By BRUCE DENNILL
Artist Georgia Papageorge has a long history of using art to speak for subjects that cannot – often natural phenomena. Her recent exhibition, Serengeti Crossroads: The Shepherd Principle Project (which closed at the UJ Art Gallery last month) pleaded the case for that world-famous national park and its tourist-thrilling wildebeest migration, both under threat thanks to a new road. If built, the structure will run through the northern sector of the park, crossing the migration route three times and ending in the historically and culturally priceless town of Bagamoyo. The project is being driven by Chinese business concerns intent on getting raw materials from the African interior to the coast as cheaply as possible – perfectly logical in business terms, but incredibly destructive in terms of the impact it will have on the Serengeti and Bagamoyo.
Below are some of the highlights from Papageorge’s exhibition, including a letter she wrote to Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete (which has made it, at best, awkward to travel to the country he leads), an essay about an allied but separate project highlighting the ecological changes taking place on and around Kilimanjaro and two pieces – one photographic; one mixed media on canvas – that help observers to understand both the subject matter and Papageorge’s passion
For details of past projects Papageorge has undertaken and contact details for the artist, go to www.innerrift.co.za.
President Jakaya Kikwete
I watched you on television speaking at Qunu at Nelson Mandela’s funeral and was surprised to find out that you are 63 years old. I am glad that you are because right now you stand at a crossroads between what you have done with your life up to this time and what you still must do.
Unlike Nelson Mandela you have not experienced a ‘long walk to freedom’. This was not your destiny. Your time is now, however, and history will one day judge you for the decisions you have to make right now. Tanzania remains that jewel in Africa that has been endowed with the most remarkable natural gifts in terms of wildlife, scenery, the greatest mountain in Africa and many unique volcanic craters. So you are the caretaker of these precious gifts and the lives of a diverse tribal population. I believe that the challenges that face you now are as great in many ways, as those that faced Nelson Mandela. I say this in all seriousness because this is no small claim to make.
For some reason you are the man who has been given the task to steer Tanzania through a period that tempts like the Devil himself, through vast sums of money. Your people need roads but what is truthfully being given the greatest priority in your country? China’s critical need for the raw materials of Africa seeks the shortest possible route from Central Africa and Uganda to the Indian Ocean coastline. The Serengeti is in the way. That 2 million year old phenomenon of the greatest migration on earth. And you see as your domain – your birthright – the Lake Natron area, dominated by Ol Donyio Lengai, mountain of God, that up to now has symbolically protected the Flame birds that breed there. A soda ash plant will destroy all the exquisite beauty of this rare colony in East Africa.
I have been there, I have photographed aerially and painted Ol Donyio Lengai, climbed Kilimanjaro 4 times , created a powerful body of work in your magnificent country that spans 14 years . I don’t think there is any other artist on earth who has sought and revealed this unique kind of Tanzanian power and beauty. These are contemporary large scale mixed media drawings and paintings including photographic installations and videos that have been placed in major collections in Africa and abroad. In 2011, three of my large ‘Kilimanjaro/ ColdFire’ mixed-media works were acquired by the British Museum in London.
While my early work dealt with my voyages on this great volcano and the beauty of the Great East African Rift Valley, through the rapidly diminishing glaciers on Kilimanjaro, my later work deals with Global Warming concepts, deforestation at tropical zones and the charcoal industry in Africa. More and more I have become deeply involved with threatened environments. I have included a copy of my most recent Kilimanjaro/ColdFire catalog which shows work from the two last exhibitions of Kilimanjaro work I completed.
I want to return to something that Nelson Mandela said. Each and every one of us is capable of doing anything we set our minds to. To become the very best that we can be. My deep religious principles and especially my beloved daughter in heaven, who died of cancer 44 years ago, have given me an extra sensory perception that guides me unerringly. This has been my ‘long walk’. The event that changed me from one kind of person into another. I have 3 sons and grandchildren, but it is my daughter who is at my side every day, guiding me. In 2011 I became aware for the first time of the threat to the Serengeti and I felt strongly that God was asking me to take this on. I was the one he seemed to say.
It was too much, how could I (now 73 years old) hope to combat such unstoppable forces? After 6 months of sleepless nights where I said no to God, I embarked on the most stressful, frightening and dangerous project I have ever undertaken. It is called The Shepherd Principle, which deals with nurturing concepts with regard to those creatures – those environments that
have no voice. I speak for them.
A visit to Musoma in 2012 to see where the Serengeti Road is due to begin introduced me to people who spoke in whispers. Fear ruled the atmosphere and the word China was never enunciated. Your name was not mentioned but it was ever present somehow – Your Tanzanian people are afraid of you. In Musoma, I wanted to create a processional image of the Southern Cross star constellation with all the different religious/tribal or ethnic groups living there, but this could not evolve in an atmosphere ruled by fear. Since that visit I have not returned to Tanzania. I have been warned that it would be dangerous for me to return where I have stood against government policy on the Serengeti issues. How could I move forward from such restrictions?
