Untitled and confused

4 Feb

“We came to South Africa from London by road,” Brenda told us today over lunch.
We gaped at her over our wine glasses.
Cigarette hanging from her mouth, she reached for her glass with her good hand – the left, and gave us the brief outline of a map that I intend to fill in with colour when I am finally sober enough to do so. (“Never end a sentence with a preposition”, Granny Olive always said. Have I just done so? I don’t know, and I don’t care.)
“Why did you do that?” I asked Brenda, “When you could have flown?”
“Well it was far more adventurous to drive,” she said.
She was twenty when she got married and this was in the ’50s I would imagine. There is a diary that she wrote for the benefit of her mother who had wanted an account of the trip that her young daughter and new son-in-law had embarked upon as their honeymoon. This I cannot wait to read.

I spend time with those who are aged and who have much in common. Much of what is in common is that which we wish was not. Bullet wounds in legs, lost sons, strokes in boots of cars from attack, murdered brothers: but it is what it is. I intended to sit at this computer and write about dogs restrained in townships, about what drives people to care for what, but here I am distracted by stories at risk of being lost in incoherent ramblings of age, and I am gripped with the richness of it all and the privilege of being witness. Perhaps it is the archivist in me; perhaps it is the teacher who longs so much for the young in us to benefit from the experience of the old. Either way, here I am in the place that I have intended to be for all of my adult life in order to make sense of all of this – write something meaningful perhaps; put something down on paper for … something … for education, entertainment, perhaps an understanding of where we came from … not sure … watch this space … or don’t.

Yesterday I woke to rain pouring out of the sky as if it was the end of the world. It came in at horizontal proportions beyond the description of it. As I ran to the kitchen I already knew I was too late, and water was gushing in under the door. As I stood at the kitchen door with broom in hand, sweeping the water out as fast as it came in, it did not occur to me to think about what was happening in iSizamaleni, just a three minute drive away from my house across the valley.
I remember worrying about the shacks built on the curve of the river in Alexander Township when I was a child, when it rained. I knew that the next day there would be calls for assistance in the form of blankets, food and clothes for those who had lost everything in rising waters. I never understood why it was that these same people re-built shacks on the very same banks of the river that they knew would flood again in the next downpour; until, that is, I grew up and learned about refugees, forced removals, displaced populations and more to the point, Apartheid. But it is really a different thing knowing about all this and being in it, or simply the left overs of it. Across the highway from where I grew up in privileged white Sandton was Alex, to which there did not seem to be a bridge, I knew about poverty and unemployment, but there was no bridge, so I did not experience it first hand. Here, now, I am in it every day. I take Julia home everyday, and I am rushing around trying to make a difference in the lives of the animals that live there too. After the rain subsided yesterday I got to worrying about the rising mud in the roads and homes that I have now been into. Julia lives with her four children in a two room home that seems the same size as my bedroom. I rattle around in a mansion with no dependents besides four dogs and a mother, while she wades through mud to get to work to feed little children, to come home to an RDP house with a door that does not fit. So who am I to criticize those that restrain their dogs on wires and feed them nothing but stale mielie meal? Why am I so angry with the woman who leans out of her home with slits for eyes and anger in her down-turned mouth? Tiny toddlers cling to her legs and skirts, naked but for a string around the waist. Why should I, in my privileged white ignorance, demand that she care better for the dogs chained in her yard? The dogs that were brought there and chained up by the same men that procreate without thought and who leave their mothers and grandmothers to bear the brunt of their left-overs. Could these be the left-overs of Apartheid? After twenty years? Who am I to provide these answers?

Suffice to say that I have no answers, but I have witnessed suffering and I have witnessed the endurance of suffering, and I continue to do so every day. It may be in a township where I want to beat the living daylights out of a man who tells me that ‘the dogs don’t like the food you brought them’ when his dogs are starving and I know he has sold the food given to him for drink money; it may be Brenda who clasps her crippled hand to her side after an attack left her disabled; it might be the hunting dog with gentle eyes who I desperately want to take home with me but who I know is loved by the boy Collin despite not being able to feed either himself or his dog; it might be my mother; it might be you; it might even be me.

I don’t know why I am here. I don’t know what I am writing about at this moment. Right now I don’t know anything except that I am very upset about a parrot that an old man brought into the vet this morning, dead, its head dangling down over worn and aged hands, tears pouring down his face, asking for answers. I have never seen such a big and beautiful parrot, but I have seen grief.

