goodbye aloe

present tense

I associate blooming aloes with Nelson Mandela, who was born in the winter month of July in Mvezo, a village on the banks of the Mbashe River, near Mthatha in the Eastern Cape.  July and August are cold months in South Africa, and the spikes of our proud aloes spice our winter landscape with red heat.

Aloe Ferox, via the Albany Museum

Aloe Ferox, via the Albany Museum

Albany Museum: Ikhala: The aloe that serves society.

Please follow the above link to read more about Ikhala; the warrior aloe – a truly magnificent plant with a lot of cultural meaning.


This post is a brief visual sharing of my latest inspiration: winter’s dying bouquet combined with early signs of spring – bits and pieces I found while E was busy pruning the vineyard in preparation for next year’s harvest.

The colours of decay and new life – brown + sap green – are appealing.

no more red | willemien de villiers
no more red | willemien de villiers
goodbye aloe | willemien de villiers
goodbye aloe | willemien de villiers

collection of winter and early spring

collection of winter and early spring | willemien de villiers
detail of aloe candelabra + nasturtium leaves | willemien de villiers

detail of aloe candelabra + nasturtium leaves | willemien de villiers

brittle frond of decaying aloe | willemien de villiers

brittle frond of decaying aloe | willemien de villiers

The secrets of the arum | willemien de villiers
The secrets of the arum | willemien de villiers

I quote the following from Hadeco – The History of Zantedeschia and Propagation by Tissue Culture : “This bulb was highly regarded by the Xhosa for its medicinal and edible qualities. Placing a warm leaf on the forehead is said to aid headaches and the fresh leaf is soothing for insect bites. The leaf and flower stems can be cooked and were often eaten with mealie-meal. Zantedeschia aethiopica is also famous for growing to a monstrous size of 1.8 m in its favoured habitat of wet, marshy ground.”

Click the link to read more about this beautiful lily that grows with such abundance in the Western Cape regions.

pressed flower ring + golden chalice nub | willemien de villiers

pressed flower ring + golden chalice nub | willemien de villiers

new growth | willemien de villiers

new growth | willemien de villiers

Enjoy and happy creating!

claws and mud

Unique ceramic dogs by South Australian artist Elodie Barker

Unique ceramic dogs by South Australian artist Elodie Barker

 via Sculptural Bowhouse

Lula notices that the honey pot is shaped like an elegant long-nosed dog – a pointer maybe – with crossed forelegs and its head tilted back to form a handle. She gently lifts it from the glass shelf, noticing a small hole in each  delicate ceramic toenail, from which the honey, presumably, will pour.

It will make a perfect gift for her friend Reeza (beekeeper and dog lover) so she takes it to the counter and pays the hefty price written on the tag.

soft paws to protect flooring

soft paws to protect flooring

Soft Paws for Flooring Protection by

Lula has to cross a river to get back to her house, barefoot and muddied up to her knees, but she doesn’t mind because a perfect gift is hard to find on this remote island.

While wading through the warm clay-coloured water, she thinks of the dream she had the previous night; of the strange animal she’d met there on the edge of the nature reserve she was staying in in her dream … and then sees the bushveld landscape (acacia thorns and dry scrub) where she had spotted the small, compact dream animal – about the size of a large Maltese poodle – but with dense, short fur.

It had short, sharp claws – not unlike the ceramic nails of the wrapped-up dog she was carrying now, Lula realises.

In her dream, several rows of claws protruded from the animal’s stubby neck, like a designer collar.

Kruger National Park Landscape (Photo: John Wesson)

Kruger National Park Landscape (Photo: John Wesson)

Centre for Environmental Rights.

The animal seemed to be wounded and in distress. There was another woman present, holding a spade, threatening to decapitate the frightened creature if Lula couldn’t/wouldn’t take care of it.  She longed to cradle it like a baby; instead ran back to her tent to fetch a bucket to carry the spiked animal to the edge of the dry river.

