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Text Linda de Jager
Photographs Strijdom van der Merwe
HOW IT ALL BEGAN
How did it come about that a scrambled note written on a serviette in a Starbucks Café in Washington, D.C., in 2013 ended up as, well, a message about water conservation written in the sand at Namtib Biosphere Reserve in 2016? In May 2019 Anni Snyman, PC Janse van Rensburg and a team of volunteers from the Site-Specific land art collective fine-tuned the last lines of the giant earth drawing of a desert horse at Klein Aus Vista. This message of intent recently evolved into yet another possible new chapter – as I made my way down a secluded gravel road to a breathtakingly beautiful house in the middle of the desert: an artist’s retreat in the making at Wolwedans. But more about the other outcomes later: drawings of a wild horse – and the realm of “dancing wolves”.
Back to the reality of a noisy Starbucks Café and the coffee-soaked serviette.
At the time the note simply said Strijdom – Namibia, it was just an intention written down, probably to combat the growing riot in my mind with something positive. I had (unfortunately) arrived in the United States at the time of the horrific Boston Marathon bombing, a terrorist attack on April 15th, 2013.
The peace and quiet of south-western Namibia at Namtib Biosphere Reserve – and the Tiras Mountains – were a long way from there, worlds apart in fact, and a far cry from the act of violence replayed a million times on the television screen in my miserably small hotel room.
In spite of the warning on the news – in the wake of the Boston bombing – that visitors should refrain from going to crowed tourism spots, I was hell-bent on visiting the famous Smithsonian Institution, in search of inspiration – in search of kindred spirits.
The National Museum of African Art is the US’s premiere museum dedicated exclusively to the collection, conservation, study and exhibition of Africa’s traditional and contemporary arts.
I was heading for the famous Independence Avenue at the Mall because one of my favourite South African artists, Strjidom van der Merwe, got the rare privilege of adorning the front pavement with his reflection on the theme:
“Earth matters,” The National Museum of African Art’s first major exhibition (Earth matters) of African Land Art coincided with my visit to the US.
Strjidom was born and raised on a farm on the South African Highveld. His early childhood, close to the land, also crystallised into an intense relationship with its forms and shapes.
Land art is an art form that has always resonated with me – evoking memories of my uncomplicated childhood in Namibia – forever seeing, chasing and tracing interesting shapes and messages in the rocks and sands, already at the age of four irresistibly drawn to the landscape’s inherent mysticism.
The exhibition was tipped as “the first major exhibition exploring the ways in which African artists and communities mediate their relationship with the land upon which they live, work and frame their days.”
Strijdom had the prime spot. It was a clear sign of the high international esteem in which his art is being held.
Soon I was there to ask Strjidom to explain his artwork to me – occupying the dimensions of a very small garden.
It had obvious aesthetic appeal, but it was difficult to figure out its meaning. How could ‘red pins’ on ‘grass’ fit in with the theme of this exhibition?
At the time, Strjidom shared the broader context of his unique artwork in the context of the theme. “The desire to mark and map the earth, thereby making it a place of your own, is a universal human urge. The world is a multiplex mosaic of cultural marks. If you have land you are rooted, you belong, and you are earthed. Once this privilege is taken away from you, you find yourself stranded in a no man’s land, you are uprooted and have become a nomad in search of your roots.”
What Strijdom came up with were the selections of images depicted in these photographs: thought-provoking reflections on water. While that is not always the case with land art, the images were also, well, very temporary. They only live on in these photos and multimedia images.
By the time I arrived back in my hotel room, in a no man’s land and feeling very much like a “nomad” myself – bombarded by more news on the real impact of the terrorist attack – an idea on the serviette took shape, and I recalled a morning not too long ago when I woke up on a campsite nestled in the Tiras mountains – dunes shimmering on the horizon. The sight left more than a lasting impression: I felt grounded because I was in the country of my birth.
Strijdom’s work would manifest itself well in the spacious Namibian landscape.
I realised that I wanted to do more than go back in search of my Namibian roots; that I wanted to celebrate the incredible gift of the peace my home country enjoyed, its open spaces, its conservation ethic and its dead-quiet nights (in the true sense of the meaning). My “celebration” started by simply connecting dots in my circle of talented artist friends – the stars on my skyline – to invite them to my home country to create land art, and to identify suitable hosts with open minds and open hearts, united in a love of nature.