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Pulling myself together

26 Jan

As we lent the metal extension ladder against the thick bush of the lone tree in a valley somewhere on the border of Mpumalanga and Kwa-Zulu Natal a thick black cloud was at the same time rolling in fast behind us. Eleen moved fast, knowing that a ladder up against a single tree in an open veld in a thunder-storm is not desirable on a Sunday afternoon in January. Cupped in the top-most branches of the tree, surrounded by weaver bird nests, lay two baby secretary birds waiting in their nest for their parents to come home, one of whom was to be seen wandering in the grass on the opposite side of the valley. Spiky feathers indicated their age – probably three weeks old. Fearful of their human intruders the little ones, who even at this age are not that little, lay very still but for the slow blinking of large and beautiful eyes, with indescribably long eyelashes.

Bashing and bouncing on the corrugated farm road a little later, being chased by the storm into the setting sun, a rainbow carving itself into the veld behind us, I wondered as I have for two months now, how I came to be here. Here on a farm road with a young student from Pretoria doing a study on baby secretary birds. Later thinking about all of this and how my life has changed since I have taken the plunge to move to the countryside with my mother in December, I realize that this is the culmination of all that I ever will be. This is where I have been headed since whenever. When I left the theater world after working there for all of my adult life, to become an isolated archivist, it was a shock to me that over night I was required to redefine how I saw myself in the world, how I present myself to others, based on various criteria. But then I realized that I was not reinventing myself at all, not by any means. I had up until then, presented myself to others and to myself as defined by what it was that I did to earn a living, as society dictates. Yet all along that really was never who I was. I was and always have been, an artist. Yet even now when asked, the answer sticks in my throat – “I am an artist”.

Nothing has changed though. There has always been mud on my boots, always been the inevitable bicycle, always been the hunger for nature, always been the daily need to commune with those that don’t speak a language made of human words. Now, however, this is all of me and nothing else. But also now I am able to read a book and devour it from cover to cover in one sitting, to finish a National Geographic article by article at a time rather than a snatched paragraph before venturing out into the traffic to formal employment. Now I am able to sit for days in a studio I have longed for since I was 19, and make ‘stuff’ that makes me happy, stuff that I can sell. Now I am able to spend time in the township being useful for a change. Thin dogs on chains get medication, food, sterilization; their owners get noticed and helped. On the way home from my shift of a few hours, there are little children who run along side my car. They cry and shout. They pile in the back and the front, holding my own little dogs to them, who indulge the kids in their old age. Now I am able to give the kids a lift around the block, a novelty to be in a car, and drop them off, satisfied until tomorrow. (They run wild with twine string tied around their heads and trailing meters behind them in a new game that is popular but inaccessible to adults). Now I am able to spend a day with a young woman passionate about secretary birds, and learn from her and have adventure at the same time. Here in this place of giant vistas of space, of baaing sheep and neighing horses, drinks at the vlei speechless in sunsets, cycling into sunrise and hours in my head in the studio, it feels as if I am pulling myself together; as if all the years of unraveled bits and pieces of learning and experience are being pulled together properly for the first time.

Hi Guys!

29 May

I am sure that it is just me that is offended when another person refers to me as ‘guy’. I say this because people refer to each other as ‘guys’ all the time and nobody ever blinks an eye. But to say that this offends me is an understatement. How is it that I can be sitting in a room full of women, and the door opens and another women walks is. She is the most militant of feminists, agressively protecting the rights of women, out there in the streets with plackards bashing away at whomever she feels is worthy of a beating – and she greets us all with “Hi guys!” How is it that nobody sees the irony here? And whenever I have ever spoken out about this the aforementioned feminist, and whoever else I mention this to, always responds with the same comment: “Ag come on; it’s just a generic term for ‘people’, don’t you know?” Well, of course I know, I’m not stupid. But how has this become an accepted generic term by those very people who fight against this type of language? My question is this: would there ever emerge a generic term for people that had male gender? Never. Not in a million years. Imagine a room full of men, the door opens and in walks another man; he greets the group with “Hi girls!” In what world would this be accepted? One world alone and that would be the room full of men sitting in a green room waiting to go onstage to hear who had won the Miss Gay Whatever. In a country where I can be jailed for using the incorrect terminology when addressing someone else, working for a company where I can be fired for the same, where offensive language is considered, debated, put into legislation – I am astonished that the very same people are surprised at my offence when they refer to me as ‘guy’. It annoys me beyond speach. I know I should just get over myself but really. It’s a bit like the vegetarians who get grumpy when people at dinner with them order a steak. Then once the bill is paid, they put their Busby wallet back into their trendy leather shoulder bag and walk out in their comfortable leather shoes.

