I realised the book trailer on “African Tales from the Bottom of an Empty Pot” by my friend Irian Hale in May 2022 and unfortunately this was her last account of her life in this dimension because only a few months later, in July, she passed away.
She was an internationally renowned artist, but she was an easy-going person. It was easy to have a good personal relationship for those who were lucky enough to have known her. And I had that good fortune.
Born in London to a Russian mother and an Irish father, Irina, after much wandering, had chosen to live among the trulli of the Itria Valley since 1970.
When I asked her why Puglia Irina? She replied: «By chance, I was photographing trulli for work, then I met ‘my trullo’ and realised that my place was here. I became a farmer, painting and working the land is for me the same way of creating something, perhaps more genuine still».
She had studied art at the Bath Academy of Art in Wiltshire, graduated in Art Pedagogy at Bristol University, then her artistic apprenticeship in Italy at Carrara, and in Austria at the Sommer Academy, where the sculptor Giacomo Manzù and the painter Oskar Kokoska taught.
She was a sculptor, pedagogue, children’s book author, illustrator, painter, shadow theatre author. She worked to earn enough to help those who might need her. Irina loved children, and cats, and dogs, and tramps.
Irina often reported how one could be happy with nothing, how inspiration floated around her like a constant halo. «When I work, I forget myself. If I was always myself, it would be boring, but as my hands cut, glue, draw, the idea in my head vanishes. It is as if it is they, the crayons, the rags that are the protagonists and show me how to proceed. Handicraft work gives you time to think, to tell yourself fairy tales».
In the book trailer made, it is Irina herself who recounts the genesis of this book: «it might seem presumptuous to write fairy tales about Africa when I have never been there, but these are tales born from flashes of news that through the years have remained in my head, like a small germ that reunites with another germ, finding myself with a collection of tales in hand».
Through her painting and the stories she wrote, she strove to convey a message of brotherhood between peoples. In her books, often addressed to children, she seems to suggest an approach to life based on the purest feelings and tenderness in the depths of souls.
Just as it often happened that her extraordinary works arose from her reflections on the present, and she felt the suffering of refugees and all those living on the margins to be her own, so in ‘African Tales’ she turned a delicate and emotional gaze towards the suffering of the innocent children, writing seven short stories. Central to the book is the drama of black people, defrauded of their land and forced to helplessly witness the disintegration of their tribal world, which she has narrated by a grandfather from a distant African tribe. So the grandfather-of-all, concerned about the painful hunger pangs of the little ones, turning to them, says: “Look, if we cannot fill our bellies with food, at least let us fill our heads with wonderful stories”.
Irina, using the truth, has moulded her knowledge about Africa into tales of hope.
The pages are embellished with sublime images depicting the works created by the author herself, characterised by her stylistic choice to use poor and recycled materials such as cardboard, fabrics she collected from everywhere, various objects and colours.
She preferred to give an abstract and evocative touch that is best given through the fabrics, because her intention was to mitigate the excess of realism. She said: «By working with this material, I create a parallel world of symbolic resemblance to objects that takes me away from banal realism and transports me to an imaginative universe».
Irina has been a citizen of the world and has treasured a long cultural tradition that she has imprinted on her stories and her painting, having travelled through life rummaging curiously through the stories of the most diverse countries.
Through her works and stories, she has kept the wonder of childhood in his heart, which she manages to convey with lightness.
Speaking of the interweaving of magic and reality, Irina asserted: «My guideline? The expressiveness of emotions».