We were on Sicily, an Italian island at the very southern tip of Europe and it was slowly dawning on me that it wasn’t all turquoise water and pungent tomatoes.
We rented a house from Rosa, a wonderful woman with a long list of qualifications that included mediation and Fine Art. She has a son who she adopted years ago when he arrived on a boat. He was a teenage refugee from the Congo. Rosa with a small budget and a big heart.
It was strange to be in a European place that felt so African. The hot wind and the dust come across the sea from Africa. So do people, fleeing lives that are unsustainable, taking unimaginable chances to make the journey in overcrowded vessels. Sicily is littered with evidence of thousands of years of occupations and influences. It has a kind of frontier feeling to it; I suppose if you are booted off the mainland you are bound to pick up this kind of traffic.
Fortification dominates the architecture. We drove into the hills around Syracuse, where many of the rock faces have been carved out by people seeking refuge. This has been happening since about 800BC. It is easy to see why the pull of beautiful, strategically situated Sicily was so strong. For most of today’s refuge seekers, however, the push is a stronger factor than the pull.
I returned home, my head spinning with ideas. Unearthing my sense of belonging is a recurring idea in my work. Fleeing one’s home and clinging to the slim hope of being accepted elsewhere is an extreme test of belonging. The Welcome Stranger exhibition came pouring out, but there is still more work to be done.
Just when I think I have things organised, a Mozambican Spitting Cobra finds its way between the stacked canvasses in the studio and emits a low growl. So, I explain to the courier that they will have to come back later to fetch the paintings that are off to a white cube gallery in Johannesburg, because first we have to catch the snake. They understand the problem. Or a nearby friend casually mentions that last night he heard lions roaring (when the rivers are low, animals cross from the Kruger National Park and make their way through the wild and wonderful bush that tumbles around the granite koppies). So the next night I stay up late hoping to hear the lions and in the morning have difficulty concentrating on my work. Despite my best efforts, enormous porcupines burrow under the fence at night and decimate my carefully cultivated, organic lettuce. They wake us with their snorting and the clatter of their quills. The remains of the veg garden are then finished off by the hefty baboons that wait for the moment when there is nobody home. These are Lowveld problems.
It's more than the wildlife though. Living a less sanitised existence keeps people real. There is a general air of getting on with things, slowly and with a good dollop of the human touch. It is possible to reach a healthy level of intimacy with people very quickly, with the teller at the supermarket or the headmaster of the school. We don't generally let stuff get in the way and eye contact is as rife as the mosquitoes.
The air is different too, laden and thicker. Most of the time it is warm and if the temperature drops below 20 degrees Celsius, we look at each other in surprise and wind our scarves tighter.
This is not where I imagined I would live. Somehow I had designs on a more sophisticated place. Too late for that, but I have so much more.
Five minutes from the Spar, a Belgian baker and a ‘video’ store, amongst the huge granite domes from which Klipspringer survey the surrounding bush. Often we hack back the garden to get to the front door because things grow fast and furiously. We look down a narrow valley towards the east and so we watch the sun come up and the moon rise.
200km to the east is the harbour city of Maputo, capital of Mozambique. 300km west is the urgency of Johannesburg. A short trip up the escarpment to towns with sweet names like Graskop (grass head) and Kiepersol (cabbage sun?) lifts one out of the heat and humidity into the thinner air of the Highveld. These emerald grasslands and montane forests are crammed with an array of fascinating plants.
Of course there is the Kruger National Park, where one can drive for days through pristine wilderness. Days! On tarred roads, at 50km/h. It does something to one’s sense of significance.
South and over the Makhonjwa mountains (the peak one must not point at because it will bring bad luck) into Swaziland. This is a deeply traditional place and one of the last remaining absolute monarchies. It is also where the annual Umhlanga ceremony happens. Young girls symbolically bring cut reeds to the Queen Mother to repair the windbreak around her residence. Up to 40,000 girls dancing in bright clothing; beadwork and texture, rhythm and colour. Occasionally the King chooses another wife from them. Not something I would want for my own daughter, but here at home we all live close to many things that are simultaneously uncomfortable and wondrous.
They had filled out and were glowing like a childhood Enid Blyton fantasy. Since then lichen paintings have filled the gaps, allowing me to indulge my need for rich colour and the way in which natural rhythms, cycles translate into pattern, on a macro and a micro scale.
They occupy a space that feels untouched by the real world; where I can participate in thousands of mini-relationships, each site-specific. The same lichen in light and in shadow will behave differently. Some colonise new territory, riding roughshod over all others. Others will carefully occupy spaces that are unwanted by occupants of the rock or bark. I am amused by their strong sense of belonging.
Once I saw lichens, they couldn't be unseen. Their essential form and growth patterns is something we all know, deep down inside where things are elemental.
The American Heritage® Dictionary of Student Science says a lichen is an organism that consists of a fungus and an alga living together in a symbiotic relationship. The alga supplies nutrients by photosynthesis, while the fungus shades the alga from excessive sunlight and supplies water by absorbing water vapor from the air. Lichens often live on rocks and tree bark and can thrive in extreme environments, such as mountaintops and the polar regions.