Introducing a beautiful belly dancer and her loves

I love introducing a new series. Let’s peek inside my new series and see what we can find!

Who is Lena?

A few years back, I booked myself into an Andalusian dance lesson at the Medieval Faire in Taupo. It turned out I was the only student, but that was fantastic for me. On the grass, in the middle of medieval tents and surrounded by knights, ladies and peasants, Lena taught me a gorgeous, hair-flicking, veil-swirling routine. (When I got home, I promptly used one of her veil moves for my belly dancer digital painting.)

Lena lives in Tauranga, but as soon as she offered to teach me belly dance via Skype, I cleared a patch of carpet in my art room, and we caught up every week (unless our internet was being stupid).

So of course I asked Lena to be my model for this new series.

What inspires Lena to dance?

I asked Lena to think of what inspires her love of dance. And she told me a beautiful love story:

Long ago, in the 16th century, there lived a girl called Aleksandra. She was born in a village in Ruthenia (now Ukraine). You might also see history calling her Roxelana, meaning “the Ruthenian one”. Her village was raided by Crimean Tatars who took her as a slave, and she ended up in the harem of Suleiman the Magnificent, the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire.

Suleiman definitely noticed Aleksandra, and she became one of his most prominent consorts. Suleiman named her Hürrem, meaning “the cheerful one”. Thus began one of the greatest love stories in history.

For Hürrem, Suleiman broke centuries of tradition. Where harem rules dictated that concubines could only bear the Sultan one son (to prevent rivalries and feuds), Hürrem bore Suleiman 5 sons and a daughter. Although custom decreed that Sultans did not marry their concubines, Suleiman set Hürrem free, and then married her in a magnificent ceremony. And Ottoman imperial tradition stated that when a son of the Sultan came of age, he and his mother were to be sent to a faraway province. Hürrem, however, stayed in the Sultan’s court all her life.

Hürrem was an intelligent woman and she had a lot of influence in state affairs. She also did a lot of charity work and built several public buildings including a mosque, schools, a women’s hospital, and a soup kitchen to feed the poor. But she’s also a rather controversial figure in Ottoman history. Some claim she was a witch who ensnared Suleiman. And she had her fair share of political rivalries and enemies at court, some of whom lost their heads (although it’s unclear whether it was due to her influence).

Hürrem died in 1558. She and Suleiman are buried in adjacent mausoleums. Of their love story, they leave behind beautiful love letters and poems that we can still read today.

I was so excited to hear this story. Not only do we get to explore the lavish richness of the Ottoman Empire, we can weave in Lena’s love of dance, as well as her and her husband Jack’s own romance and heritage (like Hürrem, they are from Ukraine).

Sneak peek of the photo shoot

The Hamilton gardens are a beautiful backdrop. We chose an afternoon that was beautifully hot and sunny (poor Jack in his black Sultan costume) and very busy (I’ve done a lot of editing out people in backgrounds), but we had tons of fun. Lots of people stopped and asked if they could take photos. And one very kind gentleman even helped out with swishing Lena’s veil (it turned out beautifully!)

Isn't she gorgeous? And you can see why I'm in love with Lena's satin and lace dress - that's a full circle skirt that swirls fantastically.
Isn’t she gorgeous? And you can see why I’m in love with Lena’s satin and lace dress – that’s a full circle skirt that swirls fantastically.
Seriously, gorgeous. I didn't end up using this photo for the final artwork, but it's so beautiful I need to do something with it!
Seriously, gorgeous. I didn’t end up using this photo for the final artwork, but it’s so beautiful I need to do something with it!
Ok, so it wasn't all serious. I love this moment between Lena and Jack.
Ok, so it wasn’t all serious. I love this moment between Lena and Jack.

Next time

Hürrem’s story starts with her as a slave. But don’t worry, what we came up with isn’t all gritty Game-of-Thrones. Lena told me that in Ukrainian folklore the phrase “walking down the kalyna bridge” means falling in love. So that’s where we start.

Don’t want to wait for the next installments to see the whole series?

You’re in luck! My solo exhibition at ArtsPost in Hamilton opens on the 26th of May, where you’ll be able to see this whole series in person (and more!) There are 3 exhibitions opening at ArtsPost at the same time. We have an opening preview on Thursday the 25th May starting at 5.30pm if you’d like to come for drinks and nibbles and meet the artists. I’d love to see you there.