“Human beings make art to find and give meaning”

I am honored and still somewhat bewildered that I have been chosen to receive this honorary doctorate.
Since Saleem Badat called me last year to inform me that I would graduate today and would have twenty minutes to say anything I liked, I have mulled over, planned talks, had nightmares, read old diaries and books but remained confused about what I have achieved and why and how it has changed me and what about all this, I can say in twenty minutes.
I am not sure if what follows is just arbitrary thoughts from a seeming lifetime of experiences but based on my most recent ones, or thoughts valid and applicable for all the work of Keiskamma and development.  On browsing through my writing over the last 13 years I see major changes and know I have forgotten who I was and why I did things.  That which I have experienced has changed me and now all I know for certain is that I am certain of very little and could never do it all again.
I have decided to let you see this process

I need to say at the outset that my life’s work in hamburg is always and firstly, collaboration and it is impossible to consider my work without acknowledging the countless people in and out of Hamburg who have worked with me, most importantly justus myhusband and my sons Graeme and robert.  In appreciation of all the help I have had from so many people,  I want to dedicate this talk to my art teacher and then 12 year  voluntary teacher of Keiskamma artists Marialda Marais, who died suddenly two weeks ago.  We all miss her
Early on in talks I gave and essays I wrote, I saw myself as a conduit bridging the gulf poverty causes.  This is still true though the conduit is showing signs of wear and tear.
Within months of moving to Hamburg and the Eastern Cape with my husband Justus, I realized for the first time in my life, I loved a place and its people with passion.  This happened to me.  I did nothing just fell in love and then behaved irrationally and passionately as all lovers do.  I had also never seen poverty close up.  I had never been in homes where mothers wondered what they would find for four little children for supper
So when I became aware that the dune forests and beaches and estuary were in danger due to people trying to eke out enough food and some shelter for destitute families, I thought to help them with income from other sources.
I had newly completed my masters in fine arts from UJ, awarded reluctantly by the then wits technikon,  and had worked in embroidery projects in other parts of south Africa teaching about AIDS theoretically, so thought to teach embroidery.
Friends helped.  A wife of one of Justus colleagues, Jan Chalmers and her friend Jacky Jesewsky offered to teach embroidery and came from the UK twice a year for ten years to do this.  To them I give the credit for the remarkable standard of our embroidery.
At this time I was driven by this overwhelming passion and did not listen to reason.  I felt compelled to make a difference.  I knew nothing of finance of budgeting of business plans of development in inverted commas, of sustainability or any of the catch phrases I was to hear over and over and I cared even less.
At the time I wrote an essay called my life has changed
My life has changed radically in the past two years.  I have lost touch with many of my close friends because I have become immersed in a life so completely different form my previous one. A life so demanding of my time and energy that I have been unable to keep up to date with my friends.
Some days I think I really am crazy and it is only a matter of time before this castle of sand is wiped away completely. I won’t be sorry. It can be so scary sometimes. Other days I think to myself that I have finally come home; that I have found the place and purpose of my life.  It all depends….

Yesterday was a bad day.  Luckily a little part of my brain, like the dirt under the fingernails in the legend of Innanna, stays sane and curious and doesn’t take life too seriously.

I want to tell you about yesterday. It was fairly typical of my life these days.

As I sit in my parked Isuzu bakkie outside the Peddie bank, hiding behind tinted windows from the local madman who had accosted me earlier and sorting one hundred and fifty twenty-rand notes and embroidery needles in army navy packages into blue envelopes, I feel a wrench of unreality. I am waiting for a taxi driver from Hamburg, whom I trust although I don’t know him very well, to take all the money back to Hamburg to deliver to various women, payment for embroideries done in the past week. I feel more crazy than the poor schizophrenic drunkard outside the window. Like him I don’t understand how I got there.
The day began early.

I had agreed to help a blind man in Ntilini, the village next to Hamburg, I arrive a little late but he is at the meeting place and ready, as I knew he would be in spite of the message having to go from person to person who walk everywhere. He is all dressed up, frail and thin and coughing.  His ID says he was born in 1938.  That makes him 64.  He says that this is a misprint and he is much older, but he has no birth certificate to prove it and so cannot get a pension.  His lung disease and his blindness incapacitate him so I am taking him to see the doctor in Nompelelelo hospital in Peddie.  He has an appointment there, which I made last week when I was in Peddie paying back payments on noyena’s funeral insurance to Chitabunga Funerals. I make the payments from her pension, which I now have to collect because she has altzheimers disease. None of her relatives will help her because she lives with her insane son who is home on leave from the Fort Beaufort mental hospital. He killed his father’s brother’s wife.

