This past Easter weekend I ventured out into the Karoo, to Philipstown in the eastern Karoo region of South Africa to be precise. Think the Outback if you are an Ozzie or the Wild West if a Yank or Scotland if you are a Pom! It is not a trip to undertake lightly, being an almost 10 hour drive from my home on the east coast of South Africa. I went to visit with my friends and fellow artists from the G1K1 exhibition (see previous post), Karen and Steyn Pretorius, who have opened a gallery in the little town.
The tourism blurb goes: Philipstown is off the beaten track, exactly halfway between Pretoria and Cape Town. It is the middle of everywhere…apparently! The town was established in May 1863 on the farm, Rietfontein, and became a municipality in August 1876. Named after Sir Philip Edmond Wodehouse (1811-1887), Governor of the Cape Colony from 1861 to 1870, Philipstown was the economic hub of the Northern Cape. Many of the old buildings, and there are many, provide a glimpse of that era. The main source of income is wool farming, which provides jobs like shearing, transport and general farm labour. The population is approximately 6000, of which 1000 are learners at the 3 schools in the town. There are 17 churches and a lot of drunks.
The last time I was in the Karoo was when I had just completed my basic military training in Kimberley and was being deployed to South West Africa (Namibia) to fight the Cubans and terrorist insurgents on her borders. We then travelled through the vast expanse of the Karoo by train in carriages full of soldiers and I was mesmerized by her. She is like an ancient and wily boxer who will simply not submit but keeps on swinging; a scientist at the sweet science (as boxing is known). There is a savage and proud beauty about the Karoo, and wonder in her scarred and craggy visage. Juxtaposition is at her core, extremes placed alongside each other and made magical by this. Nowhere else can you witness Creation (capital C) fresh off God’s potter wheel and see His very thumbprints in the clay as clearly. It had rained prior to, and continued to rain on the day of my arrival. Flowers and foliage had immediately sprung from the red, clayey earth and sutured the scar-like crevices and ravines of landscape. To hear the rain beat its primordial rhythms on the tin roof of my friends’ house while I lay in bed was wondrous and transported me to my childhood of living in houses which conversed with its inhabitants.
I earlier used the boxer analogy and so it is sweetly ironic that the gallery finds itself situated in what was once the town’s boxing ring or as it is known, die bokskryt. There is a restaurant (aptly name die bokskryt) on the ground floor and on the floor above is the Groenstraat Gallery (the Green Street Gallery).
In the centre of the gallery floor is an opening (with bannisters) which must have allowed punters a bird’s eye view of the fights going on below. It is one of my favourite buildings ever! In this remnant of Africa’s Colonial past its ghosts intermingle with ancient ancestors and spirits of the Earth, merging to become a tangible essence. They stand alongside you in the gallery as you view the art works, awaiting your response. They sniff at and rub against you downstairs in the restaurant and bar as you ingest, sampling the flavours and sensations through you. They are a real presence that one may only be aware of subconsciously like living with a cat in your house.
In this space of ghosts Karen, Steyn and I will be exhibiting our G1K1 work soon and I hope to be able to return to Philipstown to attend the exhibition opening. When I do we will speak more about the Karoo, Philipstown and The Groenstraat Gallery.