From gut to gallery

Everything we were taught to believe about fearing bacteria is being upheaved by a growing movement of designers and scientists.

Published in DAMn 55: March/April 2016

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Some 40 trillion invisible organisms cover every surface of our body, inside and out. This microbiome of bacteria, yeast, viruses, and fungi that we have accumulated throughout our life, since birth, is especially concentrated in our gut. The role E. coli plays in digestion is well known, and sometimes our candida or staph levels will get a bit boisterous and we’ll have a yeast infection or a sty. But up until recently, these mysterious personal squatters have not been given much attention, based solely on the assumption that the microscopic organisms live in neutral harmony with each other and with us. But what if our bodies are, in fact, made up of more microbiome cells than human cells?

Since we are truly more microbiome than human, what does it even mean to be a person anymore? As opposed to our obsession with everyone being an individual, are we actually ecosystems or superorganisms or conglomerate ecological corporations? This is the inspiration behind Austrian designer Sonja Bäumel’s current project, which involves researching the social interactions of bacteria and of other microorganisms, in collaboration with a scientist and a cultural historian. Research has linked depression, mood-swings, stress, cravings, diabetes, heart disease, and weight management with our invisible cohabitants, meaning that they could very well be contributing to our consciousness and decision-making. Scientists at Virginia Tech have announced that they may soon be controlling a robot brain using E. coli. Bäumel has been working with bacteria for over seven years, since graduating from Design Academy Eindhoven with a project exploring bacteria’s relation to fashion, which earned her top honours. Since then, others have developed bacterial fabrication techniques, such as New York fashion designer Suzanne Lee, who produced a Biocouture range of leather jackets.

In the same vein, German design student Julia Krayer recently showed Honingleder at Cologne Design Week. Translated as honey leather, it’s a skin-like material produced by bacteria that, during the fermentation process (of the same sort used in the beverage industry), metabolise sugar and secondary plant compounds into cellulose fibres. The result, says Krayer, is “a range of materials that can be slotted somewhere between textile, leather, and paper.” By incorporating the positive associations of honey and leather, she also hopes to challenge people’s perceptions of bacteria as ‘disgusting’ and ‘dangerous’.

How do you do?

It is this question of our relationship to and perception of bacteria that has also taken over Bäumel’s original fashion-based practice: “Now I’m figuring out that it’s more about finding alternatives for the platforms surrounding the body, not necessarily about finding solutions for the existing fashion system.” Recent works have included an agar cast of herself imprinted with her own microbiome and allowed to grow during an exhibition at the Waag Society in Amsterdam last year, and continuous explorations into visualising the bacteria on our body through dyes in petri dishes. Destigmatising bacteria is an important component, and for her on-going Metabodies project she obtained the handprints of a couple after exercise, after sex, and after showering, collecting these in petri dishes. People were surprised to discover that the most bacteria were present after showering, challenging our perception of what ‘dirty’ means. Bäumel explains that our skin’s pores release a new layer of bacterial protection each time we wash.

The importance of preserving our bacterial pals in order to maintain healthy immune systems and prevent the increasing threat of antimicrobial resistance and superbugs, is the message behind a fun, pop-up Pet Shop by the Waag Society – an institute that has been facilitating trans-disciplinary experimentation and research in the fields of art, science, and technology for over 20 years. Friendly, adorable micro-organisms with names like night-owl photobacteria, cool-cat spirulina, and fluffy fungi, as well as a range of DIY hardware that includes a microscope and an incubator, aim to appeal to kids, creatives, and hackers alike. By anthropomorphising microorganisms, the hope is that we’ll resist the temptation to use antibacterial household cleaners and toiletries.

Who’s watching you?

Not destroying our microbiome is a good thing, unless you’re trying to hide from Big Brother, as designer Emma Dorothy Conley explored in her Microbiome Security Agency project. Conley latched onto the discovery that each person’s microbiome is completely unique, like a fingerprint. In theory, it can provide information about our lifestyle, the people we’re living with, and where we’ve been – this is how shoplifter spray works, by intentionally adding trace-DNA to the suspect’s microbiome. “As soon as something is touted as being so specific to an individual that it can identify us, we need to ask how this will infringe on our personal privacy”, says the Ireland-based American. Winner of the 2015 Bio Art and Design Award in the Netherlands, she had collaborated with scientist Guus Roeselers to work out how one might camouflage the bacterial traces one leaves everywhere. The result is a range of pseudo cosmetics that adds so much raw DNA data to your microbiome that it would overload an identification test with too much information. An installation at the MU Artspace in Eindhoven allowed people to contribute bacteria – the more bacterial-DNA data included in the cosmetics, the more effective they were – and to apply it to themselves in powder form.

For Bäumel however, bacteria and microorganisms are not simply inert DNA; she is therefore pushing to adopt the methodology of metagenomics in her practice. This means that rather than looking at a single species in isolation and from the perspective of DNA, the emphasis is on trans-species social interaction and communication. In short: bacterial intelligence. “Only because they’re smaller – scale is a very interesting aspect in this project – are they seen to have less value than us”, says Bäumel.

Growing concern

A typography project by Ori Eliasar called Living Language unpeels some of the philosophical layers embedded in the notion of humans having an intelligent microbiome. Eliasar created ancient Palaeo-Hebrew letters in petri dishes using bacteria, and then added algal proteins in the shape of the modern Hebrew alphabet. As the bacteria grow, the initial shapes change into the new letters. “Using my research, experiments, and results, I am hoping to infuse nature, culture, character, and language with some new theories of my own”, says the Israeli about his graduation project.

Working in a school comes with certain liberties; however, for galleries and institutes moving into the realm of art and design utilising the medium of bacteria, from inert DNA to actual living matter, things are less obvious. This is unchartered terrain and it raises an entirely unexplored field of ethical and technical presentation issues. Bäumel experienced this first-hand when her installation at the Waag Society last year was removed prematurely because the results had not been anticipated by the organisation. Although disappointed, Bäumel is anything but put off; instead she appears incentivised by the challenges posed by being a pioneer. It would take such a spirit to be drawn into the field to begin with, but it’s Bäumel’s slow, methodological approach and her evolving personal attachment to microorganisms which indicate that her work is not gimmicky. “Caring about them is caring about us”, she smiles.

 

We need Afrofuturism more than ever

There must be more intersectional visions of the future that include all races, genders, sexualities, species and religions.

Originally published by Dazed&Confused, November 2015

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Charl Landvreugd

Ever noticed how few black characters there are in sci-fi flicks? How those that do exist are sidekicks, baddies or set up to die? How the attitude towards space exploration is markedly similar to colonisation? That the robots are almost always slaves to human masters? (no wonder they end up coming after us in the other handful of narratives) How economic and racial inequalities either magically become non-issues or are aggravated even more while everyone remains nonplussed?

