Images of Africa in south London

THE WHITE CUBE Gallery in London’s Bermondsey Street is overshadowed by the recently constructed (2013) glass-clad skyscraper, popularly known as ‘The Shard’. The gallery, a single-storeyed structure, contains a long wide corridor flanked by three vast exhibition spaces and a smaller bookshop.  The exhibition spaces are deliberately sparsely decorated so as not to distract viewers from the usually wonderful contemporary artwork on display. At the end of the corridor, there is an auditorium in which videos relating to the existing temporary exhibition are screened. The current exhibition, which fascinated me and closes on the 7th of November 2021, is dedicated to displaying works by Ibrahim Mahama.

Mahama was born in Tamale, Ghana in 1987. He lives and works in the country of his birth but has exhibited widely in Africa and Europe. Not only are the works, which we saw at White Cube, exciting and intriguing visually but they also provide an interesting insight into the artist’s perception of modern Ghana and its past, when it was known as The Gold Coast.

Many of the works on display are gigantic collages, which from afar look like interesting abstracts or even modern tapestries. Closer examination of these reveals that the artist has glued fragments of photographs onto a background of usually either old maps of his country and/or a latticework consisting of numerous production order dockets issued by The Ghana Industrial Holding Company. Photographs of fruit bats in various poses often run around the fringes of the collages or appear within their main body. Photographs of aspects of life in Ghana are glued onto the backgrounds. Often, they have been trimmed so that the backgrounds intrude, and the photographs appear to merge or mingle with them. I felt that this was particularly effective when the map backgrounds mingled with the trimmed photographs, making me think that the maps were being brought to life. Also, they give the impression of modern Ghana emerging from the out-of-date maps. I was also impressed by one collage showing images of flying bats glued onto a sea of old order dockets: wildlife contrasting with man’s industrial enterprise.

One half of the largest display space is dedicated to a fantastic art installation. About 100 old-fashioned wooden school desks are arranged in rows facing a line of black boards to create the illusion of an enormous classroom. On each desk, there is an old-fashioned electric sewing machine.  Every few minutes some of the sewing machines begin operating, creating a wonderful, loud noise, which varies as different groups of machines are activated and then silenced. Sewing machines, so the leaflet issued by the gallery inform us, were often used in Ghana by labourers wanting to learn a new trade. This exhibit aims, amongst other things, to resurrect the ghosts that Mahama feels reside within these discarded machines.

In the auditorium, a short video projected onto two neighbouring screens continues the artist’s interest in sewing machines. On one of the screens, the video shows in close-up the innards of sewing machines being cleaned and oiled. Simultaneously, the video on the neighbouring screen shows workmen doing messy maintenance work through a manhole cover and beneath the ground. The circular manhole cover is mirrored in the other video by the small circular orifice through which the innards of the sewing machine are maintained. Odd subjects, but well filmed and fascinating visually.

I am neither an art critic nor a sociologist, nor whatever it takes to ponder the deeper meaning and messages that the artist is trying to convey, but I enjoyed the exhibition greatly without having to worry about its deeper intellectual content. Visually, everything on display was exciting and often quite novel: a feast for the eyes and ears. If you can get to see this show, I am sure that you will not leave it unaffected by its impact. And, after feasting your ears and eyes at the gallery, I recommend a short walk down Bermondsey Street to treat your taste buds and olfactory sense to Vietnamese food, magnificently prepared, at Caphe House.

Uganda and me

UGANDA IS ONE OF many countries that I have not yet visited. Yet, I can relate some personal anecdotes related to it.

When we had our Hindu wedding ceremony in Bangalore (India), several of my wife’s aunts, whose families originated in Kutch (now part of Gujarat State in western India) were present and quite concerned that there were elements of Kutchi marriage traditions incorporated into our three-hour long ceremony. I cannot remember what these were. One of the aunts had lived with her family in Uganda until they saw the ‘writing on the wall’ and left for India before Idi Amin forcibly expelled all of the other Asians from his country. Her son, who lives in the UK, introduced me to Uganda’s national alcoholic drink ‘waragi’, brewed from bananas, which did not appeal to me as much as other drinks with 40% alcohol content.

Soon after I went to India for our wedding, I began working in a dental practice near Portobello Road in west London. It was there that I worked with ‘A’, who was the best dental surgery assistant I have ever worked with. She was resourceful, bright, friendly, polite, efficient, and never lost her cool. When equipment went wrong, I used to want to ring Andy, our repairman, but A would say:

“Let me fix it, Mr Yamey, I saw what Andy did last time.”

