"Doing Battle"...one of the works from Arifa's solo exhibition in February 2012 at the Gasworks Gallery in Melbourne. It depicts in abstract form the contest between light and dark, between St George and the dragon. Arifa says it depicts her own struggle in life as described in her story below. Sorry, the work is already sold. (See the red sticker!)
Arifa at the opening of her exhibition at the Gasworks Gallery in Melbourne.
To see a video interview of Arifa bringing in the harvest, click on...
Harris Smart writes by way of introduction to this article by Arifa Asariah...
I have a recollection that a Subud member once told me that he had had a dream or vision in which he was told that “he would live to see the harvest”.
By this I understood that what was meant was that he would live to see the harvest of Subud. We all know we have been through many trials, tribulations and disappointments, but it was said “we would live to see the harvest”.
So I look for signs. Are there any signs of this reaping of the harvest? In individual lives or in Subud as a whole? Yes, I see many, and one such is in the life of my dear friend, the artist, Arifa Asariah.
Arifa has had a very hard life marked by much grief, and recently by life-threatening illness. She tells it all in her story here, entirely without self-pity. But throughout it all she has stayed true to her mission as an artist. She has been not only a painter, but also a sculptor, a maker of furniture, a poet, a performer and a writer of books.
In the last year I have seen her bringing in the harvest of all her suffering and her effort. Last year she published two books: A Life Worth Living and Eve & Lucifer which can both be purchased as books or e-books at lulu.com
On February 7th this year she celebrated the opening of a solo exhibition of her painting and wood carvings at a prestigious gallery in Melbourne. The harvest of her life is really coming in. She writes...
BRINGING IN THE HARVEST...
Every artist dips his brush in his own soul, and paints his own nature into his pictures - Henry Ward Beecher
My grandparents ran from the pogroms of Russia, at the turn of the 20th century. Cargo boats cast them ashore on the cold and rainy shores of Glasgow, where they found each other, married and begat my parents... who then had me.
By the time I arrived, on Valentine's day, 1945, they were well established in the 'shmatta' trade (clothing) so I grew up in middle class luxury knowing very little of the hardships of my grandparents; except for snippets of stories, which I now treasure.
Like my grandmother who, at the age of 12 ran messages for ‘the Reds’, my grandfather who was so poor he carted a wheel-barrow od rags around town and all they ate was beans. My other grandmother said she had a privileged upbringing with her grandparents on an estate where she learnt horse riding, music and literature.
I was the 2nd of two girls and we both grew up loving art. My sister told me that at the age of 2 I loved covering the paper with bright colours (what has changed?) and at the age of 9 I had my first experience of Art School when I went to Saturday morning sculpture department there. I still have strong memories of being there, hands molding the wet clay into an elephant. That was when my love affair with sculpture began. I left school early (long story) and was bribed to do a secretarial course before I was allowed to go to Art school like my sister.
The Glasgow School of Art (created by my hero, Charles Rennie MacIntosh) was in every way a work of art itself. I headed downstairs to the sculpture and ceramic departments and thrust eager hands deep into the rust and grey clays.
A couple of years passed. I was 18. My mother sent me to Israel. 2 months later I was called back, without knowing why. I remember praying on the plane that she wasn’t dead. (I had no inkling she was even sick). 5 days later she died of Leukemia. They didn’t tell me because she didn’t want to see me sad. How devastating it was for me though.
After a period I returned to Israel. I spent 3 years there, learning Hebrew in Kibbutz and going to the Art School in Jerusalem. It was an amazing adventure. I was both happy and mixed up... being young and not knowing how to grieve my mother’s death.
Half way through my final year, the air at night thundered and spattered with the noise of fighting. I discovered the healthy coward within and booked the first boat out. It was also the last boat before the 6 days war.
I landed in London. It was the end of the 60's and I promptly got stuck in to the scene... working by day, taking art classes at night, enjoying the wild and free life and eventually getting pregnant with my now very mature and still adorable eldest son.