These are some of the questions that Afrofuturist writers, artists and filmmakers from Philadelphia to Lagos, Rotterdam to Cairo and beyond are highlighting, inspired by the likes of interstellar jazz musician Sun Ra (famous for Space is the Place), and black feminist sci-fi writer Octavia Butler. By using science fiction to unpack hard-hitting social issues, these voices are saying we need more intersectional visions of the future that include all races, genders, sexualities, species and religions that make up humanity.

APOCALYPSE NOW

What is different to traditional science fiction is that Afrofuturism generally doesn’t play out in the distant abstract future but is set in the impending present. After all, technology-wise we’re living in the future that many of us grew up reading about – except for the flying cars. Many are also living the proverbial apocalypse. From the terrorist attacks in Paris, Beirut, Burundi and Baghdad to the earthquakes in Japan and Mexico, and the continued need for Americans to be reminded that #Blacklivesmatter, how much more catastrophic does it need to get before we agree that it’s time to reimagine our collective future?

That’s not to ignore the lived experience of everyday domestic apocalypses such as sexual abuse and violence. This is what Philadelphia-based social worker Ras Mashramani and lawyer Rasheedah Phillips translate into Afrofuturist fiction. Along with musician and writer Camae Defstara aka Mother Moor Goddess, the three women spread their work through photocopied zines that deal with issues like gentrification using the space invader metaphor, and domestic and sexual abuse through the lens of alien abductions.

BACK TO THE FUTURE

For many, along with the one in nine people in the world that go hungry every single day, even the notion of thinking about a future beyond the existing apocalypse – their next meal – is a provocation. Here Phillips, also the founder of the Afrofuturist Affair, proposes revisionist historical narratives that recast people of colour, women and LGBTI people as heroes of their own destiny.

In mainstream sci-fi, the time-travel paradox – in which changing something in the past might erase your very existence – trips up any attempt at changing history. However, says Phillips, this is a linear sense of time in which we are all slaves to the clock. In Black Quantum Futurism, she bends space and time in order to see into alternative futures.

TECHNOLOGY WON’T SAVE US

Unlike the externally imposed Western sense of time, an African sense of time is innately human and “it’s time” when everyone gets there. Egyptian graphic novelist Sherif Adel stretched time in his satirical depiction of Cairo in 1,000 years. Spoiler: he reckons it will be about the same – one giant traffic jam. This dystopian future expresses the disappointment following the Arab Spring revolution euphoria when mobile messaging technology was heralded as a rallying cry for the masses to bring down every corrupt state. And then the dust settled and the same people were still in power, only worse than before.

It is for this reason that novelists such as Nigerian-American Nnedi Okorafor is addressing political complexity with magical realism, best seen in Who Fears Death, winner of the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel. This year she published the prequel, The Book of Phoenix. The books engage with issues of ethnicity, female genital mutilation, gender equality and colonization.

Sherif Adel

EUROPA EUROPA

Charl Landvreugd’s Movement Nr 8: Destination Inner Space looks at a future vision of art in which a black body can talk about humanity in general, not just ethnicity. He says that he is from Rotterdam and the city is his home, but he has multiple homes, as with increasingly more people, regardless of ethnicity, impacted by migration. “Through the black body I’m trying to give a glimpse of us in the future.”

“I see the urgency of Afrofuturism for Rotterdam as a postcolonial, multiethnic city with a strong presence of the black diaspora. It is the speculative and non-white vision that this city needs, against the currently dystopian rule driven by angst-ridden white nostalgia,” Florian Cramer, says. Because of its experimental DIY countercultural avant garde quality, Cramer places Afrofuturism in the same realm as the punk, Fluxus, hacker and net.art movements. “It’s like being in London in 1977 and witnessing the beginnings of punk.”

Still, Afrofuturists are slim on the ground in Europe when compared to the US and Africa. However, as the neoconservative hatches come down in response to terrorism, there has never been a better time: what we know from punk is that fascism fuels counterculture. The time is now to make #Blackfuturesmatter.

 

8 things to do with unwanted statues and monuments

Rhodes will fall, but what about all the other monuments and statues throughout the country that remind us of South Africa’s painful past? Sibusiso Tshabalala and Nadine Botha found eight creative ways to reconsider history.

When Chumani Maxwele, a 30-year-old political science student, threw human faeces over the statue of Cecil John Rhodes that stands in front of the University of Cape Town, few would’ve thought that this would open room for a much-needed debate about the significance of symbols and what they represent in post-apartheid South Africa.

Symbols are important to any society. Through street names, statues and names of places of public significance – like squares and prominent buildings – we venerate key figures in our history for their contributions to society. And in a subtle way, the symbols we choose tell us a lot about that which we aspire to be.

The preceding centuries of South Africa’s history as a nation are filled with accounts of brutal dispossession and marginalisation between different racial and tribal groups. But that’s not all, as Daily Maverick journalist Rebecca Davis noted the “realm of statues is still a man’s world” – meaning that gender is also an important part of this debate.

Do these symbols of apartheid and colonialism, many of which are anchored in their specific time, stay? Do they go? This is the debate that has engulfed Cape Town, swept across the country and even hit international headlines.

What is clear is that symbols that evoke feelings of offense and are reminiscent of our horrid past, need to find new places in the present. But many statues will stay mounted after Rhodes falls. How do we bring statues into our present and initiate an ongoing conversation and debate about their place in history and in our future?

1. Think pink

President MT SteynAydemir present steynDuring the annual Vryfees Arts Festival in 2014, Australian artistCigdem Aydemir explored using existing statues on the University of Free State campus, and around the city of Bloemfontein, to provoke debates on their meaning, relevance and place in post-apartheid South Africa.

Cigdem went all out with the #PinkPresidents and #PlasticHistories projects. She started off by physically shrink-wrapping two statues on campus: the statues of MT Steyn (the sixth president of the then Orange Free State) and CR Swart (the first state president of the Republic of South Africa, from 1961 to 1967, infamously known for playing an instrumental role in passing the Immorality Act).

In collaboration with another Australian artist, Warren Armstrong, Cigdem then developed a free-to-download augmented reality application for these statues that allows them to be viewed in pink through a smart phone or tablet. In addition to this, voices of South African female poets accompany the images.

Reimagining these statues and monuments from a queer and feminist perspective makes Cigdem’s work particularly significant. In her words, the project “aimed to acknowledge the contributions of people from marginalised races, communities and sexualities in the grand narrative of a post-apartheid South Africa”.

One of her most incisive comments about this project sheds light on how history is never static. Speaking about the use of pink shrink-wrapping over the statues she says:

Far from being set in stone (or bronze), [history] is plastic in the sense that it is constantly shaped and moulded based on our new knowledge of the past.

 2. Ironic superheroes

superhero statue 2The Monument to the Soviet Army in Bulgaria is infamous for having been painted to depict pop culture icons Superman, Joker, Robin, Captain America, Ronald McDonald, Santa Claus, Wolverine, The Mask and Wonder Woman overnight by an anonymous group of artists. Three days later the painting similarly disappeared overnight.

