Kali Arulpragasam is back with a collection that, suspended between beauty and horror, exposes the mass atrocities and war crimes against civilians.
Text by Anna Battista
The last time Super Fertile’s Creative Director Kali Arulpragasam spoke to Zoot Magazine it was to introduce her collection of jewellery entitled “The Real Super Stars”, a tribute to the work of inventors and scientists conceived as a reaction to our celebrity-dominated world. After tackling in her previous jewellery collections themes such as the world food crisis, countries affected by war, animals in danger of going extinct and capitalism, Kali is now back with a new controversial collection that lifts the lid on human tragedies ignored by the media such as the Sri Lankan Civil War.
Entitled “Murder”, the collection features pieces with rubies, sapphires and garnets shaped like bullet wounds, cuts and knife slashes. The main idea behind these pieces suspended between horror and beauty is not shocking people, but initiating a dialogue about violence and prompt people to ponder about all the innocent civilians killed in the name of religion, justice, nationalism or political affiliation.
The collection is accompanied by a photo shoot featuring models from different ethnic groups and ages, bound and gagged or dying in agony in an oppressive prison-like environment to symbolise that tragedy strikes everybody all over the world. Arulpragasam, a British Tamilian of Sri Lankan descent, conceives this collection also as a way to criticise people who, desensitised by the cold media reports about genocides, suicide bombings, executions and raids, look away from such tragedies and carry on with their lives.
Zoot Magazine: Can you introduce us the main theme of the new collection?
Kali Arulpragasam: The new collection is about violence and how murder is murder, even though we have grown accustomed to think it’s acceptable to torture and kill human beings in the name of war or allow mass murders, genocides and inhumanity. I think we cannot accept seeing people being killed because of their race, religion or beliefs or witnessing entire nations being wiped out by a government, a leader or a dictator. We recently watched the horrors of the Sri Lankan Civil War: 40,000 to 70,000 Tamils were killed in 2009 without anybody preventing this slaughter. Why is it that lives are lost in such tragedies and the media do not cover it, while the Western world, the UN and Human Rights organisations sit and watch? I find it disturbing and scary to live in a world where something like this happens and millions of people ignore it pretending they’re living in a bubble. I wanted to express this horror through my pieces and also my concern about the psychological conditions of civilians caught up in wars, living in fear, being homeless, imprisoned in camps or raped and dehumanised.
Zoot Magazine: What’s the message you would like to give through these pieces?
Kali Arulpragasam: That you can’t justify killing other human beings. We have to make sure that these things do not happen anymore in future. Just think that in the case of Sri Lanka, the UN still need permission from the Government to go in and investigate war crimes. What kind of nonsense is this when the government is the murderer? We need an organisation at a higher level than the UN that has the power to punish war crimes so that future generations do not get involved in such things. I’d like human beings to sort out their differences through peaceful talks. Wars are dated as they represent the easiest and laziest option; peace is a futuristic concept instead and we should be supporting and celebrating peace.
Zoot Magazine: There is often a strange dichotomy in your work: it’s beautiful yet at times it’s also disturbing: do you feel that your pieces can be used as discussion points and stir people’s consciences?
Kali Arulpragasam: That’s the plan. I’m not afraid of having opinions and communicating them whilst I’m alive and I’d like people to have opinions and come forward, saying what they think. I want to wake people up, show their emotions and discuss things. We all witness the horrors of the world daily through the reports we get from the media. We have ways to communicate and express our thoughts through Facebook and Twitter, gather information and spread it. I feel frustrated when people use such great resources to tell each other what they are wearing to work, while it is inspiring to know that you can start a revolution through Facebook. We have the power of influencing our governments, we have the power to change things and make a difference. We can unite and become a force or stay at home and live in our little bubble.
Zoot Magazine: Did you find it difficult to find a balance in this new collection between elegance and violence?
Kali Arulpragasam: No, I didn’t. I usually visualise an entire collection and design it in one day. Then I sit with it and see if there is anything else I want to add. In this case I wanted to work with precious stones, so with a more durable and valuable material. But this collection was also a very personal experience since I was watching the news while I was creating it and I felt consumed by the violence around the world, especially in my home country, Sri Lanka. Thinking about the Tamils living in fear I felt hopeless. Violence makes me sick, so it was difficult for me to research war crimes. Yet I had to push myself to see the ugly to create pieces that resembled wounds, cuts and slashes and find stones like rubies, sapphires and garnets that somehow could be used to imitate the colour representation of human wounds. I suppose the beauty of the collection stands in the precious stones and in the elegance of the designs that work and integrate with the body, but also in the meaning of the pieces. This collection is a tale of two stories: it combines the ugliness and the beauty.
