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The Looking Painting | Xola Stemele

The Looking Painting | Xola Stemele

Xola Stemele The Looking Painting Agbowo Art African Art

There’s this odd painting in our shack. It’s of an unusual house with one window. This house is camouflaged with several corners. The corners obviously embody their own cornery story, detached in breath and hasty in close. Like shortcuts with no twists. Nonetheless, you must remove what is in front to see what is behind. Simple, everywhere besides in proper sketch of fact. That one window is for everyone to see, designed by an artist with a slick mind. His slickness obvious in the locus of the window and in its vocally unexplainable size. A window as large as the human eye, very large yet very small. Squashable with a lifeless knife, yet strong enough to escape. This window sees everything; looking in and out like a see-through mirror. Everything fits through it, but the window is still minor. Noticeable only in solitude, meaning you have to talk through the sights, heights and its imposing noise. You inescapably spend your whole life trying to explain what you have seen, only to discover that you have held on to a windowed narrative. An Outside illustration of what is really going on inside.

The slick artist is my late uncle Risto. He died depressed from being exiled from South Africa for more than 15 years. He left when bullets and even more bullets were attempting to silence the uprising of the black youth. He fled and left my father behind. Uncle Risto was an artist as well as an intense actor. He performed in provocative plays that ignited mass intellectual fires and buoyant pride among black people. In his last play called “how much is your bible”, Out of nowhere, helicopters, flying squads and a group of absorbed black Christians came in swiftly attempting to lock him away for the longest time. Uncle Risto succeeded in escaping the scene just in time before they could catch him. Before he left for exile, he left the painting that dangles on the zinc of our shack. He never explained its meaning, all he said to my father was:

“This house needs to be seen by those without,” he said no more.

This all happened prior to my birth in April 93’. Regrettably, Chris Hani was killed a day before I was born. This day is memorable to my father who embraced me with a melancholic rejoice. A rather sombre entrance into this world. A bittersweet taste left by the dead expectations of Hani’s plan, which my father had utter faith in. My father has now put his faith in the selling of Uncle Risto’s painting. He floats away from day to day to a place I have never been. At times, it worries me in not being able to relate. To my father, reality is a compromise that is continuously summarised in his daily utterings.

“Your generation has no energy, none whatsoever, we are in trouble son, we are in big trouble”

My father’s landscape is also mine. I have no choice but to see what he shows me. Even though sometimes I cannot see. I am afraid that if we do not sell this painting, my father too will lose his sanity. The only problem is that my father does not see that this painting will never be seen within this shack. To me it is obvious, maybe young eyes cannot grasp onto the full picture. Things to me are not as bad as they appear. There is beauty beneath the slums we call Voluku Township. The shallow pit of Voluku has swollen a lot of the dreams our elders have found shelter in. Their hopes of finally receiving houses is now buried with those who wrote their names on thosepuzzling papers back when freedom was declared. Things that make no sense my father says.

“Son, we will sell this painting and buy ourselves a house on the mountain where Angels have their beer (chuckles), believe me.”

This shack is a momentary home that was built by my father a long time ago, the time when he was forcefully removed from his home in a beautiful area called “Kwanobuhle”, which later changed to “God’s Town” in the late 80’s. I have never been there but know how it looks. It’s very smart and simple. This is the place he often drifts to, his house in back in “God’s Town”.

“Tata, this painting needs to be seen, we must take it down and show it to some people”

“My boy, do not worry. It will be seen; people just need to get past its endless corners. But eventually, they will.

How? I do not know. Uncle Risto killed himself compelled by an unrelenting depression. The realness of being disconnected from the country of your birth. He could not take it. My father tells me also of writers such as Nat Nakasa who jumped off a building in the bleakness of the exiled. Nakasa was not allowed to come back and neither were other notorious artists like my Uncle Risto. My head is now filled with the holistic view of yesterday’s remnants. Things people my age cannot see.