Since then a number of other temporary artistic protests have been staged using the monument as canvas. And, ironically for communism, it has become one of the hippest places to hang out, a veritable hotspot of “skaters, ravers, rasta and other subcultural groups”. Unfortunately, Russia’s not too charmed.

3. Bring it to life with performance

Infecting the City in particular has made us Capetonians acutely familiar withe how performance art draws people into spaces they wouldn’t usually go and engage with spaces through unexpected narratives. This was artist Athi Patra Ruga’s intention in his “Performance Obscura” work  a the 2012 Grahamstown National Arts Festival.

4. Make a stitch in time

AfricaWP1web3-816x544One of the most widely known means of temporary public installation, yarnbombing has swept the world. In South Africa, the Yarn Indaba yarnbombed the Voortrekker Monument in 2014. And in Cape Town, in 2012, Isabeau Joubert yarnbombed the “Bart Simpson” Africa statue by Brett Murray on St George’s Mall.

In 1998, artist Tracey Rose did it the other way around. Unravelling 25 doilies from her grandmother and coloured women in the area, she wound the threads around a police monument in Oudtshoorn. Although part of the Klein Karoo Kunstefees programme, the local police were fiercely offended and demanded that she stop, eventually using a knife to cut the threads. John Peffer discusses this highly-charged art performance in more detail in Censorship and Iconoclasm: Unsettling Monuments.

5. Put them all in a park

Those that are taken down, need not be destroyed, but can be relocated. In Hungary, Memento Park is alternatively called a historical theme park or an open air museum and is dedicated to all the statues from the country’s communist period. Designed by architect Ákos Eleőd, he said:

This park is about dictatorship. And at the same time, because it can be talked about, described, built, this park is about democracy. After all, only democracy is able to give the opportunity to let us think freely about dictatorship.

6. Dress them up

465x465q70marikana_street_2aba1In 1999 already, Beezy Bailey dressed the statue of Louis Botha as a Xhosa initiate with a traditional blanket and hat, and face painted with white clay. That he received death threats in the age before social media is an indication of just how thorny and how far back the question of our monuments goes.

More recently, in 2014, two years after 34 miners were killed at Marikana, an anonymous collective of artists swept the east city of Cape Town, dressing statues as miners and renaming streets after the deceased. Said the African Arts Institute’s Jill Williams to the Daily Maverick: “They aimed to give a human face to the number 34 using wording and imagery to evoke a sense of awareness and even emergency.”

Lumen17. Project it away

With projection mapping, high-definition video projectors can be used to display images on buildings and statues that completely mask the original. One of the projects at Open City on Church Square during First Thursdays entails Fabian Humphry ofLumen Concepts doing just that: projecting animations by various artists onto the facade of the Iziko Social History Centre, completely transforming it.

Grave of cecil john rhodes8. Hide them

Two statues of Rhodes – one from Zimbabwe and one from Zambia – have been stashed in the garden behind the national archives in Harare, reports the City Press. However, Mugabe is insistent on leaving Rhodes’s 1902 grave in Matobo National Park untouched as a reminder of the country’s colonial history.

Meanwhile, the removed busts of apartheid leaders, included HF Verwoerd, are stored in the bunkers of the Voortrekker Monument, reported Sean O’Toole in the Mail&Guardian.

Published at the Cape Town Partnership, 31 March 2015

Design memo from Cape Town

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“What is design?” In Cape Town, this question has as many answers as species of “fynbos,” the low scrubby plants that thrive along the Western Cape of South Africa. Located in the smallest and most biodiverse of the world’s six floral kingdoms, around the feet of Table Mountain—one of the seven modern wonders of the natural world—Cape Town is a city of contrasts, both natural and humanmade.

Offsetting its geographical splendor is one of Africa’s most recognizable urban skylines as well as the continent’s most-visited site: the V&A Waterfront, a retail, commercial and residential hub established on the old docks. Topping many of the latest lists of places to see, Cape Town is just as much home to Hollywood stars and world leaders as to refugees, hipsters, nomads, born-and-breds and the urban poor. Though the city boasts the nation’s most expensive houses, the legacy of the apartheid-era’s economic and racial ghettos prevails. Just on the other side of the mountain are acres of corrugated iron shanties with limited to no plumbing.

Design, with its creative approach to seemingly intractable problems, has increasingly become a rallying cry for how change and equality can be realized. Craft groups are engaging under-educated communities in the economy. Architects and industrial designers are considering living solutions for those at the bottom of the pyramid. A growing cadre of brand-name designers are producing high-end and collectible wares that are feeding an export and manufacturing industry. And, in 2014, as Cape Town wore the title of World Design Capital, the mayor and city hall itself attempted to adopt a design thinking attitude—resulting in some rather contentious public art and an award-winning skate park.

The long-term legacy of Cape Town’s design capital reign remains to be seen, but there’s no doubt that the design world sat up and noticed the southern-most tip of Africa.

New builds

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Given Cape Town’s environment and the resource-scarce African context, it is no surprise that green building has always been a priority.

Celebrating the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden’s centenary, is the unusual tree canopy walkway designed as a structural skeleton by Mark Thomas Architects. Creating this construction without disturbing the ancient trees was quite a feat!

Based in Cape Town, the Green Building Council of South Africa (GBCSA) has rolled out its green star rating system since 2007, but in 2014 had the pleasure of awarding its first six-star as-built rating to the No 1 Silo, built by VDMMA for client Allan Grey, at the V&A Waterfront.

The V&A Waterfront also saw the completion of the Watershed, in which Wolff Architects converted a centuries-old dock warehouse into a creative market and innovation hub that prioritised passive cooling and minimal materials. Similarly retrofitting a heritage site, is British starchitect Thomas Heatherwick’s currently under-construction Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art.

The first skyscraper built in Cape Town since 1993, the Portside FNB Building by dhk architects was also completed in 2014 and is regarded as the tallest green building in Africa (with five stars from the GBCSA).

On the low-cost housing front, Stephen Lamb’s co-designed “green shack” approach that incorporates vertical gardens to address issues of food security and nutritional deserts is a game changer. Lamb has pioneered insulated corrugated iron panels for easy construction.

Also exploring the possibilities of alternative building materials, the Design Develop Build initiative saw CS Studio and a group of students from around the world collaborate with a community theatre in Langa. The result is the Guga S’Thebe Children Theatre built entirely from shipping containers, straw bails, recycled pallets and other waste materials.

What’s trending

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Nicknamed the “Rainbow Nation” South Africa has 11 official languages—which is not even all of its indigenous languages. Adding to these multifarious African cultures, Cape Town is a port city that thrives on constant cultural influence from the East, West and Global South. Not to mention its still visceral British and French colonial heritage.

For a long time South African design struggled to find its identity between all these influences. African crafts were considered touristy and contemporary design to be Westernised. Without a manufacturing industry or consumer demand of which to speak, design also never reached mass-production, relegated to weekend markets and specialty stores. The consumer and the designer needed to grow together.

