Primate

I’m in a Zanzibar office waiting to reactivate my phone account, at the other end of the room the receptionist sits against an emerald green wall wearing a lilac head scarf and a deep pink silk blouse: the umber of her face is shot through with a retinal light from her clothes and the wall making her strangely hard to see. I’m eventually served and ask her if she planned her outfit for her seating position to which she murmured something underneath her breath to her work mate and assessed me somewhere on a scale from opportunist to socially inept.

It’s been a hectic week travelling, due to spur of the moment travel plans. I was negotiating a price for a wildlife tour in Arusha when the operator said he’d throw in a bus ticket – where was I going? I had thought of trying to see the chimpanzees on lake Tanganyika, but hadn’t done any research. Perhaps Kigoma but I heard it’s a day and a half bus trip. No, it’s 12 hours, we don’t have overnight buses any more.
I eventually arrived to Kigoma by the lake bleary from a night of bumpy roads and achingly bad music videos. Almost immediately on arriving at my guesthouse and discussing plans for my stay, the manager walked me over to the Gombe Tourist office that administers the park with the Jane Goodall Institute.
It seemed the cost would be out of my league with various fees and a 10 kilometre boat trip, we walked out, me projecting a visit somewhere else instead when my manager said he’d enquire into a quick boat that could bypass half of the park fees.
Next day early we go together to the port, he’s found a boat but doesn’t know whether to trust the people so wants me registered with the police ‘for security’. We drive down in a little three wheel taxi, through the blur of people at the dock I pick out the name of one of the fishing boats, HMV Thanks Jesus.

Two men met me at the boat: a narrow, sharply pointed outboard watertaxi. They seemed nervous perhaps from the police scrutiny as well as the dichotomy of circumstance between them and me. I was on the boat with everything I had, and a dawning guilt at the flagrant waste of fuel. We headed along the hilly coastline of the lake a hundred metres from shore and over 1 kilometre of water beneath. Tanganyika is a Rift valley lake and and one of the deepest. Gaff-rigged curved timber fishing boats sailed into a horizon whose mists kept the Republic of Congo concealed from view.

I brought no food knowing it was prohibited in the national park, I had water but in the excitement of disembarking, greeting K. my guide and setting off with the understanding that the season’s chances of spotting a group of chimpanzees was very low, I forgot the water.
The chimpanzees, when the trackers notified us were in a thickly tangled vine forest. The guide had taken me an hour up into the hills and now we struggled down an incline propelled by gravity into vines catching ankle, neck and arms till there amongst ten or so Chimpanzees .
Hard to define the sense of monkey people, limp hanging, lazing, swinging and climbing, caring for each other or just thinking. After a while I got the feeling that they were assembled around and above us, nonchalant but curiously placed. Seen mostly through vines which lead the eyes across shapeless dark patches just a few metres away only registering as figures after some delay.

A variety of character poses, aware of us and watching, seemingly unaware and self occupied, gave diversity to the group and a strange sense of being in the presence of a multitude of individuals.

This sense increased when, because of the density of vines and trees I was unable to move away from an individual’s approach: seeming to be after my drawing things, when I passed these to the guide the young male Chimp ran his fingers along my arm, took my wrist and carefully licked the sweat from my skin. Hard to convey the mixture of abeyance and control in this act: social, opportunistic, either way thoughtfully carried out.
The vine forest made standing impossible so crawling and climbing our only way in and out heightening a sense of interaction and an intense encounter.

On the way back down the hill I was curious to know more about the range of behaviour of the Chimpanzee, how do they get on with the Baboons and Blue velvet monkeys they share the forest with. While they typically eat the fruit of the Mabongo vine that is both a nutritional food and a fermented alcohol, they’re omnivores and K. remembers seeing a group of Chimpanzees strategically catch a blue monkey and together in a more than necessary frenzied energy, pull it to pieces.

On the way back staring out at the invisible Congo across the water I was reminded of a Congo ritual object in the museum at Arusha. The metal Nails driven into the figure each represent an arbitrated decision resolving a feud, the individual nail becomes an element of an increasingly powerful form that bonds its members and deters errant action by it’s collective significance.

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Roads and Bridges

I’m reading Rilke, his view of a renaissance portrait brings attention to the background in which people may be seen traversing little roads and bridges. They exist in the back of the mind attending to the fine work of relationships.

The landscape, its character is never the same from country to country even though on the surface much is similar, the roads are paved or not, bridges are practically built where necessary and people at a distance claim pride of place.

Driving in a wildlife park is witness to life in the wild, a strange experience of background, or distance activity, of relationships forged between a Giraffe and a tree, Gazelles and a stand of grass , a slinking Lion and a ditch.

You could develop it and feel some intent disclosed between the Lion and the Gazelle, the Hyena and any animal’s home or prey, a Kite and a rodent (or as happened, a Black Kite and a chicken leg held then taken from my lunch companion’s hand).

