Wake

Indigo on awagami washi paper. 25x??cm

Wake (noun): a watch or vigil held beside the body of someone who has died, sometimes accompanied by ritual observances.

This is a work in progress; in fact it has barely begun and I don’t know what the end point may be.

As of the 19th of March, 31,726 people have been brutally killed in Gaza. When numbers become so large they lose all meaning, how do you remain awake to the scale of the slaughter & the personhood of the victims?

I needed to have them in front of my eyes. So I started to write: one letter per soul torn from life —man, woman or child.

I shot the video above when I had just passed 1,500. Assuming I could keep up this pace, it would take me two full months to catch up with the death toll, but that number is still rising & doesn’t include those missing under the rubble, those starving, the diseased, wounded and maimed. At the end of the day, any attempt to faithfully render a tally is futile. I have no idea if I’ll make it to the end. But the process itself is a prayer for the dead, a promise they will not vanish out of sight or out of mind.

Much symbolism is woven into the outwardly simple composition:

The script:

This style of Kufi, despite being used in manuscripts, is modelled on the prototype found in the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. A particularity of Manuscript Kufi scripts is their disdain for perfect regularity: each letter is written anew, with intention, the result being that each is a unique individual, and the script looks characteristically animated. This quality drove the idea of using a crowd of letters to represent the individual souls that have been lost, each of whom was a full human being, not a cipher.

The letters:

The three letters mīm م, nūn ن and wāw و alone in the abjad begin and end in the same sound, suggesting their return to the Source. (Though there is much more to them according to Ibn Arabi, who wrote an entire pamphlet about their mystical significance.) They also happened to perfectly respond to the need to represent the three categories of victims for which numbers are available: men, women and children.

The ink:

The pigment used is genuine indigo, which I’m preparing from its powder form; the large amount this work is using up means the ink keeps changing because I have to keep making more, and every batch is slightly different in concentration and gum ratio.

As a dye, indigo was deeply embedded in Palestinian material culture, namely textiles, and created the blue to black ground for colourful tatreez embroidery (many examples shown here). But when indigo is used on its own, its dark blue is the colour of grief and mourning. A widow wore unembroidered indigo garments during her period of grief, only reintroducing red thread when she was ready to re-marry.

Widow’s dress from Ramallah, 1930’s, from the exhibit ‘Material Power: Palestinian Embroidery‘ curated by Rachel Dedman

The paper is awagami washi, which is prone to crumpling, and I’m not taking any care to avoid this as nothing can be more appropriate than a distressed ground. I’m pasting extra lengths of it as I go, and at each transition between two sheets, I keep track of my progress in pencil…

This work started in March 2024, and this page will be updated with more photos as I progress.

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