And so the story goes, the rest is history. Two years later, Strijdom visited Lynn and Thorsten Theile’s Namtib Biosphere Reserve to celebrate one theme: water is synonymous with life – it is not possible to survive without it.
The John Muafangejo Art Centre, a Namibian creative think tank focused on establishing collaborative networks, supported the idea by facilitating a workshop with Strijdom for Namibians.
In conjunction with Endgame Media they also facilitated a session with science writer Leonie Joubert who has spent the past decade publishing reports about climate change, energy policy, environmental pressures, and now food.
The art talk was followed by a workshop conducted by Van der Merwe. His workshop with local artists looked at “the history and development of land art since the 1960s, current trends and the importance as a movement regarding environmental issues and a hands-on experience in creating our own temporary work in the landscape and the importance of documentation”.
WHAT IS LAND ART?
The best definition of land art I could find at the time:
“Land art is the creation of art with what is available at a specific site. Generally, artists use natural materials, such as sticks, stones, sand, water, and natural processes such as tides and wind to form communion with the land that changes one’s perceptions of given surroundings. It is like being given new eyes. Even after the art has been reabsorbed into nature, the memory of it persists and informs one’s interaction with the landscape. It doesn’t demand visual literacy or education to be moved by the experience of a great land art piece. It is immediate and enhances one’s own sense of being in the world. Land art engages in the much-needed integration of ‘culture’ and ‘nature’. Sometimes it is a celebration of the land that sustains us. Often it reminds us of the temporary nature of our shared existence.”
Van der Merwe completed exploratory artworks at Namtib Biosphere Reserve.
What Strijdom came up with were the selections of images depicted in these photographs: simple and thought-provoking. While that is not always the case with land art, the images were also, well, very temporary. They only live on in these photos and multimedia images.
A very practical Namibian farmer scrutinised one of the land art creations depicted in the newspaper (a small path within a seasonal riverbed) and while looking perplexed remarked dryly about the artwork, entitled Shadow Line, “but where does this little road lead then?” I understood that in his world outcomes must be permanent and tangible, final destinations mapped securely. And that this venture was utterly “meaningless” to him as such – as if life was a secure and permanent undertaking? As we say in Namibian slang, this is sobieso not true.
In my world some conversations and experiences continue long after we have had them. The intent manifests itself in images that linger even longer when we receive “new eyes” – when we can say the words: “I can see it.”
In Andrew Zuckerman’s book Wisdom the legendary tennis player Billie Jean King is quoted as saying: “You have to see it to be it.” In many ways small-scale projects like land art just follow in the wake of Namibia’s conservation legacy, walking on the little footpaths created by the dogged first steps of pioneers like conservationist Garth Owen-Smith.
He was one of those who saw early on that we should love the land and the animals on it and that this should essentially be a communal effort.
So why would we create art? In the words of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda (12 July 1904 – 23 September 1973): because it is a supreme tool that “widens out the boundaries of our being, and unites all living things.”
On breathtaking Namtib I saw (almost in a dream-like state) a beautiful living thing, a bird of prey, flying strong, focused and secure in the knowledge that the prey will be targeted, as if the blueprint of its flight is eternally engrained in this bird’s genetic makeup. It is like a drone used in a warzone as an autonomous offensive weapon – programmed to hit the enemy target in a split second with mechanical efficiency.
Unlike birds of prey and robots, human beings are so very often not united in (positive) intent, not programmed collectively to hit a target vision with clarity.
How do we articulate our future? What do we write down (whether on a serviette, on an iPad or in the sand)? How do we make our intent visible? How do we choose that which heals over that which destroys in the short span of our lives?
How and when do we pause in our stumbling blindness to become part of the concerned voices warning that we are hacking the body of our planet to pieces? When do we acknowledge that we are maiming not only our outer worlds – but also our inner realms? And when do we recover the time to celebrate the gifts of our natural world (or what’s left of it)?
Only when the taps run dry do we celebrate water. Only when our pristine wildernesses are reduced to strips of blue sky above skyscrapers, do we write poems about open landscape. Only when we are bombed and we mourn our lost limbs ripped to shreds on a fateful day (like those who showed up at what was supposed to be just another marathon in Boston) do we truly count our blessings and see with “new eyes”.
Linda de Jager is a Namibian-born documentary filmmaker/journalist responsible for award-winning television series, like Bush War/Grensoorlog.