Typically seen in Middle distance, an animal has a signal character, a sleeping lion is an undulating yellow line, while a hyena leaves a shadowy patch within the grain of the grass. Our guide, D has this visual knowledge and I try to gain it drawing from the car each time he stops. Of the two undulating curves, one morphs into a male lion and lopes over jumping onto the other. D says they’re brothers, the playful act like a reality show whose screen keeps freezing into the deadpan slo-mo flatness of The Real: the all encompassing category of food is a matter of perspective.

Pulls my mind back to the conductor on a long distance bus who barked give me ten dollars, at that moment I was leaving the relative safety of a 6 hour bus seat, feeling like a piece of cargo changing hands, I’m bewildered, he looks at me and laughs. The traveller at these times is on one of many alternate menus being written by natural selection.
Reverse to the minibus 6am that morning, I’d been sick the previous day and night with stomach cramps and a fever, by morning I could travel and with a seat up the back where I could see the whole interior I took my attention from my body and the bone rattle of the slow mountain road to patterns worn by the women bound for market or the children’s clinic:
Printed large black diamond net lines over yellow moving to pink cut by large slashes of a black shawl.
Sequined purple head scarf. Blouse of a printed organic curving (seed?) pattern in yellow, red and black. Sarong of a woven cloth with complex rhythm of horizontal bands in red black and white.
Yellow blouse with occasional printed large pink hibiscus flowers.
Printed geometric black line of crossed circles over yellow.
Crocheted pink hair band, viridian blouse.
Tiger skin printed velvet blouse.
Cut out like this we’re distracted from the bodily movement that bring them alive. Like a zebra’s markings which a stencil can’t carry off, wearing pattern comprises relations between the rhythmic surface of a decorative motif, its surface geometry and the body that floats it creating a spatial figure that’s both sensual and actual.

Further to this, Massai children run with the car demanding chupa. What’s chupa we ask the driver, bottle. Down the road other children run sporting light blue arm bands. You see what they do, they take the label to decorate themselves and throw away the bottle.

Light blue and black segmented lines flash reflections in the side mirror speeding down the dirt road.

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Working Title

One week into a 10 week journey through East and West Africa, initially attending an artist Cooperative in Dar es Salaam, travelling Tanzania and returning to Dar to put up a small show of drawings. I’ll be in Nigeria by invitation for the month of November to participate in the Iwaya Contemporary Art Festival.

Of the 7 kilograms in my backpack, over a quarter of the weight is in a book, Phantom Africa – a 600 + page diary by the writer Michel Leiris, the first English translation (this year) of an 18 month French anthropology expedition begun in 1932 from Dakar to Djibouti. I’ll read and progressively draw through its pages as an ongoing project.
Beginning Leiris’ diary I find a correspondence in the expression of his journey, intertwining an imaginary ‘phantom’ Africa with the real, hectic movement of people and the identities that bind.
I’ve planned this trip a long time , perhaps as long as I have been planning anything. Memories of an early childhood in West Africa in time became unreliable. Stories and images began to replace experience; memories of rememberings are all I had of my early world, fragmented sound and vision, surface rhythms and hyper colour enveloped by ever colonizing stereotypes.

The Africa that Leiris expected with his European imagination was beyond the frontier of reason where the imaginary existed pre-enlightenment. He glimpses it in indigenous custom through the tattered curtain of colonial bureaucracy, and his strength is in holding these apart enabling the reader to feel the space between an imposed framing order and a vernacular expression of ancient African society.

In the week I’ve been at the Nafasi Art SpaceI’ve spent most of my time drawing different people doing what they do – Loom weaver, dancer, musician, painter, video editor, journalist. This array of activities highlights the inclusiveness of the space running from traditional craft and peformance to contemporary technology.

More than 120 ethnic groups are included within the territory of Tanzania. In the 70s the government instilled a sense of nationhood by encouraging members of each group to move to different parts of the country. Equal representation of ethnicity accounts for the relative harmony in Tanzania in contrast to the ethnic battles seen in neighbouring states. It’s also why traditional performance and craft which are central to ethnic identity are politically alive and keenly supported in contemporary culture.
If you walk out of the Nafasi gates at night onto a dark dirt road there’s a gradual transformation to the glow and clang of approaching industrial factories. Near the traffic of Soldering Road is a massing of people whose silhouettes dart quickly and pack densely in the unlit intersection. Off-shift from the steelworks, the candle-making and tissue factories, cleaned and dressed before the relief and excitement of social play, some hours caught before sleep opens its doors to a dreamworld in the confines of the on-site dormitory.
Posted in art, Contemporary painting, crowd formation, drawing process, information processes, pattern, Performance, public space, screenplay, Urban planning, urban space | Tagged , , | 1 Comment