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The words “We want our land back” spray-painted on a wall in Worcester directed my attention to the matter at hand: I was on the road to hang our show called “Ons Land |Our Land.” Photographer Monique Pelser and I have a visual conversation about the land; how ‘old’ and ‘new’ media vary and concur in their representations of it. I spent the night in Hanover, and in the morning light I skirted the edge of town where dirt roads lure you into the interior. A road like this is hard to resist, but I had a date in Bloemfontein, so I headed back to the dreaded N1. For the first time, I noticed Ngunis on the arid land and the hardy beasts looked good to me.

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When approached by a person with a camera, a cow tends to offer the rear end. But if you sit among them with a pencil and sketchbook, their curiosity gets the better of them and they come up really close. Cows prefer representation by traditional media, clearly.

Monique and I got the show laid out and it was up on the walls in super quick time. The team at the Oliewenhuis were a pleasure to work with and we were treated like kings, housed and fed on the estate, our media and transport costs subsidised. All of this goes via the conduit of the National Museum in Bloemfontein, which is funded by the department of Arts and Culture. Think about that (rather than Nkandla) when filling in your IRP6 forms, fellow taxpayers. Professor Tony Ulyatt gave us a smart and insightful opening talk; asking questions like “What do we mean when we say OUR land, and who, exactly are WE to claim it?” You only have to drive past a cemetery to understand that the idea of us owning the land is illusory.

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I postponed the search for the Maluti site and got on the road home. On the N1 I noticed grimy people, absolute down and outers, tramping along, eyes fixed on the side of the road, voices in their heads driving them on. How do they survive out here without food and water? There were many stoppages for roadworks, much jostling for position amongst big trucks, and some pretty bad driving. I saw burnt out car wrecks, vervet monkeys, and crows circling overhead. Plastic bags dotted the scrublands where secretary birds once roamed.

Coming around a long slow uphill curve, there was a truck pulling off to the left of the road. As I drove past, I noticed a small troop of baboons on the right, and in my rear view mirror I saw them dashing across the road towards the stationary truck. I thought perhaps the truck driver had a thing for the baboons, that perhaps once a week he stopped at that nondescript place and had his lunch and fed the baboons, which broke the tedium and loneliness of the long haul south. And then I thought he was feeding them because he wanted to kill one to sell to a sangoma for muti. Strange thoughts one has on the open road. Strange land.

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Yes, my friends. The show at Stellenbosch opened two weeks ago. We had a good turnout and some sales. Sean o’ Toole gave us a charming opening. He read from his short story about an artist searching for Pierneef sites. The ghost of Pierneef appears to scoff at the idea, to scoff at his own paintings even. I enjoyed that. Several times, alone, quasi lost and staying in dubious lodgings, I too have felt the sniggering of Oom Henk over my shoulder.

the marathon, day 2

Hanging this show was gruelling, with a lot of archaic twiddling of fishing line and a good deal of hammering. It took Monique and I, ably assisted by one Anton Chapman, a full four days to get it looking right. After the flutter of the opening I went through to Stellies several more times and then tuned out. With my frozen shoulder hurting like hell, and clutching a copy of James Whyle’s The Book of War, we headed to the nether reaches of the Overberg.

On the pont at Malgas

Two days under the big sky at De Hoop was good medicine, but I still needed to get further away. We went across the pont at Malgas and on dirt through stony farmland to Witsand. There were jackal buzzards and blue cranes. The farmhouses were neat and well kept. Aside from a crazed Telkom van narrowly missing us at high speed, there was no one about. We could have been in the 1970s. We went on past Vermaaklikheid to the remote outpost of Puntjie, which has cottages dating from the 1890s. The fynbos was broken by tall aloes as we ascended the last hill and got to a firmly locked farm gate. Clever bastards, keeping Nirvana to themselves. Cathy and I took a picnic lunch of bread, cheese and cold wors and then turned back home…

the mythical kingdom of Puntjie

Pelser in action

Yes, it is a mere 5 months since my last posting, dear reader. I had an acute dose of blogophobia, which persisted despite the mutterings of my irascible blog coach. It took a visit from Monique Pelser to shake me out of my lethargy. We met in 2009, and by a remarkable coincidence, found that we had both been to the Pierneef Museum in 2006 and decided to follow his footsteps. It’s unsettling when someone else has also had your big idea, but we opted for co-operation rather than competition and so Pelser and I are going to be exhibiting together at the Stellenbosch University Gallery in April. Between us we’ve been to 27 of the 28 Station Panel sites, so its going to be a comprehensive show, with the photographs and paintings suggesting different ways of interpreting the landscape. The old harbour in my home town of Hermanus is one of the Pierneef sites, and Monique came out to photograph it last week.

J H Pierneef, Hermanus 142 x 126 cm. Oil on canvas

You’ll notice how Pierneef enlarged the buildings. He took a close up view of them and pasted it onto the view of the mountains. You’d have to be suspended in mid air to get a photo of that. Monique’s solution to the multiple perspectives often found in the Station Panels has been to use two cameras angled away from each other to give us an extended view of the sites. Painting and drawing outside, Pierneef would have spent many hours there. Today we tend to point and click and be on our way. We experience the landscape in soundbites and as a result we miss a lot.  So Monique has chosen to immerse herself in the landscape. She sets up her cameras at dawn and, taking a picture every five minutes, stays at the site until sunset. These  “photo sketches” are then projected onto a screen, giving us a remarkable record of a site over a day. To be viewed properly, the viewer has to give up their time, as if the photographer is urging us to put our own frenetic lives on hold to consider something bigger than ourselves. We may just find it was worth the wait.

the pencil has the last word

A little trip up to Jo’burg is one of the reasons why I haven’t been posting. The other is that while I was there I got a rash from hell that drove me to distraction. Apparently it’s common practice for bloggers to post their rashes, but I’ll spare you that. In Jo’burg I met a photographer called Monique Pelser, and she too has been photographing the Pierneef sites. Which goes to prove that if you have an idea, you can be sure someone else is having it at exactly the same time. Monique tells me the Pierneef museum is moving to Stellenbosch. I’m trying to confirm.

If you are ever in Graaff Reinet, the taxidermist across the way from the Pierneef Museum is worth a look. They keep the main door closed though, as if to discourage casual enquiries or bunny huggers:

standing room only

I also encountered this bloke, who makes finely crafted greeting cards out of beads and wire.

He has a congratulatory sales technique: “Well done, I’m proud of you,” he says when you buy a card. He asked me “Are you the Big Man, the one who is going to place a Big Order?” No, actually china I’m looking for the Big Man myself .

Valley of Desolation oil on canvas 20x20cm

J H Pierneef’s Station Panels are cornerstones of South African landscape painting. They were placed in the old Johannesburg Station as adverts to travel the country.

But did these alluring places ever really exist? And how have they changed?

Taking up the invitation to travel 80 years later, Carl Becker set off to find out.

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