Walking away, Lula felt as if she was joining all of creation on a stage; birds, animals big and small, insects, reptiles, flowers – all drenched in an African sunset of flame and ash.

The performance felt personal; for her eyes only.


Photos of the Kruger Private Reserves | Perfect Africa.


Reeza’s party is wonderful – literally full of wonder: everywhere Lula looks, someone is engaged in some form of extreme creativity – an opera singer walks up and down the indoor staircase singing Lucia di Lammermoor, while a cross-legged sage nestled on the leather couch in the downstairs living room wrestles himself in a bout of impossible chess, board balanced on his lap.

Dame Joan Sutherland

Dame Joan Sutherland, a.k.a “la Stupenda”

Lula glimpses the headline on the paper lying next to him: “Reburial Aborted”.

There’s definitely a poem in there, she thinks.

present tense

The glorious supermoon energised me last night – finishing this post (in draft mode for weeks!) is the proof. Listening to the downpour outside, winter’s teeth finally showing, it feels good to muse on what inspires me; to reflect on what is happening here and now.

supermoon comparison

supermoon comparison

Supermoon – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

Supermoons occur about once every 14 full moons in a full moon cycle (the next one will be on August 10, 2014) when a full moon coincides with the closest approach the Moon makes to the Earth on its elliptical orbit. The technical name is the perigee-syzygy of the Earth-Moon-Sun system, and it is known that the gravitational stress on the moon during a Sun-Earth-Moon syzygy can trigger a moonquake – of no consequence to our planet. ( I like the idea of a moonquake … and the idea of an earthrise, as seen by astronauts from the moon.)

A different perspective is always invigorating.

Facts (however fleetingly remembered) add to my enjoyment of the natural world, but sometimes it feels appropriate to surrender to mysteries that can never be known. (At least not by me.) The language of mathematics and geometry continue to fascinate me, and draw me in, as I race through books with titles like “Thinking Mathematically”; “2 x 2=5”; Mario Livio’s  “The Golden Ratio”; “The nature of Mathematics”; “Cabinet of Mathematical Curiosities” – and for good measure a history of Anesthesia, which deserves a post of its own.

discrete mathematics

discrete mathematics

via ETH – Computer Science – Prof. Dmitry Feichtner-Kozlov.

Discrete Mathematics is a branch of modern mathematics which distinguishes itself from the more classical branches in several important respects. Probably the most characteristic feature, “the trademark” of Discrete Mathematics is to study mathematical concepts in a constructive way. 

I cannot say I understand much of what is written (e.g. this definition of discrete mathematics: “The classical question Does there exist an object with property X? gets transformed into How can we construct an object with property X?”)  but the words spark ideas and images for new work. The visual interpretations of advanced mathematical systems by ancient civilisations like the Maya, further feed my obsession to understand something of the magical world of numbers.

Dresden Codex, leaves 27-30 (from Compendio Xcaret)

Dresden Codex, leaves 27-30 (from Compendio Xcaret)

Realms of the Sacred in Daily Life: Early Written Records of Mesoamerica.

The Dresden codex depicts a number of rituals and gods and documents aspects of daily life such as agriculture. The leaves displayed are part of the tables documenting the astronomical movements of the Great Star (Venus) and the first page of the lunar cycle tables (page at far right). Much of the damage evident in this facsimile occurred during the bombardment of Dresden during World War II.

Paris Codex, leaves 21-22 (from Compendio Xcaret)

Paris Codex, leaves 21-22 (from Compendio Xcaret)

The Paris Codex contains almanacs, calendar counts, constellation tables, and depictions of the spirit world as it relates to the terrestrial world. In this rendition of the spirit world, the four seated figures at the top of leaf 22 are Pauahtuns, associated with the four world directions, the rains and winds. Just below them are two death deities, identified in part by their “death-eyes” collars. Between the two groups a sky band indicates the division of their positions in the heavens and on earth. These two realms are separate, but they are shown to be part of a unified whole by the green sky ropes that twist and weave among the figures.

