Lam Sio Man

Bachelor's degree with a double major in Chinese and Art in Peking University. Master of Art and Administration in New York University. She has served in the Macao Cultural Affairs Bureau, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs and the Museum of Chinese in America, working as art administrator and curator. She is now working as an art educator and administrator in New York, as well as an independent curator and writer. 

Making Rangoli: some thoughts on Tattfoo Tan’s art workshop

12 2019 | Issue 36

In autumn, the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council opened up a new art centre on Governors Island and invited famous artist Tattfoo Tan to hold an art workshop on a weekend. I have long awaited the opportunity to know Tan better as his works are closely related to the environment and community agenda.

The workshop themed on “Heal Humankind in order to Heal the Land” was held in a small but tidy room. The first session that we participated was about making Rangoli. Rangoli is a traditional folk art from India, usually made of white or colourful flour. According to Tan, people in Southern India make Rangoli in front of their house every morning. The birds and stray dogs will then eat the flour if they pass by the Rangoli and then they would make a new one on the next day. Indians believe that Rangolis are gifts from God and nature. They also believe that Rangolis reflect the working of nature as they fade just like any other thing in nature.

To help us learn how to make Rangolis, Tan set up a pattern on the ground using small stones that guide us how to form a Rangoli shape. He also prepared a picture of mandala pattern, which shows steps of Rangoli making by deconstructing the pattern into several simple steps. This allowed us to learn to draw up the pattern. In terms of materials, he brought along some grain seeds that have been planted by people since ancient time to replace the flour. I couldn’t help but smell the seeds. I smelled nature, coupled with our imagination of civilisation and history.

After we finished making the Rangoli, Tan asked us to sit around it and engaged in activities such as meditation. While we were meditating, we imagined ourselves as trees. We also read poems on change of season, nature and death. I realised that these activities were like ancient rituals. The artist acted like a sorcerer and we were like members of an ancient tribe. The Rangoli was our totem. What really surprised me was the fact that ordinary items, voices and actions could all inspire our imagination and creativity. The experience allowed us to immerse ourselves in the relationship among people and humans’ close connection towards nature.

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Tan tries to create an opportunity for people to experience the connection between men and the universe through such practices. He was trying to help us build a connection to our environment and boost our empathy. He believes that only when people become aware of their connection to nature will they be able to find the cure for fixing the damaged environment. This matches the workshop’s theme: heal humankind in order to heal the land. In fact, Tan had studied many different cultural traditions around the world and wrote about similar practices and edited them into a book titled New Earth Resiliency Training Module. He wishes to get more people involved in repairing mankind and Earth through the book.

Tan’s art practices helped us get a glimpse of another possibility for modern art that reconsiders the relation between art and life, as well as social relations. Art creation no longer only produces art pieces to be displayed in museums and galleries. It can also be education and societal promotion. Tan’s practices activate ancient rituals and values on nature and life from the past. He consistently holds workshops in communities as if he is making a Rangoli. Tan dedicates his efforts to this course just like Rangolis contributing to nature.

Reference: Tattfoo Tan's website: