South Africa letter 3

Yesterday weather was a bit iffy so we drove into Cape Town to do the galleries. All over South Africa young black men in bright green traffic control vests offer a service of “parking advisers”. They wave you into a spot, vaguely keep an eye on your car while you’re gone, guide you back out and are very pleased if you hand them the equivalent of 50 cents or a dollar. It's a completely unsanctioned service but is everywhere and is actually very useful as parking is quite crazy and in high demand.

fine art photography by Paula O'Brien

We drove right downtown to the National Gallery which is right beside the Parliament Building and got shoehorned into the last little spot. Perfect for our tiny Renault rent-a-wreck. Just around the corner we could hear the sounds of a demonstration going on. At this time in South Africa there’s some movement to take down and remove the old colonialism sculptures, symbols of black oppression from the past as well as anti-foreigner violence going on against other African nationals who are flooding into the country, bringing in drugs and crime and taking jobs away from the local people even more so than the whites do. It's an extremely unsettled time and several people here have asked about how they would adjust to life in British Columbia and/or talking about other exit plans.

fine art photography by Paula O'Brien

The National Gallery is not large and we've been treated to premier South African artist William Kentridge installations on this visit and our last from six years ago. In a large room there were five films being projected on the walls at the same time with images telling the same story but not quite in the same sequence. Amazing soundtrack and always extremely impressive. What a treat. Some of the soundtrack was quite a cacophony though and before we left the building I had a quick visit to the bathroom. From the window I thought I could hear shouting, crashing and large violent noises which I thought were coming from the demonstration but I think were actually coming from the film because when we finally did step out of building it was perfectly quiet and tranquil in the beautiful Company Gardens, a bird sanctuary with amazing biological diversity. We could only just hear the demonstration still going on around the corner and a woman’s singing voice, something like Mariam Makeba. We headed towards it to catch part of it but by the time we reached the area it had wrapped up and finished at 1:30. In old apartheid days Dennis was caught in a big teargas demonstration and forced down with hundreds of others into some underground area underneath the main central shopping district, quite scary. I’d wondered if this would happen to us again today, but thankfully it didn't.

photographs from South Africa

We visited about six of the most interesting contemporary art galleries in central Cape Town, very impressive,  a great art day. The Everard Read Gallery near the V&A Docks was most impassive with an art installation upstairs with a wonderful movie and downstairs, rich paintings, very earthy, paintings of life in the black townships and some of their home interiors. Very appealing painter Ricky Dyaloyi in spite of the humble subject matter. At another gallery we saw two of my top drawer figurative artists exhibiting their work, Aldo Balding from France and Andrew Salgado, above, originally Canadian but living in London. Maybe the first time I’ve actually seen their work close up and personal, very beautiful and I'm proud to have them in our figurative artist stable.


We met Jake's ex-girlfriend to Didi one night for dinner in Kloof Street. Café Paradisio was a smashing restaurant just around the corner from where she lives so very convenient although we had a long drive home in the dark afterwards. Hout Bay is about 30 minutes from the city centre, about as far as Sechelt to Gibsons but tight roads, very curvy and hilly with quite a bit of traffic. Didi is 25, a young black woman from a township near Pretoria. She is working with a Cape Town initiative to improve the quality of life for the people who live in the city through looking at everything from transportation to accommodation to entertainment that is accessible, family-friendly and inexpensive. They were putting on an event the next day, a center City all ages play day, with the idea to get people out working and playing together to have fun, to learn things and to enjoy the city center.

She’s very passionate about what she’s doing with this Organization she’s been working with for about a year and a half. Four years ago she spent a year abroad on an international youth initiative in Sweden and when she returned home she had a very rocky return because here in South Africa she is immediately boxed in by the fact that she is black when it did not seem to even exist as a thought when she was away from South Africa. She may eventually go into politics as she feels it’s probably her path but she's not quite ready yet. She doesn't feel she's hard enough to be in politics and probably still has to go to university for some kind of the degree to go into that field but she's getting herself on steering committees and talking to people who may be near the movers and shakers. Even within their own organization it's overwhelming to try to make a positive difference because there's so much wrong with it. Where do you start to fix things when there’s so much wrong? A massive challenge. When we talked about the xenophobic attacks, she said yes, it was very scary. I asked how do people know just by looking at you where you’re from. Yes, that is a problem and sometimes she and her brother get taken for other nationals when they’re born and raised right here. The blackest blue blacks are not from here and apparently there are some broad ethnic looks that help classify people but really, they’re already wearing their other country on their sleeve when they’re selling goods in market stalls. People already know where they’re from. It has not been a secret.

fine art photography by Paula O'Brien

On our way to dinner with Didi, we stopped in for an hour and a half at Kirstenbosch which is a world-class biological botanical wonderland. What a place of beauty. Definitely a place to go many times in many seasons and wander and explore, even trails up onto wild and rugged Table Mountain although there are warning signs to respect the mountain, deep crevasses, take water with you and charged cellphones to call for help and beware of course of potential wild animals and unfortunately, potential muggers. We did a couple of sketches but very challenging to capture the depth of field with the very fascinating and interesting Table Mountain behind, hard to capture it in colors and values properly. They have a beautiful winding walkway above the forest canopy called The Boomslang, named for a very poisonous snake here. Its a real thing of beauty and quite magical to walk upon. Of course lots of people were stopping to take pictures of themselves and the surroundings, definitely a photographer’s delight although best captured with a proper camera and not just an iPhone.

fine art photography by Paula O'Brien fine art photography by Paula O'Brien fine art photography by Paula O'Brien fine art photography by Paula O'Brien fine art photography by Paula O'Brien fine art photography by Paula O'Brien

We wanted to drive down to Cape Point one day but got too late a start because wild winds in the night had keep us awake with noise and racket. We wound our way up Chapman’s Peak which is literally carved into the stone face of the hillside, something like the Sea to Sky Highway but not as wide. We got as far as Noordhoek Farm Village. It was a busy Friday afternoon with families just arriving for a nice weekend together. Wonderland… for the privileged whites. Beautiful thatched roofs and some good sketching time. I sat in a little bandstand on one side and Dennis sat in the shadows on the other side of the manicured green with kids running back and forth having a hilarious time playing tag and jumping around.

At a family and friends braii party, there was lots of talk about “Do you have your passport ready to go???” The wheels are really falling off the bus down here. Xenophobic violence against other African nationals in southern African is quite incendiary in many areas especially Johannesburg and Durban but thankfully has not come to Cape Town yet but perhaps it's only a matter of time. Nigeria and other nations who are being persecuted here are warning that they will take action against South African nationals in their own countries, close embassies, close South African businesses if the current South African government does not take action against the xenophobic violence that is taking place here right now. All very scary for physical safety as well as for the whole economy of Africa, a lot of repercussions as South Africa and Nigeria are major economic engines. Add to that the lack of infrastructure and things seem to be crumbling here quite badly. Rotating scheduled power outages are predicted to last for a few years and are extremely disruptive to South African economy with small and large impacts. When the power goes out, it ALL goes out, traffic lights and all.

The power was out while we enjoyed the braii so small candles were set up all over the place to guide the way. It didn’t stop the kids from racing around, playing hide and seek and having fun. Thankfully nobody slipped into the pool by accident. The power came back on at 10:30 after being off for the scheduled 2 hours.

Trip to the fishing harbor...

photographs from South Africa

This is as close as we got to lobster... very expensive!!

fine art photography by Paula O'Brienfine art photography by Paula O'Brienfine art photography by Paula O'Brienphotographs from South Africaphotographs from South Africaphotographs from South Africaphotographs from South Africafine art photography by Paula O'Brien

One day, we left around 1 o'clock and headed off towards the fishing harbor along the beach with our little backpacks and folding stools and all our painting kit and camera at the ready. Of course we could not resist fish and chips for lunch! We stood in line with all the others, then carried our little cardboard boxes to the table outside with hundreds of others. Mmm, fish and chips out of cardboard boxes with red plastic cutlery and red grapetizer drinks. Delightful! To top it all off on this warm Saturday afternoon, a fabulous marimba band had just set up right outside the tables! Perfect! The fishing harbour is really on the tourist map, with red double-decker open top sightseeing buses pulling up in streams and disgorging tourists from local and far to enjoy an interesting day out. The power was out here too. Obviously this fish restaurant has its own generator because service did not slow down for a minute. The power goes out in 2 hour blocks on a schedule. One woman shopkeeper I spoke with said she had 2 hours out here at work then would go home to the next 2 out at her home in another area. Challenging. Bring on the candles and the headlamps!

photographs from South Africaphotographs from South Africa

We were out there the entire day and only got back to town at seven when darkness had finally completely fallen. Phew! Quite a grand day of the sketching and photography around the harbor, lots of colorful characters and interesting visual images. We walked all the way out to the end, to the real fish processing plants and the cannons on the West Fort, pretty much as far as you can go on the beach. We'll definitely go back again for yet another trip as we came across the art studios where Dick wants to take us to meet his art friends. He had a shared studio space down here for 4 months last year then moved it home. Interesting sculptures made from recycled objects, photography, paintings, very cool things. And that’s just what we you could see with the doors closed and nobody around.

photographs from South Africa

We drove into Cape Town one day to interview a very interesting figurative artists I discovered online, Brett Williams. Read about our amazing studio visit here. His works are large 150 x 200 cm chalk pastel full figure nudes on paper.