Madrid Codex, leaves 13-16

Madrid Codex, leaves 13-16

The leaves displayed here show a portion of the almanac section used by priests to perform divination rites relating to essential daily activities such as hunting, weaving, and agriculture. The four horizontal rows in the lower half of each panel are composed of the glyphs of the 20 named days which, as in the Aztec calendar, cycle 13 times through the 260-day Sacred Year.

willemien de villiers | orchid | oil on canvas

willemien de villiers | orchid | oil on canvas

In this painting I recently finished, I dissected and photographed and researched the morphology of orchids; those exotic botanical creatures that seem to possess the power of speech. I heard the voice of one given to me on my birthday in March, still blooming and bewitching, as I attempted to capture its cellular soul.

willemien de villiers | the mysteries/underside

willemien de villiers | the mysteries/underside

willemien de villiers | detail, underside \ the mysteries

willemien de villiers | detail, underside \ the mysteries

These images of the underside of my stitched cloth, “The Mysteries”, somehow best reflect how I feel right now. Mystery upon mystery; unraveled yet knotted and secure. I feel like Lula in her dream: joining all of creation on a stage; birds, animals big and small, insects, reptiles, flowers … content, yet curious about what will be revealed.

Happy creating!

black southeaster inspiration

Pale pink vygies after the storm


The combination of a howling black south-easter and spring tides sends raging walls of water crashing over the sea-wall at Kalk Bay harbour in September 1983.

Picture : John Yeld, The Argus.


A rather chilly spring has blown into summer with yesterday’s almost-gale-force black southeaster. Although nothing compared to the beast of 1983, it howled loud enough to fry my nerves to a frazzle, unsettle the dogs and caused the cat to finally have a nervous breakdown. The southeaster, I am told, is a fairweather or trade wind that originates from the South Atlantic High (SAH) pressure system, moving southwards in summer as the westerlies retreat polewards. If you want to know more about things like the deep southeaster and the shallow southeaster, visit

Oh, the joys of the internet!

All Capetonians know the legend of  a villainous Dutch pirate called Jan van Hunks who lived at the foot of the mountain around the 1700s – a prolific pipe smoker whose wife chased him out of the house whenever he felt the need to light up. One day he met a mysterious stranger (who also smoked) on the slopes of Table Mountain. A contest ensued to see who could smoke the most – Van Hunks won, and the stranger turned out to be the Devil. To this day, whenever the southeaster blows, the Devil of Devil’s Peak and Van Hunks continue their challenge, each time obscuring the top of Table Mountain with their pipe smoke as they try out-do one another.

Photo essay: Clouds on Table Mountain – Blog – Table Mountain Aerial Cableway

Photo courtesy Globe Trodden

The splendid tablecloth is part of an orographic cloud formation (see below), which normally forms during the summer months when Cape Town’s south to southeasterly winds push moist air against the mountain’s slopes. As the air rises, it cools, causing the relative humidity to increase. The moisture then condenses to form the world-famous tablecloth.

The image below is of an orographic cloud formation, from a downwind zone behind the Île Amsterdam, in the far southern Indian Ocean.


Orographic lift – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

“A gravity wave cloud pattern—analogous to a ship wake—generates a wave motion in the wind passing over it, creating regularly spaced orographic clouds. The wave crests raise and cool the air to form clouds, while the troughs remain too low for cloud formation. Note that while the wave motion is generated by orographic lift, it is not required. In other words, one cloud often forms at the peak.”

 Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

Map of Saint-Paul and Amsterdam Islands in the Indian Ocean

Photo courtesy david.gill12

The infamous black southeaster sometimes inspires South African music –  Black South Easter is a group of five musicians who incorporate elements of afro-soul, dubrock, dance and reggae into their music. Vocalist Nhoza Sitsholwana, guitarist Dan Boshoff, bass player Jimi Curve, drummer Jerry Mbowa and violinist Carly Nauta mention that “… the band takes its name from the cleansing winds that blow across the Cape and bring in the fresh air that revitalizes and uplifts…”

Hmmm… certainly not while it’s blowing, but on the day after a storm the air is indeed purified and crystal clear, as its nickname of the Cape Doctor suggests.

