In the late 70s a new religious movement made its way around the world and landed in Fremantle, writes Annelies Gartner on March 29, 2017 in The West Australian.
Sohan Ariel Hayes grew up in a religious movement in the 1980s. Picture: Daniel Wilkins
Popularly known as the Orange People because of their brightly coloured robes, Sannyasins were disciples of Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh or Osho. By the mid-1980s, about 250,000 people worldwide were part of the movement and Fremantle had become a hub for devotees.
The hedonistic and controversial movement affected many families and individuals and left a lasting legacy on the port city.
Sohan Ariel Hayes was born in a commune in Balingup and when he was four his parents became Sannyasins and moved to a commune on Collie Street.
“In the case of my parents they had tried something out and it had broken apart and dissipated and they were after something else,” Hayes says.
“They wandered into Fremantle in early 78 and it was within a few months that they’d heard about this Sannyasin thing that was going on down in Forrestdale.
“They went down and my dad said they were doing this meditation and yoga and he said the energy was explosive and incredible — so they ended up getting hooked.”
Now an adult with his own children, Hayes was prompted to reflect on his childhood and revisit this period.
“There are some vivid memories certainly but because I was young my memories are very much from a child’s perspective,” Hayes says.
“It’s interesting to look at it from that perspective as a child as now someone in their middle-age.”
After a discussion with Fremantle Arts Centre director Jim Cathcart the seeds for exhibition Orange Sannyas in Fremantle were planted.
“He felt as director of the Fremantle Arts Centre it was his moral obligation to cover this part of Fremantle history particularly because there still seems to be so much unresolved emotion around it,” Hayes says.
“You’ll find, if you talk to people around Fremantle still and you mention the topic, it’s like you pierce a boil and all this emotion erupts around it.
“So with all of those ingredients it felt like a really good and timely topic to approach.”
Sannyasin founder Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh
Hayes and Ric Spencer are co-curators of the exhibition that features work from artists raised as Sannyasins, people still involved in the movement as well as those just interested in the mixed legacy of the Orange People.
“It’s interesting for me coming from the outside, the idea of community if you like, hearing some of the responses,” Spencer says.
“I don’t know about from within the community but from outside within Fremantle the range of responses to the time is huge. It’s interesting everyone has a different story, a different memory.”
Three topics usually arise during discussions about Sannyasins; the polyamorous attitude to sex, the way it dealt with family structure and the scandals that led to the implosion of the movement.
“Certainly as a kid we saw our parents and friends having sex — you don’t really have a problem with it as a kid, it’s just as we got older,” Hayes explains.
While the sex may not have had an impact on Hayes at the time, the way the movement handled family structure did matter. “Children were put to one side and that parental responsibility was put secondary to the responsibility as a disciple to the practice of Sannyas,” he says.
This issue is addressed in the exhibition and Hayes admits it was very difficult for a long time. After talking to some of the other children, he found it was apparent everyone had difficulties.
“This is not uncommon but in my case both my parents had left for a long period of time when I was young,” he says.
“I was left with other friends but it was an experience of abandonment and then when Sannyas ended I went back to normal schools and there was a sense of being a real outsider and not fitting in.”
In 1985, Osho’s personal assistant Ma Anand Sheela came to WA. She led an unsuccessful attempt to establish a commune, school and resort near Pemberton. About the same time members of a big community in Oregon were arrested for a range of crimes including poisoning several hundred people.
Ma Anand Sheela in WA in 1985
Hayes believes these factors along with instruction from Osho were the reason the movement then went underground — it is estimated there are still about 200 Sannyasins in Fremantle.
“The instruction from Osho was to stop wearing orange, he always said ‘find your own way’,” he says.
Exploring this tumultuous time, the exhibition has a range of sensory work enabling visitors to experience the subject without history and media reporting getting in the way.
“It is an art show, it’s a great device to step aside from the politics and get into some of the stuff that is real and has been missed because of all the media around it,” he explains.
Hayes’ virtual reality work, ‘Dynamic’, explores the physical form of meditation that was part of the adults’ daily routine.
“You walk into this orange-padded room which is a reference to the padded rooms they used to have in the ashram,” he explains.
“They were for meditation but they were very active meditations that they used to do and it’s also a nice reference to the Fremantle Arts Centre’s history (as an asylum).
“You put on (goggles) and then you get taken into this shortened version of… Dynamic meditation, and at the centre of Sannyas really there were a series of meditations and Osho was seen as a meditation master.”
Hayes describes how in footage you see hundreds and hundreds of semi-clad people doing the meditation and they’re usually fitting and screaming and participants “go into this mad catharsis.”
Nine artists’ works feature in the exhibition. Joseph London’s work uses interviews with Sannyasins in Fremantle who were involved in the movement at its peak and still are now.
Poppy van Oorde-Grainger worked with a group of the Sannyas children and used their interviews to make a music video. Local Sannyasin Naren Farquharson has paintings in the exhibition and has also been collecting artifacts related to the movement.
“There’s very little left of objects, there’s barely any photos because they had this thing of just being in the now and getting rid of the past,” he says.
“I think really everything in the show is about starting conversations about getting people looking back at some of these times, but in a different way. That’s the wonderful thing about art. You can offer new ways of coming to terms with a subject.”
Orange Sannyas in Fremantle is a free exhibition at Fremantle Arts Centre, March 31 to May 21.
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