Trees cloaked in mist recently accompanied fires that devoured almost the entire slopes of a section of the iconic Table Mountain in Cape Town. In its trail was left a barren stretch of black stumps, broken-limbed and scorched trunks of large trees. A testimony to the brutal force of nature. And its subsequent gifts. The gifts arrived a few days later. That was when the mists arrived and altered the scene of destruction to one of wondrous mystery – a paradox, echoed by the grim message on national radio stations: we were to be buried alive between the walls of our own living spaces.
Only one thing would save me from insanity. Cutting twenty-one days into chewable bites might achieve just that. A new photo-project, new pictures to process on my computer could be the answer. My world was about to shrink to the size of my screen. Desperate measures were called for by looming Covid-19 total Lockdown.
Three days to prepare for it. Three days in a row my alarm clock launched me into the dark, up the mountain to the parking lot on Lion’s Head. Every despairing morning of the last three days of freedom. Pre-sunrise, at the last available parking space on Signal Hill, my car shrunk into the narrow ledge facing the burnt downslope.
The mist was growing thicker. Whatever had been growing on this slope once densely covered with shrub bush and high pine trees had changed into weird, spooky distortions. Shapes that might at another pre-fire, pre-misty times have been called ‘trees’ now swayed like decapitated heads, unanchored to bodies. They were drifting, hanging from the sky.
To get closer I stumbled on the slippery slope, trying with limited success to find a stone for support. Most of them caved in to the ash soft earth without a steadying clump of grass.
By the time I descended the mountain the sun had swallowed the mist. Eyes glued, not to the tops of trees any longer, scanned the shape of shadows on rocks and loose stones. Between black memories of tree trunks, I discovered the remains of burnt sticks with shadows mimicking birds. Human heads emerged as skulls from beneath the dust trodden earth.
Hours later my images, the “raw” material, the means to my survival over twenty-one days, appeared on my computer screen. Nice pretty pictures. My initial intention, to simply tickle here and soothe there – enhance a shady patch, coax a touch light – took a different course.
My fingers had taken over. They decided to do their own thing, to disobey their master’s instruction. The monster of caged life would swallow their master whole. They knew that. They had to deal with Lockdown meaningfully.
As I lost myself on the rectangle of the screen, my fishbowl apartment started expanding. It grew larger, walls lost their solidity, became transparent. On my screen, I noticed there appeared gradually eight, nine, ten variations culled from the same negative. They were vying with each other for selection.
How did that happen? My fingers replied: “You did not limit your experimentations to creating just two or three variations from a particular negative – as you normally do. No, you tried every technique known and unknown; pushing the limits of your digital pixel painting brush capabilities.”
As my former agitated state of mind duplicated as a mirror image on the screen, I felt paradoxically calmness and energy flowing through my veins. Panic miraculously transmuted into a sense of immense peace and with it, Space. The distressed textures, distorted shapes and bleached colours smiled at me. They pointed to the fragments of destroyed walls of my casket.
Covid-19 – Lockdown was a wake-up call for me to recognize the inner metamorphoses of fear and panic into a Gifts of Walls.
19th April 2020