Black South Easter | Presenter.

E’s main concern after the Big Blow was the vineyard and the very new and fragile bunches of grapes with chartreuse berries the size of pinheads. After a full inspection today it looks as if most of them survived with not too many trossies shriveled up or blown off.

The summer vineyard is a feast for the eye on a clear day like this, with intense colours splashed everywhere.

And maybe I wouldn’t have noticed and experienced it so intensely it if it wasn’t for yesterday’s wind.

Even the view from my studio looks new today – the last of the season’s arum lilies a proud sentinel among masses of nasturtiums, geraniums and vygies. The nasturtiums and vygies are in their final blooming phase and I drink in their saffron, flame and ruby hues while it lasts.

Happy creating!

a very long short story

from Vintage Printable

The driver waiting at OR Tambo International turns out to be a policeman on stress leave. A nervous man with kind eyes, he tells Anna at their first petrol-stop that he has finally seen one dead body too many – that of a young woman who had jumped from the roof of her university hostel a few days before. She follows the policeman as he moves away from the small tour group towards the shade of a stunted spikethorn tree. Waiting for him to continue, she thinks of a vintage postcard pinned to the green felt notice board in her studio at home; of a woman in a ball gown leaping from a burning building. The woman’s hair – an upside-down russet waterfall – is frozen mid-air.

“She was the same age as my daughter,” the policeman adds, briefly pressing a thumb and forefinger to his eyelids before turning away, coughing as he takes a sip of water from a light blue plastic bottle. A brief gust of wind releases an unpleasant, bitter smell from the tree’s white flowers.

Common Spikethorn / Gymnosporia buxifolia (Plants) 

Anna notices the sweat-soaked collar of his camouflage bush shirt, as well as the taut skin covering his prominent cheekbones. Unlined and smooth, it looks as if the lightest touch will leave a bruise. Looking away, she catches a glimpse of a dream she had the previous night: a large indoor space filled with objects – a few squat vases filled with overblown roses and peonies and yellow pincushions, a pile of carved wooden balls, hollow hearts of rusted wire, soft coloumns of folded linen and rows of pale-coloured clothes. Long tables laden with plates of food; sweet and savoury delights.

“Sorry,’ the policeman says. “I didn’t mean to talk about any of this.”

Anna struggles to hold on to the dream’s rapidly dispersing tendrils as she briefly touches his shoulder before crossing her arms.

“I could do with a bite,” he says, replacing the lid of the blue bottle.

Royalty Free Stock Photo, Pictures, Images And Stock Photography.

Up ahead, the low horizon scowls in perpetual retreat and the flanks of the mountains sliding past the tinted kombi windows are woolly with grey thorn trees. The policeman on stress leave is driving them north, as far away from Anna’s southern home as is possible without crossing the Zimbabwean border.

General « africadirectblog.

Accacia karrooProfile: Ms Fahimeh Jami.

Bales of furry straw, like coconut-covered Liquorice Allsorts, mark the harvested fields next to the road. Anna frowns. Another image from her dream appears – rows of rolled up grey striped blankets dotting the rough lawn of the park below her house. Dog blankets, her mother used to call them; something Anna recalled when she recently got stuck in traffic next to the Rondebosch police station. A group of Somali refugees was taking shelter on the scrap of lawn out front, gathering together the corners of the cheap Pep Store issue under their chins. Drawn to the monochrome pattern of hands and triangular tent shapes, she withdrew her openly curious stare only when one of the women pulled a corner of blanket across her face.

Style Guide CT: Africa Fashion Week 10 – Suzaan Heyns.