I am not a guy. I don’t want to be a guy. I don’t want to be called a guy. Frankly I don’t even want to be called a girl. I’m a woman. And I am not a vegetarian.   

An Ordinary Sailor

20 May

One would think that a Google search for a member of the French nobility would result in much information. However, when Googling the Countess Almine Du Preez, who was a Huguenot that arrived in South Africa when the Huguenots were being persecuted in France, I got nothing. Imagine my surprise when I contacted a contemporary Du Preez who runs a website on the family, to discover that in fact the Countess had never existed. She was a construct probably by a member of the Du Preez family who was still unwed by the birth of his third child. By constructing this Countess the facts of the union between the unwed Catholic and his Protestant woman were downplayed somewhat, and the family was not as shamed as one would have expected.   Yet proudly my family has been parading the Countess as our vague means at being out of the ordinary, for years it would seem.

There is no account of the wreck off the East coast of South Africa that matches the account that elders of my family relate. No Portuguese ship is recorded as having gone down off the Natal coast in the 1600’s. The closest account is the Bredenhoff and that was in 1752, and a Dutch ship to boot. Yet the sole survivor, according to the accounts of my family, was Portuguese.

This tells us much about memory; or rather much about the foibles of memory. It also leads us to ask many questions about history. In the past history was just that – history. It was factual, un-living and not to be meddled with; almost sacred in its fixed truth. Yet we all know that history is written by the victors, and we also now know that history can be re-shaped and adjusted by those that choose to do so for any number of reasons.

Of course the demise of the belief in the Countess Almine Du Preez after all these years will not affect much in the grand order of things. Family members, especially the older ones, will no doubt be a little disappointed, but that is about it. There will be no civil war or investigation into facts. No government is going to face a crisis of any sort. Yet there is something about this person that I feel I need to examine. There is something about the belief that I have held ever since I can remember; the romance of the story that was passed down through generations to me, that I feel needs to be underpinned with a truth as far as truth can be established. The Countess was meant to have married a Portuguese sailor who was the sole survivor of a ship that went down off the East coast of South Africa. He was meant to have made his way down to Cape Town on foot where he met and married the French Huguenot. I was always under the impression that the sailor was in fact the captain of this ship, and he was a Ferreira.

I was wrong on all accounts. To claim that the sole survivor of a ship wreck was the captain speaks volumes about the nature of this person. The captain of a floundering ship is supposed either to be the last off the ship or to go down with it. To be the sole survivor means that he was conceivably a selfish man with no consideration for the adherence to seamanship and the rules that pertain. How could I have got this so terribly wrong? I am sure that the story came from my mother, yet she is adamant that she never would have told me that he was the captain. Could he have been an ordinary sailor, or could he have remained on the ship intending to go down as the captain, but something else saved him? Was it because in my childish eyes it was romantic to have a captain in the family who bravely struggled down the coast all by himself to Cape Town where he made himself into someone special again? Whatever the reasons and wherever they came from the story is fictitious and should never have been believed otherwise.  

But now I face another set of questions. If this is not the history of my family, then what is? My great grandmother was called Almine. Where then did this come from? We always thought that she was named after the Countess. These questions will remain rhetorical, and there is thus no use laboring over them. One question that is pertinent though is the one around how one records the present in order to prevent errors like this from happening in the first place. I very much doubt that many people record their experiences for this reason, but there are other reasons that the everyday person makes records, and these can provide a rich narrative for those to come. Think of letters written during any time of upheaval – they could be personal letters, written with no thought to how they could possibly outline historical events in a far more detailed and truthful manner than any historian could do after the fact. Here for example I think of the letters written by the early gay activist, Simon Nkoli, who wrote numerous letters to his lover, Roy Shepherd, from his prison cell. Simon was jailed for his activism in the Apartheid era; he was also an openly gay man in a relationship with a white man. The correspondence between these two men was never intended to end up in the public domain, but their publication is there for all to read. These letters tell us so much about so much. Putting the relationship aside, which is the obvious narrative, they also tell about life as a political prisoner in South Africa in a particular time, a homosexual prisoner, power struggles and much that is encompassed in Apartheid. Letters of Sally Gross too, between herself and members of the Catholic Church, clearly outline the attitudes and behavior of the church towards gender queer people, that conceivably could never be as close to the truth as an academic research process would be.