Dec 1968 that was. Being pregnant, I went on a search for a spiritual way, knowing I needed something more to be the best parent for my growing tummy. Oh boy, there are some crazy things out there, but I found what I was looking for. Hello Subud.
As it so happens there’s two really lovely stories about my finding Subud. The first is that I was working literally around the corner from the Subud hall in Ladbroke Grove at that time. The second is that Harris Smart, unbeknownst to himself, introduced me to Subud through his ex-wife Christina.
What happened was that, whilst I was searching, I was living in West Hampstead and an Israeli moved in. He in turn introduced his girlfriend into the mix; Christina. She got a letter from Harris explaining the crazy movements and experiences he was having in this thing called Subud and we went along to investigate.
4 months after Lucien was born, I was opened. In 1970. In 1970 and 1971 Bapak came to visit London. I was there both times. Just after, having tested with Leonard Lassalle’s sister, I moved to Tunbridge Wells. I was a single parent in a lovely environment. There were many other Subud single parents which made for a supportive atmosphere. I became chairperson there in 1974.
1975. Germany. The World Congress. Three days in I met Luthfi Tellegen. The same evening he asked me, in these words: Would you consider testing if we should get married?
I said: I don’t know. He said: That’s the right answer – if you’d said ‘yes’ you wouldn’t have thought about it enough, if you’d said no, you would have closed the door. I was impressed by that response. The next day I asked his friends if he was crazy or in crisis. They said he was a lovely man. I married him 3 weeks later and moved to Australia. (I did test, actually.)
Rachman: A Beautiful Energy
We landed in Melbourne August 1975. We had a full life together and 4 more children. Those were years of living, loving and growth.
Years passed. I discovered, with 5th pregnancy, that the foetus was not ‘normal’. Growing on the back of my baby’s head was a large cyst. I was told there was only one case of the foetus surviving… and was offered an abortion. I felt my baby had a right to whatever life span it wanted and declined.
I haven’t talked much about spiritual experiences. But this one is one of the most beautiful expressions of Divine Love and Intervention I have experienced.
While I was giving birth, when it was time to push, I was propelled out of my body, to behind it, and spiritual energy (latihan) ‘took over’. All I felt was that I was witnessing this beautiful energy which was gently, so gently, birthing my son’s crazy head.
As soon as the head was birthed the energy left abruptly and it was me again, in my body. The next push was mine, a bit too strong and I ripped… (I certainly noticed the difference in energy)… and he was born - Rachman; the name given by Bapak, meaning Merciful.
I held him in my arms for an hour, 2 hours… a day. He wasn’t dying. We learnt how to dress his head (which was open and leaking in parts) with sterile dressings and took him home to die. 4 months later, to the amazement of the hospital we took him back requesting he have an operation to tidy up his head as it was obvious to us he wanted to live.
One day Luthfi had told me that, when I was pregnant, he’d awoken 3 times in the night wanting to die. He said he thought he was feeling Rachman. But 6 months after our youngest was born, it was he who suffered a massive heart attack and died. The suddenness and complete tragedy of his passing was devastating for us all.
It Was Hard
God! It was hard. I was broken hearted but so were the children. How resilient is the human spirit! We survived. We were together and life, though chaotic and excruciatingly painful for a time, was also filled with fun and love.
A few years passed. In fact along came the 1989 World Congress to Sydney. (Thank you God) That was wonderful. We had many a visitor staying with us before, throughout and after - entered one talking about Fremantle and how cosmopolitan it was. So, 3 ½ years after Luthfi’s death, in the spirit of adventure and feeling stifled in suburban Sydney, I moved with the kids to Perth.
This was the moment also that I woke to the fact that, if I was not fulfilling myself as a human being, I could not give what my children needed most; a happy, lively, interesting, involved woman. I’d worn myself out after Luthfi died… being there for them all. I’d wept myself to sleep enough nights. Now it was time to flourish. I'd been writing since he’d died, and I’d tentatively read my work out at the World Congress.
