A Spectacular Mess, News update August 2008

Greetings from a dry, dusty and veldfire smoke filled Lowveld. Pretty much a reflection of how we are feeling about South Africa at the moment. Our view is that we live in a country that does things spectacularly; at the moment we are in a spectacular mess. The xenophobic violence horrified us to the core, the greed and corruption of the arms deal, Zimbabwe, AIDS and our governments seeming acceptance and defence of all things backhanded. Crime has also squirmed into our valley, with break-ins and thefts that are the worst in the six years that we have been here. To cap it all we pay for our own healthcare, our kids education, our security (local police are a joke) provide for our retirement, pay for someone to go and renew car licenses (it can take days of standing around staring at bureaucrats here), provide our own water and some of our own electricity too now, as well as waste services, we repair our own roads…. And then we get hammered with tax. How the poor, who do not have the power to buy all the basics, cope is terrifying. All this in a province where the premier sees fit to imitate Mugabe with a high-speed cavalcade wherever he goes. Who the hell does he think he is? This is not the country we dreamed of.

Jisslaik, all this negativity from us who are usually so chirpy about things local. We toddled off to Italy for three weeks in July, and herein lies the contrast. We stayed with friends in a divine eight hundred-year-old monastery in the hills of Umbria. The kids wandered around in the surrounding forests on their own (perfectly safely, on the lookout only for "vipero's") and we had a San Sepulcro moment. Dawdling around the streets of the town we came across a tiny wool shop and went in to get some fabulous thread for the kids, who have both taken to knitting in a big way. There was no one in the shop, although the doors were open, the till standing there etc. the owner had gone out for a coffee/lunch/holiday? We stood around, and after a while left (empty handed), somewhat stunned. We slept with doors open, car keys in the ignition (that is where they are easiest to be found) and a sense of quiet and peace that must be amazing to have as part of one's daily reality. The Italians should be copied, their aesthetic is sublime, they have a government ministry dedicated to food (the only Mac Donald's we saw was at the Florence station), they observe the siesta with a religious fervour and they drive politely (except for Audi owners).

Maru pioneered soccer at her school last term, becoming the first prep girl to play soccer (netball is SOOO boring, you can't move about). She was later joined by Jemma, a grade up from her. They played in all the games they could and had a brilliant time, although gender politics among the grade 2's is surprisingly conservative and she has to tackle more than just the ball. Simon is becoming more and more focused on the natural world, managing to spot a huge rat-like thing in the Arno River (after consulting the web oracle we worked out that it was an escaped Coypus) and got very excited about it but was very blasé about the Michelangelo's in the Medici Chapel…. He also collected six blue jay feathers in the Italian forests and treasures these above all in his collection.

On the environmental front, we have installed the solar geysers on the guesthouse and the plans for our micro hydro-electrical station are taking shape. Mark is not one to do things in a rush, so it will be perfect when it finally gets installed (read: Tamar is bored to death discussing the various complications of Chinese versus Canadian turbines). Syneth has moved to White River and is contemplating buying an electric bicycle to get to work and back (a stiff hill, hence the electrical part), Conrad Botes told us that they used to be called "help my trap fietse".

In the studio, we have been temporarily joined by John Taoss Tugisabe who had his home and possessions burnt by his neighbours in Mamelodi. John is a Rwandan refugee. We provided him and a friend; Emmanuel (whose shop, stock and all) was burnt too with a safe place to stay. Emmanuel has returned to Gauteng and John will be with us until September when he returns to The Artist's Proof to complete his internship. Over the last few months Sam Nhlengethwa, Claudette Schreuders, Anton Kannemeyer (recent very successful show in NYC) and Conrad Botes (off to China in September to exhibit with Nicholas Hlobo and Thembikosi Goniwe at the Guangzhou Triennial) have all collaborated to come up with some stunning prints, which are currently being editioned. The studio was featured over three pages of the July copy of House and Leisure magazine. Leshoka looks dashing and the portrait of Mark has a calm monastic quality.

Strijdom van der Merwe has just signed the suite of prints that he worked on over a year ago (time is hectic) and they are now available for sale. Strijdom alone is a reason for not losing hope in this nuthouse of a country! His quiet contemplation of the natural order is most reassuring. As are the jasmine flowers and stinkhout leaf buds which are peeking out in expectation of spring. Let's hope that this has been our winter of discontent and that South Africa can pull itself together in a spectacular fashion (although this may be like expecting Bafana Bafana to win a game before the World Cup starts).

Hope that you are well, going green and thriving.

Mark and Tamar

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