Exploring cosmos and memory | Sunday Observer
Big Bang Batik:

Exploring cosmos and memory

2 July, 2023
Raki at the workshop
Raki at the workshop

This week’s Youth Observer cover story features an interview with the multifaceted artist Raki Nikahetiya, highlighting his latest project ‘Big Bang Batik’ in collaboration with One World Foundation (OWF) – known as a hub for innovative artists - OWF played a pivotal role in bringing Nikahetiya’s vision to life.

The interview delves into the artist’s vibrant and adventurous artistic journey, providing valuable insights into his creative process and inspirations.

Raki Nikahetiya’s latest exhibition, ‘Big Bang Batik’, at the One World Foundation last week, delves into the intricate realms of identity, alienation, and belonging in the 21st century.

Through his art, Nikahetiya explores fundamental questions about self-acceptance, the origins of humanity, the construction of value and meaning, and the significant role of memory. Drawing inspiration from his lifelong fascination with nature and the mysteries of the universe, Nikahetiya embarked on a four-year quest to visually capture the enigmatic concept of the Big Bang, the beginning of everything.

The exhibition showcases mesmerizing batik textiles where lost patterns emerge as wax dries and melts, forming intricate connections and hues of black, blue, and red. These celestial landscapes freeze moments in time, immortalizing beauty through a series of serendipitous actions and reactions.

As Nikahetiya reflects on his artistic journey, he reveals how the subtle neural pathway-like patterns in batik motifs resonated with his fascination for the cosmos and the subject of memory. “Big Bang Batik” encapsulates the culmination of thirty years of fascination, four years of profound contemplation, and an intense residency at the One World Foundation.

Artistic practice

In an exploration of identity, alienation, and belonging in the 21st century, the artistic practice of Nikahetiya who was born in Sri Lanka in the 1980s and grew up in Austria offers unique insights. Having experienced shifts and relocations from an early age, his heightened awareness of self and belonging fuels a deep interest in personal and collective identity.

“I was always interested in personal and collective identity but also the identity of things. Things which are out of place – a bit like myself maybe. But there are some positive upshots of being a migrant everywhere, such as being able to feel ‘at home’ in different worlds.

“I like to play with that and question the way we perceive and value things and identity, of man-made concepts of what is ‘right’, ‘good’ and ‘true’. I am exploring how they can be challenged and disrupted through seeing the known or mundane in new ways, away from the expected and the norm.

“In my process I often start with a memory, an interest or a feeling, which turns often into a question on how to realise or in artspeak, how to resolve it. My starting point is often a photograph or digital image, which I turn into a sketch or a painting.

“From there I use an interdisciplinary approach and venture into science, tech or artisanal craft to resolve it – keeping an open mind. I try to create tactile or experiential works which you can touch and feel, moving beyond a purely visual experience,” Raki explained.

Fascination with nature

Raki’s lifelong fascination with nature, the universe, and the exploration of the unknown was ignited during his upbringing in a wild tropical family garden near Kandy and Colombo. From a young age, he found himself captivated by the intricate patterns on leaves, the discoveries of tiny life in the undergrowth, and the flowing streams that resembled veins through the land.

As he gazed at the stars and galaxies, flickering brightly through the majestic crowns of coconut trees planted by his ancestors, a profound curiosity was awakened within him — a curiosity that would persist throughout his life.

In the past four years, Raki embarked on a personal quest, searching for a medium and process that would allow him to visually capture his desire to comprehend the unknown, the beginning and origin of everything, most notably symbolized by the concept of the Big Bang.

“Similar to the Big Bang as an unproven physical theory, my search has been abstract, lengthy, complex - and full of miscalculations. It was a process of four years of experiments and failures, from photographic negatives, to silk works, to weaving to electron microscopy - nothing felt right.

“But failure has always been a good teacher and I believe that I have found solace in the right medium, language and process to materialise this search at last - and it was linked to my own memory. After all, it felt that the search for the beginning of anything is also a search for self and identity,” Raki said.

Collaboration with OWF

In a twist of fate, Raki found himself at the One World Foundation (OWF), three decades after his initial encounter with the wonders of nature. As he explored the school, immersed in its vibrant classes and meeting both pupils and teachers, he was introduced to the OWF Batik studio and its talented artist, Anoma Malkanthi Mendis.

