From New York State to Nagaland, Art, Film and Hospitality Are Common Bonds

Source: PBS

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Professors Heather Layton and Brian Bailey visit Kohima, Nagaland, 2010. Photo courtesy Heather Layton.

Spurred by curiosity, Heather Layton and Brian Bailey set off from Rochester, NY., last December to visit a place around the world about which they knew almost nothing.

Nagaland is a state located in North Eastern India, bordering Myanmar (Burma). It’s a tribal region which resisted British rule and then fought for independence from India. It became a recognized state of India in the 1960s, but for many decades factions of the Naga people continued to fight, sometimes violently, over issues of sovereignty. Government advisories still warn against travel there.

But when Layton and Bailey, who are married, arrived in Nagaland, they found instead a welcoming culture of artists and musicians, eager for dialogue, attention and exchange.

During their stay, Layton, an artist and lecturer at the University of Rochester (where she teaches drawing, painting and performance art), and Bailey, a professor of adolescent education at Nazareth College whospecializes in youth media, arranged a contemporary painting show, attended the region’s major cultural festival and mounted a screening of films by both emerging New York and Naga filmmakers.

When they got home, they decided they wanted to return the favor of hospitality. Earlier this summer, as a collaborative effort between Nazareth College, the University of Rochester, the Government of Nagaland, and the Rattle and Hum Music Society, five Naga filmmakers — the first generation of film artists in their country — journeyed across the globe to share their work.

Art Beat talked to Heather Layton about cultural diplomacy and how her experience in Nagaland has informed her own work.

How did you hear about Nagaland?
I heard about Nagaland when I had the great opportunity to meet a Naga musician. His name is Theja Meru and he was traveling through the United States with a government program that brings groups of people from all over the world to the US. Theja was one of them. They were all interested in different types of sociopolitical issues. They came to the MK Gandhi Institute for Non-Violence at the University of Rochester. Because of what they were interested in, I was asked to present my work and, of course, I’d never heard of Nagaland. I’m reading the countries: Tajikistan and Nepal and I’m reading those and then all of the sudden there is Nagaland. So I got right online and just googled it over and over again, trying to read as much and see as many images as I could. Theja and I met for maybe a half hour, 45 minutes, as I was presenting my work. We stayed in contact through email and decided to see what would happen. If he was here in the United States and saw my art, what if I came to Nagaland to show what I do to his friends and musicians and wood carvers there, the community there. Six months later, Brian and I were on a plane and headed into Nagaland.

What did you glean from your internet searching?
It looks beautiful and it sounds terrifying. We looked into what the traveling warnings say, because you look at the government sites and it’s talking about terrorism and insurgencies and headhunting — it’s on every website you look at, that it’s a headhunting area. All the photos of these warriors in these beautiful headdresses and spears. Every time we googled it, the third image that comes up is of this man crawling over this pile of skulls. So it sounded terrifying. You know, even when we got on the plane to go to Nagaland, we were still a bit nervous about what it would look like when the plane landed, but it turned out to be an incredibly different experience. The government warnings may be true — that’s very possible — but they tell a very small sliver of the whole story. And it’s difficult to get the rest of the story.

Unless you go, I guess.
Unless you go! And unless you meet Naga people. When we were in Nagaland it was such a learning experience about how you treat other people. It completely raised my bar for what hospitality is, and how to be so kind to other people, and from our perspective, from my experience, seeing a much more collaborative community based society rather than like an individualistic competitive society.

Photo by Heather Layton, 2010
Photo courtesy Heather Layton

While you were there, what kinds of connections or collaborations did you make with other creative people, musicians, artists?

It would take a year to describe everything we did. We started, with Theja, the Glocal Film Festival and the idea was to bring films from young filmmakers in Rochester, N.Y. to Nagaland and screen those films with films by young Naga filmmakers. And then the idea was to bring the films by Naga filmmakers back to the United States to show with Rochester youth. And at that point we decided let’s just bring film makers. Why do we need to bring just the film, let’s bring the filmmakers.