And usually, she fixed whatever had broken down.

Occasionally, A worked at the reception desk. Patients used to come up to the desk, often impatient and desperate to obtain dental treatment immediately. Instead of getting flustered, as other receptionists might easily have done, she used to say calmly something like:

“Good afternoon, Mr Brown, how are you today? And how is your family?”

When the patient had been calmed down by her questions, she would get down to the business of making arrangements for the patient’s treatment. She had a civilising influence on others.

A was born in Uganda after Idi Amin had given up ruling the country, but she lived through the troubling times that followed his downfall. She told me that she had witnessed a member of her close family being shot while she hid in a bush nearby. On another occasion, she told me:

“I heard some soldiers coming to my home, and, Mr Yamey, I jumped out of a window at the back and ran into the fields. I ran and ran and ran.”

Despite these and other horrific experiences, one would not imagine that A had had such a traumatic childhood.

A was an evangelical Christian. She kept a small edition of the New Testament in one of the drawers in my surgery alongside tubes and bottles of dental materials. It was printed mainly in black but with some words in red. These were, A explained to me, the words that had been uttered by Jesus. Every day, she used to say to me in her gentle voice:

“Mr Yamey, all you need to do to be saved is to accept Jesus into your life.”

This did not bother me, nor did the evangelical Christian radio station that she liked to hear while we were working. However, one day a particularly nervous dental patient, a frequent attender who had been born in the USA, was lying in my treatment chair, when he lifted his hand and said politely:

“There are two things that upset me. One is having dental treatment and the other is having religion thrust down my throat. So, A, will you please turn off the radio now.”

A did as asked, and we never listened to that station again. Often, A encouraged me to try ‘matoke’, a Ugandan dish made from a type of banana. She thought it was delicious, but I have not yet sampled it. I have not seen A for a long time now and hope that she and her husband are thriving and enjoying a life far better than she experienced in Uganda.

Long before I became a dentist, in my teens (in the second half of the 1960s), I loved collecting travel brochures: leaflets, maps, and booklets issued free of charge by travel companies and national tourist offices. My friend ‘F’ shared this passion. One day during the summer holidays, F suggested that we, that is F and his brother, me, and ‘H’, another close friend, should have a brochure collecting competition.  F and H formed one team, and F’s brother and I the other. The plan was that we start together at Oxford Circus and then work our way down to Trafalgar Square, collecting as much free travel literature as we could gather. The winning team would be the one which had collected most material, but taking duplicates was not allowed. Speed was also important, so we tried to waste as little time as possible in each place.

My team entered one travel agent or national tourist office after another, taking whatever was on display and asking the people working in them for any material that was available but not on display. We piled our ‘loot’ into the rucksacks we were carrying and moved from one location to the next. Our loads were quite heavy when F’s brother and I arrived at the locked door of Uganda’s tourist office on the south side of Trafalgar Square. We rang the door and were admitted by a man who led us upstairs to his office. There, we were asked to sit in front of his desk. He chatted to us politely, passing the time of day, whilst we sat there anxiously as the minutes, which we could be using more profitably, slipped past. Eventually, we got around to asking him for travel literature. He handed us three thin coloured brochures, which we considered to be a poor haul given how long we had spent with him.

Passing the Ugandan tourist office, which is still where it was during the 1960s, today in January 2021, soon after a recent election in that country, brought back memories of our brochure collecting dash and made me wonder whether at that time I should have been chasing after girls in my spare time, as many of my schoolmates were doing, rather than picking up leaflets about exotic destinations. By the way, F and H won our competition by a narrow margin.

So, finally, this is almost all I have relate about my somewhat tenuous connections with Uganda. All I wish to add relates to my father’s regular purchases of the satirical magazine “Private Eye”, which gave the term ‘Ugandan discussions’ a new meaning in March 1973. If you do not know what I mean, then I will leave you to search for the term on Google.

Learning from experience

Experience is one thing you can’t get for nothing

[Oscar Wilde]

 Science, my lad, is made up of mistakes, but they are mistakes which it is useful to make, because they lead little by little to the truth.