In this serendipitous moment, something subconsciously clicked within Raki, forging a profound connection with the batik studio. It was as if the universe conspired to align his artistic vision with the possibilities offered by the batik medium.

During his formative years in Sri Lanka, Raki Nikehetiya vividly recalls the omnipresence of batik textiles, a tradition that continued to thrive in the 80s and 90s, and even to this day. Reflecting on his early memories, he distinctly remembers his father’s red batik sarong.

However, it was not the motifs themselves that captured his attention; rather, it was the intricate and seemingly random cracked patterns and connections surrounding the motifs that evoked a profound emotional response.

Upon closer examination, these patterns bore a striking resemblance to neural pathways, mirroring the cosmic structures depicted in celestial images captured by NASA and the Hubble telescope, representing snapshots of time that no longer exist. In a remarkable parallel, the resemblance to neural pathways resonated deeply with Raki’s exploration of memory, a fundamental theme at the core of his artistic practice.

“For me the lost patterns of the beginning of everything came back to existence during the batik process as the wax dried and melted again, in between the cracks and in the hues and shades of drying black, blue and red pigment.

“Observing the works, they had the same quality as a celestial landscape - capturing a moment in time when dye touches wax and touches fabric. Magic and mystery are created through a series of random actions and reactions. The magnificent unknown structures and patterns I have been dreaming about and tried to recreate for so long through various means were there on a simple sarong pattern all along,” he explained.

Process of creating BBB

As Raki explained, the process of creating the Big Bang Batiks proved to be a labourious and time-intensive craft, requiring immense dedication and patience.

Under the guidance of skilled batik artists, including Niluka De Silva, Nishanti Liyanage, Daisy Irangani, and Champika De Zoysa, led by their teacher, Mendis, Raki delved into the secrets of batik creation. Every step of the way, collaboration played a vital role, as they embarked on this artistic journey together.

From sourcing the fabric at the Pettah market to meticulously controlling the temperature of the melting wax, from applying the wax onto the fabric using various tools to carefully mixing the chemicals and pigments, each stage demanded unwavering focus and a clear mind. Throughout the process, Raki found a meditative quality, a need for concentration and trust in the process and the people involved.

“In a way all processes of creating batiks have a meditative feel, one must be focused, not rush and I trust the process and people. No matter how hard you try to control the process or the outcome, there will always be surprises in the final work and that’s really magical, perhaps a bit like the universe and memory itself.

“I have gained the greatest respect for the work of batik artists and I will forever look at even the simplest batik souvenir at the Colombo airport with respect and marvel,” he said.

Transformative experience at OWF

Raki’s residency at the One World Foundation proved to be a transformative experience that greatly contributed to the realization of his body of work. As he recalled, throughout the residency, there were numerous key moments and experiences that left a lasting impact.

Collaborating with a dedicated team, they shared laughter, learning, and problem-solving, encountering happy accidents that became integral to the artistic process. Through experimentation with pigments and dyeing techniques, they discovered the beauty of leaving the wax intact, resulting in cracked patterns reminiscent of otherworldly landscapes.

The residency, spanning a week in June 2023, encapsulated a decade’s worth of growth and progress in Raki’s artistic journey.

“Thirty years of fascination and four years of thought came into being during the brief but intense residency at OWF, for which I am very grateful. As the saying goes; “There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks when decades happen.” The week in June 2023 at the OWF was such a decade. A period of learning, processing, unlearning, creating and solving - and above all patience, passion and commitment from the wonderful team to realize the body of work. As such we were artists, teachers, students, acclaimed scientists, explorers, inventors and curious children again. And that all at once,” he said.

Raki extends his heartfelt gratitude to the individuals and groups who made significant contributions to the exhibition of Big Bang Batik. He expresses deep appreciation to Anoma Mendis and the Batik Dream Team, including Niluka de Silva, Nishanti Liyanage, Daisy Irangani, Champika de Zoysa, for their exceptional collaboration in the creation of this remarkable body of work.

“My gratitude and thanks to Prof. Kathrin Messner, Prabath Wijesekara De Zoysa, Xiane Kangela, T. Jenita Raji De Silva, Ronnie Jaklitisch and the whole OWF team for enabling this collaboration and Laurent Ziegler for bringing us all together,” he concluded.