Namibian Termites



I leave B. at the bus stop as I board the coach for the airport with my two bags.  BA 574 (Heathrow to Jo’burg), Air Namibia 725 (on to Windhoek). From my centre-aisle seat, I can just see a little chink of window through the rows of people.  Africa looks so empty, a grey expanse in the twilight.  A few hours later I realise that I’ve actually been looking at the contours of the wing.  It’s a frustrating feeling to be flying for 12 hours above Africa without being able to see it.

I have 8 hours to kill or be killed in Jo’burg – I’m clearly suffering from traveller’s paranoia.

The plane to Windhoek is almost empty. I spend the time glued to the window taking endless pictures of the changing light – it really does look as empty as I thought. Below me the landing lights of the runway twinkle in an endless darkness. I step onto the tarmac as the last light drains from the sky behind a jagged line of mountains. Above my head, the depth of the stars takes my breath away.

After a mad taxi ride through the mountains, I reach Windhoek and immediately I’m whisked off to meet the other artists at a reception at the National Gallery of Namibia.  I’ve been traveling for 36 hours. I’m not sure what I look like – I feel completely unreal – but I’m beginning to enjoy this surreal state. We go to an African restaurant and have strange food.  I can’t grasp anybody’s name, but the drink helps. Finally, we go to the Kalahari Sands Hotel and with Karen from Australia and Muondo from Mozambique, we discover that we have 20 dollars of free gambling chips, for the casino downstairs. I briefly learn how to play Roulette before collapsing into bed.


A Dust Road:

Early the next day we start our journey to ‘Otjiruze’, the ‘guest farm’ where the workshop will be held.  We’re squeezed into a couple of beaten-up Volkswagen ‘Combi’s – 26 artists from around the world.

An hour’s drive on tarmac before we turn off onto the gravel roads.  We head up through rocky mountains with views of empty plains covered with dry, scraggy bush.  It’s hot and dusty. I’m so tired that I battle to keep my eyes open. The journey dissolves into half seen glimpses – baboons by the side of the road, donkey carts, cattle being driven, huge clouds of dust from occasional traffic and long straight roads crossing the plains. I drift in and out of sleep.

Hours later, the road having long since become a bumpy track, we arrive at the collection of buildings that is Otjiruze. This is where we are supposed to make art for the next two weeks.


The Ranch:

Otjiruze looks a bit like the ‘Bonanza’ ranch from the 70’s cowboy series. A flat landscape with a windmill water-pump, cows, horses and an avenue of cactuses leading up to a formal gate. Behind the gate is the compound of guest lodgings, workshops, garages, and the big main house.

I spend the first few days wandering about, taking photographs, feeling out of context.  I explore the surroundings and find the dried-up river-bed – where our van got stuck on the way in. I glimpse odd bits of wildlife skulking through the tall grass and I try to figure out how to make artwork here.  The young Namibian artists, by contrast, fly straight into it – stretchers stretched, stone-blocks marked, and chisels slamming.


Termite hills:

Every 50 yards, sticking out of the ground like middle fingers, are these deep red termite hills. They stand anywhere between 2 and 6 meters high and have a strange brooding presence – especially in the last light when they stand convincingly like slightly hunched people.

I’m becoming fascinated with them.

You never actually see the termites, but in a landscape that seems so empty (at least of people) they make a strange counterpoint. 100’s upon 1000’s of miniature citadels, their inhabitants ‘blindly’ going about their business. I start to formulate an idea – a bridge spanning the divide between two termite hills.

In the meantime I take lots of portraits of the figure-like structures – my hat perched on top, accentuating their bodily presence.


African Jam:

After dinner an African jam sets in for the night – drums, guitar and beautiful voices. At times the voices seem to be singing things I vaguely recognise, and once or twice the melody does solidify into various Country and Western songs – but given a lilting African treatment.

Things are confusingly mixed up.

Max is a cocky, charming young Namibian painter. On the back of his white overalls he has written the word: ‘Imaginator’. Elsewhere he’s carefully inscribed the names of rappers like Tupac Shakur, and beneath his overalls he sports big trainers and hip-hop brands like ‘Stussy’. Yet, when I listen to what he’s playing on his old Walkman – it’s a mixture of rap, Dolly Parton and Don Williams.

