“This is the hut.” said the hostel manager. “We want you to do the interior; walls, ceiling, the lot! I hadn’t the heart before – Not until they’d gone.” He flung open the door and I walked into a blaze of colour.
The room was one gigantic mural. The wall facing me at the far end obviously depicted a desert, but nothing Nature shows could be as barren – this desert was man made. As far as the eye could see the land was charred, heaps of rubble hinting of destroyed dwellings. The colours were dismal; ochre, brown, ash- grey. The only remaining artifact was the ruin of a water tank on a stand. From the rust red of the warped corrugated iron a brass tap protruded. Incongruously bright and shiny, it dripped water to the ground below. And there, in a patch of delicate green surrounded by the sterile red earth, there grew a flower.
The wall on the left pictured a white lighthouse. The rocky promontory on which it stood was surrounded on its three sides by strangely formal waves whose serried rows extended towards a misty horizon. On the balcony of the lighthouse was the figure of an old woman. As is common with Naive Art, the portrayal was out of proportion, the woman being a quarter of the size of the lighthouse. She was obviously the central theme of the picture, and her size indicated her importance. Her hand shaded her eyes and she gazed across the waves, across the room, to the picture wall on the right.
The right hand wall writhed with colour. It was a jungle scene painted with loving care. Whereas the other walls had an abstract quality, as though illustrating ideas rather than reality, the jungle was as real as memory could make it. The detail was amazing and I looked closely at the finely drawn foliage. It was then I noticed the paint. They had used an astounding variety of paints. I could see oil, acrylic and water colours; house paint, artists colours, matt, high gloss, satins and the whole mix so cunningly blended that the living jungle seemed to reach out into the room.
In a clearing at the centre of the picture sat an old man. He was in the lotus posture, his legs entwined. His palms were extended, the thumbs and forefingers forming circles. His eyes were closed as though in prayer but, glistening on his cheek, there was a single tear.
I glanced back to the old woman on the lighthouse. I had missed it before but she too had a tear. I turned to the manager.
“Wow!” I said. “What is the story?”
“Boat people.” He was silent a moment. “I could talk to the kids, they picked up the language fast. The older ones had a lot of difficulty, and the old woman never uttered a word of English. I think she must have been some sort of queen. They paid her a lot of respect.” Yes,” he went on, “She ruled the roost in this hut, but she sorely missed the old man.”
“It was the kids’ idea. The teen-agers. They scrounged all the paint they could. The local ethnics smuggled it in. I knew what was going on but I turned a blind eye”. He rubbed his chin. “We try to make it as comfortable as possible but its not much fun to be locked up here with nothing to do. It kept ’em out of mischief. It kept them busy for days, weeks even. They all took part, even the little ones. I’ve never seen such a team effort.”
“But there must have been an artist, and a bloody good one to plan all this.”
“There was one lad, Trang or Trong or some such name. A quiet lad of about sixteen. Never said much, but he seemed to be the foreman.”
“Did they ever explain it to you?” I asked.
“I think it was a tribute to the old lady, and to honour the grandfather and show how much they missed him. They couldn’t explain how he got left behind.”
“And the desert?”
“I dunno. The horrors of war? Death and Rebirth? Maybe it’s philosophical. They’re Buddhists you know.1′
“What happened to them?”
“They packed them off north. May send ’em back. Back to the old man! The lawyers are still arguing. Still, they’re gone and I’ve got to get the hut fixed up.” ‘
I started to bring in my gear. “Tell you what,” said the manager, “hang on a tick and I’ll get my camera. Seems a pity to cover it up forever.”
We took the photos and I started work. The big roller put swathes of cream paint over the mural. I started on the desert first to give the old woman a bit more time.