This is the burden I have been blessed with. The ability to see past in the present. This country has concealed everything. The unpleasant things are hidden beneath our artificial rainbow. Dulled by the dominance of one colour. My father says that the truth is as plain as day. He says this every other day, yet never continues on to say what this truth is.

This year I am turning 11, and yet to begin formal schooling. For the past 3 years, I have been home-schooled by my father’s friend Diski. Diski told me that “Life is attention”. On the first day he told me I am where I am. Where your attention is, is where you are too. He tells me that my father cannot see past the impasse of this country’s unspeakable history.

“Your father is nuts, but he loves you. You and Risto’s painting is all he has”

The rich white people do not even come close to Vokutu, they do not want to bother knowing where it is, it is not even on their fancy map. Vokutu is known only by its people. My father says Vokutu is like a horrible murky stain on a crisp white shirt. You cannot wait until you finally get it sorted.

“They are coming! In the morning they will come, if they don’t, then surely tomorrow. But they are coming!”My father says.

Last year we had a visit from a funny looking black man wearing a shiny suit. He spoke out of his nose and made abnormal movements. He warned us about the likelihood of a wrecked Vokutu. Plans were being established on the project of a new mall that would lure rich folks from far away areas. He spoke quick so that we could not properly hear him. But my father is smart. Maybe smarter.

“Will he remove us? Please people of Vokutu, tell this man what a fool he is”My father said this and the people soon enough intervened.

The strange man was talking English and only my father and couple of other past revolutionaries could hear him. Once things were translated, people started growling, grimacing as if they were envisioning the man’s death. They have already been displaced, twice would be the evil spirits labour. And unfortunately the outlandish man served as a wicked impersonation of yesterday’s evil.

Makahambe lomntu” is what the people of Vokutu shouted. This man must go. And indeed he left with his glistening suit and his impressive car. Since that day, my father is tense and constantly bothered. This other day he snapped at Uncle Diski for getting a date wrong in our history lesson.

“Diski don’t teach my child nonsense man! Our children are already being misled. Voetsek! Leave this place”

Uncle Diski understands my father better than most. He took his books and left us to ponder on the situation. That is the last time I saw him. From then I have been learning from my father’s stories and through the discussions of the elders who casually drink even when opportunity does not arise. Bitter and humble men. They too have seen uncle Risto’s painting but they too could not comprehend its meaning or worth.

“Charlie you will not even get a beer for this, your brother was a lousy artist. Who draws such a small window? Yeses Risto was crazy”

The comments are sharp enough to pierce a man’s bladder and make him piss all over the floor. The elders could not get past the corners of the painting, never mind its window. The pang of words sliced my father into an exposed shell. He wept uncontrollably and quickly ushered them out. His hope was dangling in front of me, as if it would fall like a teardrop unattended. I too cried that day in confusion. If my father loses hope then what is left of me?

“Tata please! Do not lose faith in uncle Risto’s painting, please tata”

“What faith? Go outside and play”

My father knows very well that in Vokutu we do not play. The heaps of rubbish carry venoms that puncture a person’s condition. The situation is increased by the abandoning of ripe waste, unflushed. In Vokutu, there are no toilets. So I say, “Tata, when they come, show them Uncle Risto’s painting”

“Who? What are you talking about? ”To my father,such a resolve is worse than hunching your back low, and offering yourself effortlessly to oppression from the white man. That is something he cannot see himself doing. Unlike some of the others in Vokutu, my father observed killings that no man should see in one lifetime. As a result, it left him unable to isolate past from present in the presence of Europeans.

“Tata we can sell the painting to the rich white folks who will come hoping to devastate us”

“No! What do you know about rich white folk? What do you know about Risto’s painting? Getaway!”

As much as I listen, I do not really talk. I keep to myself and create scenarios in my mind of how things should naturally work out. I am simply an eyewitness and not a shaper of this reality. There are older people to do that. I keep trying hoping that I can get through to my stubborn father. He curses me. I try harder and he curses louder.