Leaving the singers in the dining area, and moving away from the circle of lights that are powered by the generator, the stars start to bear down on me from above. The Milky Way sits fat and solid. Not like a smudge, but a distinct object. A shooting star cuts across the crammed sky – so bright that it fizzes.


Phantom scorpions:

So that I’m near the termite mounds, I’ve made a base under a big spreading tree – far away from the rest of the people.  Strange noises from unseen birds. Surrounded by the phantoms of scorpions and snakes.

I asked one of the organizers whether I could join them on their next trip to the ‘local’ shop (an hour’s bumpy journey away), but this seems to be frowned upon. I think we are supposed to remain untainted by the outside world. Temporary absence is verboten.

I’ve started work on the termite bridge.  I’ve found two mounds that are closer together than most, but they are still 23 meters apart.  Drawing a line between them with string is curiously satisfying.  I had been thinking of a complex ‘Golden Gate’ type suspension bridge, but I’m beginning to enjoy the simplicity of a simple line between two masses.  The bridge is changing in my mind from something that super-intelligent termites have built, into something misguided colonialists have built ‘for’ the termites.

My misspent youth of playing pool is proving useful. My work may be different from most of the other artists, but pool is an international language.  My room-mates are Yoba: a tall elegant Rasta, and Max Shimi: a young black Namibian who is reading: ‘Diana: Her True Story’.



I don’t know what a mockingbird is, but there may be one in the branches of the tree above my studio – laughing down at me as I work.


Trophy hunters:

Barbara, the owner of the guest farm, is a strong German/Africaan woman who seems smiley and warm and has helped me find things for my various projects. When i approach her with a further request, she cheerfully tells me to ask her ‘Blacks’.  The guest lodgings and the main house are one cluster of buildings and her ‘Blacks’ are housed in a slightly separate cluster outside the gates. The farm normally caters for white trophy hunters and all the rooms are decked out with bits of the wildlife that we’ve seen roaming the bush. The farm workers and the young artists seem uncertain about their respective roles here. The food is very German, lots of meat – which also turns out to be bits of the wildlife we saw earlier.



There are at least 14 different languages spoken on the workshop and farm, but (luckily for me) people mostly converse in English.

The two Namibian woman from ‘Caprivi’ in the very North of the country are probably the most traditional artists/artisans here. A basket-weaver and a potter. They are also the only two that speak no English. There is a tortuous chain of whispers – Moitshepi from Angola speaks a language that is close to a language Angelina speaks, who then in turn also speaks a language that Mary speaks.

They are mostly very quiet until something tickles them and then, catching each others eye, they soften into fits of laughter. Often this seems to be at the expense of some of the things going on in the name of art. They seem happier now and both are getting excited about making paintings for the first time (fantastic colour and simple motifs), but apparently, they took some persuading to try. Mary was patiently explaining to one of the organisers all the different types and names of baskets that there are (‘Basket-for-shopping’, ‘Basket-for-washing’ etc.).  Finally she added: “Painting-for-?”


Gin and Tonics (for the quinine):

I spend the day in the print-room, doing monoprint drawings of all my various projects – the termite bridge, the termite-mound portraits, and pictures of a lost Englishman in the bush. It’s a good exercise to let people know what I’m doing and also to work around some of the other artists. There’s an artist from South Africa, Dumisani, who is making stunningly beautiful prints by inking found objects and putting them through the press. For the last few nights I’ve been drawing as we sit about the guest-farm’s bar drinking Gin and Tonics (for the quinine). Slowly I’m building a scribbly record of all the different faces.

After many Gin and Tonics, Hercules the workshop leader, suggests going for a game-drive. We pile into the VW combi and drive off into the bush. We reach the abandoned airstrip – an open, flat expanse of dried grass. In the distance clusters of floating eyes reflect back our headlights – but always remain in the shadows. Eventually, we turn off our lights and step out into a fluid world of intense moonlight. The light is unbelievably strong. Every thing and everyone, casts a razor-sharp shadow – but even though the objects are this distinct, the silky light gives everything the quality of something imagined. So intense and vivid is the light, that it feels wrong that there isn’t any colour. Somehow I end up driving and discover that headlights are not necessary. Bumping through the supernatural landscape, startling ‘Kudu’ and Ostrich – that jump up in panic and a flurry of feathers. Someone starts to laugh and the whole bus becomes infected – my ribs ache so much I almost have to stop.