Tell me about the filmmakers who visited from Nagaland.
There are five filmmakers that came. Liyo Kikon, Kele Yhoshu, Sophy Lasuh, Sesino Yhoshu and Myingthungo Lotha. It was the perfect team. Kele and Liyo are making fictional films and are very interested in animation. One of their films that they screened for example is “Naga Jedi,” a takeoff of our “Star Wars,” except, you know, they are Naga. Obviously Naga’s in a village in Nagaland and the batteries kept running out on the light sword, all these kind of contemporary problems. They did a music video in 3D, a stereoscopic music video. Sophy and Sesino are documentary filmmakers, so Sesino showed one of her films and it was a portrait of her grandfather. Sesino is very interested in video portraiture. Rather than just painting a painting that resembles the person, she is doing these video sketches that really give you a sense of who these people are. And they screened another one, Sophy and Sesino, called “The Story of a House,” where the house is the main character in the film and it’s a house that sits right on the border. It’s true, this is a documentary. Half of the house is in Nagaland and half of the house is Burma/ Myanmar, and it’s the house of the village chief.

Watch one of the films by Sesino Yhoshu:

Apfütsa (2009) from Sesino Yhoshu on Vimeo.

Did you get a sense from them whether they feel isolated working in Nagaland?
There aren’t any filmmaking programs in Nagaland. If you are going to learn filmmaking in Nagaland, you are learning it off of YouTube and you are learning off the internet. So Kele and Liyo, for example, said everything that they’ve learned, they’ve learned on their own through the internet.

That’s incredible.
Yeah, it’s unbelievable. When you think, they are showing films that are incredibly, incredibly sophisticated and beautiful and so well done and everything they’ve taught themselves. Sophy, for example, has studied in Edinburgh. She got her Master’s degree in Edinburgh, so they have this international experience and this, you know, local experience. And do they feel isolated? I think the internet has played may be a major role in not feeling isolated. They’ve seen a hundred times more American films than I have. They knew American pop culture so much better than I did. In terms of the film making industry in Nagaland, they are the industry, they are the are the groundbreakers, the first generation filmmakers. At this time, there are no movie theaters in Nagaland, so that’s something that they are working on. At this moment, you watch the films on the computers, and you have home screenings, but there aren’t public venues yet to screen a film. I wonder to what extent that is isolating when you are a filmmaker.

Visiting Naga filmmakers tour an animation studio in Rochester, N.Y
Visiting Naga filmmakers tour an animation studio in Rochester, N.Y. L to R: Myingthungo Lotha, Kele Yhoshu, Sophy Lasuh, Sesino Yhoshu, Liyo Kikon, Amanda Poppe, and Fred Armstrong (President of Animatus). Photo courtesy Heather Layton

How does your connection to Nagaland continue? What are some of your future projects involving cultural diplomacy?
The first really exciting thing specifically about this Nagaland-U.S. exchange, or professional program exchange of artists and creative people [is that] the government of Nagaland were very happy with the results of this last stage of the exchange, so they’ve invited five U.S. creative people to come back to Nagaland for the Hornbill festival, and for all different types of cultural events, in December. So Brian and I are now working on creating a team to represent the United States. We’re looking for filmmakers and artists, writers, dancers.

I have several projects that will be directly and indirectly affected [by our connection to Nagaland]. The first one I’ve started working on is a series of drawings that relate to a documentary that Sophy and Sesino are making about one of the clashes that happened in Nagaland between the Indian government and one of the Naga insurgency factions. The drawing series, though is going to be– there are fictional characters. You start out, you think you know who you are siding with, who your allegiances [are with], but then as the drawing series goes on, you start to question your beliefs. My goal in these drawings is can I trick you into falling in love with the person you thought you hated and it’s all going to be done through these little fictional characters. Brian and I are going to be working on a collaborative installation called “Government Warning,” and that is going to compare those warnings that I talked about before, the information that we were able to get before we went, with the experience of actually being there. It’s actually going to be a physical space that you walk into and you’ll have a tourist guide book that only partially gets you through the space. And we’ll use film footage that we took while we were there and all different types of sounds and media.