[Jules Verne]

The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing

[Henry Ford]

 

green and white tents near trees

Photo by ajay bhargav GUDURU on Pexels.com

In 1971, I spent about a fortnight driving around France with several friends including the now well-known journalist Matthew Parris. He was our driver, and we travelled in the car that he had driven through Africa and Europe from South Africa to England a year or two earlier.  We camped ‘wild’ wherever possible, avoiding official campsites.

The first night was a disaster for me. We had a canvas tent with an inner room, which had its own built-in groundsheet. The outer room was without its own one. I helped lay out the groundsheet for the outer room and decided (for no good reason at all) to leave its edges protruding beyond the outer wall of that part of the tent. I was one of those assigned to sleep in the outer part of the tent.

I laid out my sleeping bag on the ground sheet, and then crawled into it. To my surprise and horror, I could feel every pebble and stone beneath me. When I had bought the sleeping bag, I had naively believed that it lived up to its name; that it would help me to sleep. Nobody had advised me to buy a Li-Lo, an inflatable mattress which would have cushioned me from the ground beneath me and the misfortune that was about to befall me. 

During the night, there was a thunder storm. The rain came down heavily and before long, my sleeping bag was soaked; the water had crept into the tent via the groundsheet. Although I had a miserable sleepless night, I was not put off the idea of camping. Next day, we tied my soaking sleeping bag onto the roof rack above our car and it dried in the wind as we drove along. We also stopped in the aptly named town of Tonnerre (‘thunder’ in French) in France, where I purchased a Li-Lo. The rest of the holiday went swimmingly so to speak.

The road to Hogsback

In August 2003, the middle of winter in South Africa, we made a long tour around the Cape Province, visiting small places that figured in the history of my family’s sojourn (beginning 1849) in South Africa. Here is an account of our journey to Hogsback in the Eastern Cape. The writer JRR Tolkien is supposed to have been inspired by the landscape near Hogsback, but not all are agreed on this. The author was born in South Africa (in Bloemfontein), but left the country aged less than three years.

HOG 0

Between Barkly East and Dordrecht

We sped on from Barkly East to Dordrecht. It was at Dordrecht in 1884 that my great grand uncle Sigmund Seligmann with his partner, another Jewish gentleman, Moss Vallentine opened their first business, a retail store. Later, he opened a general store in Barkly East, where his nephew, my mother’s father, became the town’s only Jewish Mayor.

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Dordrecht Museum

Dordrecht, a smallish place, still has several nineteenth century buildings including one with an elegant arcade supported by cast-iron pillars that serves as a museum. Andre Coetzee, the museum’s curator, pointed out an old shop opposite the museum that he believed had originally been Seligmann’s.  He seemed very certain that this was the building, but he could not show me any evidence to confirm this.

The rain and snow continued to shoot past us, propelled by a fierce wind. Between Dordrecht and Queenstown, we crossed a plain that was quite different to anywhere we had been so far. The plain was quite literally dotted with thousands of ‘black’ peoples’ dwellings, some with rondavels as out-houses. There were few fences. People and animals wandered across the road. The countryside was much less manicured than any other inhabited places we had so far visited in the Cape. Derelict cars were frequently seen. We were in Chris Hani District that includes the town of Queenstown and was under the Apartheid regime part of one of the so-called ‘Homelands’. 

Queenstown is not an attractive town but has a lively buzz and good shops. A sign in the town centre advised motorists to pay for parking at a “mobile parking meter”. This meter turned out to be a person who hangs around the parking area carrying a machine on which he or she records your arrival and departure times and based on these determines how large a parking fee needed to be collected. We found a wonderful spice shop run by a Pakistani man. He had a special table on which he can make spice mixtures to order and, also, had ready-made mixtures including one, very strong in flavour apparently, called “Mother-in-law Masala”. We visited a large branch of Woolworths as many people had commended this chain store to us. We were disappointed: it was like Marks and Spencer’s used to be in the UK many years ago.

We drove via Whittlesea to the tiny village of Seymour. A road marked incorrectly on our map as “narrow but with tarmac, not for four-wheel drive vehicles alone”, led from Seymour up the side of a mountain to Hogsback. This road proved to be the worst surface that I have ever driven on. Compared to it, Joubert’s Pass (near Lady Grey), was a motorway. It got progressively worse as we painfully slowly approached Hogsback.

