My Birthday Safari

 

On June 23, I turned 23. This was perhaps my strangest birthday yet. As a twin, I have spent nearly every birthday with my sister Sarah at our home in Anchorage, Alaska, surrounded by family and friends. However, as both of us get older and our paths take us increasingly farther apart, this is beginning to change. Sarah is currently serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Kyrgyzstan, and spent June 23 on a work trip in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan. As for me… I was on safari in Kruger National Park in South Africa, on the border with Mozambique.

I have never been so far from my sister or my parents, and being unable to communicate wit them on my birthday was painful. But that didn’t stop me from enjoying the experience for what is was: namely, something most people only dream of. After driving through the park from dawn until dusk, we saw an incredible amount and variety of South Africa’s largest and most beautiful animals – giraffes, elephants, rhinos, cheetah, lions, zebra, and so many more. I actually kept a running tally of the animals we saw that day, and some of the numbers were staggering.

The safari was an exciting, surprising, and exhausting ride from start to finish, and I’ll always be able to brag that for my 23rd birthday, I received 70 giraffes.

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June 22: Traveling to Kruger

After a sad goodbye to Johannesburg this morning, we set off on a long drive to Kruger National Park. As we drove and watched the city landscape change to farms and then to wilderness, we had time to reflect on our experience so far and anticipate the many weeks we have ahead in Cape Town. The highlight of the day came when we were nearly at our hotel and then, out of nowhere, encountered this visitor on the road!

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After only ever seeing giraffes in zoos, seeing this amazing creature only feet from our car as it snacked on some leaves was a breathtaking. It made me realize how exciting an opportunity it will be to enter the home of these animals as a guest — to see how giraffes blend in with the trees, how elephants travel together — things that you cannot learn as a spectator at an enclosure! After we recovered from the excitement and moved into our lodge, we learned to use styrofoam to create prints inspired by the animals at Kruger. We then turned in early in anticipation of an early morning and wonderful day of safari.

Monoprints & Stephen Hobbs

Even though I was exhausted I actually had a great time. The monoprints that we learned how to do were fascinating mostly because when making them, you are sort of forced to let go of any clear artistic vision that you might have for your piece because their was no way of knowing exactly how it would turn out. We were able to experiment with different materials and varying amounts of paint to create different images. No two were alike.

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After that we saw this weird (but cool) bird performance and talked to Stephen Hobbs. The bird performance was probably one of my favorite things that we experienced while in Johannesburg even though I didn’t totally understand what the performance was about. We were definitely bystanders of the performance but, in a way, we were also part of it because we were lead into different areas of the environment by the performers and there was really no separation between audience and stage. I enjoyed how confident the performers were and how comfortable they seemed while acting pretty ridiculous.

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IMBALI Visual Literacy Project

I used to consider myself a studio artist and designer, but along with those titles come huge visual responsibilities. When I realize them, sometimes that can discourage me from making art, maybe it’s the intimidation of the high visual standards demanded from me? Or my awareness of the level of visual excellence needed to make something relatable. I had stepped back from art-making but visiting the IMBALI Visual Literacy Project was inspirational and a fantastic example of art as therapy. I am unsure if it was the approachability of the materials used, having an artist guide me or the repetitive nature of the process. For our art-making activity, the final year students of the three year program were teaching us about the process of potato printing on textile.

Thinking back, the main thing that soothed me was being led and taught by someone else, it took the intimidation off the arena and made it a self place to express myself visually. After having visited other museums and studios, the amount information ingested leaves me with a strong desire and responsibility to have to teach and share the information acquired, and for me the medium of that exchange is words. Words have not been coming very easily for me on this trip, I haven’t been at a loss for words, it has just been a challenge to reflect my experience in a way that words perfectly capture it, which is where the potato printing came in and made it less daunting. Each print I made on the fabric was like a release of those thoughts, as if each time I applied pressure and left a print of the design, it was similar to the pressure put on a key on a keyboard. Rhythmic and effortless when the idea is patiently waiting to be put out into the world. Each print and each color applied was one step closer to the finished print, to the finished thought to be shared, it was relieving, a moment to breathe.

The carved potatoes used for the final print.

Nongogo

This evening we visited the Market Theater to see a production of the play Nongogo, directed by James Ngcobo. The piece was striking and powerful, and it provided an opportunity to see many of the themes discussed throughout our time in Johannesburg expressed through a new medium. It also complicated our understandings by demonstrating the complexity of actual lived experience in a way unique to theater.

