene and who is the third? Ariadne threads the labyrinth. Nepenthe is forgetfulness. Memory.

More about Çatalhöyük

from: The Dorak Affair by Kenneth Pearson & Patricia Conner

"Its list of inventions was astonishing. Here ... the world's first mirrors, its first pottery, its first textiles, its first wooden vessels, and its first paintings brushed onto man-made walls. The region provided a peculiar ecological niche in which wild animals grew to immense proportions, and their size was venerated in Çatal's murals. From the distant hills, the ancient tribe supplemented its diet with apples, juniper berries, acorns, pistachio nuts, and they collected hackberries for their wine. They wove animal hair into felt, and made every use of the bones that remained after they had eaten. Ribs were transformed into spoons, knees into scoops. They played with knuckle bones in mysterious games, and decorated horns for ritual."

'The world's first mirrors' were made of obsidian, a piece large (or small) enough to be held in the hand, with a highly polished flat reflective surface. Ten were found, each buried with the body of a woman. The ubiquitous statuary of twinned female images comes to mind: whether or not these are the first, clearly at Çatalhöyük the doubling mirrors suggest had already begun: from those black depths, who was looking back, the self or another?



In his book After the Ice: A Global Human History 20,000-5000 BC, Steven Mithen imagines his surrogate, John Lubbock, visiting the Neolithic Cappadocian town of Çatalhöyük in its prime. It is a maze of rooms, each of which can only be entered via a ladder in the roof; like cells in a hive, the rooms are practically identical and identically set up: sleeping platform, hearth, oven, grain bin, upon which there is sometimes a throned clay figure with a leopard on either side. She rests a hand on each cat’s head, and their tails wrap around her body; often she is giving birth, either to a human child or to an animal such as a lamb or a calf. There are clay figurines everywhere and most of them are women; these women are frequently doubled, or, at the very least, have two heads. One figurine shows two large women back to back, one holding a child in her arms, the other, a lover.

The walls of many of the rooms are painted with images of giant bulls: white heads striped black and red; heads with long twisted horns; heads with faces covered in exotic designs. Bulls’ heads are sometimes stacked one upon another from floor to ceiling. Some rooms have free-standing stone pillars with bucrania, sculptured horned bulls’ heads, fixed to them. Others feature long lines of horns set into benches. The painted bulls are associated with bold geometric designs and black and red handprints. There are boars’ skulls as well, and also images of great black vultures, one with human legs, attacking tiny headless people; and scenes of enormous deer or aurochs hunted by tiny people. Sometimes the nipples of a pair of woman’s breasts modelled out of the mud brick and plaster of the wall split apart to show skulls of vultures, foxes or weasels within. Some of these walls have been repainted at least forty times. When individual houses at Çatalhöyük needed rebuilding, they were reconstructed to the same design in the same place. It has been suggested that different types of people – old, young, male, female, toolmakers and those without special skills – were severely restricted as to where they could sit and work in these rooms.

The vulture frescos at Çatalhöyük may show excarnation practices. Bodies were exposed, as in Tibet or among the Jains, in open funeral houses, to the tearing beak of the griffin vulture which stripped the skeletons of soft tissue. After excarnation, the dead were buried under the floors of the houses, only a foot below the surface; people would sleep, make love, and give birth lying over bones. This practice was common throughout Neolithic Anatolia and the Levant. No provisions, no food or water vessels, and no figurines of any kind were buried with the bodies. Instead, graves held personal items - necklaces, rouge, and bone tools for women, knives, wooden boxes, or belts for men. The dead, in foetal position, were wrapped in cloth.

It has been said that the family of the people of Çatalhöyük was different from ours. Where our pattern is Yod-Heh-Vav-Heh: Father-Mother-Son-Daughter, theirs was Heh-Heh-Vav-Yod: Mother-Daughter-Son-Father. Michen’s view of a nightmare world at Çatalhöyük, in which people live a highly regimented life, and sleep huddled fearfully beneath terrifying images they have painted themselves, is in direct contradiction to those who believe, following James Mellaart, the first excavator of the site in the early 1960s, that the frescoes were evidence of a benign goddess cult in which death held no fear for people. Mellaart also claimed that the wall paintings were copies of kilims woven by the women of Çatalhöyük at the head of an 8000 year old tradition which continues, somewhat debased, today. He has been severely criticised for this view by contemporary weavers.

