I don’t usually listen to a podcast more than once, but I’ve been replaying a story about British artist Shezad Dawood, a wonderfully produced exploration of the process behind his multimedia exhibition “Night in the Garden of Love” – the title (and music) inspired by a futuristic novella published in the 1980s by an Afro-American musician and composer, Yusuf Lateef. I’m not talking about it much more here, as you should rather listen to it yourself: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p0fyk0yx .
Performance rehearsal, Choreographer and dancer Nan-Lun Yu; Costue Ahluwalia; Image Marinad Sharp, Courtesy Ubik Productions.
I was replaying and transcribing moments in a strand of fascinating ideas: at one point he was talking about swimming in pattern, in his collection of textiles, as he makes work on the floor. Many of the textiles come from Pakistan, where his family are from. (The show is on until August 2023 at WIELS in Brussels and can be viewed here https://ubikproductions.com)
He was also talking about ecology and the apocalypse, the garden as a space of transcendence, about hope. About how we can learn from the past, to make better futures. I listened carefully and finally I had it, the idea that I wanted to pin down: “I love this idea of speculative futures; the present is just a set of speculative futures that we are debating and arguing about.”
Speculative futures. Given that Dawood uses digital tech and augmented reality to make this body of work, it’s probably appropriate that his words make me think about a form of daily tech – a Whatsapp group that I’m on. The group is run by some amazing people who look after the urban rivers and wetlands nearby my home in Hout Bay – they do volunteer work, pay for clean ups, participate in research, and generally advocate for protecting the river and wetland, which, in its approx. 10 km run from the base of Table Mountain to the sea, is affected by pollution including sewage, urban development, and invasion by alien species. But it is still a living river, and near my home, close to Orange Kloof at the base of Table Mountain, it is still always clean. The group is a fascinating source of information about the history and ecological processes of the area. They’ve been taking part in some important and contested municipal processes about the future of the river.
A screenshot of a historical photo that shows the Hout Bay wetland palmiet, that someone posted on the WhatsApp group.
I've learnt from this group that once there was wetland from the base of Table Mountain all the way to the sea. The main vegetation was palmiet which has fibrous roots that soak up water when water is running high, releasing it slowly again during the dry. Palmiet stands along the river have been replaced first by farmland, then by hard development. Trenches have drained the wetlands, causing terrible damage as the water runs faster, carving deep cuts into the soil. Even where there are still stands, alien invasive trees create too much shade, killing the palmiet.
I realise the artist Hanien Conradie is on the group when I see she’s shared a quote from theologian and ecological thinker Thomas Berry. She goes on to say: “If we can try to shift out thinking away from how the river can serve us and understand that we are an inextricable part of the natural world and that our health and river’s health are bound together … then we can start healing rivers for the river’s sake.”
For her, art and spiritual practice are bound together and her landscape works in organic painting materials are resonant. Go to https://vimeo.com/327706914 to experience a performance piece she made on an artist’s residency on the River Dart in the UK, where she prays into a river. See more of her work here: https://hanienconradie.com
Watershed, Soot Ink on Canvas, 1,4 x 2,2 m, Hanien Conradie, 2019
Available From: Montoro 12 Gallery, Brussels
I’m thinking about all of this as I walk on to the shore, where the river meets the sea, following my dog. The air is 9 degrees according to my car’s thermometer. The water must be colder still, but I see a woman, dressing herself in what I think is a wetsuit, flicking her long braids as she looks out at the sea. As I walk up to her, I realise it’s not a wetsuit – she’s wet through, pulling a black tracksuit on over T-shirt and undies. She has tattoos on her arms, dark golden skin. We greet and she smiles, showing capped gold teeth, and so I ask what she’s doing swimming here today. I still think maybe she’s doing cold swimming, everyone seems to be doing it, but I also think probably not, and her answer is more profound. She needs to make a change, she says. Things in her life have gone bad. “The water, you know – when you know you need to change something in your life, it’s good to go in the water.”
The image she makes, her snaking hair against the pearly winter sky and sea, pulls another image of a woman in the sea out of my memory. Back home, after wishing her well and walking the dog, it takes a search of my Facebook posts to find what I’m looking for. There it is: a few years ago I found the work of photographer Imraan Christian, who grew up in Hangberg, a harbour area here in Hout Bay. Designated a “coloured” area under Apartheid law, many families living there still have their lives consumed by the social problems of poverty, including gangsterism and violence. Christian made a series, called Ruh, which translates as “soul” in Arabic, to “fill the gaps in a history that has been ravaged by persecution”. The series explores ocean mythologies through a decolonized African lens. Read more about his work to bring healing to fractured communities and see his incredible images, shot on the beaches near Hout Bay, here.
Christian sees his work as being about healing. “I wanted to show my home the way I see it: magical,” says Imraan in an interview with Katie de Klee. He creates a new imaginary indigenous mythology, transforming historical loss into something powerful and celebratory, that opens up new potential.
A thing I am holding onto, in thinking about these things – the artists’ work, the wetland and the river course, the estuary and the sea that it drains into, histories of the people who live here – is how Dawood sees the confluences of new arrivals and cultures, “music and cuisines”, as precious. Dawood talks about the fabrics he uses, most from the 70s: “… You get fine floral line work in the patterns which was done for the Japanese market, but then you’d have a buyer coming in from Lagos and they’d ask for a colourway that was more vibrant, purple or indigo. But they liked the Japanese pattern …. so there was this amazing cosmopolitanism happening in textiles….” He concludes: “I like it when things are not static, and those patterns are some of the most migrant things we have in our culture…”
Installation view Night in the Garden of Love inspired by & featuring Yusuf Lateef, WIELS, Brussels, Photography copyright We Document Art
It made me wonder what we would dream up if, as issues about river health, and people's lives, are debated, we tried to create an idea of the future we are sometimes unknowingly making here. An imagined future, probably way off course, but one that reflects the myriad cultures of the people who live and will live here. I remember reading somewhere, that in this world where so many of us are transient or migrant, to care for and heal the earth we need to find ways to sink quickly yet deeply into the new ecologies of spaces we move into. Living here, I’ve seen immersions in the river, white-robed celebrations on the sand dunes. Boys swimming, as boys do in muddy brown rivers further east, a woman bathing naked, as if alone on the shores of a lake somewhere north of the border. These seem to me to be things that say something about the meaning of water, things about healing and hope, things to draw on in some way.