“I will fuck you up, do you hear me? Go away with that sympathetic desperation of yours. Otherwise, you will be disciplined.”

Time passes and my father hardly glances at uncle Risto’s painting. He can no longer bare to even look. Before that, the painting gave him faith for the day, it made him remember the bigger picture, which is finally getting our own house. These days he has lost it.

“Maybe you should go away for some time and live with your cousins in Shwela”

“No Tata, my cousins are stupid. I want to stay here with you and sell this painting”

“What did I say about talking about that painting?”

If I leave him, I am afraid he will follow Uncle Risto’s example and kill himself. It is the worst to assume but my father has no longer any life in him. It is clear even to the window of Uncle Risto’s painting. One day I decided to search for Uncle Diski and ask him for some transport money. I could not tell him why but I told him that if he helped me then God would help him. Somehow, he agreed and gave me enough to go to town and back. For the first time, I was attempting to leave Vokutu by myself in order to sell that painting and get us a small house. My only problem would be explaining its worth and importance to someone who wished to buy it. While my father was away, I took it down and put it in my stride, and then proceeded towards the passing taxis at the edge of Vokutu. Thankfully, I got a small taxi to take me to town. Everyone in the taxi kept staring at uncle Risto’s painting, which was sitting on top of me. Some were looking in amazement of its small window and some were looking out of common boredom. When we reached town I asked to get out. I would now go to every fancy looking building and show them what I had with me.

I passed by many buildings without any interest, I was now hungry and tired. Sad and lonely. Regretful on why I had made such an unwise decision. This painting will obviously never sell. As I walked towards the taxis, a skinny looking man calls me to come to him. I tell him to come to me.

“Hey wena, where are you going with that odd painting?”

“I am going to sell it so that my father can buy us a house. My father says this painting is worth a lot”

“Now where is your father? Does he know that you are here?”

After he said this, I realised that he would not buy it. He did not have the money to afford it. Whatever the amount was, he did not have it.

“Sorry, I have to go try some more people.”

As I leave he tells me to stop and give him the painting, he says he just wants to have a look. I do not trust him but nonetheless I give it to him.

“Okay so how much?” he asks me.

“How much does a house cost?”

At first he does not bother to answer me, after a long pause he tells me that there is an Art Gallery downtown and they are the most likely to buy such a confusing painting. Before we get there, he tells me to say that the painting symbolises “the eye of God” or something along those lines. This was supposed to bring fascination and intrigue to the mind of the gallery owner. When we get there, it is closed, I ask him what we should do now and he tells me to “Voetsek”. The painting was now his and I should go home before I lose even more. He left me crying. Cursing my own stupidity in trusting a stranger. My father would now kill me for taking down the painting and coming back without it. I took a taxi home and told the driver I was going to Vokutu. The others in the taxi laughed at me for saying this.

When I get home, my father is sitting in the bedroom with his head concentrated on the space where Uncle Risto’s painting was. He is silent and most likely upset. The silence is tense and stiff. I decide to say something that will make him talk.

“Tata have you seen uncle Diski today? He was asking about you.”

He does not answer. Nothing. “Tata?”

As I get closer, I notice his eyes are open but he does not flutter an eyelid. He is motionless. He does not even look at me. I shake him and his whole body sways. I try hitting him and he does not even react.

My father has lost his sanity. He has gone beyond the ledge. The one he has avoided his whole life. He is now undone. Looking. Looking in and out and not saying a single word. My father is now like the window in Uncle Risto’s painting, Lifeless and meaningful.




Xola Stemele Agbowo Art African Art The Looking Painting Literary ArtMy name is Xola Stemele, I am a fiction writer currently studying my BCOM in Business Management and Industrial Psychology at the University of Fort Hare. A lover of Art in its totality, a lover of nature as well as a firm believer in the word being the glue that pulls together all of humanity’s relations.


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