It was a beautiful Friday in Johannesburg. I packed the sketch pads, pencils, sharpeners. We were going on a cultural outing. More of an expedition. We were going to the Johannesburg Art Gallery and we were going to choose a picture or sculpture we liked and we were going to sit quietly and sketch it for a bit. Admire it, try and draw it ourselves.
After that we would take a walk through Joubert Park to the old greenhouse and see if the wishing well is still there. Because wishes made in that wishing well come true because I made one there once and it did. It will be lovely.
The girls sat in the back seat excitedly, tolerating my stories about how when we were little my mom and dad would drive us through to Joubert Park at Christmas time to see the lights and the display of scenes from nursery rhymes. A giant (to me) version of Old Mother Hubbard’s shoe is one I remember. There was lots of yellow from all the lights, and there was music, and people pushing trinkets at us. It was a grand night out for us from Krugersdorp where the main attraction was the Monument dam where half of us were probably conceived.
It won’t be the same I said to the girls. Obviously. Times change. And it may not all be there anymore. But we will look for the greenhouse at least.
I worked on the other side of the CBD and had once covered a story at the pretty St Mary’s nearby. It was a memorial for Father Trevor Huddleston and Nelson Mandela was there and me and an older man in the pew next to me held hands during the ceremony because we were all misty eyed with the beauty and miracle of everything. Writing this I found an AP clip of it and I recognised myself from the back by my bushy hair. I got into trouble when I got back to the office because the radio was full of how Nelson Mandela had been cross and had made us all re-sing the anthem because we had sung the struggle version of it and not the new one. THAT was the story, he barked at me. Misty eyes are not good for wire journalism.
I tried to remember which is the best road to turn into so I don’t get stuck in too much traffic and waste too much time because I remember that from the Huddleston assignment the traffic was difficult around there. I got the turn wrong and had to lap the block. This time we were sandwiched between taxis and not moving.
I wittered away about the station nearby, how we all rushed through there on our way to work when we first started out and didn’t have our own cars yet. I don’t mention the station bomber, who I had just read a book about, the racial segregation of coaches, the men who sat on benches sipping Paarl Perle, the burning trains, the staffriders, the church services in coaches with handbells clanging in time to mournful singing. I will just get The Eyes.
We’re still wedged between taxis, buildings blocking the sun out, trestle tables piled high with vegetables, facecloths with soccer ball logos and lumo orange chips leaning over the pavement, people stepping into the gutter next to us to get round the tables, jigging round the front and back of the car through the gridlock to get to the other side of the road. I see Girl1 looking at me in the rear view mirror with big eyes. She is from a small town. I do the quadrophonic door lock.
I miss the turn again because I can’t see the full stretch of the road over the taxis and lap the block again, but less of it this time. We pass the yawning entrance to the bus station for Malawi and Zimbabwe. The girls are quiet. This is not like Cresta. I quip that this is where they must come when they’re grown up and need a bus to Malawi. Oooookaaay I hear. I’m thinking I should have taken them to a movie at Sandton City like a normal person.
We see the old Cosatu house in the distance, where my mom was a punch card operator at ICI in the early days of computers and distract them with stories about it. I finally get into the proper lane, past hole-in-the-wall minimarts with men lounging on car bonnets.
We’re close to the gallery entrance. I’m distracted by bright things for sale at the pavement as we get to the boomgate. That’s the problem with me. I am uncomfortable at crowded concert venues, get claustrophobic in malls with its walls of shufflers, but inner city busyness energises me, and I love the rush, the colour, the loud music, the resourcefulness.
The gallery building is a huge sandstone affair. An ambitious Lutyens meant for wrap around gardens with a rolling hill or two. Maybe some deer. It’s surrounded by blocks of flats – some bright and perky, some looking like Miss Haversham’s wedding cake.
I snap out of my daydreaming with the girls going “eeeuwwwww”. The smell of pee hits us. The girls claps their hands over their mouths and noses. I point to the source, the railway line next to the gallery. An educational discussion on how a train’s toilet functions follows. “So it just gets flushed on the tracks? Eeeeew!” While they’re discussing this and extrapolating to whether planes do the same thing, staring at the sky in horror, I’m admiring rows and rows of beautiful bright kitenge cloth fluttering in the market on the other side of the railway tracks while the high notes of kwassa kwassa float over.
There’s a bit of a wild goose chase to find the entrance because the one near the car park was not the real entrance a guard told us after he realised we weren’t going to stop knocking and waving at him through the panes of the grand door.
And there it was. Grand copper roofs that could do with a polish hunched in the ground with the main gallery building behind them. Joubert Park itself looked ethereal through the mist of a large fountain on the other side of a palisade fence. But the fountains at the gallery entrance itself were empty with a blue surgical glove sticking out of the sludge. An installation perhaps?
J poses next to an Edoardo Villa pipey sculpture and I whisper loudly that she must stop making puking motions with her middle finger. Because this is art.
When we walk into the gallery, a woman rushes up to us at the door and greets us like long lost relatives who were missing in the snow. She talks so nicely to the girls, tells them how to get around the gallery and what they might like. Apart from a schoolgirl, and the staff, we are the only ones there.
I rush to a George Pemba and an Irma Stern, showing the girls excitedly. They peer at them, unimpressed. But look, it’s an Irma Stern I implore, and look at the intricate work on the Pemba… As I lean forward a guard hisses at me to go behind the white line on the floor.
