An Interview with Alana Hunt
Alana Hunt is an award winning artist and writer – defined by her commitment to sensitively challenging ideas and histories.
Over two years Alana shared 118 cups of nun chai, a Kashmiri salt tea, with 118 people across Australia, Brussels, Bangkok, parts of India and Kashmir. Cups of Nun Chai is an award winning participatory memorial in honour of the 118 civilians who lost their lives in a pro-freedom protest against India’s military occupation in the Kashmir region over the summer of 2010. Each cup of nun chai that was shared was photographed, and a written memory attached.
The point of the project: a gentle refusal to allow this loss to simply pass.
We asked Alana a few questions about her project and the event she’ll be hosting here at the Centre for Stories on 4 November 2018.
Can you tell us a bit about the project, why did you become so committed to this particular idea?
Cups of nun chai emerged from the Summer of 2010 in Kashmir, a moment in time shaped by a series of pro-freedom protests in which over 118 civilians died due to state violence. I was travelling from Kashmir back to New Delhi by train when Tufail Mattoo, a 17-year-old on his way home from school, was killed by a tear gas canister fired by the state police. His death was not the first that year, but it sparked off a series of protests against the military occupation of Indian administered Kashmir. Not long after Tufail died I returned to Australia after a three-year absence—I’d been living in New Delhi—and I was watching via social media these protests unfold, the state violence and the rising death toll. The Australian media, and the wider Australian community around me, hardly took note. Cups of nun chai was an attempt to bridge that gap in a deeply personal and political way. It is at once a search for meaning in the face of something so brutal it appears absurd and an absurd gesture when meaning itself becomes too much to bear.
What was it about the medium of photography and storytelling that called out to you?
I am not a painter. Photographic images and words are the tools I have at hand, and these things are also part of the media sphere that influences my work, and which I am interested in engaging with. However, it is the conceptual framework of sharing in conversation over a cup of nun chai as a means of intimately rallying against the death that was/is taking place in Kashmir that lies at the core of this work. The mediums follow suit, they hold the concept and through process help to carry it into the world.
Did you intend for the project to be this big?
It could have been bigger. I had initially intended to have cups of nun chai with people until the killing in Kashmir stopped. But during the summer of 2010 people died faster than I could have cups of tea. I decided the intensity of those specific summer months were a good way to contain the project. It was that moment that gave birth to the initial idea, so it felt right to contain it to that period. It eventually took me over two years to have 118 cups of nun chai with 118 people mostly in Australia, India and Kashmir. Although death happens in an instant, this process of memorialisation wasn’t something I could rush.
How do you feel the experience of creating Cups of nun chai has impacted or changed you?
Kashmir has taught me, and making Cups of nun chai has been a big part of that relationship. It has taught me about poetry and writing, about the structure of nation-states, the complexity of religion and it’s use in the political sphere, it taught me about the need for imagination in political discourse, and also that there are times when society can be cornered so tightly that non-violence is not an option. Kashmir and South Asia more widely, also taught me to understand Australia through a different lens.
Can you share your favourite experience from the project?
That would be the bravery and commitment of journalists and newspaper editors working at Kashmir Reader during the serialisation of Cups of nun chai from 2016-17, which coincided with a particularly difficult period in Kashmir following the death of the popular rebel commander Burhan Wani. At this time in Kashmir the state was exercising extreme pressure across many areas of civil society. The tactic of firing metal pellets into crowds left some dead, thousands injured and hundreds blinded. Acclaimed human rights activist Khurram Parvaiz was imprisoned and not long after the newspaper Kashmir Reader was itself banned for three uncertain months. The editors of the newspaper were placed under extreme pressure during this period, but they continued to serialise my work as soon as the newspaper returned to publishing, and during periods of violence and curfew when most journalists couldn’t reach the offices. I am extremely grateful for their commitment to see this through, and am quite simply in awe of the work they do.
Why was the visual element of the cup important; how does it become a tool in telling the story?
For me the image of someone’s hand cradling a cup of tea builds a powerful sense of care, and I wanted that simple feeling to resonate within and outside Kashmir in the face of state violence and global indifference. Together, all these cups of tea, all these hands cradling their cups, they accumulate to form a bigger allegory that questions the place of ‘care’ in political discourse.
Nun chai also helps to build the flavour of Kashmir, both literally and metaphorically. It helps to articulate and connect with the everyday in Kashmir, and is also central to a Kashmiri tradition of mourning, a prayer for the dead that goes by the name fatheha-chai. So as an ‘artistic medium’ these cups of tea build from intimate every day experiences of loss and the exchange of knowledge that takes place through conversation. And as images they speak indirectly to state violence by presenting an allegory of collective care.
What would be your advice to someone undertaking a similar kind of project?
Respond to what feels necessary and urgent. Listen. Seek out people wiser than you who can be of guidance. And work towards effective, meaningful ways of circulating your work and involving publics that might not otherwise access these kinds of cultural discourse.
Do you have any other works coming up?
After Centre for Stories I’m travelling to the US for an exhibition at Tufts University and a series of readings and discussions about the work at Tufts, Brown, Parsons and Indiana Universities. With the support of Country Art WA this will be the first time I’ve shared Cups of nun chai with a US audience and I think the work’s engagement with state and non-state violence, the failures of democracy and media freedom will be really interesting to discuss with people in America at this point in time. Kashmir has a lot to teach the world.
What will the event you have planned for the Centre for Stories look like?
I’ll begin with a brief introduction to the work, that will be followed by a reading of pieces from the work by the wonderful Kelli McCluskey of PVI Collective, Eugenio Viola from PICA, curator Kelli Fliedner and Jay Anderson and Karen Escobar from Centre for Stories. This will help to set the tone for the event providing an insight into the actual content of the work. Then we’ll spend the final hour in an open and hopefully very intimate group discussion exploring ideas articulated in the work itself. Nun chai will also be served.
Alana will be appearing at the Centre for Stories on 4 November 2018 to present Cups of Nun Chai. She will be joined by Kelly Fliedner, Karen Escobar, Eugenio Viola, Kelli McCluskey and Jay Anderson who will be reading excerpts from the work followed by an open discussion with the public. Tickets available here.