I have come to understand something quite profound, as far as my life goes at any rate – because as anyone who knows me will attest, I am nothing like profound in anything I do or say. In trying to understand why I seem to naturally gravitate towards shades of blue and golds in my work, I discovered something about myself that I just wasn’t expecting.
First a bit of background.
I migrated to South Africa with my parents and younger brother in the late Sixties. To say this was a traumatic time for me is the biggest understatement. I felt for many long years that I had descended into the very pit of hell itself. It was only after I had been married for a few years and had kids of my own, that I understood and was struck dumb by the sheer magnificence of the South African landscape, particularly the Karoo and the Drakensberg mountain range.
I had always sneered at the way South Africans thought anything from 1820 onwards was ‘old’ – referring to buildings that had been preserved since the Settler’s arrived. Anything pre-1820 (building wise) just didn’t exist. I would always wax lyrical about how buildings from the Dark Ages had somehow been preserved in the UK and that this culture of preservation still endured well into the 21st Century. The church where I was taught to sing in a choir and play organ had 11th century roots, so I knew many historical facts about the area where I lived (East Yorkshire – Beverley and surrounds). How the monks had lived in a monastery just a few miles from where I lived and that even though there were no extant stoneworks from that time, the indentations and mounds marking the site of the monastery were still visible and in fact, I’d wandered amongst those places many times as a young teenager. South Africa, as far as I was concerned, just didn’t have anything like the ‘preserved’ settlement history of the UK and Europe. Well, that was until a trip we took to the Willem Pretorius Nature Reserve in the Free State.
Willem Pretorius Nature Reserve, Allemanskraal, Free State
We were living in Welkom in the Free State at that time and we often went out to WP Nature Reserve for picnics and occasionally took game drives. Here’s an archaeological paper about it on the ‘Net. Situated within the nature reserve is the Allemanskraal Dam and overlooking the dam on an escarpment is the site of an early Iron age settlement. On the day we first visited this site, it was already late in the afternoon and the sun was beginning to set across the savannah. The copper gold light struck the top of the ridge we were standing on, illuminating the stone-walled enclosures, which perhaps were used to house animals. The wind gently whispered through the acacia trees, it was so still and almost cathedral-like, standing there on this piece of earth high up on the edge of the mountainside. People lived there hundreds, perhaps even thousands of years before. It was such a humbling experience.
Petrified trees with your crisps anyone?
Several years later, we were driving through the Karoo on the way down to the Cape (we often did this trip, I have driven it many times) and we stopped by the side of the road for a picnic stop and to eat some padkos [food for the road]. I was lounging up against a lump of rock, sipping my coffee from the thermos flask mug, chomping away on my sandwich. The kids were clambering about. We all seemed to realise as a group, and all at once, that we were not sitting beside and on top of a lump of rock, more like a 230 million years old petrified tree! Right out there in the wilderness, minding its own business, not part of some tourist trap, sat a few broken up sections of trees that had stood there millions of years ago.
Something weird happens to a human being, when you realise you are standing in the footsteps of dinosaurs, it was easy for me to look across the ‘vok al’ [fuck all – euphemism for South African veldt] and imagine dinosaurs lumbering along. And this is when I understood that my adoptive home was always going to be my ‘forever home’.
Even though I yearned to return to my birthland [the UK] and only did so permanently in December 2012, I cannot escape the fact that South Africa will always be my adoptive ‘parent’, my forever ‘mom and dad’. The blues of its edge to edge sky, the gold, bronze and deep ochre of the landscape (especially in winter) echo throughout my work all the time. These vistas are genetic memories, not just memories of my short time living in South Africa as an immigrant. It’s perhaps no surprise (at least to me) that I lived within a few miles of the Cradle of Humankind, you don’t get more historical than that.
Blue and Gold …