A novel use for Pep Store blankets, also known as prison blankets.

Anna fetches a sketch book from her bag and attempts to further uncoil her stubborn dream: the piles of fabric, the ornately crafted tartlets on the tables, the striped grey blankets. Every now and then she glances up at the landscape that continues to blur past – red earth, deep orange aloes erupting in the crouching shrub, weeping wattles and euphorbia fingers pointing skyward. Dense clusters of khakibos, blemished with black-slash burs, spoil the virgin landscape.


Huilboom,” the policeman says, pointing at a group of wattles. “I prefer the Afrikaans name,” he adds. In this manner, he has been sharing bits of information throughout the journey.

The juxtaposition of the euphorbia’s fleshy succulence and the dry thorny scrub bothers Anna. Although equally indigenous, one of them doesn’t belong in this bushveld landscape, she decides.

After a while a koppie slowly rises like a witch’s hat from behind the low saddle of distant mountains. Radio Jacaranda is playing on the kombi radio and a listener calls in to share her favourite potato salad recipe. When someone from Krugersdorp phones to ask whether their skins should be left on, lost nutrients versus smoother texture and increased absorption of the mayonnaise are briefly discussed.

The young man sitting next to Anna in the kombi is blind and gently moves his shoulders to the rhythm of the Golden Oldies that follows Radio Jacaranda’s recipe hour. He hums along tunelessly, with the fingers of his right hand fluttering an occasional, involuntary response to the lyrics of the current song. (It’s a heartache, nothing but a heartache, hits you when it’s too late, hits you when you’re d-o-o-o-wn.)

His name is Dave and they have not yet spoken.

Anna wonders whether he is able to hear things that she can’t even see, then startles as the woman sitting directly behind them laughs; a sound that an overwrought parrot might produce. Her name is Bella. Leo – another member of their group – has the face of a young Rembrandt with curly, faded copper hair flowing to his shoulders, dark eyes and an angelic pink-lipped smile. His laugh is the giggle of a young girl.

(good tips on caring for elderly parrots)

Rembrandt, Self-portrait as a young Man – a photo on Flickriver.

The passing Limpopo fynbos reveals pale shades of apricot and burnt sienna, and milky peppermint where new summer foliage caps the trees. Small flocks of birds continuously land and lift off from their feathery half-moon crowns. Anna closes her eyes and leans her head against the window, thinking first of her dream, now almost fully remembered, and then of her father; of his bleached bones buried among similar thorn trees to the ones they are passing. He made sure that she never forgot the Pythagorean Theorem: the-sum-of-the-squares-of-the-legs-of-a-right-triangle-equals-the-square-of-the-hypotenuse. As a child she used to imagine a hypotenuse as a small river animal.

Anna already misses her home, her studio – until she starts her daily folding, her thoughts remain densely packed rootlings, slowly untangling only when her fingers manage to reveal the hidden third dimension trapped inside the patterned surfaces of the stacked sheets. Spiral.png.

Hundreds of white crosses are planted against the side of the mountain on their right, sliding past the kombi window. Anna opens her eyes just in time to see a single stone-written word in the centre: Plaasmoorde. Farm Murders. The policeman’s eyes briefly meet Anna’s in the rear-view mirror. Several tall termitaria – the colour of dry blood – add texture to the monotony of dry veld.

“You often find euphorbias growing out of those,” the policeman says, pointing at one.

They pass another cluster of thorn trees. Fruited with weaver bird nests, Anna folds them into her thoughts. Three women are resting with outstretched legs against the trunk of a tree where the Sandrivier eases its dry body under an old railway bridge. They are holding babies on their laps. Car bonnet open; innards baking in the hot sun. At the entrance to Polokwane they pass a large Muslim school. At its exit they pass a hand-painted taxidermist’s sign, advertising his morbid skill with a crude drawing of a kudu-horned trophy.

Vintage Taxidermy |.