The road had everything against it and us. There were potholes, and deep furrows where streams of water had eroded the gravel. Bare rock showed through the road and made steps that had to be carefully negotiated. Worst of all were large rounded boulders, which were difficult to drive around as the narrow road was bounded either by ditches or by walls of rock. We were lucky that we neither capsized the car nor grounded it, nor damaged the sump or some other vulnerable part of its under surface. Navigating around or across some of these dangerous obstacles reminded me of performing a particularly difficult surgical dental extraction. Just as I had to take care not to damage a hidden nerve or blood vessel during an extraction, I had to drive to avoid injuring some important part beneath the car. Had we broken down on this deserted, barely frequented road, we would have been in big trouble. There was no mobile ‘phone coverage in the area. Hair raising to say the least: I still shudder when I remember this journey. Later, a cousin in Cape Town told me that when he had used this road, he had grounded his vehicle and thereby damaged its fuel line. Things improved at the end of the road. We were amused to see a road sign at the Hogsback end of this road that advised “Road not recommended for caravans.”

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A view from Hogsback

We found our accommodation: a collection of cottages called The Edge. The name refers to the position of the cottages which is at the very edge of the summit of the Hogsback ridge over which can be seen a view of the coastal plain over a thousand feet below. Our cottage was large but unheated except for a small, inadequate fireplace poorly located in one corner of the cottage remote from the bedrooms. We ate an excellent curry made by Dion and Shane who own a restaurant near our cottage. All night the snow fell, and the wind howled.

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A church in Hogsback

African Art Fair 2018

AFR 2

“The Contemporary African Art Fair (1 – 54)” is held annually at London’s Somerset House. This year it was a very exciting show full of vibrant, creative artworks mainly, but not exclusively, created by Africans with little or no European ancestry.

AFR 4

Many of the works use recycled waste materials such as bits of paper, engine parts, spent bullets and retired armaments, electronic components, and so on. Almost every art work is a fine aesthetic object when seen as a whole. Looking into any of these works in detail is like beginning to explore Africa, its troubled past and challenging present.

AFR 1

Africa is beginning to emerge from its colonial past. Africans are taking control of their destinies. Yet, at this exhibition, which is where a series of galleries display thier wares, mot of the dealers, who earn considerable commissions are ‘White’ Europeans. Maybe colonialism is not quite dead yet!

AFR 3

Prison cells across the Orange

Z 1 Karoo

The Karoo near Colesberg

In August 2003, Adam Yamey and his family enjoyed a long motor trip, an exploration of his South African ancestry, through rural South Africa. Most of the journey was in the Cape, but a couple of days were spent just over the Orannge River in the Free State (formerly the ‘Orange Free State’)…

Z 2 Colesberg

Octagonal church, Colesberg

…The road from Graaff-Reinet to Colesberg passes through the Karoo just missing Middelburg. Along the roadside near Middelburg, there were many people trying to sell fragile looking models, made in wire, of the ubiquitous Karoo windmills we saw along the way.

Z 5 windmill

Typical windmills seen in the Karoo and the Free State

We ate lunch in Colesburg, which boasts an octagonal church.

Z 3 Colesberg

Jewish inscription, Colesberg museum

We visited the town museum housed in the building that was formerly the Standard Bank.  There is a good collection of Anglo-Boer War memorabilia as well as a display of the history of the Griqua people. Upstairs there were two memorial stones, one in Hebrew and the other in English. The latter lists the founder members of Colesberg’s Congregation, dated 1920. As we were to find in many museums in small South African towns, the one in Colesberg had a selection of second-hand books (often as we discovered later with pages missing!) for sale.  Under the watchful eye of an official of the Standard Bank we inaugurated use of the newest ATM to be installed in Colesberg. It worked well.

Z 4 Orange

Orange River

A road from Colesberg runs north across the rolling hills of the Karoo for 60 kilometres to Philippolis (when spoken, emphasis is on the third syllable). Half way along this road we encountered the wide Orange River over which we crossed, entering the (Orange, formerly) Free State. The countryside along this road was dotted with aloes, creaking windmills, sheep and the occasional rather odd-looking cattle known as Boerebeeste. 

Z 11 Ppolis with a stoep

Philippolis

If Colesberg can be described as a ‘one horse town’, then Philippolis is a ‘one horse village’. It was a village with charm and character. Signposts directed us to the Old Jail House.

Z 6a Jail cells

Old Jail, Philippolis

Until about 46 years ago this was, in fact, the jail for Philippolis. The army then used it for about 20 years before it became a police post.  For two years it remained derelict but largely untouched by vandals as the locals considered the place to be haunted.