Once in Perth I went to poetry readings, often with kids in tow. Soon I met some great poets. After a year I fell for one! We got married. We performed around the City, creating theatre, doing radio shows and generally having heaps of fun. It was then that I began painting. It was around 1992-3 by then and I started small; pastels on paper.
A Subud brother, Michael Moon, took me down to a Gallery in East Fremantle, who decided they'd launch his book and hold an exhibition of my work… in 5 months, and… could I paint in oils? I said yes (a lie) went home and painted and painted away.
It was crazy but it worked. The exhibition was pretty good. I sold well (almost paid for the expenses!) but soon after I broke up with my poet and I moved back East with my diminished brood (2 were already grown up and living in Wollongong).
We landed in Canberra... soon I found a studio and was involved in a few group exhibitions and a solo at Tilley's. I also carried on performing my writing and enjoyed the camaraderie of the scene that was thriving in Canberra.
My oldest children were also performing and often we just hung out together as friends. It was such a joyful time. We were all together, happy and enjoying life. Rachman was 8. He was doing well in his special school.
Then, one morning, I went to get Rachman up from his bed and he was blue and rigid; eyes staring. He had had a massive epileptic fit. He, our gorgeously mischievous and highly individual boy was gone. A ghostly, white, empty eyed shadow was in his place.
After months in hospital, it was obvious I couldn’t look after him. I tested with the helpers. It was clear. (But for years I felt an aching guilt for not caring for him at his most vulnerable). He went into a home, and we grieved the passing of who he had been.
With this a deep change came over me. Looking after my family had been a huge purpose in my life. With them growing and grown, and with my youngest in a home, I was left with such emptiness and pain not to mention a hefty dose of Jewish guilt. The grief I felt was compounded by Luthfi’s and my mother’s deaths. In retrospect I see that I was unable to deal with all this grief.
Not dealing with the pain inside of me, I ran. From Canberra to Melbourne to Sydney, then up to Byron Bay, where the beauty of the place was like having arrived in paradise. At each stop I still managed to set up home, go to latihan regularly, sort out the next school for my remaining son at home and set up studio. I would paint in the week and alternate weekends we would drive the well-worn routes to visit Rachman in Canberra. Years passed.
1999 was another year of disaster… but this was multiple, immense disasters to our family the ilk of which defies logic. I rarely go there… once was enough! But in one very personal way or another each of us suffered (which since the parties are still alive, I don’t feel comfortable writing about).
It was then… in the face of such an abundance of suffering that I came face to face with the question WHY? I found such a dark place within; of rage, guilt, terror and shame. Seeing in myself an inability to rise above the trauma those external events caused in me; to really be there for, let alone ‘fix’ or ‘save’ or just be able to sit with my children, I felt I’d met the lowest point in myself.
In 2000 I moved to Hobart. Life normalised externally. In Hobart I stopped. I found a special home for my disabled son and began working in the disability field. My oldest son was living in Hobart and through him, I was able to have a play I wrote produced and put on in the Peacock theatre which was an incredible experience of watching my words come alive.
I went back to Art school majoring in Sculpture and painting. I got a degree in Fine Arts in 2003. While at Art School my father and then my sister died.
Yet… juxtaposed with this amazing run of human suffering and loss… was the latihan, the love of my family and Subud family and friends. It was a ridiculous time… years of it. Like there was a war going on, but only my family was involved in it - though our close friends knew and were supportive. We learned to laugh a lot. We drew together, sharing our reality in ways that deepened our bonds as human beings. As adults, my children and I became closer.
And always Rachman. His spirit was so huge it encompassed us all. But he was getting more and more fragile. In 2004 he, who was a Buddha, a king, a wonder, an amazing soul, died. He had lived a mammoth 19 years. On the day of his death, before I knew he was even dying, he popped into my head (as he did so many times before) and said exactly in these words: When I die, write my story and call it ‘A Life Worth Living’.