Following some 20 years of the Design Indaba conference and expo sensitizing market tastes, and the global artisan-maker movement, South Africans have begun to appreciate the value of the handmade, resourceful recycling and objects with narratives. Product and industrial designers such as Haldane Martin have also found ways to express indigenous craft more subtly in luxury furniture and collectible design.

This economy of scarcity and veneration of the unique has resulted in boldly idiosyncratic interiors that show resourceful and unusual use of materials—as in Etienne Hanekom’s offices for the World Design Capital team; multi-disciplinary collaboration—like knitwear designer Laduma Ngxokolo’s work with Leon at CCXIX; and a nostalgic textural and narrative layering of old and new. Global trends such as untreated wood and Scandinavian chic—especially Skinny LaMinx fabrics—are also popular. Somewhat ahead of the curve, a spate of office interiors by Inhouse aims to increase connectivity among employees while referencing the city’s geography—shipping containers, nests and views of Table Mountain have all influenced the firm’s projects.

Insider’s take

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Design curators Trevyn and Julian McGowan will look back on 2014 not only as the year Cape Town was World Design Capital, but as the year their business went into orbit.

Since 2008, they have been establishing Southern Guild (SG) as the go-to for collectable South African design at all the right international design fairs – Design Dubai, Design Maimi/Basel, London Design Fair and more. In 2014, they invited everyone they had met at these fairs to participate in South Africa’s first international design fair, Guild.

They established SG after noticing that the South African design industry needed a stimulus to create more work at the very top end. Their insight was based on their work through Source SA, through which they work as buyers and suppliers in small-scale South African design and craft for international department stores such as Anthropologie, the Conran Shops and, even, the White House.

Interior Design: 2014 was a huge year for Cape Town design and for your business ventures. What is the most significant thing to come out of it?

Trevyn McGowan: A focus on the incredible design work that is coming out of Cape Town. Interest in African design is at an all-time high and the World Design Capital validated this fascination in the continent. For us, to have held the inaugural Guild Design Fair during the historical year, means that we can now, with our second edition, build on this legacy. We also opened our first physical Southern Guild Gallery in Woodstock at the end of the year, which indicates that Cape Town is ready for more design exhibitions. In addition, Watershed at the V&A Waterfront is a great new retail concept that we curated, where visitors can purchase the best local craft and design in one space.

ID: What is the importance of the role of curator in design?

TM: I find that my role as curator allows me to showcase the best that South Africa has to offer. I love this role because it means I’m able to share my passion for craft and design in this country. In fact, as programme coordinators of Design Network Africa, we’re tasked with linking designers across the continent in order to raise the standard of design and assist in providing platforms for these designers internationally. The most important aspect of curation is that we’re able to provide opportunities to designers who might not otherwise have had them without our support.

ID: How did the Watershed come to be?

TM: The Watershed was a vision by the V&A Waterfront, the most-visited destination in Africa. Being housed in a revamped shed alongside the dry dock, it’s now seen as a ‘Watershed’ moment for craft and design in this country as for the first time some of the country’s top designs can be found under one roof, while many other designers are for the first time going from weekend markets and once-a-year affairs to 365 days a year of retail and staffing.

ID: How will a physical gallery for Southern Guild affect the initiative?

TM: Having a gallery of our own means that we’re now able to exhibit design work in South Africa throughout the year. Before, we used to have to exhibit in other people’s galleries for limited periods of time, and have always shown at international design fairs such as Design Miami and Design Days Dubai. We’re excited about the opportunities that having our own gallery presents us with.

ID: You typically travel to and exhibit at international shows around the world, but Guild saw the world come to us. What have been some of the effects of that?

TM: Guild was our inaugural design fair, and besides the great reviews it gained from the press and public, it’s the actual exhibitors who have been our best ambassadors. The Los Angeles-based Haas Brothers were here exhibiting with their New York gallery R & Company. During their time here they were part of an exhibitors’ off-site programme we arranged that had them visiting different local designers, among them Monkeybiz and Bronze Age Foundry, who they have now worked with to create their next body of work for Guild 2015, called ‘Afreaks’. This came about from them witnessing first-hand the incredible talent present in Cape Town. We also have Beirut-based designers, Mary-Lynn and Carlo Massoud, coming to work with Andile Dyalvane, one of our Southern Guild ceramicists. Collaboration has really become a keyword for Guild.

ID: What will your focus be for the year ahead?

TM: We’ll be exhibiting at Design Days Dubai and Design Miami again, and are looking forward to the second chapter of Design Network Africa as it runs into it’s next two-year phase with some new designers from east and west Africa. And, of course, we’re looking forward to cementing ourselves as a gallery in Woodstock’s energetic community of creatives.

First published on Interior Design, 30 January 2015

Chopper safari

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‘Cape Town tower, Papa, X-ray, Juliet, good day and ready for lift,” my “baby” sister, Rudi Botha, says into the microphone of her noise-cancelling aviation headset. This is not a simulation and I’m most definitely not dreaming – except, when did the student transform into a tough-as-nails 24-year-old woman?

We’re sitting in a two-seater Robinson 22 helicopter (RH22) as the engine warms up for takeoff. The rotor blades are gathering speed, and sweat is pouring down our faces as the temperature in the tiny cabin climbs. Rudi’s reflective aviator sunglasses could not get more Tom Cruise, except this movie is more Top Girl than Top Gun, with the two of us about to helicopter into the blue yonder, like Thelma and Louise.

I repeat, this is not a simulation.

“Papa, X-ray, Juliet, lift own discretion. Remain west of runway one niner. Wind two one zero degrees, one two knots,” a male voice comes over the radio.

“Lift own discretion. Remain west. Papa, X-ray, Juliet,” Rudi chimes back. A qualified private helicopter pilot, Rudi has been adding flying hours towards her commercial licence for the past two years, and has about 75 of 200 left to go. Her school replaced the engine and main rotor blades on one of its RH22 choppers – the bodies last 6?600 hours, the engines up to 2?200 hours and the main rotor blades 2?000 hours. New engines need to be broken in with 25 hours of flying at maximum continuous power – ideal for high-speed, long-distance flights – before the helicopter can be used for the slower, more precision aspects of training.

So Rudi offered to take it for a spin around the country over the festive season, and we were up and away with the aquamarine of False Bay melting into the horizon on one side, mosaics of tin roofs below our feet and dark green mountains up ahead. It was my first time in a helicopter – no half measures for me – and I was so relieved to be feeling fine, over-the-moon excited to be on the brink of an unchartered experience, and gloating about my new Airwolf ringtone. It was time to take a selfie.

The plan was to take two days to fly up to the Free State over the Karoo, spend Christmas with our father on the farm, then take three days to fly back along the Wild Coast and Garden Route.

No, helicoptering in a RH22 is not really faster than driving when it comes to long distances, mostly because of the fuel stops every two hours or so – and we also had to wait out bad weather, sometimes for days.

The changing weather also makes it nearly impossible to book accommodation. Nevertheless, we still took the opportunity to smirk down at the Somerset West traffic pile-up and shrug at the escalating daily road-deaths reports, although it didn’t stop our mother’s frantic hourly WhatsApp messages.

