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 Winnicott (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.
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.