The Big Issue : Edition 475
THEBIGISSUE9–22JAN2015 27 THE BLACK IS what first strikes you about Elizabeth Bull’s photographs of her family’s home in Kuching, Malaysia. Everything – walls, light-switches, statues, paintings – is covered in a black as thick as if it were painted on. But, in fact, it’s smoke. Starting from a fire in her grandmother’s bedroom late last year, the smoke had billowed throughout the house, turning everything an ominous dark hue. And it is going to stay that way for a while. Bull’s Chinese grandmother had died just a few weeks before the fire in her bedroom. Officially, this was a fire caused by an electrical fault, but the timing of the fire was coincidental enough to make her superstitious family shudder. It wasn’t openly discussed, but she heard her uncle ask a family friend: “Is she angry with us? Did we not do the processes right?” There are many complicated traditions in Chinese culture. When asked how old her grandmother was when she died, Bull is surprisingly vague. There is no quick answer: she was born in 1930, but it is customary for people to add a couple of years if the person was old when they died. And then there is also someone’s age measured by the Chinese calendar. Likewise, mourning tradition is bafflingly complex, especially to Bull – who lives in Australia. One common rule is that no one is allowed to get married within a year of a death in the family. Another prohibits repairs or building within a certain period of mourning. So the burnt-out family home cannot be cleaned up, for some time at least. Having grown up in Australia, Bull was not as familiar with Chinese tradition as the rest of her family. So upon arrival in Malaysia for her grandmother’s five-week funeral ceremony, she was mesmerised by the abandoned house, which still had the family’s traditional Chinese decorations and paintings hanging on its blackened walls. “The strangeness of it was that they had been living in this space, their things were still there, but it had this smoke damage throughout the house. It was life and death in the same room,” says Bull. While not being as superstitious as others in her family, she says the timing of the fire so soon after her grandmother’s death was definitely eerie. No one was severely hurt, and the family shop downstairs was perfectly fine. The only room completely destroyed was her grandmother’s bedroom. But the family had to leave, staying with cousins until the mourning period has passed and they can begin to rebuild. So, for the foreseeable future, it will stay a house frozen by smoke. by Katherine Smyrk » More of Elizabeth Bull’s work at One Fine Print (onefineprint.com.au).