Perhaps the story of the heroic captain from First World Portugal, who braved wild animals and strange cultures on Dark Africa, after surviving alone off a ship wreck, walked hundreds of kilometers to Cape Town and married a member of French nobility is a story to be kept after all. The story of the womanizing Du Preez, however, is just as interesting and valuable as a narrative that is possibly part of my family history. There has to be some truth in every story, even if it is simply a moral as in fairy stories, yet who of us can truthfully claim to write the ‘true’ truth? The point is though, that we have to be very careful about how we couch the things we say and the things we write. Here I am reminded of a time when I was taking an overseas visitor into the countryside for a weekend while she was here in South Africa. We were walking in the mountains in the Eastern Free State and I pointed out some old willow trees that had fallen over. I told her how much I loved these trees and how much they reminded me of old women gathering herbs. Months later I stumbled upon a photograph that she had posted on face book, with the caption ‘these trees are referred to locally as women gathering herbs, because of their stooped stance’. How quickly information can be shaped into something quite different, and quite unintentionally! Simply a statement not heard properly, and embellished upon without thought, creating an interesting anecdote, and giving me much food for thought. Not earth shattering, not questioning the validity of science or even challenging cultural beliefs on fallen willow trees, but enough for me to question how memory is shaped, changed by accident and recorded as truth.

Those of us who deal in memory and the recording of it, like me now who works in an archive, need to learn from all of this. How we present material, documents, objects, letters and all that encompasses any collection in an archive, how we describe these – all provide a narrative that is subject to so much. How I will describe a collection of documents will be very different to how a heterosexual, black male coming from rural South Africa will describe the same collection. What we all need to do is to ensure that we are as truthful about who we are in the world, how we are in the world and why we say and write the things we do. At the same time we also need to give ourselves permission to revel in the wonder of narrative, celebrate our stories for what they are – fiction or history, or something somewhere in between.

Finding Myself

4 Mar

On the first day that I began work in this archive I was hanging around feeling a little spare and not knowing whether to sit or stand or to help myself to a cup of tea.  While I was waiting for my new boss to come in and issue instructions I reached into an archival box that was sitting on a shelf nearby, opened a random folder and pulled out a document.  It was a running order of some sort, with hand written notes in the margin. I stared at in surprise as I was certain at first glance that the handwriting was mine. On deeper reading I realized that indeed the writing was mine. The document was a running order of a show that I had worked on years before when I was a free-lance theatre technician. I could not for the life of me remember what the show was but it was clear that it entailed audio-visual components, some puppetry, live singing and dancing and possibly a dinner. If it was a corporate, which I suspected it was, there would have been a dinner. The notes were taken in a note session with the director after a rehearsal, and possibly this was the only rehearsal if it was in fact a corporate function. The director was and still is, a friend of mine. As much as I was intrigued and wished deeply that I could explore the collection further, I was unable to as my boss walked in and I had to turn my attention to him.

Expecting to be sent to some musty office somewhere to complete HR forms and all those mundane but necessary things one has to complete when starting a new job, I was instructed instead to head out to Yeoville where the organizational material from a company that had closed down was sitting in boxes and files and needing to be sorted, described and archived. The company had donated all this material to the archive and, since I was the new archivist, this was my first professional leap into the real world of archiving. Sifting through piles and piles of documents, much of which was duplicated over and over again, bank statements from years back, boxes of personal correspondence and bills, white papers, litigation, findings, requests, conference material was the best crash course in archiving I could have been exposed to. Imagine a table the size of the average dining room plus lounge plus bedroom with a kitchen thrown in for fun, all filled a meter high with piles of paper and files, with boxes underneath the table filled to spilling with files too; that was what the job entailed. It took me six solid weeks to reduce all that material into 108 archival boxes, describe the material and code the lot.

Ploughing through the material day in and day out I sort of went into weeks of haze, which was why when I came across the planning notes and spreadsheets for an anniversary celebration the connection did not at first make itself apparent. Yet it was when I picked up a list of costs for the entertainment for the evening that my focus suddenly leapt to sharp attention. This was a list of the technical staff for the show that was to be performed at the tenth anniversary celebration of the organization in question, and there I was, listed as stage manager.

So how did the notes and running order arrive in a box at my office and the rest of the planning documentation appear in the material of an NGO that had closed down? The answer lies in that we are all in one archive or other whether we like it or not. In the first few weeks of my new profession as archivist I discovered myself in not only one but two archives! One was the personal material donated by the director friend of mine and the other of the organization that had closed down.  Having been a free-lance technician my name appears in all sorts of programmes and in all the organizational material at Wits Theatre where I was the production manager for many years. And as I work on a daily basis here I am creating my own history that will be incorporated into this archive whether I like it or not.

