An artist in the family - Nushin Elahi
My whole life has been inextricably intertwined with my mother’s paintings. As a child I would have to sit still in awkward positions while she sketched family scenes on our beach holidays or try to read in a dark car while she painted sunsets on Cape Town’s docks. As an adult my babies sat on my lap while we looked at her latest batch of work. Twenty years of setting up exhibitions for her have passed, and my children are now adults, but her sketchbook still forms part of any joint family holiday.
Through her eyes, I have, like many others, learnt to see an Africa that is disappearing as fast as its wildlife. It is the silence and space of nature. It is not the Africa that is in the news, and it is a version and a vision of the country that we don’t always see. It is not about people or politics, not even about animals. It is about the land, the land that was there before man set foot on it. That is probably why, of all her subjects, the ancient desert of Namibia has been her most treasured.
Looking at some of her Namibian work, Alice recently said: “They are actually poems to isolation. They are so empty of anything human, anything man-made. In one way that was the subject I chose – the solitude. That was the most important experience of my life.”
In a letter of 1988 to a friend in London she describes the rigours of doing a painting in Namibia’s desolate wilderness: “Yesterday I spent three hours driving a road through the mountains to Brandberg West mine, edging our way on a stony track the vehicle could just fit through, up appallingly steep slopes, and down equally terrifying ones. I did a very quick watercolour (about 20 to 30 minutes) in that area, that is one of my best I think. It was composed of fear, exhaustion and exhilaration, I guess.”
Alice’s first retrospective was held at Pretoria University in the Old Merensky Library in 1988, and opened by the then head of the Pretoria Art Museum, Dr Albert Werth. It has been interesting looking at the works exhibited then, chosen by Albert and Prof Murray Schoonraad, head of the art faculty at the university at that time. In perhaps forty paintings, they traced her career from art student in Cornwall, with the hiatus of marrying and being a mother, through the kick-start of winning the New Signatures Award in 1968, her bold early works of beach holidays and the Cape Town docks to the Namibian desert that was now at the heart of her work.
No-one listening to the opening speech that evening could have predicted what fate had in store for Alice, least of all herself. Her four girls were all on their way in life now, and Alice had the energy and determination to go full-pelt in her career. She did her best studio painting in the middle of the night, now working in the converted stables behind the house, and at times sleeping there rather than disturbing the household. My younger sister Dorrieh and I would drift in for weekend visits, the comfort of home and a good meal. One crisp April morning, 18 months after the retrospective, I would wake her with a cup of sweetened tea. The sugar was for the shock that would follow. I was delivering news no parent should have to hear. Dorrieh had been killed in a car crash. She had become one of the statistics of carnage at Easter on South Africa’s roads.
That event was the single most definitive in Alice’s life. At the time of the car crash, Alice had been preparing to take up a three-month residency at the Cité des Art in Paris, in apartments owned by the South African Association of Arts. My Persian father Nassrollah, who had learnt French as his second language in childhood, was to have gone with her. Who knows where the stimulus of a world city would have taken her art? Those plans were summarily cancelled.
Dorrieh’s death sorely tested her faith, but in painting the wilds of Africa she found solace. The following year she packed her paints and headed for Namibia’s Skeleton Coast and her beloved Möwe Bay and returned with a sheaf of glorious paintings. She had poured all her grief into the solitude she found, and in that barren beauty she felt Dorrieh close to her. The result was an almost magical collection of works. The series from 1991 carries an ethereal quality that, in the lines of one of her favourite hymns, “finds beauty in desolation”.
An ardent admirer of her work was Judge Hans Berker, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Namibia, a man who knew and loved the wilderness areas of his country. He was so enthralled by how Alice captured this landscape that at least ten paintings from her 1991 trip have his name written in pencil at the top, as he earmarked them for his own collection, even though by then he was critically ill. When Alice was hanging her 1992 Namibian show, theatre director Francois Swart walked into the gallery and asked, with his customary flair, “How much if I buy the lot of them?”
The exhibitions Sea Mists and Silence at the Art Association and Cape to Cunene at the Pretoria Art Museum in the next few years, plus another in Namibia, were to be her last shows in public galleries until this 2015 retrospective at the Pretoria Art Museum. Never one to enjoy the distractions from painting that are required to achieve media acclaim as an artist, she now let her work speak entirely for itself. The stature that she was on the brink of being awarded a few years earlier was no longer of any importance to her. Instead she had an almost messianic drive to show people the vast open spaces where one could see a landscape untouched by man. “Namibia was a magical land, like a private world which I shared in my paintings.”
