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Still Life In The Art Room by Liesl Jobson

Ufudu is restless today, says a boy under his breath. He rinses a sable brush in a jar of water.

Ufudu indeed! grumble the scissors on the shelf. Silence matrics, says Miss Dube.

Yesterday the name given affectionately to the art teacher by her students suited her ponderous tread. Today she moves like a plover with jerky steps. She stops statue-like with her head cocked, as if listening to a half-heard sound. Go awaaay! The cry of a loerie outside startles her. She stalks to her desk rapidly.

She’s probably dieting, says a girl.

Ufudu needs a man, says another.

These children show no respect, murmurs a charcoal drawing stick.

Sikelela was the first to comment on the teacher’s obsessional doodles. Shortly after she had returned from compassionate leave he passed her desk and saw a page half filled with caricature turtles. When he left the class an hour later the page was almost completed. The next day a new one with identical figures had been started.

You really like tortoises, Ma’am, he had said.

Hmmm, she nodded, flipping the pad closed.

We should call you Mam fudu?

Hmmm, she nodded again.

Dalila did not point out that what she drew were turtles, not tortoises. There is no single word in Zulu for the former, only an extension that approximates: Ufudu-lwaso-lwandle or the tortoise-of-the-water. The name, which did not bother her particularly, stuck. Dalila was relieved that the boys and girls had noticed only her eccentric drawings and not the hollow yawning that had recently begun to emanate from the collection of empty jars under the sink. The youngsters also appeared not to have heard the rattling complaints of the palette boxes in the cabinet, the restless canvasses and the shuffling sketchboards.

Perhaps these sounds were lost against the scraping chairs and the grinding of the old-fashioned pencil sharpener on her desk. Maybe the stuffiness of polyester blazers worn too long without laundering dulled the children’s senses.

Each day for almost a year, while her students have worked, Dalila has doodled to pass the time: serried ranks of the ancient reptiles marching eastward toward an imaginary shoreline beyond the page.

Her compulsion had started a few days before Sikelela’s observation, when she presented an easy lesson to the class two weeks in a row.

Today we’re going to do the Take-a-line-for-a-walk exercise. Who knows which artists developed this style? Dalila spoke like she moved. Grief had dulled her speech. A girl with unruly dreads raised her hand before the teacher had finished asking the question.

Refiloe?

Klee, Ma am.

Good, Refiloe. Another artist?

Miro, answered Salmaan.

Yes, she said, switching on the overhead projector.

There are two ways of accomplishing this exercise. The first allows an abstract line to take shape freely. Allow it to curve, to zigzag, make corners, and so on, wandering all over the paper.

She demonstrated the technique. In contrast to her plodding diction, her hand whizzed over the screen.

Now shift the page until you see something that you recognise.

She swivelled the transparency around.

Perhaps an eye, a claw, a skeletal tree. Develop it. Add more pattern. With rapid gestures she filled in leaves like eyelashes, feathery bones, beaks. Keep going until the whole page is covered in detail.

It was the last time her hand moved swiftly, unselfconsciously for many months. The other way of performing this task requires planning to create a specific image. It is more controlled, a bigger challenge. She put another transparency on the overhead and drew the tail of a turtle, raised the hump, formed the head, the flippers and lower carapace. Without lifting her pen, she entered the shell cavity interweaving three rows of scutes. Lastly, she created a diminishing spiral to form the eye out of negative white space. Try a waterfall, a skyline or a garden. Whatever you do, keep your pen on the paper. Most of the class had already begun while she was talking. She had forgotten that they already knew and liked the exercise. She switched off the projector and put away her felt-tipped pens. She drew another turtle and another. On completing a row of turtles, Dalila wandered through the desks to check her students progress. She stopped a boy who was about to erase his work,

Keep going, Bhuti, she said over his shoulder. Pointing to an empty space on the next boy’s page she said, Keep it loose and free; don’t think too hard.

She returned to her doodles. The bell rang. The students gathered their pencils and sauntered out. After they had left, Dalila completed an entire sheet of inch-long turtles. She put the page in the bottom drawer of her desk, the first page of identical scribbles that would accumulate for a year, until thousands of the miniature beasts crawled around her desk, scraping their flippers, yearning for release. When she first heard them it sounded like the erratic slowing down of the overhead projector fan after being switched off. She opened the drawer and the noise stopped.

