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.
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.
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.
Accacia karroo. Profile: 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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.