Before the pandemic I was working on an idea with my mother. Part of the process was that we would both share and learn new skills by making a film together. I would learn how to make potato chapattis, to knit and to sew (she makes all her own clothes), and I would teach her how to send and receive photos and videos from her mobile phone. The film was intending to utilise two audio interviews with my mother, with a series of still images only. One interview would be subtitled and translated into English and the other a Punjabi voice-over narration. This is something we are still intending to do post lockdown.
I was self-isolating in March; I felt I had to stay symptom free in case I was needed in an emergency to help support my mother who lives alone and is classed by the government as vulnerable. I’m always concerned she might fall again or become unwell again and my post- trauma fears of loss, especially during a pandemic were elevated. On Wednesday 8 April, I received a text notification from my GP which read, ‘…identified as someone at risk of severe illness if you catch coronavirus (COVID-19)’. So, I too am grouped as an ‘extremely vulnerable person’ and strongly advised to stay indoors for 12 weeks. Initially I found this extremely upsetting as I would be unable to see my mother until July 1 but over the last few weeks of lockdown my anxiety has been easing. Eventually, I will be able to give my mum a hug – I hope.
When applying to New Art West Midlands for this Micro Bursary I was looking to make dedicated time to focus and to tackle the pandemic anxieties that were building up for us both from a health and well-being approach. After several conversations with my mother I decided to apply with her consent. The main focus was to reduce our anxieties around isolation by having a re-focus on other activity that may benefit us by sharing skills and tasks remotely and documenting this activity by recorded interviews, photos, text and video calls.
Initially the project caused more communication frustration in relation to my spoken Punjabi and my mother’s lack of technical knowledge; even accessing photos on her phone was an issue, and this approach was not helping our well-being at all. So, after the first few days we decided to start off with daily pandemic-free conversations. There were many benefits and good things that came out of this time together, such as understanding each other more, but sharing of skills was limited to the weekly tasks we gave each other. I was tasked to appreciate the garden more. She would say ‘… talk to the flowers and plants you water and they will grow for you’ or ‘… climb the stairs five times a day but remember to hold the handrail and then check your blood sugars afterwards’ and ‘… I task you to send me two Bollywood Song videos a day’. This allowed me to step away from my computer and appreciate the privilege of being outdoors in the garden, to start exercising and to become a researcher for her Bollywood film choices. The tasks I gave her were to take a couple of photos every day, to spend more time in her garden, to recommend her favourite Bollywood films, to watch the news less and take photos of her knitting and dress making.
Over the next four weeks conversations became less about the pandemic and more about my mother’s childhood memories, her sense of identity, and the things we were looking forward to post-lockdown. It was good for us to both make discoveries about each other, about our family, about her childhood memories of her mother, and our love of Bollywood film songs. I asked my mother how she felt the collaboration went and she said, “I am really pleased I can now take a photo and view it. I certainly won’t forget now. It’s made me happy.” I asked her what she didn’t enjoy, and she said, “I don’t understand the art you are doing but if it makes you happy then carry on.”
I’m hoping all the documentation I have gathered over the last four weeks will help me think through my practice from a new perspective and potentially take it into places not previously considered. Certain topics and future possibilities are emerging: my identity in relation to the name I was given, conversations of experiences of our childhood and memories of when she first came to the UK. I am considering new ways of documenting these topics through audio, photography, handwriting and travelling research.
I have titled this project ‘Extremely Valuable Person’ because through all the hardships my mother has gone through, from arriving in this country from the Punjab in 1962 (she remembers how cold, bleak and hostile it felt but she made the UK her home), raising six children virtually on her own, maintaining a difficult factory job for many years and never being late or taking a day off sick – she is just inspiring. Ultimately, we are both discovering more about our relationship, the differences and similarities that are often not talked about, celebrated or accepted.
I asked my mother for her final thoughts. “Although I am happy in the UK, I am really missing India and hope I can visit again and perhaps we can go together for the first time.”