This synergy of experience; this conundrum of life as we live it, is providing me with a wealth of stuff to ponder on and hopefully to write about. But in the meantime, as I was chatting to a colleague yesterday about the show I’d worked on and being able to piece together a short history of myself through the archive, and also how I had recently redefined myself as archivist rather than theatre practitioner, he said: “It’s all about finding yourself. You found yourself!” I found this to be a lovely response and it led me to think about a point I made in the conclusion of my masters research report. Here it:

“While walking in Braamfontein recently I stumbled upon an art exhibition.  It was hung in that beautiful, somewhat industrial but at the same time colonial space, The Canopy.  It was entitled, of all things, “Stillness” and was by artist Hermann Niebuhr.  Paintings in oil, all South African landscapes, except one which was of an emaciated dog-like creature.  Open, empty desert roads, leading the eye to a point on the horizon; wind pumps standing sentinel over vast flat Karoo land; storms in landscapes that I can only describe as still lives, since moments captured were the split seconds when lightning striking the earth – black clouds above and desert vistas lit up in that moment below.  These stormy still lives were my favourite and I got to thinking how clever the artist was.  Lightning is not noisy by any means – its strike is completely silent, yet it changes atoms in the air and causes the world to hold its breath, in expectation of the violent clap of thunder that is its shouting antithesis that follows.  Staring into these landscapes, which truly spoke of silence to me, I think I understood.  These are familiar images to me.  They sit deeply in my African spirit.  The semiotic representation of a single wind pump in a vast open desert space is so deeply culturally bound I wonder if a European would/could ever read it as intended by the artist.  I could hear the constant meditative sound of the clank, clank, clank as the blades turned (so different to the powerful whoosh whoosh of a Dutch windmill).  I could hear water pouring gently into the reservoir as it was pumped up from dark cavernous homes underground. I could hear the calls of the sheep as they walked across the desert to water and feel the gathering closeness of an expected storm.  This is the familiarity that all South Africans know in our blood, but for me it’s something so much more. The deserts of the Karoo have always been my sanctuary; always been the places I have run to when my spirits needs quiet and healing.  These spaces are not silent places of loss; these are the true meditative spaces I had been searching to articulate in the research project all along.”

The title of the book I am writing might just be: “Finding Myself: archival anecdotes of a middle-aged South African lesbian.” But maybe not.

Earthworms 101, or how to bury a dead cat.

25 Feb

2composting cartoon-CP

I am almost sure that nobody will be able to read the text on this attachment, but I am putting it in anyway. I was approached by a lecturer from the Vermont Design Institute to submit an entry for an environmental design competition last month. Since I did not have enough time to put something new together I thought I would rather rush to finish a manual on earthworm farming that I have been working on. “If you don’t swing, you don’t hit,” as my father always used to say. I managed to submit on time, although fairly confident that the content and format did not comply with the competition rules. Diane, the aforementioned lecturer, printed my manual out onto two boards and that is what is to be seen in the attachment. I was correct in my assumption that it did not comply but I am told that it is being enjoyed by the students nevertheless.

So what was the point of it if indeed it did not comply? The point is, I realized as I sat in on a lecture delivered by my guru Dr Jane Goodall, that there is a message to be spread, and no matter how small the message it will have an impact. Despite half of her lecture describing habitat loss, devastated forests, poverty and ignorance she ended with a message of hope; of encouragement. She reminded me, along with all the other attendees, that no matter how small an effort we make in our private ways, it is worth it. So those that raise their children to be thoughtful and mindful of what they do on this planet, are making big differences to the world that we leave for the next generations, and those of us that compost even in a very small way, using the results to nutrify our own gardens and vegetable patches ARE making a change. I went away encouraged and rather emotional. In this world of negativity, where we are constantly bombarded by the media telling us to be more the consumer than we already are, the consumer that wreaks such havoc on the planet, it was refreshing to feel uplifted by a woman who has made the biggest impact imaginable. And despite my submission not being compliant, I now have a finished earthworm manual that I can possibly find a publisher for, and if that is the case then imagine the impact that could make.