Z 6 Jail cells

Cells in the Old Jail, Philippolis

Its most recent owner, Harry, bought the jail and has turned it into a bed and breakfast business. He has preserved as many as possible of the jail’s features and guests may spend the night in the cells. The converted warden’s office is very popular with honeymoon couples.  We stayed in a large bungalow next door to the jail.

Z 13 LVDP born here

Birth place of Laurens Van der Post, Philippolis

Laurens Van Der Post was born in Philippolis. Following his death in 1996 at the age of 96, a very beautiful memorial to him has been laid out at the edge of the ‘white’ part of the village just near to the edge of the ‘black’ part.

Z 7 LVDP

 

Z 8 LVDP

This picture and the one above it were taken at the Van Der Post Memorial in Philippolis

A series of white concrete pillars, representing the various stages of Van Der Post’s ‘journey through life’, overlook a beautiful sunken garden made up with stones and bricks of many textures, all having various symbolic meanings.  Adjoining this, there is a small guesthouse that is a very good piece of contemporary architecture. The architect of the whole memorial complex is a South African woman.  Jens Friis, a PhD law student at Stellenbosch and travel writer, and his mother Naomi, showed us around. 

Z 12 Ppolis stoep

House with a stoep, Philippolis

We explored Philippolis, which is essentially a fine collection of old single-storied houses with stoeps and often adorned with decorative cast-iron work. There is no restaurant in this town, only a café, the Kokkowitz Café, which closed at 7 in the evening. Harry had arranged for us and, it seemed, all of the other guests at the Old Jail House to have dinner at the home of the Friis family, near the Van Der Post memorial. We enjoyed a bottle of very good red wine, which was produced in the Free State. 

NEXT MORNING:    Harry does not provide breakfast himself, but instead he told us to eat it at the Kokkowitz Café. After a very long wait, we received an excellent fried breakfast. We then walked past the simple flat-roofed house that used to be the residence of Adam Kok (1811-1875), the King of the Griquas, to see the houses that used to be owned by the father of Van Der Post, where the author was born. In Voortrekker Street we visited the Trans Garriep Museum. This museum was icily cold inside. It contains a series of rooms that attempt to reconstruct the kind of house in which white people lived in 19th century Philippolis. There is a small exhibit about the London Missionary Society that set up a mission in the town and also another about the Griqua Kingdom that thrived in the 19th century, and its successful King Adam Kok III. 

Z 14 Ppolis fort

View from Adam Kok’s fortress, Philippolis

The Public Library is next door to the museum and is housed in one of the town’s largest buildings. Formerly this was the home of the Jacobsohn family who owned a shop, still standing but now closed, in the town. The Jacobsohns, the last Jewish family living in the area, now live on a farm and have donated their home to the town.  A very friendly and informative librarian showed us her library. Most of the books were in Afrikaans, also quite a few in English. There were also books in Southern Sotho, Xhosa, and Tswana (only two books in this language – one appearing to be a manual on woodworking). Philippolis is located in an area where several different kinds of Africans live. Many of the ‘black’ people in the area have some Griqua ancestry.

Z 9 Jacobson shop

Colonnaded house belong to the Jacobsohn family, Philippolis

Behind the library, and only accessible through it, there is a pathway that takes one to the summit of a small hillock in the middle of the town from which a good aerial view of Philippolis can be obtained. The remaining three of Adam Kok’s collection of cannon perch here above the town. As we bade farewell to the librarian her parting words to us were, “Even if we all end up killing each other, South Africa is such an interesting country that no one will ever die of boredom”. Philippolis had a curious hold on us; we left with some sadness.

Z 10 Voortrekker Str

Library on Vootrekker Str, Philippolis

We were told that we could make a short cut by taking a dirt road to Donkerspoort, near the Garriep Dam (formerly the Verwoerd Dam, a name by which it is still known by local black African farm workers). A thirty-minute ride would, we were assured, save us much time. An hour and a half later we had completed the so-called ‘short cut’. The surface of the dirt road forced us to drive quite slowly. Our progress was further impeded by a series of closed gates across the road that separated fields through which the road passed. At each gate Lopa had to leave the car to allow us through and then to close the gate behind us. As we proceeded, the frequency of these gates increased. Had we taken the long way around, we would have reached the other end of the ‘short-cut’ in 20 minutes!