The unmanned and noncommercial airstrips are a story unto themselves – a backstage of contemporary life that none of us ever see, and far grittier than Alain de Botton’s A Week at the Airport.

From the Jägermeister-bottle-lined clubhouse, replete with ties and G-strings nailed to the bar in Swellendam, to the ghost-like Graaff-Reinet airstrip, its tarred surface pointing to a more illustrious history now left to sunset photo collages, a very shy parrot and no running water.

The rather preppy Gariep Dam airstrip was home to the only other female voice we heard on the radio, belonging to the part-time air traffic information provider who keeps an eye out for the fleet of leisure gliders.

Larger aerodromes told different stories. Oudtshoorn, for instance, is dominated by an international flight training academy with a Chinese contract to train pilots for less than it would cost in the communist homeland. The cafeteria serves reheated stir-fry from sweaty bains-marie. Port Alfred is home to the famous 43 Air School, which trains SAA cadets, and where we eavesdropped on a conversation between a visiting graduate, now an SAA pilot, who bemoaned the number of disappearing planes. Bethlehem boasted numerous hangers and facilities, but once inside, most were empty, with less than a handful of people rattling around. But these impressions were fleeting and we strapped in again and left as rapidly as we arrived. Floating in a bubble with the ground 350m below our feet for an average of five hours a day makes it very hard to fully invest in what increasingly felt like trivialities of the human condition. The most literal physical embodiment of a “new perspective”, the bird’s-eye view made roads look like arteries, bushes like bunny rabbit tails,

hills like belly rolls and valleys like stretch marks, trains like mercury running up a thermometer, cows like omega seeds, rivers like wounds and gashes, shorelines like fractals and dams like mirror shards.

Different areas had different textures – the Karoo had a smooth fur-like layer of grass with a range of rich colourings mimicking animal prints. The Valley of Desolation was rough and hard, like a macroscopically enlarged gravel road, with scratches revealing fiery red soil beneath. The most geometric, like a meticulously laid out lappieskombers, was the Free State, while the KwaZulu-Natal hillocks showed a geometry of interlocking circles. The Wild Coast looked like a pristine golf course and, coming back to the Western Cape, it was all of the above – the most diverse.

From up there, the geopolitics of South Africa is also laid out for all to see: towns shaped like lopsided bow ties with large houses camouflaged by leafy streets and neon-blue swimming pools winking up from one side, and corrugated iron matchbox dwellings tightly gridlocked in a stark mirror image on the other side.

Working the nine-to-five in a city, one can get quite mentally stuck in the global urbanisation project of the 20th century – you know, “cities are the future” kind of thing – but there are thousands of kilometres and tens of hours between moderate sprinklings of human life out there. Entire expanses, especially on the Wild Coast and in the Valley of Desolation, had no signs of human life.

Time and space is different out there in the middle of nowhere. Take, for instance, the Owl House in Nieu Bethesda, which is the prolific artistic output of 31 years of Helen Martins’ life squeezed into a single museum.

In the 21st century, investing that amount of time into any project is hard to wrap your mind around. Even 200 hours towards a commercial licence sounds like a lot.

We flew around the country in 24 hours – the same amount of time it takes the earth to circle the sun – and less than a week later, we’re back at our office jobs.

Yet everything feels different. Anything feels possible. And that’s a holiday feeling worth having when starting off the new year.

Published by City Press, 18 January 2015

Comfort zone

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Married to your mohair? Wedded to your wool? Nadine Botha explores why a blanket is the perfect partner for winter.

Most of us had a favourite blanket as a child. And whether it was called Blanky or Banky or Pinky or Lovey, it was supernatural. In seconds it morphed from blanket to teddy bear to tent to picnic to superhero cape to comforter. Being tied to our mother’s back was sublime, sleeping without it was unimaginable, and as for warding off the giant big-nose monsters…

Security blankets are for many of us the first inanimate object with which we create a relationship and find comfort in. Like Linus and his blanky in the Peanuts comic strip, dependence on these comfort objects can either evoke empathy or scorn in others.

Psychologists, however, regard them as a positive part of key developmental stages. Termed a ‘transitional object’, the security blanket eases us into independence from our mothers, and are said to facilitate learning as well as helping children adapt to new situations.

Recent research has also revealed that adults who have kept some form of comfort object (not necessarily a blanket) are more independent and better at dealing with stress. In Japan, many adults have traded up from blankies to robotic pets, while in the UK it is estimated that about 35% of adults still sleep with a teddy bear.

The blanket as comfort object is timeless. Weighted blankets are used in psychiatric care to treat everything from anxiety and insomnia to autism, Asperger’s syndrome and ADHD. They provide deep pressure and are described as a ‘firm hug’.

Dutch trend forecaster Li Edelkoort writes in her latest book, Fetishism in Fashion (win one of five copies by entering here), ‘Most babies are given a safety blanket that is meant to be a partner and protector, a cuddle to be cherished. Some people will hold on to that first bit of cloth for the remainder of their lives and will be very distressed when losing the cherished object. Therefore this first encounter with fibre and weave is responsible for many of our future encounters with fabric. We will continue to search for the same softness, a similar colour, an equal weight.’

A blanket as fetish object? Well, there’s no denying that wrapping yourself in a good blanket is a sensual experience and that, especially as adults, we often choose our blankets with as much care as we do our partners. We do, after all, have to sleep with it.

What makes a good bedmate? Natural, manmade or blended? Cotton, wool, mohair, merino, polyester or nylon? What about allergies? Matted, woven, knitted, felted or fleeced? Will it get too hot? Handmade or machine produced? What about microfibre and, even, electric? With the range of options on the market today, you should be able to find whatever you desire. You can even find one with sleeves, called a ‘slanket’ – not that it’s advisable to leave the house wearing a sleeved blanket.

If you’re having a Linus day and can’t get by without your blanket, rather take your cue from Louis Vuitton. Developing the hipster oversized scarf trend to its supersized conclusion, swanky men and women were seen wearing blankets across their shoulders and around their necks during the European winter. However, with Louis Vuitton’s blanky going for US$1 260 (about R12 600), it’s not likely to take off here any time soon.

Mzansi is the original home of blanket fashion. Many African people use blankets as cultural identifiers. Checked Masai blankets are widely known, and Zulu and Xhosa people also make use of blankets during initiation ceremonies and other rituals. The Basotho people in Lesotho and the Free State wear their tribal blankets throughout the year.

Deeply embedded in the Basotho culture, blankets are differentiated through striking colours and motifs, which indicate special occasions and social status. Originally produced in Britain, the blankets are now produced locally based on the patterns and colours integrated by the Basotho. To this day, the blankets are still made of 90% wool and 10% cotton, making them fire and rain resistant. Shnu Tribal & Basotho Blankets produce beautiful heirloom blankets, with royalties going to the Basotho nation.