In May 2012, we enacted a protective ritual by creating a scientifically accurate image of the Southern Cross Constellation upon the surface of the vast Makgadikgadi Salt Pans in Botswana. I have included a photograph of the installation which uses a fallen veterinary fence as the main arm of the cross. You know, I am sure, that the direction due South is oriented through the Southern Cross and its pointers. For thousands of years this unique star sign has guided travellers throughout the Southern Hemisphere to safety. The Southern Cross covers the whole of the Southern Hemisphere up to the Equator. It shines on you and protects your wonderful people, your great herds, bird colonies, threatened elephant and other animals. Look at it and let it guide you.
Like Nelson Mandela, you too are faced with the almost impossible task of turning yourself around and swimming upstream. Against your own wishes, against your Chinese partner’s wishes, you are asked to stand against the oncoming red tide that will cause the blood to pour across your Tanzanian African soil. You know that a migrating creature will not stop and man and animal will die on a road that will hold huge trucks and an escalating number of smaller vehicles. You don’t want to go South. It is too far. You have said it again and again and yet we keep coming at you. Because we have to. A road South will also benefit far greater numbers of your Tanzanian population than the road through the Serengeti which is so close to the Kenyan border. You are the only person who can turn these coming disasters around. But first you have to turn yourself. Can you do it? Nelson Mandela said ‘It always seems impossible until it is done.’ But He did it and you stood and spoke about this great man whose mortal remains lay close to you. Could you hear him speaking to you?
It is about legacy. Not only for your children and your country and the rest of Africa and the rest of the world! Yes – what you do now will affect everyone on the planet. You will save a pristine environment that gives a shining example to African leaders at a time when we are threatened with increasing violent cyclones and floods but above all – drought in Africa through global warming. We human beings are causing it. What of the massive deforestation taking place in Central Africa through logging, clearing land and the never ending ‘illegal charcoal trade’? Money/industry is not the issue here. It is survival of the human species.
Id like to include a paragraph written by His Excellency, President Ali Bongo Ondimba of the Gabonese republic. Gabon sponsored the EARTH MATTERS exhibition at the National Museum of African Art at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington which opened in April 2013 and this article is included in the impressive exhibition catalog that has just been printed. I am fortunate to be part of this long term exhibition with my Kilimanjaro/ColdFire video which is also featured in their catalog. I will ask the museum to send you a copy of this book.
‘As we embark on the second decade of the twenty-first century, collectively we face multiple challenges related to our relationship with Earth. Foremost among these, but certainly not alone, are the prospects of a human population gradually rising towards ten billion and the related issue of climate change. Both of these issues will transform the lives of our children and grandchildren, and their children and grandchildren.’ (President Ali Bongo Ondimba).
How can I help you? There are three things I would like to suggest:
1) I have two major solo shows opening in South Africa on my Shepherd Principle Project in March 2014. You should see these. They are about your country. I have pledged that I will give all my commission on art sold on the first of these, towards starting a special unit at the hospital in Musoma to treat children who are mortally ill with malaria. When I was in Musoma in January 2012, I saw a beautiful boy die of malaria because there was insufficient medication and care. He was dying but he was attached to an empty drip line. You could make a significant global statement through a generous amount given by you personally as a gift towards this cause. International donors would respond to this and give alongside you. 2) I presume geologists have thoroughly investigated any long term risk factors of heavy and increasing truck traffic along the route followed by the proposed Serengeti road that cross sections of the Eastern arm of the Great East African Rift Valley. The Rift that will one day split Africa, is still alive and continues to move apart. Anything from 6 mm to 6 cms in certain areas per annum. Geologically speaking, only Time will tell if the Serengeti Road can be sustained but by then Tanzania’s extraordinary legacy of wildlife will be gone.
3) My work is about your country. Its greatness, its sadness. It should be shown in the museum in Dar es Salaam. Think about this. Take your Tanzanian children to see the migration. It is their heritage. Look at that pristine space. Guard it and protect it with every inch of your being.
Yours sincerely and may God guide you in your final decisions.
Ol Donyio Lengai – Protector of Lake Natron: Installation with the chevron banners in front of Ol Donyio Lengai took place in 1996. We drove there in a land rover on a barely visible grass and stone track. The aerial photograph of the crater of the volcano was taken in 1997. 2014. 178 x 85,6 cms. Lightjet prints on archival paper. Photographs by Michael Papageorge and Georgia Papageorge.
Red Tide on the Road to Bagamoyo: 2014. Mixed media on canvas with collage of Maasai Blankets. Inspired by Christoper Spring.