Man from Sudan

5 Feb

Journeys are inspirational!  At present there are three journeys that consume me, and these are the journeys of a scientist, an anthropologist and a regugee. What drives the movement of these three men are what I am finding largely interesting, besides the physical nature of the travel that they have, are and will embark upon.  But it is also the recording of these journeys that I is consuming me.  Michael Fay is the scientist that undertook what he referred to as his ‘megatransect’ where he crossed the jungles of Central Africa on foot, at time delirious with maleria, to photograph and document all in his path.  His work uncovered many species up until then not known by humans and resulted in vaste tracts of land being restricted as nature reserves.  His next journey was to fly over Africa, with the same intention in mind, and this he called, predictably, his ‘megaflyover’. Now Paul Salopek, anthropologist, walks the route that the ancient hominids walked as they left Africa and spread across the continents.  His journey will take him seven years and he is three months into it, having left his wife behind.  The third journey-man that consumes me at present has also left a wife behind, and children too. These he has left in a refugee camp somewhere in North Africa, while he escapes the ravages of civil war in his home country which is South Sudan.  

I met Allain, the man from Sudan, in Hillbrow three weeks ago.  He had arrived in Johannesburg to meet his brother whom he hoped would help him to get his family to safety.  Unfortunatley when he arrived he discovered that Plettenburg Bay is another bus trip away from Johannesburg and not, in fact, a suburb nearby as he had been led to believe. The man was desperate, tears and snot running as he sobbed.  Nobody would talk to him, telling him to ‘find someone who speaks his language’ – so much for South African Ubuntu!  His embassy wanted nothing to do with him either since he was from South Sudan and the ambassaodor was from the North, and Arabic to boot. This is the quintessential problem underlying the Sudanese civil war at present and it is deeply distressing that it transfers to the southern most country in Africa; as far removed from its origin as it can be.  I gave him bus fare and he called me when he arrived in Plett. His brother had moved to Mossel Bay for the summer where he was fishing for a long line fishing company.  Allain has called me with every step of his journey, giving me a brief outline of each step he has taken in his progress in meeting up with his brother and finding a job.  The final call came when he said: “Carrrol, it’s Allain from Sudan. I call you at eight o’clock. We sail now and I will not call you for three months. We are sailing! I Have a job!”  I heard tears course down his face. How can I miss a man I knew for fifteen minutes?

I will follow his journey, and imagine him on his fishing ship as it bounces on the seas to who knows where. I will make up his story as no doubt there is a woman and children who are doing the same, looking forward, as I am, to seeing him again. Our stories will be different to his, and as different to each other as such, as well.

Is this the nature of Narrative Theory I now find myself asking? Is it the making of the archive? Michael and Paul are consciously making history and in that generating material that will be kept for posterity, but Allain’s story tells us much about the trials of war, of displacement and separation, of the nature of xenophobia and desperation. His story will arguably be all the more meaningful than what will be recorded in history books in years to come, in that his experience is so deeply personal. What then will be done with the record? To me right now it seems very important to record the events of this man who is a nobody, even if the events are constructed from vague phonecalls and imagination only, bolstered by graphic television reports of Sudanese fighting. I find myself lost in thought, in readings of all sorts of things, having brought to this place by masters studies, still not knowing where to begin and where it will end. Verne Harris, my new guru and writer extraordinaire, says that “[t]he view that the record lies inert from its creation until it is used by researchers in patently untenable.  While researchers release energies – and generate new energies – through usage, the record is already a place in which energies dance.” With every step on his journey Allain, the man from Sudan, dances his story, and his story will dance with new energies forever.

The end of part one…

8 Jan

When I lived in Durban I had a lady that came once a week to clean my flat.  She would also make a meal for us which we would eat together before we both headed out. At the end of every meal she would sigh, stand up and say: “That’s the end of part one.” I would always ask her when part two was going to begin, and she never had an answer for me. Now I understand, many years later, what she meant.

I am now coming to the end of my masters studies, after two years of hard work and sometimes painful reflection. Because of the journey of study that I have taken I have ended  up making a dramatic career change and am now no longer in theatre, but am an archivist for an NGO.  Those French doors that I had a feeling were being flung open for me were indeed being flung so hard they almost came off their hinges.  This has been the most exciting of journeys I have ever embarked upon and it culminated in an exhibition that was a huge success and made me remember that I am an artist.  It also told me, shockingly so, that I have something to say and that what I have to say is important and that I have been heard.  These two years have grounded me, made me very aware of who I am in the world and how I want to be in the world, more particularly where I want to be. 