By centering around sex work (the word nongogo translates to “prostitute”), the show posed questions about the relationship between the state and the body, political exploitation and sexual exploitation. The show places the exploitation of Queenie as a sex worker beside that of Johnnie as a mine worker – two main characters of the small ensemble who meet by chance when Johnnie sells Queenie a tablecloth. But it also compares Queenie’s experience grappling with her past to Johnnie’s experience processing sexual trauma that he experienced in the mines. Whereas Queenie responds to Johnnie’s past with empathy, he scorns hers. The show therefore also explores the gendered nature of sexual stigma and the ways in which gender interacts with racial oppression.

When the lights went down for the last time, I found myself hoping for one last scene that would allow the characters to reconcile. However, seeing this show, portrayed by such a convincing and captivating cast, enriched our understanding of embodied experience under apartheid by leaving threads untied. It was fitting that the show left us with more questions than answers about the effect of personal and historical memory, the relationship between gender and sexual stigma, and the meaning of redemption. I will be taking these questions with me as we finish up our week learning in Johannesburg, and I am sure they’ll inform our conversations and reflections moving forward.

Nongogo and the Trauma of Apartheid

The stage is small, sparse, just a few chairs and tables. The audience rises from either side of the rectangular stage, seated in bleachers, shrouded in shadow when the lights go down. The intimate space reminds me, even more so than Sarafina, that I am about to experience something truly part of Johannesburg’s living art scene and not a touristic monolith.

The performance that follows is of Nongogo, a play written by Athol Fugard in 1959. I didn’t know this as I watched – in fact, the quality of the script and the resonance of its themes made me believe this was a new production. It depicts a small cast of characters – only five, in fact – whose struggles through life are indicative of the economic and social consequences of apartheid.

Actress Zikhona Sodlaka dominates the stage as Queenie, the owner of a shebeen (illegal bar) who wants to trade her lucrative but illicit lifestyle in for domestic contentment with a man who loves her. Her unexpected suitor, Johnny (played by Zenzo Ngqobe), dreams of success as an interior decorator with Queenie by his side. The audience quickly begins to root for them, especially as Sam – Queenie’s jealous and money-hungry business partner (played by Vusi Kunene) – attempts to keep Johnny out of the picture.

Unforutnately, it isn’t Sam’s plotting that drives the couple apart. Instead, the trauma that both of them have suffered renders them too badly broken to build their relationship. Before starting her shebeen and dragging herself out of poverty, Queenie was forced to make ends meet as a nongogo, or prostitute. Johnny, meanwhile, spent his late teenage years working in the mines outside of Johannesburg, where he was sexually assaulted in the single-sex mining barracks.

The heartbreaking revelation that these bright and hopeful characters are unable to cope with the abuses of their pasts speaks to the far-reaching impact of apartheid on black South Africans. It is a play that champions progress and self-fulfillment, while simultaneously showing that some wrongs can never be put right.

18/6/2018

Hastings Ndlovu

Hector Pitso

Mbuyisa Makhubo

Antoinette Sithole

Dorothy Molefi

Sam Nzima

Bob Nameng

Bafana Aubrey

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela

Soweto Kliptown Youth

conscience

action

speech

grounded

If you worry you die if you don’t worry you die. Why worry?

When you leave a place you leave a golden trail

Sarafina!

June 16, 1976 was a day that changed South African history forever: the beginning of the Soweto uprising. In Soweto (an abbreviation for “Southwestern Townships,” where thousands of black South Africans were forcibly relocated in the late 50s and early 60s), students gathered together to peacefully protest the use of Afrikaans as the language of education in schools. Their nonviolent effort, however, was not met in kind. Police open fired into the crowds of students, beginning a cascade of violence that resulted in hundreds of deaths. This unspeakable tragedy marked a turning point in black South Africans’ struggle for liberation. The international community was no longer blind to the true horrors of apartheid, and the minority government faced backlash in the form of mounting sanctions and boycotts.

June 16 is now commemoratedas South Africa’s national Youth Day, in recognition of the students who fought and died for the liberation struggle. On June 16, 2018, our group attended quite an appropriate event to commemorate Youth Day: a performance of the 1992 play Sarafina! by Mbongeni Ngema. We drove to downtown Johannesburg and entered the Nelson Mandela Theater alongside plenty of excited spectators.

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The Nelson Mandela Theater. Photocredit: Lauren St George

Sarafina! was an emotional rollercoaster. The play tells the story of a young girl in Soweto, Sarafina, the most popular girl in school and a budding revolutionary. While capturing the youthful determination of the students in Soweto, the play also captures the horrible tragedies these young people faced during the uprisings. This contrast proved especially jarring due to the play’s musical format. One moment, children danced and sang with exuberance, and the next moment, they ran from police and crumpled under gunfire. The mournful songs that accompanied a funeral scene brought me to tears.