In the distance, a few black-faced sheep run across the road. Five blue overalls hanging over a fence, flapping empty arms, seem to applaud the soccer game in progress on the field beyond and remind Anna of the swaying rows of clothes in her dream. A woman wearing a cherry red cape strides past, through thigh-high butterscotch grass, passing the partially hidden rusted bodies of two burnt-out trucks. The rust matches the colour of the tree aloes.

“Look,” Anna cries out, touching the blind man’s arm, pointing at the playing children, at their brilliant white t-shirts which appear, in that dusty landscape, to vibrate against the cerulean sky. Beckoning, luminous, they become portals to a different dimension. The owners of the drying overalls sit on upturned red Coke crates in the shade of a large acacia, slapping their thighs with laughter.

Making Your Own Fun | Heifer Blog.

Vultures circle overhead.

“They fly into the Kruger every day for a meal,” the policeman offers. “But they nest over there in the Blouberge.”


A bush camp surrounded by a ring of low koppies is the group’s first destination. Capped with dark crusty eruptions, the koppies have the appearance of burnt cake.

Emily Munyai, caretaker and cleaner of the camp, welcomes them by doing several dances, accompanied by the young Rembrandt’s surprisingly confident drumming. Every now and then she utters shrill ululations that blend with the sound of a hundred wire bracelets. She stamps her feet and pushes out her buttocks, causing a small flame of cerise petticoat to lick across her dimpled knees.

Venda culture – MyFundi.

Traditional wire bracelets, vhukunda tshotshane, are given to a bride by her husband’s family to mark significant events such as initiation and marriage.

On that first night, Anna sits very still on a high outcrop of rock, wrapped in sunset. Her eyes search for the familiar smooth, sensuous shapes of dune and sea, but find none in that lava landscape. Instead, she watches the hesitant progress of a lizard up the grey trunk of a nearby mopani tree. On the ground, its butterfly-shaped leaves make a soft rustling sound as she steps on them, grinding the leaves to amber dust.

The opulent dream she had on her last night home is beginning to fade.


African Safari Consultant | My Soweto Tour.

africa « Ruth’s African Blog.

Four nights later, choked with longing for her southern home, Anna steps inside a local sangoma’s consulting rooms. Skins and horns and bunched herbs hang from the rafters; rows and rows of bottles stand on a multitude of shelves, all filled with different umuthi. A pangolin’s disembowelled armour dangles a few centimetres above her head.

The smell inside the room is warm and primal, reminding Anna of the birth of her daughters; of the creamy substance covering their newborn bodies.

Plant, animal, mineral.

The sangoma indicates a makeshift row of seats against one wall, where Anna and her fellow travellers are to sit as privileged witnesses to a sacred ritual. A group of women soon shuffles in, one after the other, chatting and laughing. A few of them hit the taut skins of their drums with open palms, playing short riffs; others absentmindedly sway to the beat while retying cloths and blankets as they settle in a loose circle on the ground.

A few of the women are wearing the beautifully striped minwenda of the VhaVenda, tied under the armpit leaving one shoulder bare, along with matching skirts. Others have blankets loosely thrown over bare shoulders. Their breasts gently swing to and fro as they lean across each other to borrow cell phones and occasional sips of water. One woman has wrapped a faded beach towel around her narrow chest. Her hair is gunmetal grey and dusty; her eyes shining like black diamonds.

The privileged spectators are each given a baobab-pod shaker with small holes drilled into its moulting surface. As Anna receives hers, a painting forms behind her lowered eyelids: Flemish school, a woman dressed in 17th century clothing – starched white blouse, honeycombed collar – sitting on an upturned beer crate in a darkened room. Her straight back not quite touching the mouldy whitewash of the wall. Clutching a wooden shaker, the painted woman resembles an overgrown child in a long-ago European Christmas pageant. In the claire-obscure style of Rembrandt, the sangoma’s tools of his trade – tails, skins, skulls, clumps of devil’s claw and other strung herbs – glow against walnut velvet.