Breathing new life into traditional blankets is young fashion designer Thabo Makhetha. Born in Lesotho and now based in Port Elizabeth, she showed a striking range of clothes and accessories made from Basotho blankets at this year’s Design Indaba Expo.

Laduma Ngxokolo, who’s known for his Xhosa-themed Fair Isle knit jerseys, has also collaborated with mohair weaving company Hinterveld on a range of blankets inspired by African culture, from the corn blankets of the Sotho to the burnt orange blankets of the Xhosa and the colourful throws of the Ndebele.

Just a rectangular piece of cloth – that’s all a blanket entails. Native Americans leave a flaw in the weaving to let the soul out, while Nasa coats plastic with a metallic film to create space blankets that conserve body heat in emergencies. So simple, so versatile, so indispensable.

First published in iMagazine and VISI, 5 August 2013

Rhode to fame well travelled

Incognito, Robin Rhode uses South Africa’s streets as his canvas – but his path to renown was international.

“Contemporary artists see me as a street artist and the street artists see me as a conceptual artist,” says Robin Rhode, sitting in the atrium at the Stevenson gallery in Cape Town. Around him, his “crew” is setting up his first solo exhibition in South Africa in about 13 years. “I use the same space [the street] but I use it so differently.”

The last time South African audiences saw a dedicated Rhode exhibition was at the Market Theatre Gallery in 2000, where half the shoes from his installation were stolen. That was the same year he moved to Berlin “for love”, where he still lives with his wife and two children. However, if you are to read his life according to the international press, they would have you believe that his first solo exhibition was in New York in 2004, shortly after a residency at the Walker Art Centre in 2003 where his performance brought the house down and saw his first work sold straight into the prestigious Rubell Collection.

After that, Rhode was the youngest artist to participate in the Venice Biennale in 2005 and has been included in high-profile group exhibitions around the world by institutions that include the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In 2008, he presented a solo exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in London, alongside a retrospective of Andy Warhol.

“What has brought me back is not ‘South Africa’ or the people, it’s the work. The concept of this exhibition, which I’ve been engaging with for the past year or two, had to be realised in South Africa.”

Titled Paries Pictus, which means wall drawing in Latin, the exhibition turns half the gallery into an oversized colouring-in book. In the days leading up to the exhibition, kids completed the images on the walls using oversized crayons. From the Cape Town-based arts education programme for disadvantaged communities, Lalela Project, the children were all “strictly under the age of eight”. At the opening, the audience saw only the completed work, not the children or any other form of performance or intervention.

The evolution of the project first began in 2011 at the Castello di Rivoli in Turin, where Rhode worked with Italian kids. It was realised again this year at the Lehmann Maupin Gallery in New York. “Working abroad made me realise how much my own country needs to access this working process, especially our youth. To plant a seed in their minds that visual arts or contemporary art is a way to nurture their growth and creativity.”

When Rhode talks with such philanthropic zeal about the impact of an isolated two-day gallery intervention on the youth of South Africa, I become sceptical. Who is this prodigal son of South Africa with his contemporary art cure-all? Is he even still South African — besides his 100% Mzansi accent?

Beyond the gallery

As the interview continues Rhode explains the origin of his art — the signature street art illusions that he has become known for. The second half of the exhibition comprises this work — photographs, drawings, moving images and sculptural works, ranging from abstract drawings made in Germany in 2007 to a new photo series done in Johannesburg in 2013. From talking about this work, I begin to understand the self-referential significance of Paries Pictus and the true impact of Rhode’s work being beyond the gallery.

The fact is that Rhode is making about 90% of his work in South Africa. About five times a year he returns incognito and heads straight to the Jo’burg streets to make work for eight- to nine-day periods. Berlin, he says, is too risky with the cops — he feels much more comfortable engaging in the local graffiti crew turf wars.

“It’s more theatre than graffiti,” says Rhode, who is known for whiting-out his work after he has captured it on film. Nonetheless, for the brief time in which he is executing it, he amasses an audience of “other street art crews, kids coming home from school, workers coming back from the factory, the junkies, the homeless people,” all who watch him.

“When I started out as an artist, I wanted to change the notion of the audience, so I started working outside on the street” — which makes one wonder whether the work, the photograph hanging in the gallery, is actually the real art or just a souvenir. But it’s impressive that such a high-profile artist still manages to keep such a large aspect of his work completely underground, beneath the radar of the art scene or the blogosphere. I ask why he doesn’t tweet it, secretly hoping in the future that he will at least tweet me. But Rhode is not into spectacle, he says, which is also why he has almost completely stopped doing performance art.

The invisibility of this rich community context of his work is part of the theatrical quality of his work — it’s the backstage of what the audience sees in the gallery. Just as the audience did not see the kids completing Paries Pictus, it is up to our imaginations to fill in that aspect, says Rhode: “Invisibility is the narrative that the audience needs to make.”

Generally, in his work the South African — and Jo’burg — context is completely framed out by the camera. It could just as well be Mexico City (which is where some of them were created). But Rhode is fundamentally a South African artist. “My art has to come from a lived experience. The only way I can make it is to find something inside myself that leads to my visual language.”

Childish pranks

This struck him in his second year at art school when he was learning about Duchamp, Dada and performance art. He recalled a teenage experience that has become the conceptual basis of all of his work: the Americans call it “hazing”, he says. The matrics in high school initiated the new kids by forcing them to interact with life-size drawings of everyday things — a bicycle and a candle, for instance — drawn with chalk on the bathroom walls. The kids were humiliated and then accepted. (It has nothing to do with William Kentridge’s stop-motion work, he claims, adding that he has started looking forward to interviewers asking him about Kentridge’s influence on him when actually he slept through that part of his art school lectures.)

“That moment meant so much,” Rhode says. The chalk was apparently stolen from the classrooms. So it makes reference to the basic material of education. The drawings were life-size and rendered on a wall, so somehow they also take us back to the historical art of the Bushmen. Furthermore, the physical act of engaging with his drawing leads Rhode into performance art.

One of the recurring images in the childish pranks he recalled was a bicycle, although none of the kids could afford one. The significance of the two-wheeler in the work of Duchamp, and throughout art history, shines through. Rhode marvels that “all of those [contemporary art] discourses formed my subcultural experience as a South African youth”.

He relates it to Paries Pictus: “I’m working with children, to educate them about artistic processes and introduce them to the notion of creativity. Contemporary art is a space that is overly refined, more adult, learned and institutional. I thought that working with children could inject a new energy into the process.”

Mail&Guardian, 12 April 2013

Put money where your mouth is

Jules Mercer spares no expense in curating her marvellous feasts in the most unlikely venues.

‘There is no dress code but please don’t wear high heels,” reads the ticket to the Outlandish Kitchen. And that’s about as pretentious as this pop-up eating experience gets. But how were we to know that, peering into the Kalk Bay Community Centre at two laden banquet tables, wondering whether we’d gate-crashed someone’s wedding?

