EARTH MATTERS: Land as Material and Metaphor in the Arts of Africa
My life's work created in or through Africa since the early 1980's creates an intense relationship with the land and the rich heritage of the African people. Earth Matters to me as an artist and remains my greatest inspiration.
I have worked primarily in Southern Africa and those Equatorial regions described by the armature of the Great East African Rift Valley. I concentrate on a few specific subjects for extended time periods - 10 years or more - creating mixed media artwork, literature and video, which as works of art, require no voice over to generate the power to move. In terms of community-oriented works that become agents for positive change, commencing in 1989, my ritual/celebratory processional works with mixed cultural communities in South Africa (and with the first procession with long red banners in Brazil in September 2001) has continued throughout my artistic career. A rare priviledge to have been so accepted and the love that bonded us all as human beings upon this Earth. Yet in Africa - Land and all its loaded connotations is inseparable from socio-political upheaval, both historically and into the present.
The aims of my Kilimanjaro/ColdFire project (2000 - ongoing), and the video to be shown on the EARTH MATTERS exhibition, seek to generate environmental and social change. These aims reflect even more urgently through my current project The Shepherd Principle (2011 - ongoing) which I speak of below and which supports everything I write of subsequently in this essay.
The Shepherd Principle Project takes place in Botswana and Tanzania. Two mass migrations of zebra and wildebeest, one sustainable the other threatened with extinction. Two different attitudes to conservation in Africa. I use the Southern Cross Constellation, unique to Southern Hemisphere skies, as a metaphorical compass for change in Africa. This guide - this good shepherd has shown the way South to travellers on land and sea for millennia . The traditional African pastoralist herds his cattle - the great star system migrates across the sky in every 24 hour cycle. In this project, these nurturing concepts merge as one. Two contested environments - two different manifestations of an image of the Southern Cross constellation brought down to earth. This manifests as sacred writing upon the surface of the earth. The Project is imbued with African aesthetic sensibility. 'The inseparability of God, the universe and writing'. (1)
The first Cross created on the surface of the Makgadikgadi Salt Pans of Botswana with red cloth markers and quad bikes creating the connecting scientific lines of site, represents the successful arena for one of the large migrations of zebra and wildebeest in Africa. It is a model for sustainability. This work was completed and filmed in May 2012.
In Tanzania the cross is yet to be created, through a processional ritual with the people - Maasai, Kikuyu, Muslim and Christian groups. It deals with loss of environment of not only traditional pastoralists in Tanzania such as the Maasai where 48,000 are threatened with removal from their traditional territories along the Eastern boundaries of the Serengeti for the creation of a hunting concession there, but in particular the threat of extinction of the greatest migration on earth in Tanzania through a commercial road planned to cross the Serengeti. Key to this is transportation of mineral ore from Uganda via the shortest route to the port of Tanga on the Indian Ocean together with access to Lake Natron for a major soda ash plant which may destroy forever the only breeding ground for the Lesser Flamingo in East Africa.
I personally feel that loss of environment worldwide lies at the heart of the concept - EARTH MATTERS.
Wherever I work in Africa, my observations are real and experienced. I have climbed Kilimanjaro five times, only once to the top as I suffer from extreme altitude sickness. My husband and I have driven from Pretoria to Northern Tanzania and back twice - in 2005 and 2006. This is a distance of about 10,000 kilometers for each voyage. I witnessed thousands of charcoal selling points along all main roads photographing some of these while the charcoal makers hid behind their bags and yelled abuse at me. This co-incides with the disappearance of most large trees near towns and villages. In Zambia 2009, where the veldt fire and charcoal selling points for the Kilimanjaro/ColdFire video were filmed, one charcoal maker allowed us to interview him and he said: 'The trees are all gone. Now we must go very far to find a tree to cut.'
Deforestation at tropical zones accounts for one fifth of all human produced CO2 emissions. The glaciers on Kilimanjaro are melting through something as insubstantial as 'warm air'. A melting equatorial glacier at Kilimanjaro's lofty 5895 summit, becomes a powerful if tragic symbol - a martyr to climate change.
My Kilimanjaro/ColdFire Project developed out of earlier projects with the mountain dating from 1996, but the rapid melting of the glaciers soon changed my focus and I became involved with global warming concepts dealing specifically with deforestation in Central Africa. These are the environments in which I work, where people are incredibly poor, who chop down trees to create charcoal to sell so that they can put bread on the table. Change in Africa should come from government but this is where it just does not happen. Laws forbidding the felling of trees are ignored and police turn a blind eye.
What I am facing is the reality of the notion of RIFT in an ancient geological sense, which continually transforms into contemporary social schism.
But truth can generate change. What I have had to question repeatedly throughout 2012 is the role of the artist in society today. My husband - a non-art person - says 'your role is to tell the truth about things'. Ive lived in Africa my whole life so I can say this with conviction: Water is the life blood of Africa. If you destroy trees and turn living wood into dead charcoal, transpiration ceases, ground cover disappears and desertification takes place. You have burnt your water.
The Kilimanjaro/ColdFire video uses Fire and Ice on two opposite screens to metaphorically create a Dantesque vision of Heaven and Hell. The beauty of Kilimanjaro's diminishing glaciers set against the black fire of deforestation of the 'Illegal charcoal trade'.
So the title EARTH MATTERS is crucial to a recognition that this planet is our home. Our only raft in vast space. If we are to survive as a species into even a near future, we human beings need to make a sacred covenant to protect what is left from the clamouring needs of a rapidly spreading epidemic of concrete and people worldwide.
A single tree could one day save many. These trees, these great open savannas and the traditional pastoralists that live there, those final great herds - are our best protection against ourselves. Save these, cut our growing numbers intelligently and we may survive into a sustainable utilisation of the fragments that are left.
Georgia Papageorge October 2012.
1.'Inscribing Meaning: Writing and Graphic systems in African Art.' Chapter 7. 'Sacred Scripts'. Mary Nooter Roberts. 2007. Smithsonian, National Museum of African Art.