Updated: Aug 9, 2019
I myself was lost, for a moment, as I turned page 109 of Mark Gevisser’s Lost and Found in Johannesburg. At the top of page 110 is a photograph of his parents: his mother, semi-submerged, floating in the embrace of her husband, while they swim in a tropical sea. Gevisser enfolds the two in exquisite prose. It is a beautiful image, and it’s delight that stops me reading. Perhaps in part because my own parents had honeymooned in Mozambique in the early sixties, and I’d scrutinised their small black and white photo-momentos of the time that Gevisser calls “the past perfect; before-I-came” with the same kind of curiosity that he describes.
In this book about growing up gay in Johannesburg, Gevisser expands from private moments like this to exploring Johannesburg’s social history and geographies. Here, for example: he moves from discussing this intimate picture of his parents, to talking about a staged “politicised” image of an interracial couple swimming in the Fischer’s pool, (taken by Nat Nakasa, for Drum), to a wonderful story about the Immorality Act. (Read the book for the story behind this headline: “19-year old typist in skin-tight red jeans held on morals charge with Coloured”.)
I’m grateful for his writing, for the stories he tells about places and the ways they are made and understood by the different people who inhabit them. And for the way he spins his interest in transgression into this illuminating history of the everyday. But I’m particularly drawn to the images of water that he has included. In a chapter called “The Ecstacy of Immersion” he explains that he has made a collection of images of immersion, and again I have that inner response, this time to the word. I am an artist who has spent years wrapped in the pellucid blue of the coastline of Cape Town’s South Peninsula. My paintings translate a sense of physical engagement with the environment through a process for which immersion is probably the best metaphor.
Gevisser’s range is broad. It could be standard socio-political analysis, but it’s not: there’s an artistry in the slippage from the social to the sensual that makes the book sing. He writes about: Nkunzi Kabinde, a sangoma who will bathe in the polluted waters of the Klip Rivier in Soweto if the ancestors require it; a series of photographs by Santu Mofokeng, showing ecstatic ceremonies in the same river; mass baptisms in suburban pools; people of all races colliding in the annual sardine run in Durban.
A couple of weeks later, Gevisser is the discussant along with author Kimon de Greef at a bookshop in what used to be my seaside neighbourhood. It is a book about perlemoen poaching, Poacher by De Greef and Shubad Abader. The book is at once a memoir by Abader, an ex-poacher, and an investigation into poaching by De Greef, a journalist. De Greef, Gevisser says, rivals our very best narrative non-fiction writers.
The discussion starts with Gevisser explaining that it’s the “alternate geographies” in the book that interest him, and De Greef agrees. He’d grown up in white suburban Cape Town and thought he knew the place: researching the book turned this well-mapped, almost safe, suburban, coastline upside down. Just beyond the railway line with its familiar stops, beyond the tidal pools, out in the blue, is a different zone, frequented by men who’ll risk prison, even death, for the perlemoen catch. Poachers have their own topography for the coastline – and there’s a language that goes with it, a local knowledge, of abundant reefs and safe slipways.
For De Greef, coming to understand this alternate seascape/landscape means taking on a different point of view. Poachers like Abader come from the Flats, Cape Town’s ganglands. These are families whose lives were altered by forced removals – Abader’s family was removed from the seaside village of Simon’s Town, a little further south than we are that night. Poaching offered a way to make a living that was arguably less anti-social than land-based violent crime. And though he understood the conservation angle, Abader preferred to make a living this way – “this doesn’t hurt anyone,” De Greef says he said.
Either before, or after, this point is made, Gevisser invites De Greef to read a passage that Gevisser has chosen. The text is about night diving, floating submerged, while harvesting perlemoen of a reef known to poachers as “Daily Bread” off Clovelly beach – and I recognise this theme again. It seems he’s inviting – or summoning – a connection between the experience of immersion and the mental shifts we can make if we open ourselves to relearning the territory we inhabit.
Seeing the coastline in a new way, from shifting perspectives beyond the breakers, is a privilege that surfers and kayakers share with poachers, and it brings to mind the work of a surfer artist and writer, Natasha Norman.
There is an ebb and flow to my creative work, and it is during the current ebb in my own art-making that I first see some of Norman’s prints and find them mesmerising. Among other things she is a printmaker, working in monoprint, in water colour, and in the Japanese mokuhanga woodblock technique. I think I respond to the way in which her recent works convey the experience of finding yourself under water, or adrift in an expanse of it. They turn your world upside down, giving no clue about which direction to view them from – you can get lost, untethered. And they use the blues of the sea in False Bay with compelling conviction. (She has mastery of blue – when I visited her studio, I saw she has schooled herself in them, arranging strips of paper with painted blocks in the colours she works in. That way, she knows exactly what blue she wants.)
Her works have all the looseness of water, with the control that her colour-coded strips imply. Being so reduced, they affirm that a piece of art can take your scrutiny.
Looking at Natasha’s work engages a sense-memory, or, a body-memory, of the inside-out backward-forward world of underwater. It’s a physical sensation that corresponds with the openness Gevisser’s writing exhibits, that De Greef says he is learning. It’s a sensation described by Siri Hustvedt: “the experience of art has a deeply metaphorical intersensual quality. … looking at a painting, reading a poem or a novel, listening to music requires a natural loosening of sense boundaries, a blur that invigorates artistic experience.” (In the chapter “What are we” in A Woman talking about Men talking about Women
And I find, of course, it’s in this loosened state, open, interconnected, that artists and writers play – and these works by Gevisser and Norman reflect back to the reader or viewer (in this case, me) exactly that state, the kind of responsiveness that is itself creative flow.