We were expecting a five-course meal with wines and all the typical social aplomb that would go with it. Quite the opposite. A stack of serviettes was passed around on the balcony before we ate the snoek aperitifs (pâté with bread, fish balls with Malay mayonnaise and baked with apricot butter glaze) with our fingers; rather messy to say the least.

It did make for general ice-breaking, in which I met a couple from Australia who had seen the event on Facebook, figured that they would be in Cape Town at the time, and booked tickets.

The balcony’s waterproofing was the reason for no high heels. Built in 1906 and originally a sewage pump station, the Kalk Bay Community Centre was converted in 1935. It still plays an active role in the social life of the area, hosting markets, yoga, dance and other classes. Historically, it has functioned as a World War II entertainment centre, a municipal library and a council cash office.

We entered the hall and found our name cards; the “tablecloths” were newsprint, laid with mismatching plates and stock-standard tumblers, and decorated with unwashed potatoes, paper straws and glass paraffin lanterns.

“We’ve wanted it to be all about the food,” says organiser Jules Mercer, a trained chef-turned-food writer and stylist, who has leveraged her connections with local farmers to curate feasts served in unlikely venues.

“Once you’ve paid, I tell you where it is. That’s it. Otherwise people come with too many expectations,” she says, explaining the unpolished charm of the venture, still marvelling that complete strangers (from Australia even) are happy to put R550 a head into her bank account without even asking who she is.

Trust is the key to this story and it goes back to trusting our food, what’s in it and where it comes from — something all South Africans can identify with after the recent donkey meat scare.

“Are we happy to buy poor quality meat?” asks Mercer. “As long as it’s cheap, we don’t complain. But how much water is in that mince? And the addition of brine and meat extracts to chicken and other meats — is that okay with you?”

Local and lekker

The concept of the Outlandish Kitchen builds on the locavore principle (eating food grown within a 160km radius of your home) by adding that, not only is the produce reared in the immediate proximity and artisanally treated, it also has a person and a story attached to it.

By introducing the farmers and their fare and sometimes even their farms when they are used as venues, Mercer hopes to make diners more aware of what they eat and where it comes from.

As special guest of the event, Janine Basson of the Southern African Sustainable Seafood Initiative, an initiative of the World Wildlife Fund, casually chatted to us about responsible fish eating, over courses of farmed Saldanha oysters, followed by trout boards from the Streams Fisheries in Franschhoek. The trout is certified by the Marine Stewardship Council (an environmental standard) and “by using it in the menu we wanted to show how smoked trout can be just as delicious — local and lekker — as its Norwegian salmon counterpart,” says Mercer.

“Oh no, I’m not the chef; you must be crazy,” Mercer laughs boisterously as she hoists the huge mussel pots of the next course on to the table. Served with baked angelfish, potato salad and a garden salad with such unusual delights as zucchini flowers, the mussels were one of the two unanimous highlights.

Chef Rina van Velden studied at the Institute of Culinary Arts in Stellenbosch and has worked at Le Quartier Francais, Welbedacht Wines and Mamma Mac’s Bakery. With her emphasis on the produce itself, however, Van Velden’s style seems closer to Babylonstoren’s. “Rina is an alchemist in the kitchen — and ridiculously humble!” says Mercer.

All the while the food was served with wines from Usana Farming Estate where “brothers JP and Pierre Winshaw work hard to produce a range of delicious wines, along with pasture-reared eggs, lamb and beef,” explains Mercer, who has a similar anecdote for just about everything on the menu. The bread, for instance, is from Oude Bank Bakkerij in Stellenbosch and the exquisite salted-caramel and fig ice cream — the other unanimous highlight — is by the baker’s wife, Chanelle.

How does one really put a price on this word-of-mouth food network? “We all need to get it into our heads that we need to pay more for our food. Full stop.” Mercer puts her wine glass down and gets serious. “If something lands on my plate and it’s really cheap, it worries me.”

In an effort to make this type of food more accessible, Mercer has now also launched the Outlandish Kitchen food boxes — and we’re not talking limp, sandy, malnourished-looking vegetables, if the treasure-filled salad was anything to go by. A basic box includes seasonal organic veg from Naturally Organic and properly free-range eggs from the Winshaws. Two variations on the basic box include exotic mushrooms, wine and pork cured by the renowned Richard Bosman. Prices range from R150 to R500 and can be ordered online (delivery is extra).

Mercer talks about everyone as a personal friend and struggles to quantify the value of the venture. Deals and bartering, word-of-mouth connections, and new friends through the producers and the guests who come to the event … trust is the currency. Like the packet of heirloom seeds that each guest received as a take-home gift, the investment is more than money and the antithesis of the instantaneous gratification of our contemporary food culture.

“If I look at the amount of time that I put into each event, I’m not doing it for the money, and as soon as it stops being fun I’m going to throw the towel in,” Mercer says. “Although I very nearly reached that point when the hot water gave in on Saturday night and at 1am we had to put every drippy fishy plate in my car and drive them home to be washed!”

Mail&Guardian, 5 April 2013

Paint the town with poetry

Lemn Sissay turns words into monuments, literally. Spending some time in South Africa, the poet gives Nadine Botha a verbal whiplashing.

Lemn Sissay is a seasoned interviewee. At 21-years old, he published his debut collection of poetry to critical acclaim and, in as many years, has since published seven anthologies and four plays. Telly-watchers will recognise him as the youngest Grumpy Old Man on the first four seasons of the hit BBC sitcom, as well as the subject of the documentary Internal Flight. In 2007 he became artist-in-residence at the Southbank Centre. Sissay has been turning poems into landmarks since the late 1990s.

Yes, this is a rare poet who has had enough interlocution with the media to remember his own catchphrases, yawn at the boring questions, predict my oohs and aahs, laugh at his own pull quotes and interject himself with a shake of the head – “I can see the article now”, he mumbles to himself throughout the interview.

But where the reporter always gets hooked, he says, is on the subject of his gruelling childhood. “And who can blame them?” he shrugs off the stark tale of an Ethiopian student who lost her son after placing him in temporary foster care in the UK. What happened was that the care worker renamed the infant Norman, after himself, and allowed a British family to legally adopt him. Religious zealots from Lancashire, the foster parents believed that God had sent “Norman”. When “Norman” was 11, the family came to believe that he was evil and was promptly returned to the foster care system to spend the next seven years of his life in-between children’s homes. The first time he met another black person was when he was 14. He reclaimed his name, Lemn Sissay, at age 18.

“It was an emotionally violent existence and I had to find a way of interpreting the world into a place without violence, so that I could see wonder, because I deserved to see wonder,” Sissay explains his turn to writing.

Since he was 18, however, Sissay knew that he had to find his family. “It’s become the narrative of my adult life,” he smirks at what has become one of his catchphrases. After finding every last one of them – from Ethiopian mother and dead Eritrean father to siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents – by the age of 32, he coined another of his catchphrases: “I now have a dysfunctional family like everyone else!”