I let them wander and find something they will like but it carries on like this. The only sound is the noisy opening and banging shut of huge doors letting staff in and out of the grand entrance we originally thought was the way in. The older girl is bored, the younger girl is pointing at a giant crayfish made out of wire wanting to know who would make something like that and but why? I force them to sit and at least draw one thing. Small girl does one – half heartedly, but she does it. It looks like a big screw and it’s by a famous artist whose name I wish I could remember. I googled using the search terms artist, screw, johannesburg art gallery and I couldn’t find it. I am probably on an internet oversight watchlist now. But it”s near pop artist Lichtenstein‘s Crak!and it’s kind of cool that we have one.
But mom isn’t copying a crime? sounds a small civic minded voice. Like downloading music or a movie without paying for it? They draw on reluctantly.
We lean forward to look at a Warhol and I’m enthusing about it – a real Warhol right here in Johannesburg! Nothing. I take them over to a Dali. Auntie Jenni? I don’t really like it. I tell you what, I say, one day when you are big and living in New York remember that you saw your first Dali in Johannesburg with me. I still don’t like it she says.
We walk through and there’s a …. I don’t know what to call it, model of a woman hanging from the ceiling and book and knife pressed into her side, blood leaking onto the book. I move them on. There’s a hyena that has swallowed a carving knife, a big giant post bag sort of starched. A piece of corrugated iron with colours of rust on it. I don’t remember all the artists names and I won’t pretend I know who they all are but the hyena was a Brett Murray, that I do remember because a) I covered the drama over his Jacob Zuma painting including some of the court parts and b) I find his craftsmanship and social commentary brilliant.
I tried to get them interested in the colours of the rust on the corrugated iron work and how difficult it must have been for the artist and I explained that art is not all about painting bowls of apples, it can be anything and it can make people think about things. I’m digging deep but they’re not buying it. It’s a piece of rusty sink I’m told. You don’t have to like or appreciate anything but maybe there will be just one thing you like I say. It could be a sculpture, a painting, whatever, and when you find that one thing that catches your attention, it will be a lovely moment.
They walk off on their own but suddenly come running, crying out urgently, come and look, come and look. You won’t believe it! They show me a floor to ceiling full colour photograph of an old man, naked, the photographer having perfectly captured his tired eyes, the wrinkles on his love handles, the blue veins in his penis. Who would put such a picture up they ask aghast.
Emergency measures are required. Ahoogah Ahoogah. Fresh air. We need fresh air I announce. Let’s see what’s outside. and I usher them into the courtyard. We find ourselves staring at a row of sculptures of women by Marieke Prinsloo. Headless. They are beautiful sculptures. But all the girls see is no heads. There’s a bust of the late mining magnate and arts patron Harry Oppenheimer. He is staring through a curtain of pigeon shit on his forehead. In a room inside there’s a Kentridge video animation of a man taking a bath and I’m getting Isn’t this PG? I later looked him up and found this on You Tube of him preparing a frame for one of his animations which really makes me see him in a different light. But at the time I was thinking is this South African art? Blood, headless women, musty neglected masters. Penis veins? But as I said to the girls it’s not all about painting bowls of fruit and when I look back at that sentence, maybe the gallery is spot on. Maybe that is where we are now as a society. Blood, headless women, musty neglected masters. Penis veins. Oh shit, I’m trying to talk art, I will stop.
The day is saved and the girls find “the one”. It is the architect’s model of the planned renovations for the gallery, and the beautiful wooden scaffolds that I couldn’t say to them for sure was an artwork, or there for the restorers.
A small special display of African art, sculptures and beadwork also interests them and this surprises me because by now they are tired and irritable. They stop and look carefully at everything in this room and can’t explain why they like it so much. I fall in love with the African Madonna by Ernest Mancoba in the same room and buy a book about him for R20 over a lovely chat and invitation to a Women’s Day event with the woman who greeted us when we arrived. Somebody else appears and hears of our wishing well quest. She is a bit quiet about it but does say that there is a rejuvenation project over there as well.
We finally set off for the wishing well and enter the park. Moms are sitting on benches with their babies, but mostly men are sleeping on the grass, yellow dry grass cuttings stuck in their hair. The girls want to know why they are sleeping there. A man leaning against the palisade blows out a huge weed cloud almost the size of his body. I explain to the girls that maybe they share a flat with other people who are a bit noisy during the day and just come here for some peace and quiet but Girl1 is outwardly uncomfortable. Why is everyone staring at us? Nobody is staring at us my girl, they are all sleeping.
We press on and come to the conservatory which used to house the wishing well. My heart sinks. It is heartbreakingly tumble down with razor wire over the top of a fence that has been erected around it.
I am so disappointed. But I get it. If there are protests left right and centre over houses, how do you sneak a few million in for conservancy revamp? We turn back. Girl1 says I really really don’t feel comfortable and breaks into a run towards the gate and only stops when she gets to the car.
The girls only relax once we are sitting at Argentina, a cafe in our neighbourhood, waiting for our milkshakes, playing a game of Scrabble with the house board.
The next day my phone rings and it’s my sister in law’s number. I’m too scared to speak to her. She is going to fire me as godmother because her daughter saw a giant penis and she was scared in the park. I pluck up the courage to phone back. Girl1 answers. Auntie Jenni, remember that handbag we saw that I really liked when you took me to Sandton City the other day? (The Fashion Viewing Outing which included almost getting trampled at the lifts). Can you remember which shop it was in? It was so beautiful.
Ah well, even handbags start with sketches.