Sarafina, beyond being both entertaining and emotionally powerful, also made me aware of my position as an audience member. For the first time, I felt that I was attending an event in South Africa that was not meant for me. Songs in Zulu, particularly “Safa Saphel’ Isizwe,” came not just from the singers on stage, but from an audience that had grown up familiar with the play and movie. The personal connection the crowd felt to the play and the events depicted was palpable in the air. We were outsiders, and though we could connect to Sarafina! on a universal level, we could never have the relationship to it that South Africans do. That said, Sarafina! was a surprisingly revealing window into how the history of apartheid is remembered and re-enacted in contemporary South African performance art.

Origins Centre, Witwatersrand Art Museum and Chepapeism

Welcome Home

When the first sun rose

It found us awake and waiting

Long before others came to these hills

Our footsteps shaped the landscape

Tamed the buffalo and the livestock

We rode the wind

We silenced the hurricane

Yes, look at us

We have been here before

-Don Mattera

Our experience thus far has been a whirlwind. As you would have seen in prior blog posts, our days have been filled with lots to absorb. But, because our time in Johannesburg is fairly short, there is not a whole lot of time to decompress and process before the next activity.  If you’ve ever been on a cruise then you understand docking just long enough to pique your curiosity and then you are whisked off to the next destination, the visits can feel a bit like that. Lot’s to cover within a restricted time frame. To be fair, at this point it doesn’t feel like there’s a time period that would have been long enough.

Day 3, our group visited University of The Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, home of the Origins Centre and Witwatersrand Art Museum (WAM). We finished our day with a visit to the studio of Khehla Cheapape Makgato.

Origins Centre Imagine that you are charged with communicating to every person that you encounter that the origin of humanity was in your backyard. Not only telling each person, but sharing evidence, and guiding them on a path of individual discovery to draw the same conclusion as your own. This is the role of the Origins Centre at the University of Witwatersrand.

The Origins Centre, which is part natural history museum part cultural space, is one of my favorites because there was a general theme of accessibility to information, objects, and space. The museum takes its role in education and discovery seriously and it shows. The exhibits were hands-on, visually stimulating, and took care not to be too long< or concentrated,  but still provided enough valuable information to generate curiosity and thought. At times, there was an underlying message of national pride, but wouldn’t you be proud if you could claim the cradle of civilization as a national treasure?!

WAM  The University of the Witwatersrand Art Museum is a tri-level art space with a collection of over 12,500 pieces of “African art, including contemporary and historical art from South Africa and art from West and Central Africa. displays traditional works, contemporary art” (WAM homesite), At WAM, we had an opportunity to check out the galleries and participate in an active observation/listening activity.  In partners, each person selected an object, one at a time, and described the work to the other while the other person tried to draw the object based on the description being provided. At the end, we looked to see how close what we heard, and drew, was to the actual object before switching to the other person. Much of this was done blindly, walking and drawing, and so this was a trust activity as well.  As an aside, I think it is important to note that Wits offers some Doctoral Degrees in fine arts and that the exhibit on the lower level was the work of a doctoral student.

Chepapeism In recent years, we’ve seen a rise in socially conscious businesses. Funding sources for not for profit organizations are changing, for-profit organizations are increasingly connected to some level of communal investment, and philanthropy a practice, historically, of the economically wealthy, has expanded to include benefactors who carry any or all forms of intellectual, creative, and network worth. This new generation of philanthropists is able to connect persons, or communities,  with an area of need with a larger group of investors through the creation of a mutually interesting and beneficial exchange. Chepapeism is but one very interesting example. Chepapeism- Made in Africa is a brainchild of South African artist Khehla Chepape Makgato. His studio was our final stop on this day. Chepape talked about creativity, truth, and responsibility. As an artist, he focuses on untold stories in South African history. He has a series on miners (entitled) and is in the midst of creating around South African woman often overshadowed by other narratives of oppression and apartheid in national history.  But to call Chepape strictly a visual artist would be inaccurate. As a student of journalism and fine arts, youth, and a committed South African he seeks to tell stories and to help other artists to connect with the resources which allow their artistry to be an economically & financially sustainable.

Overall this was a great day to explore and challenge our own personal comfortability in museums and other art spaces. Each visit was challenging in its own way. Cheers to greater discovery!