Zoot Magazine: Do you feel that some people may find the pieces too violent?
Kali Arulpragasam: My pieces are not violent, they represent the truth. Have you seen the news on Al-Jazeera lately or that Channel 4 documentary about Sri Lanka? We are surrounded by real violence everyday. I guess it takes some time to get used to these designs as the concepts behind them are strong, but I see them as social documents about the world we live in today.
Zoot Magazine: Is this the first time you use gems such as rubies, garnets and sapphires?
Kali Arulpragasam: Yes, it is. I guess it’s even more important to use precious materials for versatile and wearable pieces that have such an important meaning and that will be passed down from generation to generation. While I was creating them I also thought about regal ornaments. I like to think that in 300-500 years’ time, they will dig up my jewels and exhibit them in a history museum since their subject – murder and violence – will be considered as something from a distant past and the people of the future will see them as reminders of unfair times when unthinkable, absurd and barbaric things happened.
Zoot Magazine: Can you tell us more about the models in the photo shoot – how did you select them?
Kali Arulpragasam: One of the priorities in the presentation of my collections is making sure there is always a great diversity as I think fashion is still behind when it comes to accept diversity. In this case I also wanted the lookbook to resemble a piece of evidence or look like journalistic documentation. I selected all the models and even learnt how to recreate casualty make-up just to make sure there were very few people during the shoot. After all a photo journalist works alone in the middle of all the action and chaos, so I tried to do all the directing, styling and make-up by myself and got the photographer to take images of one model a day. Some of the models are professionals, others are my friends, but we also did some casting from the streets. The first model we shot is Giftsa, a very famous popstar in Thailand; then there is a little boy, Zane, who modelled for the first time. The Iraqi model is the same age and ethnicity of some of the men detained and tortured by the US in Iraq and we took the images featuring him on a cold day under a thundering rain in a room that looked and felt like a torture chamber. He was freezing, almost naked and hungry to get more into the character I wanted to portray.
Zoot Magazine: Do you conceive your jewels as wearable pieces of art?
Kali Arulpragasam: Yes, I do. I think they are mini art sculptures. They are art displayed on the body, so they are more than just a string of pearls. You can wear the long bullet wound chain in different ways – doubled up, across the back and front, around the waist or as a chocker for example. I guess this could be seen as intelligent functional art. There aren’t many people out there seeing the possibilities of making wearable miniature art that you can wear and use to communicate your views or to find like-minded people.
Zoot Magazine: Are you going to take part in any exhibitions this Autumn/Winter?
Kali Arulpragasam: I’m planning to do some shows in London in September in an art gallery and in Paris in October during Paris Fashion Week. Then I will be doing a show in Bangkok since I made the collection there and Thai people are keen on me doing a show in December. This is an important collection and I’m particularly proud of it, this is why I would love to see it showcased also at the UN.
Zoot Magazine: Where can we buy your pieces?
Kali Arulpragasam: At the moment you can buy them through me, though after the shows in London and Paris they will also be available in stores. Though I must admit I like getting emails from people and share my thoughts with my fans.
Zoot Magazine: Which London-based designers would you like to be associated with?
Kali Arulpragasam: Alexander McQueen. As I get older and more experienced in my designs, I understand him more. I used to be completely obsessed with his shows and watch them on repeat on YouTube. He was the only designer I was blown away by and his work was perfection to me. When I completed this collection, the first thing I asked myself was ‘Would McQueen have liked it?’ In a way I think we speak a similar language, but, while he looked at class, gender and society through his designs, I’m more focused on global politics. Yet I can spot similarities in our creative processes. I completed “Murder” and launched it on 1st June, a day before my birthday. I was looking for a gift for myself and, at a McQueen sample sale, I saw a red and black feathered and embroidered evening gown fit for a queen. It was the type of dress you see in museums and it was from my favourite collection, A/W 2009-10, the one subtitled “Everything But The Kitchen Sink”. It fit perfectly and the staff told me “McQueen wanted you to have it!”. Who knows, maybe I will wear this gown for a special event in future that will be so grand and important I will attend it wearing also all my jewels. Probably McQueen already knows what it is, so now it’s my turn to work hard and get there!
Images by Amarpaul Kalirai