On our second to last Sunday afternoon we went to Ryan's house around 4:30. We got to spend quality time with the family as Tom finished his homework, the two younger kids played around and Ryan got the braii fire going. They use real wood for their braiis (BBQ) down here so it’s a bigger process than just turning on the gas BBQ like we do. He and Dennis got to sit out by themselves on the patio and Ryan finally got around to asking Dennis to fill in the gaps about his life in Liverpool and how life happened to take him to California and then to South Africa. Dennis's uncle and brother came to South Africa first, then his mother and stepfather then Dennis and then his sister came so the whole family was here and I guess that's all long story. What businesses Dennis had down here before he left and sailed away when Ryan was two… lots of unanswered questions or questions you have to hear the answers to over and over before you can really absorb them. It's too bad Dennis hasn't written down his early life story because it's quite fascinating. Our life after we've met is fairly well captured but it's a challenge to try to capture the year at the end of each year as I write Christmas letter and fill out our own history in a larger form. Everyone has some interesting stories, a colorful jigsaw puzzle of adventures and Dennis is certainly no exception. He left school at 14… and went away to sea on the ships… and so his life unfolded.

I managed to spend some individual time with each of the kids. When we arrived Tom who is 13 (and just switched school last week to the brand new International School) was struggling with a poetry assignment with Claire at the kitchen counter. She undoubtedly had other things to do and I slid in and offered new eyes on the problem. I got the poetry animated by speaking it in a more theatrical way. It really took a few readings before the meaning of it really came out and he was able to make more headway on his unanswered questions. He was going to ask us to help him with his art homework which was drawing a matchbox with a burnt match but eventually he attacked that himself and showed us his result which was really quite good, obviously work from observation. He hadn't had art class at his old school for many years as it had been a very small school so switching to the big school is quite an exciting change.

fine art photography by Paula O'Brien

With Jamie the middle child I took a different approach, grabbing him as he walked past one time, lifting him up sideways, windmilling him around and eventually collapsing on top of him on the great big soft FatSak beanbag chair, pretending I was dead in a funny voice and squashing him like a bug. Lots of laughter. I also attached myself to his earlobe like a shadow and followed him around while while he pretended I wasn't there and we explored the backyard. I wandered down the hall to the room he and Sam share and we played around with Lego on the floor and eventually made a game of cleaning it up. I got them talking about their toys and games in the bedroom, finding out what they had to say. There was a story of the naughty Bunny who had flown by himself miraculously through the air and broken the ceiling light just two days before. Oh yes I'm sure the naughty bunny just flew through the air and knocked the lamp down! Ryan would have fixed it this weekend but it was such nice weather that they just spent the whole weekend at the beach instead, on their stand up paddle boards, perfect!! And a much better way to spend the weekend. No wonder Tom had not finished his homework!

The youngest Sam, six, is quite imaginative and actually is in acting and dancing classes. After we picked up the Lego, we grabbed a memory card game and brought out to the living room where there was more light to play with. We set the cards up on the floor between us and started matching cards by pictures and then pictures and words and then connections(like egg and egg cup) and eventually started inventing our own way to play the game which was much better. We picked up any two random cards and made a sentence that made sense with them. This got his acting and imagination skills going and eventually he was taking all the turns. Our best sentence or story involved four cards and went something like this. “One day mommy went to the mailbox and got some letters. One “envelope” had “jam” in it so it exploded and went on fire. The house went on fire so we had to drive in the “car” to our neighbors house. The end.” Good work Sam even if I can’t remember what the fourth picture was. Quite hilarious. I also pushed him, as in his acting class he would be asked to do the same, not to start a sentence with the word “so” or “I”, prompting him to start a sentence with Mom or Jamie or “The” and no more stories about “we went to the shops and we bought this and then we came back”. He was very compliant and in fact could see the point without me really hammering on the head. I'm sure they do something like this in this acting class. Claire was quite amazed that I'd spent all this time in the middle of the floor stretched out with a bunch of cards between us and was quite engaged. Very successful day. Lovely dinner followed it too with yummy chocolate cake and ice cream and lots of shared chatter and laughter. We really only have a handful of sessions to engage with them and we’re being pretty successful at making the best of it. Apparently Dennis and Ryan have the same mischievous little glances and twinkles in their eyes, so interesting when Ryan never grew up with Dennis around after the age of two.

All for now,
Your gal on other side of the world…



Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.