Today is the first anniversary of her mother’s passing.

No cartoons today, hisses a flat pencil.

Where are the turtles, Ufudu?taunts a coloured pencil.

Dalila drums her fingers on her desk. She chivvies the daydreaming Refiloe who stares out the window. She complains at Salmaan’s dithering. Ten minutes before the final bell, she hurries them along, Finish up, Bhuti, don’t start another colour.

Put your folio away. Now, she snaps. Have a nice weekend.

As the last one leaves, she flips over an empty bucket. Dalila reads the label stuck to the bottom. Powder Tempera: light green. The colour of hospital walls.

Residues of poster paint ingrained in the plastic release a faint odour of sour dust. She places it, upside down, in front of the window. Usually she constructs still life compositions on a plinth in the centre of the room. Today she needs a different perspective.

Dalila removes a faded kikoi from her tog bag. She holds it to her face and inhales deeply. Her mother brought it back from Nairobi, a few weeks before getting ill. Her open suitcase had released the fragrance of grassy plains, Kenyan shillings and Watamu Beach, where Dalila lived as a child.

She had walked beside the water holding her grandmother’s hand. They found a strange depression in the sand. Look, a green turtle nest, said Bibi. Turtles lay their eggs then leave them to hatch.

Does their mother not stay with them?Dalila asked.

No. The hatchlings must dash toward the surf before the gulls catch them. Only the lucky ones make it into the sea.

To search for their parents?asked Dalila.

To continue the cycle of survival.

Do they ever find them?

Turtles don’t really think that way, although they return here throughout their life.

Back to Watamu?

Yes. Eventually the females will lay their eggs right here when they are 40 years old.

They come back looking for their mothers and fathers, said the girl.

Hmmm. Bibi?

Green turtles live to be 90.

Bibi, what happens if the baby never finds her parents?Dalila tugged on her grandmother’s skirt.

Hmmm.

Dalila had already learned that when Bibi said, Hmmm in that mournful tone, the old woman had no reply. It served no point to ask again. There were many questions for which Bibi had no answers, including why Dalila’s parents were gone so long.

Bibi didn’t know where they were. Perhaps they attended a congress in Dar es Salaam or a conference in Botswana, or were sneaking in and out of South Africa. They never told her. It was safer not to know too much.

That night Dalila dreamed of the unfortunate turtles, hatched late, flopping in vain against the outgoing tide. They were almost at the shore when hungry gulls plucked them from the sand, their flippers swimming in midair. Dangled low over the water, the babies could see their parents. Then the gulls swooped to the beach where they cracked open the shells and gorged on the rich meat. Dalila woke sobbing for their futile struggle.

Bibi cradled her, rocking her back to sleep, crooning, Harambee, Harambee, tuimbe pamoja. Tujenge serikali. Harambee.
She sang slowly, in the key of blackness, of dark spirits. It sounded like a song for harvesting snakes. The next morning the news arrived that her father had opened a letter bomb in Lusaka.

Dalila pinches her nostrils and blows hard. Her ears pop. Her sinuses feel as if she has been weeping for a week. She wonders if she is becoming allergic to paint.

The theme of the lesson is identifying environmental and historical factors that influence visual artists.

Sikelela had brought an mbira, the traditional herd boy’s piano , Refiloe had brought a bunch of leggy strelitzias. Salmaan provided a flag for the backdrop and Diwali candles. They constructed an eclectic collection of paraphernalia for the project. An exhibition of the work is planned for the Heritage Day celebration and the president is scheduled to visit the school that his grandchildren attended.

Here we go again, sighs the bucket. Must we endure another plastic snake?mutters a thin yellow stripe woven into the kikoi.

Be quiet, says Dalila, sniffing. She will not tolerate the voices today. Like the matrics, they pay her little attention.

You should stick to porcelain dolls, says the bucket. You like their gingham frocks and lacy petticoats.

We haven’t seen dolly for a while, says a cerise stripe.

