When I embarked on my postgraduate course in Asian art run by Sotheby’s and London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies, I began the course with their module on Indian art, where the roots of much Asian art lie. As soon as I started the course, I realized I that I had some intriguing companions with me on this fascinating art historical journey. One of them was an extremely beautiful and sophisticated woman from Italy called Renata. She was older than most of the other students and had kids who were already in college, so she had seen much more of the world than the rest of us had. However, that didn’t make her any less enthusiastic or interesting to me than the younger students. In fact, if anything, Renata had a keener appetite for learning than most of the twenty-somethings. Now that I am the age that she was then, I really understand why. Despite our age difference, we soon became friends.
Renata had grown up in Eritrea, which had been a colony of Italy from the late 19th century to 1947. She had married a man she met there and had led what most people would consider a glamorous life, not lacking for much in the material sense. But her marriage had eventually ended and her kids were growing up. When I met her in London, she seemed to be at a point in her life where she needed to explore a world of her own, one that was not Italy or Eritrea, but somewhere more mystical, more exotic. For her, India and its arts – the Buddhist stupas, the sensual sculptures of Hindu goddesses, the intricate miniature paintings – represented an exciting new adventure. For me, I was enjoying the chance to study the country of my birth, and at a time when my own mother happened to be dying. Renata’s warmth and generosity to me at such a painful time, and her inspiring journey to find her true self impressed me so much that even though we only shared a few months together studying in London before she returned to Milan, we have remained friends for over two decades now, seeing each other very rarely, but still enjoying the occasional phone call or email.
We still share a common interest in Asian art. I have made it a career and she has traveled many times to India for spiritual and therapeutic reasons, and our most recent email exchange was about Chinese porcelain. Our journeys originally intersected because of a shared interest in Asian art, and although our physical paths rarely cross, we do share a similar appetite for the spirituality and beauty of the Asian cultures we each embraced. Today, I sent her a pair of lacquered Japanese chopsticks, a small token of admiration for her elegant taste and her appetite for life, love and adventure.