Sissay’s humour is so self-aware, so to-the-bone and so subconscious, it is often intestinal. “You know like a child who is laughing and then is kicked. They don’t understand the pain, but they do understand that they were happy. So their relation to laughter is really in contrast to the punch. But we all deserve to laugh. And… I’ve never said this before…” He breathes in: “Laughter is a shortterm hit, not the answer. Only a fool thinks it is!”

He beams, shakes his head at himself and rambles on: “The poems and writing for me are totally beyond my narrative. It just happens that I was lucky enough to find this great ship that can carry pretty much anything. There are small quarters on the ship that is my family story and every time I speak to a journalist, they want to go to that room. That’s okay.”

Turning to gloat, he says: “But actually, I’m rocking out to sea, riding the waves, putting up the sails and fishing.” Gloating because now, in his early forties, Sissay has come to realise: “My poems are my family.”

He lowers his voice: “I found my family all over the world, my actual physical blood relatives. But my poetry has been with me for longer. So when there wasn’t family, there was poetry. And to be honest, there’s more truth in my poems than I will ever be able to extract from my family.”

Imitating Dr Evil, he raises his eyebrows a couple of times. Sissay’s incomparable ability to wear fragility as armour is dumbfounding. We’re sitting in a coffee shop off Long Street in Cape Town, shortly after the Africa Centre’s Badilisha Poetry X-change, and Sissay flags down a passer-by only to find that he’d mistaken them for someone else.

Electrifying audiences with a mind that runs faster than his tongue, a few weeks later, Sissay headlined the Grahamstown National Arts Festival and went on for a run at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg. None of these are Sissay’s first visits to South Africa. He has been visiting regularly since 1994 when he participated in a Robben Island project. Of the country, he says: “I always find the greatest communities in the world have a very complex set of arteries surrounding their hearts.”

Similarly for this “first generation Ethiopian Eritrean Brit”, as he calls himself, the question of identity is like the colour of the sky. “It’s like saying the sky is blue, but it’s not actually, it’s a reflection of the sea. So you could say the sky is blue, the sky is invisible, the sky is grey… it’s all of those things. Stories aren’t simple, which is why we have creatives. And we’re all creatives,” he reasons.

Going on, he insists that “creativity is an integral part of society, it’s not on the periphery but at the centre”. This is the power of the arts for Sissay, beyond the needs for context, narrative or legacy, he vehemently continues: “We have never lived without art, yet society perceives art to be an addition to life and the fact is, if you look at our religions, they’re all told through great stories, literature and art – physical art. The artist is often employed to carry the message, but sometimes I wonder, isn’t the artist itself the message?”

Taken from a man who has transformed poems into physical landmarks throughout the city of Manchester, now infiltrating London, such talk is only mildly alchemical. What is gratifying about his poetic interventions is that, as Sissay says, “The beauty of a landmark, is it’s not a landmark by you, it’s by other people. You can’t build a landmark, people have to choose it.”

The first landmark was the result of a taunt from some mates in a local pub and Sissay decided to “show them”, resulting in Hardy’s Well being branded on the eponymous pub. Since then he has inscribed Rain above the Gemini Take Away, Flags on the cobblestones along Tib Street and Catching Numbers in the Shude Hill Bus Station, all in Manchester. Last year, he unveiled The Gilt of Cain in London. This collaboration with sculptor Michael Visocchi commemorates the bicentenary of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade.

“The beauty of a poem in the landscape is that you suddenly start to notice a building that you always pass without noticing. It’s not about finding the biggest spire, but about discovering your neighbourhood and bringing people to an environment that they might not have discovered by their own eyes and ears,” says Sissay. He shrugs: “The poems are architecture.”

Visible creativity is an urgent message for Sissay, as he reemphasises: “There is a structure and anarchy that an artist acknowledges and we need that, even if a lot of the time we are afraid of seeing it.”

“Why are we scared?” I ask rhetorically.

But this man of woven words has an answer: “Because art has always gotten to the truth of the matter and we have been taught to be frightened of the truth of the matter.”

ARCHITECTURE

Each cloud wants to be a storm
My tap water wants to be a river
Each match wants to be an explosive
Each reflection wants to be real
Each joker wants to be a comedian
Each breeze wants to be a hurricane
Each drizzled rain wants to be torrential
Each laugh from the throat  wants to burst from the belly
Each yawn wants to hug the sky
Each kiss wants to penetrate
Each handshake wants to be a warm embrace
Don’t you see how close we are to crashes and confusion,
Tempests and terror,  Mayhem and madness,
and All things out of control

Each melting Icecube wants to be a glazier
Each wave wants to be the smooth stroke of a forehead
Each cry wants to be a scream
Each carefully pressed suit wants to be creased
Each midnight frost  wants to be a snow drift
Each mother wants to be a friend
Each night time wants to strangle the day
Each wave wants to be tidal
Each subtext wants to be a title
Each winter wants to be the big freeze
Each summer wants to be a drought
Each polite disagreement wants to be a vicious denial
Each diplomatic smile wants to be a one fingered tribute to tact
Don’t you see how close we are to crashes and confusion,
Tempests and terror,  Mayhem and madness,
and All things out of control
Keep telling yourself.
You’ve got it covered.

REMEMBER HOW WE FORGOT

We don’t cram around the radio anymore
We have arrived at the multidimensional war
Where diplomats chew it up  spew it up
And we stand like orphans with empty cups
‘There will be no peace’ the press release
Said  that  war is on the increase
We  are being soaked with a potion
Massaged with  lotion to calm the commotion
That hides in  the embers of the fire
There’s nothing as quick as a liar
Don’t you learn your lesson
Are you so effervescent that
When they say day is day and its dark in your window
You say ‘ok’ and listen more tomorrow?

Seems you heard the trigger word
Are you space to be replaced – dreams defaced
Heavy questions  quickly sink
Leaving no trace – a spiked drink
What kind of trip are you on
Don’t you remember the last one?
Remember how we forgot about Vietnam,
Afghanistan, will you fall or stand
For a dream you haven’t seen?
I’m afraid you will, you have taken the pill
And you are totally stoned on war.

Media Hype and the slogans they write
Is that all it takes to set you alight
There’s nothing better than a doped up mind
For a young unemployed man to sign up
Figures go down young men sign up
What better when losing votes than to erupt
Into the uniting sound of war fever
“We need unity now – more than ever…
We shall only attack to defend…”
Paranoia infiltrates…
“Are you one of us or one of them!”
Slogans fall like hard rain as government calls
For someone somewhere in some country
That is suddenly so vital to our history
More than ever we should pull together
These are the days of stormy weather
Patriots show  faces, nationalists recruit places
As the fear of the foreigner rises
The race attack count arises
Victims of the small island mentality
England is no mother country
He holds the fear of the Awakening
Of his shivering shores breaking
Like the those in the Middle East did
When he raped it –
will you take it – take this, without question
Fall in line with the press poet or politician
Remember how we forgot about Vietnam,
Afghanistan. Will you fall or stand
For a dream you haven’t seen.
I’m afraid you will, you’ve taken the pill
You are totally stoned on war.

Design Indaba magazine, 1 August 2009