Dalila’s grandmother had always sewn her party dresses, western style, in pastel shades. Bibi made matching dresses for the dolls from the left-over fabric scraps.

Peering through her bifocals she formed delicate stitches. Then she would braid Dalila’s hair in satin ribbons of the same shade. Dalila tried to braid her dolls’ straight blonde hair.

White children’s hair doesn’t braid that way, said Bibi. She asked Bibi why porcelain never came in shades of brown or black.

Hmmm, said Bibi.

Dalila drapes the kikoi over the bucket. It has softened with washing. Once she could still smell traces of her mother’s scent in the cotton and a faint whiff of the crisp herbal beer her father had allowed her to sip when she sat on his knee for the last time.

No, Mandla, scolded her mother. He laughed at his daughter’s lip-smacking enjoyment, and then whisked the bottle away. Dalila tucks the cloth, which possesses only a clean laundry smell now, about the base of the bucket. She arranges the stripes to fall in zigzags.

After her father died her mother would walk along the beach with a kikoi wrapped around her thin hips. She had always been a round and comfortable figure. She stopped eating until clothes hung on her angular form. Her mother sat and stared into the horizon for hours, alone. Dalila would watch her from afar. The next breeding season, a record low number of eggs was documented by Turtlewatch Kenya.

Dalila’s mother’s grief had scared all the females away. They refused to lay.

There is a shushing sound in Dalila’s ears, like the sound of waves inside a seashell. She tries to depressurise her nasal chambers again, but there is no relief. The turtles in her drawer are scraping their flippers. She places the pot plant on top of the bucket. Sunlight reflects off the finely demarcated green and white leaves.

Dalila had taken a slip of the hen-and-chickens from her mother’s balcony garden when the flat was sold to cover the doctor’s bills. She left the cutting in a bottle of water. When it took root, she transplanted it into a large ukhamba, a traditional Zulu beer pot she bought at the Rosebank market. Those shocking shades will quite outdo me. The pot plant glares at the bold kikoi. My delicate stripes will be utterly lost.

Hen lady, chill your sphincter, says the bucket.

How uncouth, says the plant.

What a nerve! says Dalila clucking her tongue.

She runs her fingers over the elaborate patterns of the ukhamba. They are Iron Age motifs that have been incised into the dark clay. She wishes she had a banana frond to frame her composition, but Johannesburg’s winter frost burns the tropical plants. There were banana groves around Gogo’s kraal. Dalila has a vague recollection of visiting her paternal grandmother in Gingindlovu before her father fled into exile. Gogo tried to teach her how to twist sticky coils of clay over bunches of grass to make an ukhamba. Dalila must have been about six years old. She never saw her Gogo after that. Her cousin Zodwa terrified her with bedtime stories about green mambas.

As they walked on the muddy path to the long-drop toilet, Zodwa screamed, pointing into the grass beside Dalila’s feet, Snake! Be careful! The first time it happened Dalila wet her pants and ran, crying, back to her father. Zodwa disappeared, sniggering, into the long stalks of sugar cane, with the village girls. The second time, her father comforted her saying, Gogo has a mean stick. It will talk to that naughty Zodwa.

This morning as Dalila sipped her first cup of coffee an article in The Star grabbed her attention: GABORONE – The remains of Thami Mnyele were exhumed on Wednesday from Gaborone’s New Stands Cemetery for reburial at home. Mnyele, a gifted graphic artist, was one of twelve ANC cadres killed by the South African Defence Force in a cross-border raid on 14 June 1985. His artwork had been deliberately destroyed in the attack.

This soft-spoken gentleman with a passion for poetry and music will be buried in Tembisa after a memorial service at the Mehlareng Stadium. Dalila took the newspaper in shaking hands into her tiny garden to gather herself.

On the wooden bench beside the lemon tree, she stared at the shocking words that recalled her indebtedness to Thami Mnyele, the kind uncle she met once at Beitbridge.

She had just fled South Africa in a hot, gritty train with her father. They were both tired and thirsty from the long journey. Her father had an important meeting with a stranger who arrived with two cans of cold Coca-Cola. Her father gave her a pen and an empty envelope to keep her busy.

Draw me a picture of Mama, said Mandla.

