In my work with natural places, my general stance is to wait until I meet the site before deciding what my artistic response will be. On arriving in the Tankwa Karoo I took some time to perform a small ritual to introduce myself to the land. In the course of my introduction I explained that I have come to listen.
At first glance the Tankwa seems like a robust place made up of black gravel and dried out remnants of plants. The absence of movement because of the scarcity of water, plant and animal life gives the impression that it is a tough environment that could easily absorb and recover from encounters with human beings. I found however that its profound stillness shows the contrary to be true. Once I walked the terrain I noticed traces left by animals, water or human beings; timeless marks that seem impossible to date. It quickly became apparent that every stone I upturn, every footprint I leave might remain for many years to come; maybe even for thousands of years.
My first response was to create a short performance film where I walk bare feet and with great care across the horizon-line of the black landscape; taking great care not to leave evidence of my presence. What I did not expect was that the horizon-line I chose to walk was on a different level to the line my videographer chose. Thus at a certain point I started to descend into the darkness of the landscape and disappeared from sight. This is the power of making art: it can bring an expanded understanding of a simple idea. By walking on the land without wanting to leave a trace I was forgetting that I am inextricably part of this earth; that I will inevitably leave my spoor. It is how I walk, my intention when I walk, that makes the difference.
Dispersed throughout the dark landscape I noticed shining yellow holes exposing the ochre soil underneath the black gravel surface. I suspected these were created by porcupines digging up plant roots. I tested the clay soil with a little water and realized that it was a very good pigment for painting. So I did a small offering to the land and asked for some pigment. I explained that I make visual prayers with fingerprints dedicated to specific individuals and that I would like to create a 40 day prayer for this land in its ochre. I always click my fingers to acknowledge the ancestors of the land; as I did this the various insects in the little hole exited to create space. I collected about a cup of ochre from 3 of the porcupine holes. On my way back to the camp, I walked in one of the ancient dry river beds. Here I found a perfectly flat black slate stone. I mixed a small amount of clay with water and created 12 fingerprints onto the rock. Each one representing a prayer. We don’t know when the rain will come again, we don’t know if the wind will eventually blow the traces I left away. But I left a small prayer there in a location in the landscape we might never find again, so it will connect with the larger prayer I will be making once I return home. I created a short stop frame film of the print appearing and drying on the slate surface.
As an earth artist who has been working with rain and rivers for the past 5 years, being in a desert was confrontational. The traces left by water and rain can be seen throughout the land, yet there is no water to be found. In my work, rain has become a symbol of healing: as it surrenders to gravity rain ‘allows’ itself to fall into earth and thus life is created. In this contemporary moment it seems that almost everywhere I go to spend time in the natural world, I encounter damage inflicted by humans and I feel heavily burdened by the responsibility we carry to change our ways of relating.
The last place where I felt I should relate to the land was on the site where the Africa Burn event had recently taken place and desert workers were still clearing up the remains of the facilities. Remnants of the 12 000 people who had camped and partied there could still be seen and felt. Although all seemed neat and ordered on the surface, the place had the feeling of an aftershock; it reverberated with what I experienced as uncontained agitation.
My third response to the Tankwa was to do a ritual where I repeatedly draw a circle onto the surface of the earth around me. My initial performance was done in the morning as a type of rain dance with an Ostrich feather duster, since the sky was heavy with clouds. At the end of my dance a few heavy drops fell onto my face; a heart-warming moment.
Later as the sun was setting, I did another circular ‘dance’ with a found stick where I chased up the blonde dust under the loose dark gravel in circular motions. After a while one could see the circle I had drawn around me. I was accompanied by sound artist Quentin Green, who had made a bullroarer for the occasion. A bullroarer is an ancient ritual musical instrument historically used for communicating over great distances. The roarer is tied to a string and is then swung in large circular motions holding it in a horizontal plane. This creates an ominous roaring vibration. This ritual was a communication to the land; a signal that I listened and I heard. It was a prayerful offering to bring wholeness and containment again.
I created a short film of this performance which I paired with an Afrikaans rap-poem I wrote which is based on a reworking of my understanding of what CJ Langenhoven wanted to express when he wrote Die Stem (1918), which was the National Anthem of South Africa during the apartheid years. As an Afrikaner living in the years after Apartheid, my challenge is to integrate the older culture and its attitudes toward nature into who I am becoming today: An artist whose work relies heavily on animism as a cosmology.
In response to my listening experience, I wrote a poem which is generated from the language of a magazine essay in Afrikaans from 1938. The poem describes in an older form of Afrikaans what I ‘heard’ when I was listening to the Tankwa Karoo. I list all I ‘heard’ and I comfort the reader that ‘in the silence of a generous heart’ it was listened to. This poem was paired with my performance where I walked across the horizon.
The Tankwa Karoo helped me to enter into a new way of being in relation to the vast mystery that is life. In its still immensity the desert removed all my usual reference points. In this stripped and vulnerable condition I managed to become porous enough to allow magical intimate connections to be made: with the natural world, with my fellow creatives and within myself.
Die Stem van die Wildernis
Stemme het gekom
Stemme het verdwyn
Stemme het opgegaan
Oor die verlate vlaktes
Oor die blou berge
Oor die droë rivier lope
Oor die sand woestyne
Stemme het weggegalm en verdwyn
Die geroep van die Wildernis is gehoor
Die geweën is gehoor
Die naklank van ‘n groot en krenkende ramp is gehoor
Die gehuil van die Wildernis
Die geloei van die nagwind oor die dorre vlaktes is gehoor
Die weerklanke in die rotswande van die gebergtes is gehoor
Die wrewelige wroeging op die bodem van die oer see is gehoor
Die murmelende geklater van ou waterbeke is gehoor
In die stilte van ‘n ruim hart is dit beluister
Die geroep van die Wildernis
Stemme het opgegaan
Stemme het weggegalm en verdwyn
Maar, Alles is gehoor.
Hanien Conradie, Junie 2019
Voices rose up
Over the desolate plains
Over the blue mountains
Over the dry river beds and
Over the sandy deserts
Echoing voices dwindled away
The call of theWilderness
the reverberations of a devastating event, were heard
The cry of the Wilderness
The whipping of the night-wind on the arid plains,
the resounding echoes of the mountain cliffs,
the timeless wrestle of ancient seabeds and
the ghostly murmuring of mountain streams;
All were heard
In the silence of a generous heart it was listened to
The cry of the Wilderness
All that rang out
All that diminished
All that was lost
All was heard.
Hanien Conradie, June 2019
With Gratitude and Thanks to
Leli Hoch, JP De Villiers, Kleoniki Vanos and all at the Tankwa Artscape Project.