Before excavation began, the mound at Çatalhöyük was covered in shrubs of Syrian rue, whose seeds contain significant amounts of harmine and harmaline, the psychoactives in yage. Harmine, once called telepathine because it was believed to cause shared hallucinations, is reliably said by those who have used it to inspire visions of panthers, leopards, and other large cats. Amanita muscaria, cannabis and ergotized grain may also have been consumed at Çatalhöyük. The economy of the ten-thousand-people-town was based upon domesticated sheep and goats, cultivated cereals and legumes, wild tubers, wild deer – and obsidian. Cappadocia is the source for much of the obsidian found at Neolithic sites throughout Western Asia. Eight miles to the east of Çatalhöyük is Hasan Dağ, a ten thousand foot high then-active volcano, which is itself the subject of a wall painting. This painting consists of a rectangular grid which has been interpreted as a version of the terraced houses of the town itself, with the volcano erupting above it. The twin peaks of Hasan Dağ, strangely, resemble both a leaping bull and a pair of breasts; and they are dotted the way the skin of some big cats is dotted.


“We are victims, I thought, of a double hallucination. If we look outward, and concentrate on entering things, our external world begins to lose solidity, and if we conclude that it exists not in and for itself, but exists because of us, it ends by dissolving. However, if, moved by our private reality, we turn our eyes inward, then the world pushes in on us, and it is our interior world, our being, that disappears. What to do then? Weave the thread given to us, dream our dream and live; it is the only way we can achieve the miracle of growth. A man attentive to himself and trying to overhear himself drowns the only voice he could hear – his own; but other voices confuse him. Are we then doomed to be merely observers? But when we see, reason is present, and reason analyses and dissolves. The reason will soon bring the whole theatre down, and, finally, our shadow alone will be projected against the background. As for the poet, I thought that his job was to create new poems out of what is eternally human, spirited stories that have their own life, even though they came from him."

Antonio Machado, Madrid, 1917


How I felt when I started this we/blog.

How I feel now.

These images by Colin McCahon from a 1976 show at the Peter McLeavey gallery in Wellington.


The Night of Counting the Years

Yesterday I saw the Egyptian film The Night of Counting the Years screened by the Auckland Film Society at the Rialto in Newmarket. It's the second time I've seen it; the same print, in a rather better condition than it is now, was shown by the Wellington Film Society circa 1975 or 6. The film was made by Shadi Abdel Salam in 1970, the only feature he completed; he was an architect by training and profession, who worked in film as an art director and costume designer and got his chance to direct through the good offices of Roberto Rossellini. I guess it's always risky going back to see a film you loved when you were young, but in this case there was no shadow of disappointment and, probably, I enjoyed it even more than I did when I first saw it all those years ago. While the technical quality wasn't as high, because of wear on the print, the screenplay, the performances, the cinematography, the art direction were of an order I simply wouldn't have appreciated then. It is a wonderful film. From the first shot - a sepulchral reading from the Book of the Dead at a meeting of archaeologists in Cairo - to the last - the hero, Wannis, covering his face and stumbling away up the shores of the Nile at Thebes - it has a gravitas which never falters. Shadi Abdel Salam told Rossellini he wanted to make an undramatic film, by which I think he meant he didn't want lots of action or dialogue, because there's very little of either in El Mumia, as it's also known. What it has instead is an inexorable fatality, as Wannis, the younger son of Selim, the recently deceased chief of his tribe, step by step approaches the only possible course of action open to him: the betrayal to a young archaeologist from Cairo of the whereabouts of a cache of sarcophagi of three dynasties of pharoahs, removed from their tombs in the Valley of the Kings 3000 years before and hidden in a hill on tribal lands. The tribe has, since time immemorial, plundered these sarcophagi for artefacts to sell on the black market for cash; but as the old generation passes, the young are appalled to learn that their bread came from the dead, and revolt. Much of the film takes place at night - or rather over two nights, with one day in between - and most of it was filmed in amongst the ruins at Thebes. The contemporary (1880s) illiterate Muslim tribespeople do not know who the the ancient Egyptians were, even though they are most likely their direct descendants; their writing cannot be read and their names are unknown. This theme of naming runs throughout the film and is echoed in the old ones' own beliefs: without a name, there is no rebirth and therefore no immortality. The Night of Counting the Years in its hieratic grandeur, pathos and - yes - tragedy, takes me back to Alan Brunton's The Excursion. Alan wasn't Egyptian, and in fact I don't even think he went there, but there is in his stage scenario the same gravitas, the same sense of inevitability and the same splendour as you find in The Night of Counting the Years.