Are you lost?

This is all true and confusing and strange.

Back to the old man Fezile.  His family has no income at all.  His wife is not yet eligible for a pension.  His son and daughter-in-law are dead.  He lives with his wife and grandchildren, one of whom has come to me for help. They have tried to get the pension, but it is all too much backwards and forwards to Peddie, to the pension office in the caravan and from there 5 kms to the hospital and then back. They are told to come again another time. This is a family with no income so every taxi ride is less food.

After dropping him to wait for the doctor, I drive the forty kilometres back to Hamburg, the last fifteen on the atrocious dirt. I find the studio where we work buzzing as usual.  I feel a mixture of happiness at giving all these women something to do and panic that I’ve done this back to front and now have no funding.  We are running out of personal money and I have no time to write proposals etc

I draw my money with an uneasy conscience.  I always take the path of least resistance.  It’s easier to pay than to structure the situation and do things properly.  But I have all these people waiting for their twenty rand to buy paraffin, mealie meal, sugar.  I can’t say no while living as affluently as I do. I deserve no more than they do and I’m so rich.

We did get some funding and we were accepted in 2003 and 2005 for the national arts festival main program and assisted by them to make art works for the festival

My dual fascination and horror with life in hamburg and my need to tell its stories and the sheer numbers of women embroidering, led to my plan to make large even monumental art works.
We told the story of the 100 year frontier war as it affected hamburg and surrounds and made the 120 meter tapestry which now hangs in parliament in cape town.
Then the aids epidemic hit us full on
I have seen more people die than I ever imagined but I have also seen more resilience in human beings than I believed possible
When I read what I wrote in these years at the height of the AIDS epidemic I feel I have lost something I once had, some way of perceiving the desperation in lives around me with open mind and eyes and heart
I wrote in 2004

Then, Hamburg and a child.  A baby with new clothes, baby blanket, but wizened, marasmic loose skin on its legs and tummy.  Wide black and white eyes.
Then a shack dark with fear, a small boy watching covered in sores, smelling bad, his mother stroked, unconscious, writhing, ugly.
Then the same child, clever, self-conscious and the beginning of ARVS.
Curled up with pneumonia for the third time.  Feverish, no mother to wipe his brow.  His young aunt caught up in an abusive relationship ending in another death, her husband.  Still the child watches, waits.
Nomonde.  She said she had been gang-raped.  Another child clinging to beautiful model-thin mother.  Not letting her out of her sight.  These days, I still see the child running out of her grandmother’s home as my car passes.  For 2 years after her mother’s death I brought her gifts as I passed.
What can we patch the holes with?

Holes in each home.  Some so thread-bare one feels patching has no place.  All must disintegrate and disappear and with it the pain of loss and helplessness and shame.
Mrs Mbiko I have watched, desperate 3 times as we tried to save her children and grandchildren.  There have been several other deaths in her house.  I only watched 2 closely and one peripherally.
Where are they all in that deserted homestead which used to buzz with life?
Most dramatically in 2005 when we made the Keiskamma altarpiece, we had just received ARVS for our health program though PEPFAR and as we worked and stitched were privileged to watch the lazasus effect of the medicines
I didn’t think of this when we started that year.  I too had been indoctrinated by the govt into fearing ARVS
I just knew about the Issenheim altarpiece and had used the concepts for my own comfort and meaning and offered them to the artists and embroiderers of Keiskamma to use to tell their story.
So we made the Keiskamma altarpiece, which, like the keiskamma tapestry, was shown for the first time at national arts festival in 2005
We felt hopeful and triumphant
But I have learned one cannot live and experience some things without risk of damage to oneself
By 2010 I was angry and hurt by ongoing suffering of the poor, by an uncaring government and civil service, by nurses who abused patients and by all the unnecessary pain and loss
We made the Keiskamma Guernica again funded by the national arts festival and again shown for the first time here in Grahamstown in July 2010
Someone in our visitors’ book at the festival exhibition wrote
Where has all the hope from your previous works gone?
I wrote then another essay
My personal Guernica

Ten years later…three pietas’
Elie Wiesel tells an old Jewish story of the prophet in Sodom standing on a street corner shouting to people to repent or be destroyed.
Many years later he was still there in the same place still shouting but nothing had changed.
A visitor asked him how he could keep shouting when obviously it made no difference to anyone and no retribution had happened.
He answered that when he had begun prophesying it was to save others but he kept doing it to save himself.
This morning I read the stories I wrote when I first came to live in Hamburg.
I was struck by the raw feeling, the shock of what I saw, the horror of it all, the constant struggle to make meaning.
But somehow the person who felt is gone.  I had not saved myself.  I had lost myself to a numbness that just keeps going, works and sees and makes no comment, seemingly remains unaffected.
So tonight I have written about today, just one day, impassively just recording, trying to pinch myself to see if I still feel
It is no worse than many other days and I almost forgot it all as soon as work was over.
I call the day three pieta’s