Dalila stopped interrupting the men. She drew a tiny train snaking around the edge of the envelope. In the centre was a little house. Her mother waved from its window. She had remained behind to keep her father’s cover and to sell their few belongings. Uncle Thami noticed the girl’s picture, and reached into his briefcase.

He brought out a pad of paper and some pencil crayons. At the time she thought he was trying to keep her from disturbing them. But he had taken the drawings she offered him. He admired them, praised her, and remembered. A few weeks later, Uncle Thami sent her the gift of her first set of paints. She remembers the slip for the parcel arriving. She and Bibi stood in a queue at the post office. She had wanted to open the parcel there and then, beside the counter.

The post office clerk exchanged friendly words with her grandmother and gave Dalila a toffee. That was the time when brown paper still had a sweet rustle to it, when string and sealing wax bound promises of love, of hope. A package meant then that one had not been forgotten, after all.

A few weeks later her mother appeared unexpectedly and bled into the long drop. When Dalila went to relieve herself she saw clumps of blood that caught the sunlight that shone through the cracks in the tin roof. Dalila stared at the livery chunks in horror.

Dalila tried to understand the whispered fragments she overheard as she pretended to sleep.

Is this Mandla’s child?asked Bibi.

Dalila couldn’t see in the dark whether her mother nodded or shook her head.

Does he know?

He must not, said her mother.

How often?

Every night for two weeks.

And what else?

Her mother had only stifled sobs for an answer.

Is Mama very sick?asked the girl the following morning.

Don’t worry, said Bibi. Your mother will be alright. These are old screams your mother is passing. They will go. When a woman’s screams get stuck inside, her sisters have ways to set them free …

An old woman from the village rubbed her mother’s belly, pressed cool cloths against her forehead.

In the garden this morning, Dalila clutched the newspaper. The deep purple irises growing beneath the lemon tree reminded her that the previous winter she had been visiting her mother in hospital. That last day she took her mother a bunch of irises in a Heinz bottle. On the previous occasion when she had taken flowers, her mother’s favourite vase had been stolen. It had been a wedding present. Perhaps a cleaner or a nurse recognised the fine crystal. Nevertheless the flowers and the vase had disappeared. While driving to the Kenridge, she had sniffed the subtle fragrance, wondering whether it was real or imagined. It was so slight she doubted she could smell anything, yet the tomato sauce smell had vanished.

In the ward she wiped her mother’s face with a warm cloth, she brushed her thin grey hair. Her mother whispered in the oxygen mask. Dalila couldn’t hear.

Pardon, Mama, what was that?she asked, bent close to her mother’s mouth. Her breath was rapid. It smelled fruity.

You are a good girl; you are my blessing, said her mother.

Dalila picked a single stem with a bud, an unfurling bloom and a fully opened flower. She placed it in a twist of silver foil with a blob of moistened cotton wool. A sudden yearning to paint the filigree fronds of its yellow tongue pecks now at the inside of her heart. She remembers the tiny beak of a green turtle poking through the last egg at the bottom of the nest. An angry gull had hovered overhead as it struggled free. She chased the bird away.

She had urged the baby on. The gull swooped and dived above. Dalila shouted at it flapping her arms.

Hurry, little one. She faced her grandmother, Why, Bibi?Tears streamed down her face. Dalila wanted to pick it up, to carry it to the sea.

If you carry that baby, it cannot develop strong flippers for swimming. It will be too weak for the ocean.

It will never get there .… Dalila sobbed. She chased the gulls away, over and over again, until the tiny turtle slipped into the waves.

Beyond the curlicued wrought-iron school gates, a queue of children waits at the bus stop. Sikelela and Refiloe disappear into a rickety taxi headed for Soweto. A lemon rolls off the table. Dalila catches it.

Your roots smell off, says a stripe.

Too much water, replies a clump of leaves suspended over the edge of the ukhamba on a curling runner.

Dalila blows her nose. Through the window, she watches the learners climb aboard.

Isn’t school out?asks another stripe.

No peace unto the wicked … says a lemon.