Zheng He: a true ficcione for Mark Young

Although he is still worshipped as a god by some Chinese, many others among us have already forgotten Grand Admiral Zheng He. Ma Ho, of the religion of the Heavenly Square, as it is called by the Chinese after the great stone Ka’ba at Mecca, was born in 1371 in Yunnan Province into a family from Central Asia who came to China with the Mongols; both his father and his father’s father had made the haj to Mecca. Only ten years old, Ma Ho was captured along with other children by the Chinese army, and at age thirteen castrated and placed as a servant in the household of the Chinese Emperor's fourth son, Prince Zhu Di.

It was Zhu Di who renamed him Zheng He after the eunuch's horse was killed in battle outside a place called Zhenglunba. Zheng He was also known as San Bao, the Three Jewel Eunuch, or, more properly, the Three Jewels of Pious Ejaculation. He was tall – some say seven feet tall – dark, curly haired, strong, with a voice like a bell ringing: for it is the case that those who are castrated at an early age do not stop growing as the rest of us do but, as if in compensation for the loss of their generative powers, increase in their own selves instead of in those who are to follow.

Zhu Di became Emperor in 1402, and the next year appointed Zheng He Grand Admiral and ordered him to oversee the construction of a Treasure Fleet to explore the seas surrounding China. These fleets were enormous, consisting of as many as 300 ships with 30,000 people aboard. The ships themselves weighed up to 500 tons, with twelve masts and many more sails. People could live on them for entire voyages without meeting their colleagues. They had gardens on board, growing ginger, fruit and vegetables. There were private apartments for merchants and their families and slaves, and also doctors, accountants, interpreters, scholars, holy men, astrologers and prostitutes. Some ships carried only horses; it was in one of these that a giraffe was brought back from Africa. Fifes, drums and lanterns were used to send messages from ship to ship. Star plates carved in ebony showed the navigators which sea path to follow, and they would scoop up material from the sea floor to learn what kind of bottom they were sailing over. When there was no wind, the ships were rowed slowly along.

The treasure ships were called by the Chinese Star Rafts, for they thought if a ship sailed far enough into the west, it would leave the earth, reach the Milky Way and come to a starry city where a maiden sat spinning; this maiden was to them Vega in the constellation Lyra. In the same way, if they went the other direction, into the east, they would again leave the earth and travel among the stars until they reached another city, where lived a scholar who sat at his table writing down the future on a great scroll of paper; this was Antares in Scorpio, also known as the Heart of the Dragon to the Chinese, and Kalb al 'Akrab, the Heart of the Scorpion, to the Arabs.

Although he was a Muslim, Zheng He did not neglect the goddess Tianfei, the celestial spouse, whose image he set up in many places on shore, including some in Luca Antara itself; her achievements – quelling hurricanes and saving fleets – were recorded assiduously with the Bureau of Sacrificial Worship. In this way Zheng He, and his senior captains, all, like him, eunuchs, sailed to India, Africa and Arabia in the west, and to Luca Antara in the east. From Africa they took ivory, ambergris and rhinoceros horn, from Arabia myrrh, frankincense and dates, from Ceylon cinnamon and rubies, and from India gold, silver and other precious stones; in Luca Antara, they found metals too rare to have a name. And for all of these things they traded porcelain and silks.

It was Ma Huan, also a Muslim, who chronicled Zheng He’s voyages, up to and including the Grand Admiral’s death in Calicut in March, 1433, as preparations were made to return home from his seventh voyage. His body was taken back to China and interred along with his testicles, kept, as was customary, in a sealed pouch carried since castration always on a belt at his waist. His epitaph was inscribed on a column in Dragon River Pass, at the mouth of the Yangtze from which all seven of his voyages departed: Our sails, loftily unfurled like clouds, day and night continued their course, rapid like that of a star, traversing the savage waves.

Militant Artists ReUnion

is the title of an exhibition, co-curated by Michael Dunn and myself, to be held later this year, of the work of the three artists linked to in my last post. It will be a small show, just ten works each, and will concentrate particularly upon the way these (very different) painters referred to and quoted each other in their work. From my catalogue essay:

Fomison as an artist is proof of Jung’s proposition, that a colonising race inherits the unconscious of the people it has colonised. His dark places, whatever else they may be – transgressive, fearsome, tricksy – are never racially or culturally exclusive. Entering them, we enter a cave to which no-one is denied access, though many might not wish to go there. You cannot leave unchanged.

