Amita Makan Evanescence | | Art in South Africa
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evanescent /ev-uh-ness-uhnt/ • adj.
soon passing out of sight, memory, or existence

Download Evanescence in PDF format evanescence.pdf (700KB)

The story behind Evanescence

Art is important for it commemorates the seasons of the soul,
or a special or tragic event in the soul’s journey.
Art is not just for oneself, not just a marker for one’s own understanding.
It is a map for those who follow after us.

In 1997, a year after recovering from breast cancer, my mother, Vasanti Dhanjee Makan, at the age of 56, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimer’s disease is not abrupt. It is insidious and nearly impossible to diagnose. It manifests in plaques and tangles in the brain, causing progressive dementia, as it gradually ravages the body and mind. There is no cure.

Our family was devastated. My dear father decided to withhold the prognosis from my mother, and we began to silently mourn the irrevocable loss of her. Distraught, my father passed away on 24 October 2001.

My mother was a courageous, strong and vivacious woman. From the time of her marriage, at the age of 17, she wore beautiful, brightly colored saris which were strongly tied to her identity and to her sense of self. She draped her six metre saris with great finesse, and in a nonchalant manner. Within minutes she resembled a Bollywood star. As the disease relentlessly imposed itself, her sari began to hang lopsidedly over her body.

The Alzheimer’s disease assailed her thinking, memory and behaviour. She made desperate visits to optometrists, not knowing that her fading eyesight was neurological and symptomatic of the disease. She was losing her ability to hold things, to speak, to write, to read, to remember, to drive, and to tell time. The signs were in absurdly placed items, and clocks that leaned on their sides. There were desperate notes scattered through the house with half-written prayers, indecipherable recipes, incorrect telephone numbers, miss-spelt names and partial addresses. Her identity and sense of self was slowly, steadily vanishing.

When my mother visited me in Pretoria in September 2002, she brought me two gifts: A heart shaped silver jewellery box and an envelope containing two sepia tinted studio photographs of herself as a young wife and mother. My mother asked me to ‘look after’ these. Of all her worldly possessions, these photographs were most precious to her. She appeared frightened.

I wondered why she had so lovingly entrusted these photographs to me. What was I supposed to do with them? On closer inspection of one of the photographs, I was struck by the date. I realized that it depicted her at the early stages of her pregnancy with me, and marked the very beginning of our journey together. I’ve now realised that my mother’s preoccupation with safeguarding the photographs was borne out of her own awareness that she was losing herself. Thomas Moore writes:

… I look at photographs during a time of turmoil. Then I wonder, more than ever, who am I and how I came to be here. The photograph empties me of agendas and worries and places me in a rare atmosphere of pure wonder. There it is that things happen, that life renews itself through a visit to the past. A photograph is a liminal space, neither real nor imaginary, a middle region where the soul comes to life. To the literal mind, a photograph may look like a record of the past, but to the poetic mind it is an uncanny presencing of self and world that is pure, deep and revealing.

Over the years, the disease relentlessly made inroads across my mother and my psychic landscapes. She became home bound and entirely dependent on her family and caregivers for her well-being. We lost my brother, Bupendra, tragically in August 2006 and soon after, my mother stopped eating. We were informed that the loss of ability to eat and to swallow was also symptomatic of the disease. My mother was now to be fed through a nasal-gastro intestinal tube. She no longer recognised us, her children and grandchildren.

I was encouraged to paint my story.

In November 2006, I started painting portraits of my mother from the photographs she had given me. I started with the portrait of her carrying me. The paintings, done in a photorealist style, were an attempt to preserve and immortalize my mother in the face of her steady deterioration. Painting these portraits became an expression of my grieving. Over the years, I painstakingly put my mother back together with my painting and embroidery, initiating this series, ‘Evanescence’. Upon each visit to my mother, I was forced to come to terms with the reality that her condition was worsening. She no longer spoke. The disease had silenced her. Tentatively and furtively, I started photographing my mother, and then began painting her from these photos. I searched for glimpses of her.

I painted her hands in preparation for my final portrayal of her. These hands had embraced me, nurtured me, comforted me and caressed me over three decades. They now seem resigned.

After twelve years of suffering, the disease reached its final stage. On the morning of 24 September 2009, in her bedroom at home, I held my mother’s hand as she took her last breath.

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