A trip:

Today we have a trip. About eight of us head of into the bush in the combi. The African music blaring from cracked speakers competes with the drone and clanks of the van.  As we pick up speed you can start to taste the dust that is thrown up in our wake.

The farm itself is on a tree-dotted plain, but as we lurch away, the landscape gets slowly hillier, giving views of purple mountains hovering behind the dusty haze. The termite mounds count off the Kilometres and odd bits of wildlife scuttle away into the undergrowth.  A monitor lizard, about a meter long, wrapped around a termite hill eyes us suspiciously and scarpers as people rummage for their cameras.  A jackal refuses to believe that we’re faster than her – and we chase her for a few hundred meters down the track.  Some of the African artists are just as excited as me at seeing the bush-life, because (of course) many come from big capital cities.

After about an hour flat-out we descend onto the tarmac roads again. The actual objects of our trip are remarkably dull – a municipal, concrete hot-spring and a tourist-trap ostrich-farm – but the journey there and back is an unbelievable road movie. With a great soundtrack.


Temporary Absence Vehicle:

The ‘Open day’ is approaching fast and my various projects are slowly taking shape.  My plans for the Termite Bridge are progressing but I’ve got to find the right string and the right decking.

I’m also building a hot-air-balloon from plastic oven-bags – a: ‘Temporary Absence Vehicle’.  For this project I’ve given each of the workshop artists a tiny piece of clay and got them to make a quick self-portrait. These are going to be attached to the bottom of the balloon as ‘passengers’.  The heads are all very distinct and revealing in different ways. When I gave Hercules his minute piece of clay, he picks up his axe and delicately fashions his bearded likeness.

There is cockerel that wakes us up each day somewhere around dawn. I’ve collected the word for the sound that this bird makes in each of our different languages.  Mixed with the sketches of the artists it makes a quite satisfying piece – I don’t know what it means, but I like it:

Cock-a-doodle-do (English)

Kukulushu (Oshindonga)

Cocorico (French)

Kokora (Heraro)

Kikeriki (German)

Umsindo (Zulu)

Kukurukuu (Damara)

Kokokoo (Tswana)

Cocoricoo (Portugese)

Kraii (Afrikaan)

Cocorigoo (Changama)


A Bad day:

All my efforts to span the termite hills sag miserably after a storm. The wind has wrecked my studio and has left all my drawings and photos face-down in the dust.  A bad day.


A Good day:

I’m helped by the farm workers with my bridge. They showed me how to use the machine that tensions the fencing wire and with their help, we have made the basis of a perfectly straight bridge. Cutting up coke cans into small strips and using them silver-side-up, makes a suitably high-tech decking for my modernist bridge.


Mad dogs:

“Mad dogs and Englishman go out in the in the midday sun”. I may fit both categories, certainly I’m stupid for building the bridge first and then weaving on the decking. I reckon that I’m averaging about 1.5 meters an hour and the gap is 23.5 meters. Working through the heat of the day, I should just about finish it in time for the ‘Open-Day’. Somehow, the mind-numbing, fiddly nature of the task seems appropriate. I think subconsciously I may be competing with the termite engineers. The next two days I beaver (or ‘termite’) away at the different projects and the bridge-decking creeps slowly towards the far mound.


Stiletto heels:

The bridge is finished and the dignitaries from various embassies, the British Council and the Namibian art world start to arrive. As the strange, diffuse ‘private-view’ progresses – the footprints from my trainers (that I’ve got used to seeing in the dust) are now joined by the marks dug out by stiletto heels and formal shoes.

After all the visitors have left, the allotted time for my last project has arrived – the launch of my: ‘Temporary Absence Vehicle’.  I’ve set up the deflated balloon in the natural amphitheatre of the dried out dam. Expectant people line the rim of the earth banks, and are making me nervous. Failure looms.  With Dias’ help I’ve rigged up the gas burner (used to fire the kiln) to provide the balloon’s hot air. There’s a moment of drama as the paint catches fire on an old pipe that I’m using to channel the burning air. Slowly though, the 15-foot-high cellophane envelope begins to fill and the strings start to pull against our hands. Finally, we let go and the vehicle lurches upwards erratically, before settling down into an almost vertical drift. The string-tail of miniature clay heads slips away behind this ‘escape vehicle’, floating off into the fading light. The vehicle rises above the trees, and finally disappears out of sight over the horizon.