The world of the archivist is a world of the dreamer, an abstract world which is rather difficult to define for the most part.  It is a bit like being attached to a spiral with everywhere to go, no beginning and no end, but also rather like the snake that swallows its own tail.  It is also somewhat voyeuristic which can be alarming.  Most importantly it is about being constantly reminded of self, how one should position oneself in conjunction to others, individuals and organizations, for the archivist is privy to so much that is private and confidential, and also at times deeply and frighteningly political.  Just as humans are subject to the seven degrees of separation theory, so too have I been astonished by the synergy between archives, between history and between individuals that pop up all over the place.  It is so exciting to put together narratives from bits and pieces arriving from different sources, and at the same time frightening that so much can be known about people who I have never met.  It is a humbling place to be and I hope that it remains so, for if not, then it is a dangerous place to be, arrogant and disrespectful.

The most exciting aspect of the archive however, is that of interpretation.  If we begin to view history through the eyes of the post modernist then we accept that all of history is subject to re-interpretation all the time, and has to be, with the interpreter in the centre gazing outwards, ensuring truth to self at least.  By extension, if the interpreter chooses to take anecdotal history and stories and shapes them to new meaning or interpretation and at the same time ensuring that there is an understanding that this is his/her new work, then the opportunities are endless.  Before I lose impetus I will write a book, a novella, a something, that extends bits and pieces of anecdotes, memory and history into something new and perhaps will be interesting to others. 

So this is where Doris has been for the last few years.  2013 was a difficult one for many.  For me it was about learning about so much but also about loss.  I found through journalling and discussion with my supervisor and friends, that what I have been searching for all my life, is a quiet meditative silence, and this was what my exhibition covered.  Since it was so deeply personal the process of planning and writing about it was at times extremely painful, the depth of honesty and personal history was what made it all the more successful.  I came full circle and dealt with the absence of presence which I wrote about in my blog years ago, which was all the more poignant in that my lover left me for another in the middle of my exhibition, silencing me with the demand for no contact ever again.  So again, loss and silence, and absence.

It is now 2014.  There is no point in dwelling on sad loss but all to be gained in examining what it is that can be learned.  As far as my lover is concerned, I am astonished at the depths of anger that others have displayed; anger that I have left behind weeks ago. The hilarious image of my 75-year-old mother, frail with emphysema, and my 85-year-old aunt, blind and rather deaf, planning to “clone her and bang her heads together” with reference to the ex-partner, makes me want to take up pen and ink again and draw a cartoon. As I used to tell my students who were overcome with depression when they dropped out, it is always as useful to know what one does not want as much as what one does want.  This year and these experiences have taught me that never again will I forget that I have a voice and that I am an artist; never again will I accept years of projection onto me in order to bolster the insecurity of another; never again will I ignore my mothers’ tentative opinion on a lover; never again will I consider leaving Africa.  If nothing else this year has shown me that I am secure in myself, who I am and how.  I have  indeed  found my silent place, my space of healing.

This is the end of part one.

The wonder of nature.

10 Feb

Last Sunday evening a giant oak tree fell down in Greymont Hills. It took out three cars, a garage, a section of roofing and all the power and telephone cables in the road.  It had been sick for a while and could not withstand the high winds that evening.  It was a magnificent tree and has lived there longer than any of the residents in the area have been on the planet.  The devastation was astonishing and the power of nature that can change lives in an instant is humbling indeed.  Since I have lived in this area I have been aware of a family of spotted eagle owls that have made the tree their home.  Was it coincidence that when I woke at 4:45 on Monday morning to a cacophony of irate birds and a baby owl on the wall in my garden?  Or was this a displaced person?  The question will have to remain unanswered.  Nevertheless he was still on the wall when I returned from work, sitting in the rain.  And then ensued a cabaret of staring between cat and owl that had me entertained for ages.  Both having the same colour eyes, and round and dilated, they could have been a related species.  In my head a cartoon unfolded where cat tells owl to blink and owl tells cat that this is not going to happen. Then owl dares cat to blink and of course cat refuses.  Frustrated, owl simply turns his head to face the neighbour’s garden, and cat shrieks cheat!! Eventually, after only thirteen hours, dog realizes that there is a creature on the wall that he is unfamiliar with, barks hysterically, and owl ends the game by flying off, probably in relief.

