“Yes, you can go down to the lake, but just don’t get between a crocodile and the water” said our parents. We took the advice seriously and crept onto the white beaches of Lake Bhangazi. The sounds and smells were overwhelming, a mixture of Knysna loeries and hippo poo. We were spoilt and thought this paradise was ours alone, best kept wild and unpopulated (except for us, of course). Reaching adulthood as South Africa reached democracy, I felt a growing awareness that guiding this wild and wonderful place into the future would take sensitivity and respect. For twenty years, Andrew Zaloumis has been doing this at Isimangaliso, until yesterday, and the sudden announcement of his departure.
I have lost count of how many times I have visited. Trawling through my archive of work, even I was surprised by what a huge source of inspiration this magical place has been. I have seen and felt it grow as plantations were removed, wild life introduced, water sources carefully managed. More than that though, it always seemed as if there was a sincere acknowledgement of the interdependence of human and conservation needs. It is now a World Heritage Site, simultaneously accessible and protected. The battles behind the scenes must have been titanic. Respect and thanks, Andrew Zaloumis.
You can see more artwork here
Wales is not everyone’s dream destination; it’s a bit too soggy for that. It does have a wonderful coastal path that goes from one end of the country to the other (1400km). This path is treacherous in parts, definitely not adhering to health and safety standards that are so prevalent in this nanny state. We bumped into Bob, who was slip-sliding his way along the path and his only concession to health and safety was his neon green reflector jacket. Bob made us guess his age (he was born when Winston Churchill first became Prime Minister was our clue). We asked where he was headed and he said Mwnft, or something like that. The language is also a bit odd, with a strng lck f vwls (strange lack of vowels).
We stayed in a restored stable https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/14098945?s=UYwfGb5B The farm is owned by a young couple who have possibly watched too many episodes of Grand Designs and hoped to restore the farm while commuting from the city and raising several children. The challenges are numerous and fortunately not mine. I could relate to the pioneering spirit of their venture, the underfloor heating and dream bathroom, the windows looking on to the four fields and the wild sea; my kind of place. The plan was to walk on the coastal path to Fishguard, a tiny fishing harbour. It was actually raining when we set off, so I (being African) thought we should retreat to the underfloor heating and half metre thick walls. My sister (being anglicised) felt it was a lovely day. We crossed the four fields of the farm, waded through grass (again, a mixture of Viridian Green and Lemon Yellow) and clambered over lichen encrusted walls. As we got closer to the glassy, Paynes Grey sea, we froze. I knew that sound, a primal explosion of bubbles and wailing that echoed in the caves below…hippos! Peering gingerly over the edge of the cliff we spied the giant Atlantic Seals and their snow white babies (they looked like squirming maggots from up there).
Bravely, we stuck to the plan, stopping for sustenance at a formerly grand seaside hotel - a blend of the Durban Country Club and something out of Dirty Dancing. We ate cream, with scones and tea, surrounded by content elderly people and a disapproving barman who doubled as the waiter. Next stop was Fishguard, where we hung around the town square hoping to work out which bus to take. Because she spent too long living in London, anglicised sister was nervous to ask the bus drivers. Plucking up the courage we hopped onto a bus. The bus driver was strong-looking with lots of piercings and she scowled at us. We explained our plight, gesturing in the general direction of where we had come from. She broke into a broad smile and said “Oh that will be near Buv nd Juff’s (Bev and Jeff) place”. I couldn’t have felt further from home and more at home all at once.
I just returned from the hardware store. (needed some MDF board cut to size- works for tiny paintings, as long as it is well primed with gesso) Remember, home is in a medium-sized town where the emphasis is on agricultural and service industries, so it is not a given that a lefty-leaning female artist will always be completely understood. Over the years visits to panel beaters, tyre shops, car garages, hardware stores have been fraught with ‘isms… paternalism, sexism, racism to name a few. These days things are a bit better, perhaps because savvy businesses have cottoned on to the spending power of women, but I still have a residual nagging feeling.
Today was refreshing. As I scanned the counters for a friendly looking assistant, a blushing young man in khaki and boots caught my eye. I explained what I wanted, trying not to be too overbearing and leaving the planning of the cutting list to him and the computer software. He apologised sweetly for the estimated three day wait for the cutting- three days! Still, I maintained my composure, trying to pass for an average customer. Eventually I couldn’t help myself and produced my sample that I had brought with me, just to check that we were talking about the same thickness of board. This little board I had lovingly prepared with gesso and then subsequent transparent layers of Ultramarine Blue and Dioxazine Violet. He looked a little uncomfortable when he saw it, and apologised again, saying that it was the same thickness but unfortunately they didn’t have it in purple. No problem, I said, brown is good. I left with a happy heart. (and he managed to get the board cut for me in ten minutes!)
On the way home, I had to pull off the road to pick some of the most beautiful Kiaat seeds that I had ever seen. It must be the drought conditions. Several passers-by also stared at the contorted tree, laden with angel-like seeds in glowing Lemon Yellow with a touch of Titanium White and Viridian Green, and asked me what I was looking at.
Keeping it real.
The small boat crossed the treacherous channel and left us on the tiny island off Sicily. It is an exquisite place; turquoise water that hurts the eyes and a shimmering fortress. I thought we were alone on the island. We walked on the baked path and the physical connection with Africa was evident. We found neatly arranged clothes, drying in the sun and left by refugees who had crossed from Africa to Europe. As we walked, I could smell fear. I knew instantly that people were hiding in the low vegetation. I raised my hand slightly in greeting and kept walking.
