Thursday, April 30, 2009

Images from a scrapyard

I met Willie Bester when he was still a young, developing artist. At the time he used to take me along to the townships to meet his friends and to take some photos, which he used in some of his amazing collages. These collages, which he carefully constructed by shaping together different elements, mostly small pieces of metal, cardboard or paper, always against the backdrop of some gripping photos and newspaper headings, became Willie’s very special hallmark. They brought him international fame. Through them he documented the history, colour and liveliness of township life of the 1980s and 1990s. In these collages you could see and touch the bumpers of old lorries, double storied shacks, buzzing shops, corrugated roofs, rusted bicycles and moving trains.

Later when the painting and putting together of collages became almost second nature and less challenging, Willie switched to making smaller paintings. Through them he depicted at close range people of different walks in the township - an innocent child playing, an old man smoking a pipe, a woman toiling away at her daily tasks. Alongside these collages and paintings he also portrayed the dehumanizing effects of the political system of the day by building majestic structures, even whole laboratories, layered with guns, wheels, clocks and pipes and always a bible somewhere to remind us of how religion was often used to justify an intricate and oppressive ideology.

During the past few years Willie has been focussing more on creating life size sculptures, mostly from pieces of waste iron and car parts that he collects in scrap yards. People watching these rough but true to life images, are suddenly confronted by a rare talent - the ability to recognise in the jungle of scrap yard rubble the image of a growling dog, a gallant horse, a smiling harp player, a child carrying a gun, or a dignified old woman. This is Willie Bester’s rare achievement: to give new life to cast aside and forgotten waste by transforming it into lively images which, when closely observed, stir the heart and imagination, and leave you in awe and wonder.

Looking again at some of Willie’s startling images of child soldiers and missing children at a recent exhibition, I was reminded of the way God deals with us humans. In many ways our lives, though they do also carry reflections of God, so easily become skewed, depressed, out of hand, inhuman - to the extent that we suffer, lose our confidence, feel miserable, unworthy, dumped, almost like rubble on a scrap yard. How well do we all know this feeling, especially when we find that we repeatedly make the wrong choices, lose our discipline, give in to temptations and allow ourselves to be swept away by our darker and destructive impulses. Often only our belief in God’s constant grace, in God’s resurrecting and all renewing power, can save us. In the words of Paul: “You used to be in the darkness, but now in the Lord you are light” (Ephes 5:8).

Today we may count again on this amazing fact that God can transform what seems to be a mere piece of scrap into an image of beauty and wonder. Also, that bewildering piece of my life that I am experiencing and looking at right now.

Carel Anthonissen

Sunday, April 26, 2009

The honesty shop

About 80 kilometers beyond Laingsburg in the heart of the Klein Swartberge and close to the Gamtoosdam there is an amazing little shop. It contains all kind of local products from preserved jams and fruit rolls to hand made articles like handbags and purses. For the tired traveller there is also the usual stock of coke and chocolates, but they are not the main items. These are all locally produced. However what makes the little shop particularly unique is not its local features, but its name and the special ethos it represents. It is called the honesty shop. Which means that there are no shop attendants, nobody to serve or look after you, nobody to check that you have paid. It is up to the customers to make their choice, check the price and then to leave the correct amount in a bottle put out for that purpose on one of the tables.

Many years ago while visiting Vienna in Austria I came upon a similar custom. There you could buy some of the city’s main newspapers on the street without anyone attending or checking. As at the Gamtoosdam you could take the magazine of your choice and then leave the right amount in an attached container. Apparently there are other cities and places in the world where the same principle is applied. The wonderful thing is that in all these places honesty appears to be a way of life, a spontaneous act, a honoured tradition. People don’t even think about or consider the possibility of cheating or stealing. They just do what is right and asked for.

While visiting the honesty shop at the Gamtoosdam some other visitors remarked that it is only the remoteness of the place and the fact that criminals don’t usually go there, which makes such an experiment possible. Perhaps this is true, but then still it remains a brave and extraordinary venture, especially in a country where we have come to expect the opposite. For me the honesty shop at Gamtoosdam, however small and obscure, today represents a tremendous sign of hope. While it remains a monument to courage and trust, it is also an appeal to seek and express the very best that is in all of us. In fact after taking the items of my choice I had this strange inclination to leave behind more than the asked price. And I was certainly not the only one. It truly shows us what faith and a little trust in our neighbour can do.

Carel Anthonissen

Friday, April 17, 2009

Consider your hands

Five years ago, at the Centre for Christian Spirituality, I made the acquaintance of a delightful nun, Sister Winifred O’Brien. She was one of The Little Sisters of the Assumption, and a team member at the Centre. As I recall, she worked as a caregiver for the carers of those ill with HIV and AIDS, which might account for the theme of her meditation one morning. She spoke movingly about the role hands play in people’s lives - their own and those of others - and then asked that we hold one another’s hands and lovingly explore them, touching and stroking every ridge, every callous, every knuckle thickened by age or arthritis. She encouraged us to put ourselves, in a manner of speaking, into someone else’s hands….

Our hands are programmed to do almost anything. They can comfort and nurture, create and clean and cook. They can sew and knit and write and hold and hug. They can be folded in prayer or cupped for a blessing. They can make a cross on the body - or on a ballot paper. But hands can also resist being held, they can hurt and hit or make an angry fist. They can withdraw coldly from this world of politics, poverty and pain.

I was reminded of Sister Win’s meditation when I heard Barack Obama’s summary of America’s new foreign policy: We will extend the hand of friendship to every nation which does not hold out a clenched fist…

How we use our hands, these miraculous, intricate, God-given objects, is our own choice. Their function is governed by our hearts and our minds, making them instruments of love or of discord. As always, on the eve of an election, it is fitting that we keep that in mind.

Cecile Cilliers

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

It is you!

In his recently published memoirs South African author Andre P Brink recounts his own journey through life and love. He attends specifically to what he had learnt about love, this most central aspect of our lives, over many years and through different relationships. He recalls one moment when he had what he called the most intense awareness of the other. In his own words: “I had never before experienced this!”

It happened when he went for a walk with his beloved one evening through the woods above Grahamstown. It became an unbelievable, almost magical night where everything started to glitter with the light of thousands of fireflies around them. At that moment they briefly stopped among the dark trees and then, with the moon above them, he took her face in his hands and whispered, just this one simple phrase: “It is you!”

Reading this moving episode from his life I realised that this little phrase, however simple and brief, does indeed suggest in a very powerful way, what love is really about. Because by saying this we say that we have recognised the other, that we are willing to accept and embrace him or her as a unique human being. Through this simple statement, which can also be seen as a confession, we acknowledge that the other has a face, a name, an own identity and that we fully grant and offer it to them - thereby creating the space in which they may also experience themselves as unique, special, human.

Is this not the very essence of the Biblical message? Is this not what God said to each one of us when he entered our world through Christ: “It is you”! Or in the words of Isaiah 43:1 “Do not be afraid, I will save you. I have called you by name, you are mine”.

May we hear these words again during this coming Easter. And may it inspire us to say the same to others. As we claim a space in which we can ourselves be recognised for who we are, we need to grant the same to each other. So many of our own difficulties could become less if we could start by seeing the other, recognising who they are, saying “It is you”! The people of our country, yes of the whole world, need to hear it constantly: “It is you”.

Carel Anthonissen