First pieta

The first mother and child was the Bengu family
Baby Bengu is HiV positive, a twin a year old.  She has retinoblastoma.
The baby presented some months ago with a new squint
Her story is when she got to eye clinic they found nothing and sent her home.
The eye-clinic doctors say they told her the diagnosis and wanted to remove the eye and she refused.
A month later the eye was protruding 5cms in the babies face
She went back and they removed much of the now inoperable tumour and sent the mother and the baby home with morphine syrup.
The baby initially did well and the eye socket healed.
 They live in a very remote village 40 kms from the local hospital and an hour’s walk from her clinic.
She came back and forth to the clinic for dressings often carrying both twins herself, one in front and one behind.
Now this morning she was in the hospice
We had heard the swelling in the eye socket was again enormous.
We wanted to help.

I talked to her through Mrs Zita
Did she know the baby would die, that the tumour would grow and grow?
Yes they had told her
Mrs Zita interjected..she is talking you know…the baby that is.
All the while the mother held the baby with a huge bulging swelling of the eye socket
The baby looked constantly at her mothers face
The mother cried silently
How can we help?
Can we care for the child till she dies?
No she wants to care for her at home
What does she need us to do?
Just make sure they have food for the whole family.
See if the oncologists will just remove the massive swelling for cosmetic purposes.
I promised and rushed out and forgot for some hours.

Second pieta

This mother was older.  Fat with a small beard, unattractive.
Her son lay in the side ward of the clinic.  He looked 60 at least.  He was 41. Emaciated, thrush on his lips, clubbing of his dirty long finger nails, breathless, coughing
She could not speak English.  He told me all.  She kept interjecting in Xhosa which the nurse translated.
She remembered more than he did in spite of the fact that he was in Port Elizabeth when he was ill.
He was a policeman and had been on ARVS for three years in 2001 to 2003
Then stopped he was so well.

Then recently got Tb for the third time and was admitted to hospital in port Elizabeth.
To clarify the medical history I ask when did he last work?
He stopped when he killed his wife
He was discharged for hospital in October 2009 in port elizabeth
Why had he allowed himself to become so ill?
Collecting treatment had been difficult at first because he was in jail then on bail then had numerous court cases in the high court in port Elizabeth.
So he did not get better
He says later he was bed-ridden and the health visitor did not bring treatment regularly
Then his mother fetched him
She lives 200 meters from this isolated rural clinic
She kept coming to the clinic to beg them to visit him and then begging him to come to the clinic
For a few weeks he refused
Today he has agreed
She suddenly became agitated.  She held up her hand with four fingers.  I have lost 4 sons she said in Xhosa even I could understand.  This is the last
She cried
I said to the man, look at your mother.  How can you continue to refuse admission and proper treatment?  She is always like this he said to dismiss her
I persisted, of course she is, she fears losing her last son.
He agreed I call the ambulance
He has a slim chance of survival
Later we looked at his medical AID card
He has three children, his mother had never heard of the third in PE.
Finally my professional demeanour broke down
We asked, the nurses and I, of the mother, why did he kill her.
She was stealing his money, she poisoned him twice and he landed in hospital ICU
She abused him
Finally he came home and shot her point blank in the head with his police gun
My last view of mother and son was her wiping his mouth tenderly and then stroking his hair.

Third Pieta

Again it is a young mother
She is pretty.  HIV positive with a 9 month HIV positive baby.
Both look well
We talk about the baby’s treatment and hers
The nurse interrupts my history taking
She is Para1 gravida 3 she tells me
The inaccurate medical classification tells another inadequate story
One drowned, one died of meningitis at 3 years, and now this last one is HIV positive
These communities, families, individuals keep on with work and daily life.
We all become mechanical.
We work and talk and slowly our soul and love of life and joy dies.
We hardly notice till we remember who we were before this slow plague
So recently I have been wondering how to recover
And I remember I know the answer, in fact I was so passionate and evangelical about this answer I thought I could change a whole village a whole community and whole town.
But I forgot it
It is simple
Human beings make art to find and give meaning
To make sense of things.  To heal themsleves
To continue to wonder at and to be in awe of this one life and this one world
I need to go back to make art just for myself to regain my own wonder and worship.
I too need this healing