This article appeared in the Times Of India "The Speaking Tree" and was written by Rupa Sengupta.
In The Wild Garden
In the paradise of the natural order, Ginette Callaway’s copperhead snake sheds the burden of its demonisation, writes Rupa Sengupta.
In Georgia, US, copperhead snakes often get trod on for being hard to tell from the ground. Freezing when frightened, they get run over on the roads. They bite, but only when in danger. With hourglass-shaped marks on their yellowish bodies, these shy, water-loving reptiles thrive in the Okefenokee.
Home to wildlife from heron and crane to otter and black bear, the Okefenokee is a wetland run through by the borders of Georgia and Florida. Visitors who go canoeing there speak of getting high on oxygen the lush plants release. When they leave, they claim to bear away the nocturnal music of frogs and insects.
Some also recall, with unease, poisonous flowers, menacing foliage, stifling humidity, heart-breaking beauty tinged with dread, death and decay. The swamp is called the “land of the trembling earth”: the ground shakes, there being an unstill, teeming water-world beneath the peat. And what indeed is the Okefenokee but dark primeval water, where alligators dream?
It’s a perfect multi-hued landscape for any artist: ripeness and rot meshing in the miraculous instant that is life, a flowering at dusk no less wondrous for its eventual passing. It is a place of precariously reconciled contradictions: carnivorous plants — pitcher and sundew — and venomous creatures coexisting with water-lily and white-tail deer!
The Okefenokee could not but inspire a “New Monet” like Ginette Callaway, a US-based painter who loves horses and cats and wild birds…and snakes. Her love of nature shows in a forceful, if beguilingly eye-pleasing, work that speaks to the heart even as it subverts its moral categories. The canvas, ‘Copperhead Snake in the Okefenokee’, unveils a Garden of Eden rarely seen. If a serpent lurks there, it’s not as tempter leading man astray. In the paradise of the natural order, Callaway’s copperhead sheds the burden of its demonisation like old skin during hibernation.
Humanity’s abiding myths mostly tell of nature as a backdrop to human history, rather than of man as part of a larger living cosmos. These anthropocentric narratives seem to lend themselves to a subtle reworking in this painting. Their linearity is wrecked in an explosion of colour in a sentient universe without contours. Their narcissism is deflated not just by man’s absence from the scene, but in the fullness of the universe without him.
‘Everything shimmers and moves with the deftness of the artist's brushstrokes. Everything is itself and something else. The blue-black water is mirror to polychromatic fires. Palm leaves are floating islands. A flower bud is foil to a blossom that opens to reveal a red heart — Eve’s apple? — already fruit to insects. The wildflower dominates the frame, bending as if in an act of benediction.
And there, at the base, the snake: beautiful as a coral ring, strangely more fragile than the transient petals above it. As in creation and fertility myths, here too the snake is earth’s emissary. The circularity of the reptilian body is an ancient symbol of the cycles of life, death and rebirth, an umbilical cord joining earth and the life it spawns.
Yet, Callaway’s snake seems to represent more than self-replicating matter. That it lifts its head — rupturing the circle of its body and the cycle of its symbolic function — is an artistic sleight of hand. Though an ‘earth-hugger’, the snake turns its gaze upwards as if at an altar. It contemplates the blazing crucifix-shaped flower, as if drawn toward that force within nature that imbues all life with the power of spiritual transcendence.
The viewer is left asking questions. What is good? What is evil? What is necessary? What is contingent? What is nature? What is spirit? The Okefenokee, dark and mysterious, hums and sings and slumbers. The warbler’s wing catches the sun...