Nothing Had Prepared Me
Nothing that had come before prepared me for the grief I felt when he died. It was so big I didn’t know where to begin… or how to surmount it. I got sick was unable to live in Hobart.
As I was preparing to leave, I got a call from Halina Fraval, asking if I would stand for National Helper. I said I didn’t think I could, or words like that. She said: just be willing to test. So I agreed.
I knew I had to leave Hobart for my health but I wasn’t sure where I was meant to live and I wasn’t getting clear indications from my inner guidance. So I felt to move to Melbourne (my favourite City) until it became clear. I was tested in as National Helper. It was only a year and a bit after his death. God saving my life. God bringing me 3 amazing women to be with and not be alone whilst God (again) continued God’s plan to shake me around until I ‘Got It’! Obviously God heard my cry of ‘WHY?’
Soon after it became clear my health couldn’t support being in Melbourne and the ‘word’ came… Brisbane. I moved up. My middle son and his family were living there. I knew I was sick but didn’t know with what. Firstly a doctor discovered that I had Hashimoto’s hypothyroidism. So we began treatment.
But 4 months later, feeling a lump in my left breast, I discovered I had breast cancer: (over my wounded heart). At least I understood the way I was feeling physically. The operation was successful but the doctor’s stressed that the cancer was virulent and would return if I didn’t have chemo and radiation and tomoxofan.
I refused all chemo and other intrusive therapies. I felt more fear about the chemo than I did about the cancer. Meantime my family, gorgeous ‘girls’ and many other sisters around me were so supportive.
I went through a lot of cleaning up of internal ‘junk’… I went to Bali for 2 months, finally able to begin writing Rachman’s book and using the time to go inwards with as much honesty, taking spiritual journeys and generally allowing the process of ‘soul searching’ to take its course.
Forgive: The Antidote to Suffering
In the end I was able to find many of the places in myself; from earliest childhood onwards where I had been stuck in the shock of life’s suffering. The antidote to suffering I discovered; for myself at that time, was to find all the people, events, sufferings that were outside of myself and inside of myself; done to me, or I had done to others and myself… and FORGIVE.
I forgave: letting go in tears, in rage, through ending judgements… every way I could… and finally… I forgave myself for ‘All The Things I Couldn’t Forgive Myself For and felt Guilt and Shame about!’
I felt a growing sense of peace, gratitude and love for the whole shmozzle of existence and all that entails… and by writing my son’s story, I came face to face with the love, the guilt and the pain. Through that process I came to a place of acceptance.
Amazingly I was able to rejoin my National Helpers with gratitude that they had refused to replace me and had waited the 9 months I’d taken. We went around the country from group to group and it felt like such a blessing all the time. That culminated in the World Congress in Christchurch 2010. We were all there.
The Dam Burst: Starting Painting Again
I had begun painting again in 2009; having stopped after Rachman died. Then there had been the sickness. But I had also been working in the disability sector for a few years which seemed to dry up my creativity. I had also had the feeling for those years that I wouldn’t paint unless it was something completely new… but I didn’t know what or how.
One day I got a couple of canvases and felt to paint “A Heart As Wide As An Ocean”… from something Bapak used to say… and from my inner experience of having been through so much heartache that I’d finally had to expand beyond the extent of the wounds… with the understanding that ‘A heart as wide as the ocean’ meant that the wounds became as small droplets within that vastness.
From then on the dam burst and paintings flew out of me like the cascading of a waterfall… and they were so new… and so unexpected… and surprising. I had always worked with form. Now I was working in abstract. It was as if an unseen being was painting and I was merely witnessing the painting appearing as I ‘watched’ on, my hands having a mind of their own.
This went on for a while…. And it was like views from above… marked with lines… the wonders of the world… that appeared. Landscapes; like the mix between an inner and outer reality. After a while the works shifted and became more whimsical… with gardens of lightness and beauty; populated with small creatures and birds. I was loving painting. I was happy exploring this world. I was Eve in my own paradise. I was healing.