Clairmont’s work seeks transformation in the ordinary, the quotidian, the mundane facts of daily life. In his painted world, things are never stable, they mutate before our eyes, becoming other as we look at them. The perceptual distortions drug-taking causes – experienced, analysed, reproduced – become clues to possible reinterpretations of reality. Things are never what they seem.

Maddox’s X’s were famously conceived when he crossed out a failed painting in 1975 or thereabouts; he was not to abandon them in the twenty-five year’s work that followed. Similar ancient marks on cave or rock walls have been interpreted as entoptic imagery – the brain reproducing visual images of its own structure. Maddox’s works are a veil between him and the world: ravelling, torn, fragmentary, they look both ways, in to the mind of the artist and out to the mind of the viewer.

Another thing: each of these artists was extremely interested in the relationship between the brain/mind, the eye and the world. You could make a case for dividing up their subject matter in these terms: if Maddox painted the mind and/or the brain itself, Clairmont’s subject was certainly perception, or appearances, while Fomison evoked a quasi-naturalistic world in which the Polynesian, the Gothic/Medieval and the Modern are strangely mixed.


Entoptics III

Living in Auckland for the first time in many years means I am susceptible to upwellings of memory, often triggered by something as basic as the weather. Today is sunny and cold and very clear, so that the Waitakare Range to the west - the remnant, I learned yesterday, of a huge volcano - is blue and sharp with distance. It was a May or June day like this more than thirty years ago when Dean and Kepa and I each swallowed a tab of California Sunshine and set off from Snail's house at Leigh to climb the Pakiri Hill and then go down the other side to the beach. While Dean strode on ahead and I attempted to keep up with him, Kepa, who had lost a lung to tuberculosis and wheezed constantly through the other, hung back and complained: when do we get to THE beach he would say. This was funny rather than annoying and helped keep us cheerful as we climbed, and the acid started to work, and the world began to fragment into geometrics and entoptics and other rhythm grids which were probably physiologically rather than neurologically based. I remember particularly, when we got to THE beach, standing on that amazing reach of glittery white sand and looking out to sea, how the air itself triangulated in ghostly shining chevrons all connected to each other, which seemed constantly to recede into the blue beyond. It helped me understand why Dean (Buchanan, the painter) even then, when he was just twenty or so, always used to lay out his canvases with a similar kind of triangulated grid before painting his cubistic kauri trees or nikau palms or seascapes. After we'd had a swim and been at THE beach for a while we decided to go back round the rocks to Goat Island, a rocky bay enclosed by an island, with water so clear a Marine Research Laboratory has been built there to study the plants and animals living in the sea and on the littoral. It was on that clamber over wet black slick rocks and across tiny beaches made entirely out of fragments of sea shells, that I freaked out: we came to a place where the only way to cross a chasm of deep green rocking water was to leap over it. Dean leapt, and made it; Kepa tried, nearly fell, but Dean grabbed him and pulled him up to safety. Then it was my turn; and I couldn't do it. A strange failure of nerve, some kind of excess of imagination that meant I had already thought what it would be like to fail and fall and so felt unable to take the risk. Dean and Kepa stood on the other side of the chasm, encouraging, exhorting, finally abusing me, as if shame might accomplish what gentler means could not; but still I would not jump. It was only when Kepa pointed out, reasonably, that I carried the pipe and the tobacco and it wasn't really fair that he and Dean should have to continue on without anything to smoke, that my anxiety left me and I found the courage to do it. I still recall the warm happy feeling we all had upon being reunited with each other, as we sallied forth onwards to Goat Island. Later, as evening gathered in the cold trees under the hill, we stopped in at Quentin Lush's for a cup of tea with honey but no milk, and then walked on in the dark up the unsealed road and down the other side to Snail's lighted house set up on the hill above the old sawmill and the town. Always when I think of that trip, it is the triangulated air swarming above the lines of surf at Pakiri I remember, the fear and then the overcoming of fear at the chasm, and, perhaps incongruously, some lines of Keats which came into my head at one of the tiny coves with beaches made only of shell fragments hissing and rustling and sighing as the sea sifted in and out:

Charm’d magic casements, opening on the foam
Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn ...