From Seat Assignment: Lavatory Self-Portraits in the Flemish Style, Nina Katchadourianvia


The women continue to swoon backwards and forwards, chanting, humming, drumming; their eyes becoming glassy, their faces sweat-shimmering under the weak light of a single 40watt bulb that flickers on-and-off at the whim of the generator straining outside.

Observing their fervent movements, Anna feels silly and irrelevant, yet continues to shake her child’s toy to their rhythm as they take turns to dance their private conversations with the dead; pleading with their ancestors to return for a brief, invited time. The black diamond eyes of the woman wrapped in the beach towel briefly fix Anna’s with a smoky charcoal stare – her dark irises floating inside large areas of creamy white – before turning her inviting gaze to Bella. To shrill ululation, Bella hands her shaker to Anna and steps into the chanting circle.

The women resume their drumming as Bella starts to dance; at first hesitant, like the lizard on the trunk of the mopani tree, but soon becoming bolder until her body jerks and flops like a boneless puppet on a string. Watching her, Anna can feel her neck starting to itch underneath those starched layers of silk; all the while shaking two seedpods and tapping a reluctant, disembodied foot to the monotonous beat of the drums.

CRANTZ COUTURE: Culture of the Zulu People: Virgin Dance.

“Teenage girls in an African tribe have been ordered to cover up during ritual dances because ‘perverted’ Europeans keep taking pictures of their bare bottoms.”

Much later, back at camp, Bella confesses her tribal nature to Anna. She throws her head back and laughs like a crazy parrot. They are leaning against the outside wall of the ochre-coloured hut which they have been sharing, sipping at mugs of warm tea. It used to be an initiation hut and still has two doors – one for entering as a girl and another to exit, as a woman.

Closing her eyes, Anna briefly wonders about the many rituals seeped into its cool walls; about whispered secrets and confidences. While listening to Bella’s irrepressible laughter, Anna sees the outline of a seated woman and tries to find her absent fold-lines.


Who is your guru? a voice asks inside  a dream Anna has later that night, fast asleep inside the ochre-patterned initiation hut. Inside this dream, Anna is a tourist in Japan, inside a maze-like shop, looking at necklaces and other ornate pieces of jewellery. Brittle glass rainbows decorate one of the windows of the shop. She scrutinises an intricately folded paper Madiba figure resting on a shelf, envious and cross for not having thought of producing a range of tribal origami dolls. Just fold on the dotted line for an instant African, she thinks inside her dream.

While holding the weightless paper doll, she watches a woman giving a strip-show to a group of boys and men lined up against a mezzanine-floor railing.

Who is your guru? the same disembodied voice asks again.

Turning around to answer, Anna wakes up. A line of light beckons at the bottom of the exit door of their hut.


South African Tourism – Venda Dancing – Popup detail.

The last night of the trip finally arrives. Another group of women, this time listlessly singing while beating a dead drum with their hands – its hide torn and useless – greet the group’s late arrival at the local chief’s kraal. The elongated breasts of an elderly woman flap a tired beat against her ribcage, reminding Anna of the special dish their guide had prepared one evening. Holding aloft several flat, breast-shaped cornmeal portions stacked on a plate she explained their cultural significance – a mother-in-law welcomes the new bride into her family with this meal to remind the younger woman of what lies ahead; to remind her of the real purpose and fate of her still-firm breasts. A tall, thin man, holding a conductor’s baton, finally appears. He is dancing backwards to face the single-file procession that has been snaking from the shadows for a while, as hundreds of Thsikona flute players shuffle into the large red earth arena.


Tshikona dance leader – Vendaland | Flickr – Photo Sharing!


