Late autumn is the best time of year to find paper nautilus shells on the beach below my house. Their wing-like structure is created by the Argonauta argo octopus that forms these delicate shells as a place to lay eggs in, as well as providing the buoyancy it would need to move from a bottom-dwelling life, into that of the open sea. After tending her eggs for a little while, the octopus dies.
Among a pile of spongy seaweed that lies like unravelled, waterlogged knitting, I find a perfect, undamaged specimen. A single, round eye stares opaquely as I pull its limp body from the shell and drop it onto the sand.
To my left, a young man sits on the low wall at the edge of the beach. He is singing, and playing on a small wooden xylophone. Snatches of melody, sung in French, reach my ears; a strand of sound attempting to weave a passage back, to cross the ocean, as it searches for the mouth of the river that holds the voices of his family.
I bend down to rinse the shell, then trace the dark brown line on its ridged back. Ice cold waves splash over my feet, and root my ankles into the wet sand. I think of the severed aloes I placed among some rocks early this morning, in the front of the garden. They’ll soon form roots, and next winter, in my absence, will flower for the first time.
Reflected clouds ripple like gauze underneath my feet as I walk towards the wall. The xylophone music gurgles past my ears. On sundays, these West African sounds fly from the open windows of the refugee church, into the open windows of my house. I glance down at the shell in my hand – recently I seem to find images of wings wherever I look. Aware of flight paths overhead, I glance up. A map of migrating birds hang above my desk.
Tonight, my own flight path will mimic that of the barn swallow, in reverse. Leaving the cold of Europe behind, they cross Spain, flying down the entire length of Africa, seeking summer. I long for their certainty, for sure inner radar; I want to feel the throb of destiny in my blood. Like certain migrating butterflies, I too want to glide on thermal updrafts, guided by flecks of magnetite embedded in my body. Instead, all I have are flashes of insight that withers in the cold light of logic.
I place the shell next to the man with the xylophone, thinking of the open suitcase waiting at home. He points at it, then at the beach, and I nod.
“You have to get here early to find them,” I tell him.
He resumes his playing, and I start humming a forgotten lullaby.
“Est-ce que tu seras ici demain?” he asks, as I get up. I hesitate, and he repeats, “Tomorrow, are you here?”
“Oui,” I reply. Even after I have crossed the empty parking lot, and the railway line, I can still hear his music.
At home, I fold the bird map into a square. Before closing the lid of my suitcase, I press the flurry of outstretched wings against the top layer of cool summer clothes.
Working on new assemblages and finishing a new painting. More cellular-inspired than the previous ones; I’m enjoying the slow application of small patches of fine strokes in different hues of ochre, pale greens and blues. Solved the problem of the viscid quality of the mixed oil paints (winter is finally here) by mixing inside old tuna cans and warming it over a tea light – the heat unfortunately speeds up the evaporation of the artists’s white spirit, so a bit of a vicious circle – but I’m enjoying the simplicity of the solution, and the glow of the candle. For my new assemblages I bought a metre of rough hessian and red, turquoise and fifties-green embroidery thread (unfortunately not shown here). A mouthwatering combination; I can’t wait to start experimenting. I love the smell of hessian cloth, I think it reminds me of my uncle’s farm (he farmed tobacco) and the inside of the sorting shed, where I used to play with piles fragrantly flaccid leaves.
Inspiration now, as always, comes from my garden, and visits to other gardens. A recent trip to the Irma Stern Museum with two fellow artists and friends (the current exhibition, Moving paint exhibits works by KZN artists Terri Broll & Terence King – http://www.irmastern.co.za/exhibitions.htm) offered a chance to explore the museum’s beautiful and exotic garden. Rae pointed out the large shrub-like Rhus fern, where tiny orchid-like flowers sprout from the central mid-vein of its glossy green leaves. Nature really got there first!
Here is an image of one of Terrence King’s paintings – not my absolute favourite – but I like his work very much.
The next day I spend an afternoon at Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, photographing its autumn splendour. Large tracts are being cleared right down to the soil; in other areas severe pruning is underway, filling the air with the scent of damp soil and spicy fynbos. Replenished, I am ready to get to work!