She looks fragile, but I don't think she is. Her skin seems
translucent, framed delicately by strands of soft, straight hair
that have fallen out of her ponytail. She speaks softly and gently,
but her words are purposeful and strong.
I see all of this in her work. Each piece of Tomoyo Ihaya's
artwork is unique, and has been crafted with care and thought,
lovingly, to tell a story.
Although the story is one, it has over a hundred narrators: the men
and women, the young and old, the mothers, fathers and children,
the friends, the monks. Each one a Tibetan who saw self-immolation
as the only way to protest the Chinese occupation of their home.
The ethereal texture of Tomoyo's work contrasts so starkly
with its dark, distressing subject. Perhaps that's what made it
sear itself into my mind and heart. It was hard to walk up to
each picture and look at it, and read the little pencilled captions
underneath. I read how old they were, and who they left behind.
It would have been easier to walk away.
I read of cruelties and injustices. I read of their last words,
and their last moments. It was painful, but, I felt, vital for me
to visit each and every person represented there. It was important
for me to put my fears and discomforts aside, and pay my respects.
Sometimes, I do this in graveyards: every tombstone I pass, I say
the name out loud, imagining that there is a soul stirring somewhere
the once-familiar sound, who finds some comfort in knowing that
name is still on someone's lips, if only a sympathetic stranger's.
I do this because of a movie I watched earlier this year, in which
a dying woman tells her friend: We die three times. The first
is when you take your last breath. The second is when your body
turns to dust. But the final death is when your name is spoken
for the last time.
Those 126 Tibetans are gone. Their evidence stolen away and
hidden, their headlines muffled, and the world could easily go
on its way as though they had never existed.
But Tomoyo speaks their names. She speaks their names with
the beauty, skill and gift of her art, and draws me in, making it
easier for me to look at the things I would rather hide from,
holding my hand as I walk past the tombstones.
Her work is showing at 1 Shanthi Road, and today is the last day.
Don't turn away. Don't close your eyes. Your soul needs it. And
so do theirs. Go on up there and take her hand.
Post script: After I finished writing this, I came across another piece
on Tomoyo, beautifully written by Sudha Pillai. Click here to read it.