As I’ve just returned from a six-week stay in South Africa, I am taking some time to digest my experiences and pick apart some my feelings about countries and identities.
South Africa, that exquisite country, the place I hail from and that shaped my personality, but not really my (only) home anymore.
Some time ago I uprooted my life there, packed it into a couple of suitcases, and let myself be blown up into the sky like a feather giving itself up to the wind. I touched ground again in Berlin, where I have begun to lay the foundations of a second home since 2016. Now I have visited South Africa for the first time again after I left, revisited my past, sifted through old fear and pain and joy and broken love and adolescent shame and tokens of friendships. I was nervous about that visit: I have barely an inkling of the emotional power that landscape can wield, but it’s enough to recognize that landscape is etched into our souls, that a mountain or an ocean can cry out to you and make you scatter all rationality to the winds, until you forget your very valid reasons for leaving that mountain, that sea, the very earth that brought you forth, even if they are reasons your very existence may depend upon. So I was scared of that.
But I needn’t have been. This visit strengthened me in my dual identity and allowed me to articulate both my desire to really live that richness of a fragmented identity, and my inability to be only one thing. It’s true, I feel more of a South African now that I return to Berlin than I felt the whole of last year. But I am not an expat, I feel just as much German, with an added foreign tinge that is something else all together. For the first time, I feel liberated from that strange obligation of having to choose only one identity.
Even the way I speak is a testament to that: over the years, I have developed this unique accent when speaking English, distinctly European in my pronunciation, with a sing-song melody to my sentences, an unusual rhythm of sorts, and a rather large vocabulary for someone who was raised in another language, I’d like to think. At first, this accent bothered me a lot. Now I think it’s a wonderful fusion that bears witness to my life so far, and I wouldn’t want to lose it for the world.
What I have learned more and more over the past years is to make my work – my art – my true home. What I am attempting in my work is much larger than I am, larger than my life, an imaginary empire, a vast paradise garden, something that will remain after my body has become dust. I am tapping into a collection of ancient stories that have been the same since the birth of culture and will be the same until we are extinct from the universe. And if I manage to remind a few people why life is worth living, my time here has been worthwhile.
So during this visit to South Africa I attempted to collect fragments of imagery, little pollen-sacks of memories, to be carried home – that other imagined home in my work – to become part of the layered visual language I am developing there. I’m taking those moments with me that will enrich and inspire my life, for now, and choosing to leave those things behind that burden and stress me unnecessarily. Perhaps there will be more writing about the dark side of life in South Africa at a later stage.
Into my imaginary suitcase I packed that rich diversity of the Cape Fynbos, intriguing with its inconceivably delicate structures contrasted with strong lines and hard scratchy stalks. Small bunches of bells that beckon the curious soul, the tiniest flowers, so indifferent and so lavishly scattered across the mountains. Thousands of furry leaves, soft as a Labrador’s ears, with red serrated tips. Dew drops in neat rows, glinting like diamonds and on some level infinitely more valuable because of their transient existence. Burned protea stalks silhouetted against bright yellow-green and rusty reds.
I’m taking with me that primordial taste of the ocean, the salty flavour of the womb of the world – exciting and comforting at once, with a wildness to it that envelops your whole body when you submerge yourself in it, inside and out. And that staggering rhythmic force of the waves rolling and tossing and pushing and pulling to remind myself that I am quite small, quite insignificant in this large world.
I’m packing the slow creeping of autumn in the vineyards around Stellenbosch, the place where I spent some of the most formative years of my childhood. That exquisite colour combination of burning reds bleeding into lime greens, of golden-ochre paling into blotchy browns. These colours act like a trigger with me; they cause some inexplicable sensation deep within me, a tearing, beautiful, aching kind of pleasure. Every single time, without fail.
I’m taking the purple ring of mountains, that protective embrace of the Gods, enclosing the Cape of Good Hope. The way the setting sun tints the rocks pink and violet, the Hour of the Mountains, the most precious moment of the day when Time holds its breath and a minute is longer than sixty seconds.
All of these treasures I packed, and many more, laughter and friendship, turreted castles made out of clouds, wholesome ancient foods, apples directly from the tree and grapes from the vineyard, wine that tastes like a song, sweat and salty wind in my hair.
And I want to merge these treasures with my daily urban encounters here in Berlin, treasures that are very different but equally precious in their own way. Keep an eye out for a new summer collection inspired by all these sentimental wanderings (with too many adjectives in every sentence).