Richmond in the Northern Cape is roughly at the halfway mark between Johannesburg and Cape Town. It is also the base for an artist’s residency called MAPSA – Modern Art Projects South Africa. The acronym speaks to the inflated buzz regarding the ‘contemporary’, the ‘now’ – the ‘modern’ – but, as I see it, MAPSA more compellingly asks us to think about geography, about where we physically are in the world. In this case, a dorp built around an L-shaped artery comprising a garage, two eateries, and, delightfully, a bookshop.
Locals stroll down the main street in their dressing gowns and fuzzy slippers. Curtains briefly quiver when strangers like myself and Sven Christian stroll by. The tarred road is a sonogram, a graph attuned to the distribution of energy and different frequencies. The locals in this one-horse, or maybe two-horse town, are wired to novel frequencies, new people, artists in particular, who have made this residency their Karoo pod.
It was Willem Boshoff, six months ago at the Nirox Sculpture Park, who first alerted me to this spot. He is on ‘the board’, the role luminaries occupy. But as to what exactly gets done there I needed to find out in person. And so, when the opportunity arose to scrap my flight back to Cape Town and take a road-trip instead, I jumped at the opportunity. I’d be accompanying Sven’s father Colin Christian, a geologist who’d spent 15 years in the Namib and was returning to Cape Town briefly to collect his wood-turning equipment. The mix of carpentry and geology was irresistible. So was the prospect of getting to know the father of a dear friend.
‘In the Karoo the mountains are often formed by dolerite dyke and sills’, Colin informs me in a bar in Johannesburg. ‘Dolerite is molten magma, lava that cools below the surface of the earth. It intrudes into older layers of sedimentary rock. If horizontal the intrusion is called a sill. If vertical it is called a dyke. Then as the landscape slowly erodes, the hard dolerite resists erosion. Dykes form ridges, while sills form table-top mountains, also called mesas’. I could have been listening to Bach, the words and their sediment plumbing the depths of me.
I was not disappointed as we drove through a Pierneef sky with its hazy abstraction, past rolling hills and parched rough plains, passing Hanover and recalling to my left a road which years before had taken me to Pierneef’s quirky mountains with their elongated and thumb-like conical hats. But what I had not foreseen was that Sven would join us, using the trip to write up his Masters proposal on a Dumile Feni scroll. The lap-top passed back and forth, me making minor adjustments and suggestions, the proposal completed as we arrived at dusk in Richmond.
Chris Soal had secured our accommodation, replete with electric blankets and dressing gowns and woolly slippers wrapped in cellophane. No Wifi. But the bookshelves were stacked with art books. The walls dripped with art. A painting by Tracy Payne – from her monk series – particularly caught my attention. The quiet it generated was echoed by the silence all about. It seemed that life moved here at a tip-toe. We sequestered ourselves in our private rooms for the night, for it would be the morning which would reveal MAPSA’s great treasure.
At 8am a taut sprightly youth – he could have been thirty – opened a vault (formerly a supermarket) the size of an airplane hangar. To enter it, one must descend, for the hangar – a marvel of steel, concrete, and corrugation – was partially underground. Was this simply the fact of a shift in gradient and level, or was it somehow a matter of intent? For I could not ignore the fact that I was not walking across earth, but inside of it. Here, I thought, was art which had been buried.
But it was its quality – the nature of the art which was collected – which struck me most forcefully. For here, in this vast tomb, was an art which, for me, was quintessentially South African. Predominantly assemblage, installation, and sculpture, the works seemed to have been wrought from the earth. Flattened rusted tins in reds, browns, and copper, had been transformed into shirts, a dress, a baby-grow, and hung along flanking rusted barbed wire fences. The scale was vast. Indeed, it was an amplified scale which seemed to be the defining characteristic of the works housed in this vault. Scale and matter, viscera and texture, the muted yet vivid glints of a Karoo landscape.
This was not work made in cities. They had no place on the self-satisfied walls of the interiors one finds in our life-style magazines. Rather, it was a brutishness, a raw vulgarity, which distinguished the works all about. For here, in this unique vault, I’d found the first true expression and dramatization of this land – bitten, roughly hewn, impassive yet intense.
William Burchell, travelling through this land between 1811 and 1813, hated it. The harsh light, the seeming lack of vegetal variety, the hinterland which he saw as little more than ‘a desolate wild and singular landscape’. “In Africa”, he opined, “we look in vain for those mellow tints with which the sun dyes the forests of England”. Instead, here, in this vault, and travelling across the Karoo, it was as though I were caught in a permanent high noon.
J.M. Coetzee was equally wrong-headed when, in Age of Iron, he complained about what he saw as lacking: ‘an air of looming mystery’. He resumes: ‘No one has done that for South Africa: made it into a land of mystery. Too late now. Fixed in the mind as a place of flat, hard light, without shadows, without depth”. Coetzee perhaps needed to venture further away from Cape Town and alight, as I had, upon a congregation of art works which, while caught in a harsh light – the light of a high noon – had nevertheless found a way to record our very peculiar mystery of soil and dust and hurt and beauty.