The clay sculpture Anna had bought on her last day in Venda didn’t survive the airline’s fragile care. A beautiful piece – depicting a soldier mounted on a horse – now lies broken on her diningroom table where she has unwrapped it, reduced to a pile of crumbling, painted shards. The hands of the soldier are still holding on to the reins, resting against the strong neck of his horse. His body has separated from his capped head while the legs of the horse have become four ruined pillars. Half-heartedly trying to piece it all together, Anna is reminded of a folk tale she once read where a slaughtered and quartered horse was  flung to the four corners of the world, creating east, west, north and south.

The artist is the elderly wife of a black WW2 veteran and she gave the soldier-man the face, hands and slender feet of a monkey. As Anna paid her for the sculpture, the woman told her that her husband had received a bicycle as a reward for his war duties in the trenches, unlike the houses that some of the white soldiers had received. She then abruptly left to fetch her husband’s uniform. Tarnished war medals were pinned next to green, black and yellow ’94 election buttons showing a jubilant Nelson Mandela.

The next morning Anna scoops the broken sculpture into a plastic bag and takes it to her studio, where its bitter, charred smell settles in the shadows. The birdsong in the trees outside her studio is harsh and discordant, reminiscent of the flute music she managed to escape on her last night in Venda. Lifting a large patterned paper square from the tall stack at her elbow, Anna searches for the fold-lines that will gradually transform her emerging thoughts into something tangible. She had felt the curious gaze of the war veteran’s wife following her as she carried the low-fired sculpture, resting heavily across her forearms like a sleeping child, to the waiting taxi. And she can see the old woman’s eyes now as she folds a paper soldier, a paper horse, paper medals.

Mphatheleni – Mupo | Gaia Foundation.

The sun shining through the jug of water on Anna’s work table throws baroque curlicues onto the colourful folded minwenda she bought in Sibasa on their way back to Johannesburg. She reaches over to touch the stiff fabric ties that stick out like orange whiskers from its sides, reminded of the dancing, drumming women inside the sangoma’s room. Held down by the jug’s bulbous shape, the figure on the postcard underneath (of a woman jumping from a burning building) distorts.

Anna continues to fold her soldiers while silently reciting the things she has seen on her adventure into the interior: moss-green fever trees (on the banks of the green, greasy Limpopo), red-billed quelea, nyala trees (and the way its fine, pervasive dust made her throat and nose swell) jackal-berry, tree fuchsias, sycamore fig leaves, hamerkop nests, vervet monkeys with blue testicles.

And buffalo weaver birds, whose nests only appear on the west side of trees, if a policeman on stress leave can be believed.

 Fever Tree | Singita Blog.

present tense

Almost six years later, the Venda sculpture of horse and soldier is still not properly fixed.  Whenever I pass it, I invariably think back to the short time I spent in Venda, and why it left me feeling so rootless and ungrounded. I don’t seem to get any closer to the answer – as is often the case, I suspect my expectations were misguided and misplaced.  I thought (something like) once I entered the interior, it would automatically enter/colonise me. Instead, I had violent allergic reactions to the fine dust from the red soil, and the pollen of the native plants, and experienced everything through the misty haze of swollen mucous membranes.  Tears continuously streamed down my reddened, cracked cheeks.

Why I feel compelled to write about it now is a bit of a mystery, but could have something to do with trying to identify themes in my creative work; to pause for a moment and reflect on WHAT IT IS I’M REALLY TRYING TO SAY. Oi, the dreaded question I seem to bump into all the time. The Venda artist (I really regret not writing down her name) seemed to know exactly what she was doing and saying; seemed to have that enviable quality to do and not to think. Her garden was filled with small, medium and large shrine-like objects, almost like Buddhist stupas, made from sun-baked clay. While  spending time with them, a profound sense of loss transfered to me – surely meaning always lies in the eyes and heart of the beholder? Inside her hut, sculptures lined a row of the shelves; confident, striding, profoundly beautiful.

I don’t know why just doing and not thinking isn’t enough for me; don’t know why I need to define it in ArtSpeak.

Looking at the powerful horse and rider above, I think it’s about time I stop trying.