That was the lead up to the World Congress in Christchurch. It was wonderful. Ibu tested our true talent and for the 5 or more minutes we were doing latihan I was painting the whole time. I was blissing out, painting. My arms were aching painting. I remember that feeling (and I felt it again recently as I painted for an exhibition).
The Best is yet to Come
I had some very deep and transformative experiences culminating in my new name; Arifa. I strong experiences. An inner ‘voice’ asked me: Why are you killing yourself?
My answer: Because I am frightened of the future. The voice’s response was: The Best Is Yet To Come. Wow, I thought at the time. That is such a positive thing… so I kept remembering to tell myself; the best is yet to come.
I came back and became sick… and kept being sick. I had actually felt a lump under my arm just before I went to the congress but didn’t want to deal with it. So I went to the doctor about my chest and said at the end, by the way, I’ve got a lump.
He said: how long.
I said: 2 months.
He said: why did you wait?
I said: I didn’t want to know it was cancer again.
He said: I understand and sent me off for tests.
Yup! It was back and metasticized. In the lungs and lymph nodes and my left bone too.
The doctor said: Get your affairs in order.
I said said how long?
He said: lungs go fast. He made an appointment at the hospital which seemed years away but was perhaps 5 days.
I went home. Once I realised I was going to die… it was like all fear dropped off and a sense of complete acceptance and peace washed over me. I asked myself if there was anything to do before I died and I felt ‘no’… and that was that, I went to sleep.
5 days later, at the hospital, the doctor said: Your cancer is oestrogen sensitive. Here, take a pill – if it works, it will clear all the cancers that have grown (in lymphs and lungs). 8 weeks later they were gone! I have been ‘in remission’ ever since.
I Was Freed
In the process of facing death I was freed. And then life was handed back to me! But to live life like never before: without fear and with a sense of gratitude and awe. Some of the paintings I painted after the congress and then, knowing I was about to die, are the ‘lightest’ most joyful paintings I have ever painted.
Months later, with more energy than before, the urge to move to Melbourne became so strong that in January 2011, healed and painting art that I felt was my own true expression; growing and flowing, I arrived in Melbourne to fulfil my new life’s journey; as a full time artist ready to seriously put my work out into the world.
As I write this it is the beginning of 2012. In one year in Melbourne I have been busy with 1 solo and 1 group exhibition in 2011 and, as I write, my work is hanging in a Gallery in a solo exhibition at The Gasworks, in Albert Park.
Since arriving in Melbourne it has been such a journey, internally and outwardly,in thriving. In taking the next step as an artist. In becoming capable of deepening my art practice: In dealing with more universal themes, based on my life’s experiences and growth, and honing my skills.
Thank you so much for taking the time to read my story. It may sound like such a hard journey and it was! But I would not change any of it regardless… for in the process of all that ‘trial by fire’ so much has been ‘burnt off’ and what is left is closer to the authentic human being in me than when I began this amazing journey called Life.
So all I can say is that I am truly grateful for all of it. The reason I share it with you today is not as a dirge to say: Oi vay! How much I suffered!
No! It is to celebrate the Indomitable Nature of The Human Being…both through The Soul’s Journey; and also the Journey of Life: in a body with a heart and a mind and everything. I see it all (everything, everything) as the working of Spirit/Allah/God/Goddess.
Harris writes... 'Sunny Nude': this is one of my favourite paintings by Arifa. It predates her exhibition at the Gasworks Gallery which is mostly abstract, but I have a soft spot for her former work which is more figurative and which to me has a wonderfully uplifting and life-enhancing quality. This is work done in the midst of suffering including life-threatening illness, but affirming life in all its colour, joy, innocence and sensuality. This is the work that Arifa describes in her article as, “After a while the works shifted and became more whimsical… with gardens of lightness and beauty; populated with small creatures and birds. I was loving painting. I was happy exploring this world. I was Eve in my own paradise. I was healing.”