The Untouchable Ones

They came in winter to a sky that pulsated purple greys: blushing brides in crisp, pink blues.

I would be there, waiting, percolating in the heady cultural mix of art and artist; a moth ever drawn to their bright blooming flames. Each masterpiece was a welcome segue from the mundaneness of everyday public service life; a provocative play on social boundaries that relentlessly questioned the conservative mores of the Saudi Arabia of my teens, and revealed just how far removed I had become from the Lebanese traditions of my youth.

I had learnt a lot in the months since I'd started volunteering at the art gallery. About the subtlety of space and lighting; the warmth or hollowness that they can breed. The change in mood and movement that unusual positioning can create; the delight and belonging that interactivity can bring to both young and old.

Some paintings fixated me more than others, but none more so than the “untouchable” ones.

I had noticed her immediately. She was delicately cradling her dull red wine — a smile less Mona Lisa and more blue-blood. A disdaining look that instinctively sensed the missing button of my skirt and the working-class postcode of my youth. A neck that swanned behind two rows of pearls: their white gates cold and unforgiving.

But I did not believe her — I knew the masterful mirage of lighting and space that smoothed the many dents in her brushstrokes.

So I softly coaxed her into ‘being’, asking gentle questions about her how and why, until I found that stubborn flicker bubbling just under her surface.

And just like that, she springs from her palimpsest poise. My painted woman reveals herself to me, resurfacing the brilliant sparks of her youth. Limbs sprawl into the main gallery; her wine now lush in the deepest of violet reds.

She stands besides me, resting one palm softly along the curve of my elbow. Her pearls now daisy chain along her waist. Excitedly, her fingers direct my vision to one painting, then the next.

Which paintings do you like most? Her now animated eyes plead with me.

“My house is already so full of things, I really don't know which to buy.” Her laugh stutters cautiously.

I smile back, not quite knowing what to make of her question.

“She never buys anything”, the curator had long ago warned me.

I think for a moment, then ask: What brings you joy?

I wince, quickly regretting my question.

Its effect is immediate. She becomes her sadness; her face half turns away from me.

A few moments pass, until finally, her silhouette answers: I don't know.

I can feel her withdrawing into an awkward loneliness that wishes not to be judged. Untouchable, once again.

I want to bring her back but am interrupted by a brisk:
I'm sorry, but you are not allowed to drink wine in the main gallery.

My painted woman's brows cat-stretch and arch their back upwards. Her pearls clack their displeasure at this unwelcome interruption. Her tinder loses its spark. She strides towards the unlucky attendant who dared utter those words to her, clutching her purse firmly in one hand, dull red wine in the other.

I sigh, knowing I'd lost her forever.

I go back to my corner of the gallery, berating myself. Despite my months of volunteering, I could never work out the gallery’s drinking policy, let alone parrot the names or preferred mediums of exhibition artists as other volunteers did so effortlessly. For the hundredth time, I questioned whether I truly belonged there; in an art gallery culture that dissected a Melbourne society I knew so well into unfamiliar tranches, and revelled in off-the-cuff commentary on the history of every painter, paint type and painting technique known to man in ways I never could.

It was in the middle of this contemplation that He walks up to me.

His grey plastic bags and unwashed clothes are a stark contrast to the 'off-white' tones of the gallery, as are the worry lines that stretch graveyards across his forehead.

But my painted man does not care. To him, other patrons do not exist — neither do I, except to be sharply asked: Is this the X exhibition?

I'm a bit taken aback, but say yes.

He nods, and continues into the main gallery, walking from painting to painting until he finally spots the one he has come for.

Soon he surrenders to it, a lone figure lost to the bumbling world around him.

After twenty minutes, I finally gain the courage to stand beside him. He senses my presence and half smiles, his eyes never leaving the canvass.

"It was my wife's favourite", he says.

"I can see why", I respond.

And just like that, my painted man loses his colours, and it is then that I see him, really see him. The paint of his face cracks, one half claimed by grief, the other warmed by the rekindling of the memory of a woman he had loved so much.

We stand there for a while, in front of her painting and his pain, in the together-apartness that art often brings, until I have to go back to my corner.

I lose track of time, and almost jump when a kind hand rests on my shoulder. I look up at the gallery curator, surprised to find him there.

He smiles.

"You're our lucky charm, Farah."

"What do you mean?", I say.

"Not sure what you said to her, but she bought some paintings this time. Pretty important pieces, too! And what a lovely woman she was!"

It took me a while before I realised who he was talking about.

I nod and smile quietly. Belonging is a subtle thing, and my painted woman had finally lost her colours for all to see her— really see her.

I had learnt a lot in the months since I'd started volunteering at the art gallery. About the subtlety of space and lighting; the warmth or hollowness that they can breed. The change in mood and movement that unusual positioning can create; the delight and belonging that interactivity can bring to both young and old.

Some paintings fixated me more than others.

But none more so than the “untouchable” ones.

Flyway, My Friend

Flyway, My Friend

The Intellectual Applications of Chai

The Intellectual Applications of Chai