Back home, where my sense of belonging is strongest, I began to see landscapes as a refugee would experience them. The Kruger Park was no longer a pristine wilderness, but a place where animals hunt when you walk under the cover of night. I realised why some mountain ranges are called barriers. I painted myself in the landscape that welcomes me, lying there like a stone that cannot be moved, stitched into my surroundings with brush marks.
Migration is pervasive. Out of necessity, it often happens quietly. In these works, the refugees leave silent traces of their journey through water, sand and mountains. I asked myself what I would take if I had to leave, and I saw that African women take fabric. I scattered my collection of African fabrics on the floor and painted them as if lost at sea. Every cloth is regional and has meaning. With it around her, a woman can seem regal and even happy. She might even feel these things. These flashes of colour push back despair; they conceal and express at the same time.
*‘Welcome Stranger’ is the translation of a message written on a Kanga cloth.
Makeshift dwellings interspersed with organised structures as far as the eye could see. This has worked its way into my painting. I have never been to a refugee camp in the desert, but I often try to wrap my head around the broad concept of being homeless and anonymous, and so I project myself into these situations. In the midst of the bigger picture, some things must happen for life to continue; washing is done, trading happens and children play. Looking at these new ‘towns’, it is possible to see two things evolving simultaneously. The bigger grid, straight lines and wide thoroughfares are established by large organisations and punctuated by permanent structures. Then there are the more organic shapes made by small roads and footpaths, ground worn down by people accessing smaller businesses, informal traders, hairdressers, people connecting in a real way, out of necessity, under the most dire circumstances.
The pieces of fabric that appear in many of my paintings reference this. I asked myself what I would take if I had to leave, and I saw that African women take fabric. I scattered my collection of African fabrics on the floor and painted them as if lost at sea. Every cloth is regional and has meaning. With it around her, a woman can seem regal and even happy. She might even feel these things. These flashes of colour push back despair; they conceal and express at the same time. Perhaps because I am not an active participant in these situations, the paintings have a sense of hovering above, a suspension of the nitty gritty in favour of a distant view. A reality that is impossible to internalise becomes an image that slowly allows me to come to terms with more. Each brush mark helps to build a picture. My small hope is that the viewer of the painting feels this too. See full image here Unseen, oil on canvas, 120 x 170cm
You have lived in Mpumalanga for over twenty years now. How long for you has the land been a source of inspiration, a significant subject for creative exploration?
The land has crept into my work since I moved to Mpumalanga. As a student (UKZN, Pietermaritzburg) and for a few years after, my work was largely what I would call introvert, still life and interiors, but Mpumalanga in the early nineties wasn’t a place that nurtured navel-gazing and angst. It was sink or swim, I needed a shift in focus and there was this amazing, slightly foreign landscape just outside my door. Also, it was the first time I had lived in an environment where many people make their living from the land.
As well as in your home base of Mpumalanga, you have painted images of the land in places like St Lucia, the Free State and the Karoo. On a general level, do you come across landscape sites while travelling? Or do you specifically go to a place intending to make artwork there, and if so, what would most likely inform that choice?
“Artists are people driven by the tension between the desire to communicate and the desire to hide' - D.W. Winnicott. Donald (psychoanalyst born in 1896) was onto something. His best known work focused on what he calls True Self and False Self. He described False Self as “Other people's expectations can become of overriding importance, overlaying or contradicting the original sense of self, the one connected to the very roots of one's being”.
Speaking only for myself, it is this tension that makes Being an Artist such an odd occupation. Months spent alone in the studio, digging deep and scratching around for ways to make things visual, the meditation, the highs and the lows, the doubts, the eye strain and the neck pain, the endless conversation between me and the work. I don’t set out to find my ‘true self’ but when I come close to it, the work rings true too.
And then this private and absorbing process is abruptly interrupted. To sustain my odd occupation, others must see the work (and hopefully like it too). I have learnt to say goodbye to work that is to be sold, to find energy in the making and not in the having. Occasionally it is hard to say goodbye, or the departure is too sudden - before I have internalized the lessons.
That moment when the bubble wrap covers the painting and partially obscures the image is the beginning of that transition from the private to the public. “Bye-bye painting, I hope I made you strong enough to live in the real world!”
So next time you chat to an artist at an exhibition, know that they may be trying really hard to overcome their desire to hide. Talk to them anyway.
Working as an artist makes for an interesting life.
Mostly this is because it is essential to be a little porous, open to triggers and clues that more sensible activities would filter out.
Studio spaces are often intriguing. It is a myth that all artists work in a frenzy of chaotic creativity. I like a tidy space, with lots of room to move around freely. My process is fairly analytical, interspersed with bouts of warm, fuzzy highs and loud music. There are also the anaesthetised lows and that is what the armchair in the sunny corner is for. My studio needs to be the space that accommodates all of this. It must also be a room that responds well to both music and silence.
When I was a teenager, after years of sharing a bedroom, I inherited a large, quiet room of my own. It had cool blue walls, plush blue carpeting and an air conditioner (this was Durban). During the tedious school day I carried the sanctuary of my blue room around with me. When I got home, I would retreat to my room and draw, with the air conditioner pouring icy, blue air over me.
It is a space that I associate with the rituals and processes of work. If I am away for too long, I begin to unravel a little. It isn’t particularly pretty, but it is both my head space and my work space.
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.