Navicular entoptic phenomena

In a section of The Mind in the Cave titled Construing universals Lewis-Williams introduces a neurological concept called the navicular entoptic phenomenon aka the fortification illusion. Its form has, he says, been established by laboratory research. Further: This is a scotoma frequently experienced by migraine sufferers. There are some wonderful colour illustrations of the phenomenon in Oliver Sacks' book, Migraine. This is how Lewis-Williams describes it: In its more elaborate form, this percept comprises two elements: an outer arc characterized by iridescent flickering bars of light or zigzags, and, within the arc, a lunate area of invisibility - a 'black hole' that obliterates veridical imagery. Beyond the area of invisibility is the centre of vision ... The navicular entoptic phenomenon appears again and again in the rock art of the San in southern Africa, particularly in rock engravings; it is less common in the paintings. For a long time it was not recognised for what it is: people thought the crescent-shaped figures were boats and wondered why a desert people should draw them over and over. Sometimes the phenomenon is seen as a bee hive, perhaps because those entering trance states frequently experience aural hallucinations reminiscent of the buzzing of bees: it seems that some San link this aural experience to their simultaneous, shimmering visual hallucinations ... and believed they were both seeing and hearing bees swarming over honeycombs. Sometimes the flickering outer curve is construed as the flashing of antelope legs; sometimes, too, these animals, or others, are showing emerging from 'behind' the navicule in the same way that so many of the animals painted in the caves of France and Spain are painted coming out of the rock upon which they seem to float. Another class of these images as painted by the San show therianthropic beings emerging from the inner curve of the navicule, out of the area of invisibility in the centre of vision. Lewis-Williams writes: It seems that some painters took the area of invisibility within the arc ... to be an entrance into the spirit world and a gateway to transformation; in this way the area of invisibility paralleled the vortex. San shamans, who could be either men or women, do not use psychotropic drugs to have their visions, rather, they enter trance states by intense concentration, audio-driving, prolonged rhythmic movement and hyperventilation; i.e. through music, dance and chanting. Sometimes a shaman will fall down trembling violently in a cataleptic fit; sometimes they suffer nose bleeds, and then, since they are healers, the blood is smeared on those they wish to cure. In a deep trance their spirits leave their bodies through the tops of their heads. It is unclear, however, if, in their culture, there is a relationship between migraine and the navicular entoptic phenomena.



In rock art all over the world you find odd pieces of abstract, usually geometric, patterning - chevrons, spirals, lattices, zig zags, dots, wave forms and so on. In the Aurignacian and Magdalenian caves of southern France and northern Spain, these abstractions are more common at the entrances to the caves than they are further in, where the animal portraits we are familiar with usually appear. In his book The Mind in the Cave, David Lewis-Williams suggests these marks may be understood as entoptic phenomena. Entoptic = within vision. In other words, this imagery 'may originate ... between the eye itself and the cortex of the brain.' He distinguishes two types of entoptic imagery: phosphenes, induced by physical stimulation, such as pressure on the eyeball itself; and form constants which derive from the optic system beyond the eye. There is a spacial relationship between the retina and the visual cortex which means that points close together on the retina, if stimulated, lead to the firing of equivalently placed neurons in the cortex. Lewis-Williams suggests that, when psychotropic substances are taken, as he believes they were by most ancient artists, the usual order of this process is, or can be, reversed so that 'the pattern in the cortex is perceived as the visual percept.' People in this state may see the structure of their own brains.

I was reminded of this recently when Peter Simpson gave me a copy of a small pamphlet he had published with a reproduction of a Colin McCahon drawing on the front. This was going to be the cover of a statement on aesthetics, called On the Nature of Art, written by McCahon and his friend and collaborator, John Caselberg, in the early 1950s but not published until 1999. The drawing has a lighted candle on a table in the foreground, behind which, and to one side, is a kerosene lamp, also lit; the beams of this lamp open out across the drawing to illuminate a piece of rectangular lattice-work which looks just like a piece of entoptic imagery derived from laboratory experiments in human neurology/perception, and also one of those grids you find in rock art. I very much like the idea that those who make art are looking both ways at once, into the brain/mind and out at the world of appearances as well; and that, when we look at the things they have made, we are as it were looking both ways twice: in and out of the artist's brain/mind and simultaneously in and out of our own.