Dalila had shown her mother the striated throat of the iris. The old woman lifted a frail arm to touch its indigo petal, and then removed her oxygen mask. Let me smell it one last time …

Dalila wanted to say, No! Not one last time. Let me take you to the Kirstenbosch gardens next holiday. She wanted to ask, Will you be my guardian angel?but they had never talked about death. She would have liked to say, I am 40, Mama, but I have laid no eggs …

Dalila had neither words nor tears. No question lingered in the folds of the hospital curtains. Not a tear fell onto the pale green linen. Dalila readjusted her mother’s mask in silence.

That evening she had tried to paint her mother’s hand holding hers, but all she had to show after empty hours was a blank sheet of paper. That night, and every day since then, her paint box remained still. Nothing else let up: the chatter of desks, the prattle of chairs, the mumbling of the classroom blinds. Even the kiln in the corner of the art room would sigh periodically. In her drawer the pile of turtles waved their flippers in agitation. But neither the pastels nor the oil paints made a murmur. The blues: pthalo, cerulean and sapphire all remained silent.

Ultramarine, turquoise and Virgin blue lay like miniature coffins in her paint box.

The flat and round sablette brushes lingered soundless; the sablines immobile.

Dalila unclasps the long string of pearls her mother wore and drapes them over the lemons.

Beats a plastic snake, I guess, says the yellow stripe.

Pearls, says a lemon in an irritable tone. Not very good quality.

Hush, says Dalila. The pearls slip and clatter on the tiled floor. Dalila picks them up and curls them around the base of a tomato sauce bottle containing the irises.

Why can’t we be juxtaposed against a simple urn?asks the plant, glaring at the shabby vase. Dalila chews a hangnail and rearranges a lemon. She plucks a blob of Prestik from her stationery drawer to fix the pearls in place. She removes a little package wrapped in paper towel from her tog bag. She places it, unopened, beside the composition. The pearls glint in the sunlight.

Dalila’s mother had pulled the plastic mask off and said, Take this away. No! Dalila tried to slip it back over her mother’s face. The mask came apart from the oxygen tube. The bottle on the wall bubbled loudly. The papery skin of her mother’s cheeks was greyish against her dark blue lips. Not yet …

Her mother turned away from the mask. I don’t want it any more. It’s killing me. Dalila opens the package, takes out the oxygen mask and sets it beside the largest lemon. The mask, which is shaped like a ghoulish nostril, has a faint green tinge to it. She tries to identify the exact sheen: copper resinate, viridian, verdigris, cobalt green. As she turns it in the light, she recalls the many-hued shells of the baby turtles.

What next?ask the pearls.

Who can tell?answers a stripe.

Very softly, the kikoi starts to hum, Harambee, harambee … Dalila’s ears are finally clear. A loerie in the tree outside her classroom window calls, Go awaaay.

Her mother had gasped, Take me home. I don’t want to die here. The old woman tried to get out of the bed.

Okay, Mama, said Dalila as she cradled her mother in her arms. With her free arm, she pressed the button that called the nurse. She wanted to ask her mother whether home meant Watamu Beach, or the little flat in Yeoville. She had no words to discuss the options.

I want to lie beside Mandla again. It’s been too long.

Shhh, Mama, shh, she stroked her mother’s hand.

Where will you bury me?

Watamu … she said to soothe her mother, to calm her down. Dalila still believed, even then, that there was a chance her mother would improve enough to be taken back to the village of her ancestors.

The hospital bills precluded that. Her mother lies in alien soil at Westpark Cemetery, where scraggly oleanders drop toxic pink blossoms onto her grave and the grass has been sparse all year long.

Dalila wipes the textured paper with a damp sponge. Her movement across the easel is swift and focused. She blends the underwash in a palette cup with a wide hake brush. At last there is silence in the room. She forms a streak of colour, and another. When she looks up again, the loerie is perched on a branch. Its crown fans out. The large grey bird lifts into the air and flies off. The only sound is the wind in the leaves.

About the Author

Liesl Jobson lives and works in South Africa.

Misty Ericson
Misty Ericson holds a BA in English & Comparative Literature from San Jose State University, California, and an MA History of Art from University of Leeds, UK. In addition to her work on HerCircleEzine.com, which she founded in 2005, Misty enjoys painting in her studio and restoring her home in the English countryside.
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