Above – painting in progress, this is the third and last in the Damascus Rose series. Tomorrow when this blue base is dry I’ll be painting hundreds of roses rising into the sky, viewed slightly from above probably.
I’ve been musing on the symbology of flowers today, the many flowers that have been attached or appropriated to causes. I’m thinking for example of the Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid’s ‘little white rose’:
The rose of all the world is not for me
I want for my part
Only the little white rose of Scotland
That smells sharp and sweet – and breaks the heart
The little white rose was first adopted by Jacobites during the ’45 rebellion. A few years ago, former First Minister Alex Salmond suggested it might be a rose ‘for all Scotland’ – appropriating it as a symbol for anyone who lives in Scotland whatever their background or beliefs.
I began the Damascus series of paintings when I heard that the Damascus rose was no longer in production, due to the war in Syria, so for me this became a way to explore a difficult subject that I couldn’t claim to understand on a personal level, only as an observer, albeit a fellow human witnessing the suffering of ordinary people in Syria through my computer screen.
The rose seemed an appropriate symbol for me to explore; it often features in Middle Eastern poetry as a symbol of love, it has done for centuries and up to the present, as in this moving poem by Kurdish poet Bejan Matur, called ‘Peaceful morning’ …
A time before time
A morning of peace
Of the creatures
Of the latecomer
Rescued from the hand of sleep
In the dappled dawn.
Moved away from a statue’s body
And found a human.
Far more than words
The rose of Damascus is the linking theme in my three works; first the rose of Middle Eastern visual art, in designs we’re familiar with, on tiles and mosques, adopted into western designs too. I painted these conventionally across the wood panel, then scraped this back to ‘age’ it, then pretty impulsively scrawled over this the deep blue and red roses on the left, graffiti-like, perhaps to suggest a kind of protest, or survival of love and creativity amidst cruelty (several lovingly designed sacred mosques were blown up during attacks on Aleppo and Damascus, citizens almost immediately began to rebuild, just as Bosnians did with the Mostar bridge, decades ago).
The second painting has an underlay of rose madder (or alazarin crimson) the predominant blue-toned rose-red I used for the previous painting. I blocked out the pattern (based on a map of Damascus from above) in tape, then covered the painting in thick bitumen-like black mixed with salt. When the tape was pulled off the rose tones were revealed – intended as a sort of glow underlying destruction. (some of the most ancient streets in Damascus proved the best cover for residents under attack, as these streets were so narrow and deep).
The third painting is taking shape, so I’m not quite sure how it will look, or exactly why I’ve chosen to paint roses rising into the sky, perhaps it evokes the idea of survival, even after death and destruction.
Returning to MacDiarmid’s Little White Rose, it was written (I think) in the 1920’s, when MacDiarmid was a supporter of Scottish Independence, but things have changed radically in Scotland since then; the area of Edinburgh I grew up in, Leith (where I live now, having lived all over the UK and occasionally abroad) is still often the first port of call for new immigrants – it’s affordable and central, predominantly working class with a long history of newcomers and settlers. When I was growing up here I witnessed an amount of racism against the Chinese and South Asian communities (the WW2 generation will no doubt remember racism against the first generations of the Italian community to arrive in Leith and Portobello further along the coast).
I’ve watched Leith change for the better over the years though, most radically as a result of the inclusive and democratic approach of the contemporary movement for Scottish independence, not just the approach led by the SNP but also among grass roots groups, for example ‘Scots Asians for Yes‘ ‘Women for Independence‘, ‘Scots English for Yes‘, and broad groups or organisations such as Common Weal and the artist-led National Collective.
We look outwards now. So while the little white rose is dear to my heart, we are all connected. To end this post – a poem by The 12th century Muslim Andalucian poet Muhyyeddin Ibn Arabi who wrote these lines before he died in 1240:
My heart has become capable of every form: it is a
pasture for gazelles and a convent for
And a temple for idols, and the pilgrim’s Ka’ba, and
the tables of the Tora and the
book of the Koran.
I follow the religion of Love, whichever way his camels take.