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These creatures live and move around us, despite us, appearing and disappearing at will.  Like the small spotted genet that I caught in a moment as he walked across the telephone line over my garden one night.  So much must happen without our knowledge and best it remain that way.  But what intrigues me is how nature mirrors itself all over.  If only we look we learn that nothing stands alone.  Everything belongs to the same thing, what ever that thing is.  If only we could quiet ourselves enough we would realize that we are just as much a part of the whole as everything else is.  Maybe then we will stop this rape and pillage.

Just before I get too morbid and bring all my readers down with me, take a look at these images of my beloved silk moths hatching.  Take note of the fluffy feelers and ‘feathers’ on this tiny creature as it squeezes its way into the world.  Take note of the cat and her academic interest in the life cycle of the silk worm.  When I take note of all the photographs that I have stored all over the place, I am grateful that I have the opportunity to revisit memory of extraordinary adventure that I experience in the privacy of my own garden.

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Aside

Searching for silence

14 Jan

How anyone studies and runs a family at the same time is anyone’s guess.  I cannot blog and study at the same time; thank goodness I do not have a family.  Doris Dyke has taken a second seat to my masters, although I am finding space for cartooning, painting and even puppetry in the course of my studies.  Last year was astonishing in what I learned, the people I met and the projects I undertook.  The most exciting thing that I learned is that I am an artist.  What did I think?  That I was not?  For my practice as research (one of the courses I took) I put together a small exhibition of oil paintings on the plight of the rhino and presented it with a short puppet play.  I turned the space into a sort of quiet meditative space, using a sound track off the net that was a combination of didgeredoo and Tibetan prayer bells.  I was planning to use this as the point of departure for my main research project on which I need to also write a dissertation.  The best laid plans, as they say…  With the guidance of my supervisor and mentor I discovered that my train of thought is not in the lack of voice or silence that the rhino lives in, but rather my own silence.  From there I have been grappling with all sorts of concepts and theories and have yet to submit my research proposal.  At present I sit with the outline of a proposal that seeks to stage silence in some way, keeping it sacred, as oposed to breaking silence.

But here I sit again in Utrecht, having time to myself for reflection and exploration.  I have embarked on a project which I have called ”gLOVE stories”.  Riding around on a bicycle, as one does in Holland, I was struck by the loneliness and isolation of the many gloves that are dropped on the cycle paths and walk ways here.  There is something poignant in a lost glove, probably more so than say for example, a lost book, in that a glove is an intimate part of a person.  It takes the shape of the hand, fits like a glove if you will forgive me.  A lost glove, lying in the dirt and rain (and as I write, snow), seems sad in some way, silent.  So I have been collecting gloves all over the place.  Today was a three glove day, even though all I did was take a walk to the shops and back.  I am also taking photographs of the gloves where I can, lying frozen in a sloot or blown under a bush.  How this will emerge as a part of my final presentation in staging silence remains to be seen.

Imagine my disappointment when I opened a book and there was a picture of a montage of gloves.  Of course there are those that claim that there is no new idea in the world anymore.  And also, despite the caption being in Dutch, I am sure that the intention of the artist was not to show silence.  Imagine my delight though, when we stumbled across an advert for an opening for an art exhibition here in Utrecht entitled Silence/Stilte.  The work of seven artists were to present their interpretation of silence – just what I have been looking for.  Carien and I went to the opening yesterday afternoon and were clearly underdressed for the occasion because of the cold. (It is astonishing what people will endure for the sake of looking the part.)  Imagine my deep disappointment when I found a gallery full of square canvasses of varying size, all uni-colour in oils, and saying nothing of silence to me.  I took comfort somewhat when Carien pointed out to me that this in all likeihood spoke of silence to many others and that this was no doubt driven by a trend or even a group of like-minded artists.  My distress stems, though, from the fear that my presentation will not speak of silence to my audience.  Of course the stakes are high for any exhibition, but the success of my masters degree may depend on it.  Suffice to say now though that I am pre-empting so much.  Who knows where I will be in the process once I am in the middle of it?  Where I am now is so far removed from where I began.  In fact so far removed I hardly remember where I began just last year.  Now I am moving into curation and archiving, and I never would have thought I would be so deeply interested in all of this.

We left the gallery with me in a state of despair. But as we unlocked our bicycles Carien turned to me and said: “Now how is that for representation of silence?” She was pointing to the Dom tower that presides over the city of Utrecht.  In the clear deep blue of the frozen winter sky she was so right.  The centuaries old tower, sihouetted in skeletal magnificence, almost hanging in history and wisdom gained from years of silent witness, against the cloudless frozen sky, spoke volumes to my lover and me in that moment. “You see,” she said, turning to me, “Trust your instinct”.

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