The Studio Gallery exhibitions that started at her home studio in Pretoria in the early Nineties carried on annually for another twenty years. They opened in the last weekend in October, when the jacarandas were in full bloom and the large rambling house that we all still call home would seem to delight in the bustle of throngs of people vying to place a red sticker on one of the paintings.
Art lovers grew to anticipate the exhibition, and over the years we would often hear of someone frantically saving to get another work on this year’s show, or hoping to add a seascape or a Bushveld scene to their growing collection. Certainly her paintings hang best with each other. Alice’s dream was for real people to be able to afford her work. In contrast to other artists who push their secondary auction market prices up, Alice fought to keep her prices down, within the reach of the man on the street. As a result, her collectors bought for love and not investment. She painted furiously on extended painting trips each year and her growing audiences had new and exciting images to choose from in that year’s collection.
Visitors to the Studio Gallery shows would be offered freshly brewed coffee and homemade biscuits, or a refreshing fruit punch while they enjoyed looking at a riot of colour in the exhibition area. Hanging on the walls and the outside stoep were some fifty works they could imagine in their own homes, against their own furniture. There was never any pressure to purchase, yet they did. They came to slide shows the artist would present, while she talked about her trips up the Skeleton Coast and perhaps gave them some exotic Persian jewelled pilau rice to eat too. Alice was inviting them into her home, to see the world that she loved.
As part of the team that had to see there were enough biscuits baked, mint for the punch or stand and brew the individual cups of coffee on a wonky stove in the kitchen, we naturally petitioned for a more streamlined, impersonal approach. In the very later years Alice acquiesced in so far as the coffee was made only on express order, and the punch was now the bottled variety, but she would never budge on other aspects of this ritual. I see now how it was that direct approach that won her such support from people whom she had shown how to look at the world a little differently. They listened to her ardour about Namibia and went to see for themselves, bringing her in turn their own stories of adventure at the next exhibition.
The paintings were bought by visitors to the country, who took them back all over the globe. One of them, the late Dame Maeve Fort, former British High Commissioner in South Africa, told Alice in 2007: “My friend was very impressed with my collection of your paintings. He used to be Keeper of the Queen’s Drawings, so he’s used to looking at the great masters.” Maeve so loved the Studio Exhibitions she came out one year to be part of the team of helpers, confessing to me that she couldn’t wait to have her new work shipped home, and so had paid nearly the same again in courier fees.
Although Alice turned her back on taking her art to wider audiences, she was still a very rare breed indeed – an artist who managed to support herself entirely on the proceeds of her painting. Most other artists have to give art classes or do something else to survive, but although money was never flush, Alice’s work kept a steady stream of income that paid for the frequent trips around the Cape, the Bushveld and Namibia. Looking back over her career, she would simply say, “I managed to keep us all afloat with my painting, and gosh, I had fun doing it!”
Visiting Namibia is only possible in a very short window of time each year, due to the extreme heat and the chance of encountering the dreaded east wind which could blow the paint off a car. And Alice loved best to go when the skies were not the clear blue that most tourists desire, but stormy and cloudy. To make the trip worthwhile, she went for around a month, sometimes more, planning her stay meticulously. Not only did she need enough food and water for herself, but each area dictated different colour schemes and often different types of paper. The result was sheaves of paper laden on the back seat of her car, and bags and bags of paint tubes in every possible shade. I remember her muttering at the sight of the desert covered in grasses after rain, “All I brought is reds and browns and this looks like a Free State wheat field!”
Over the years she had made friends with the young men who worked as conservators in Skeleton Coast and their wives. Her visits were welcomed as a break from routine, and they too learnt to look at the landscape through her eyes. One of them reported, “I have spent the whole year looking out for subjects for you.” “To them I was just Alice, and they were happy to take me along on their tour of duties, because I was so interested in the landscape.” Some of her best works were “flung on” while they waited for her. At other times they left her in one spot, returning a few hours later. These were utterly desolate places, with no other creatures, except perhaps lions or jackals in the area. One of Alice’s most vivid memories is eventually deciding to leave all her stuff and walk out of the Hoarusib Canyon as darkness fell and she realised that the conservator was not coming to collect her. He was settling down to watch a rugby match, before suddenly remembering the artist he had abandoned!
Her favourite place in Skeleton Coast is undoubtedly Möwe Bay, as far north along the coast road as an ordinary vehicle can take one. It is a collection of shabby huts and has an air strip further inland. The road up to there from Ugab, the gateway to Skeleton Coast, constantly changes in colour harmonies as you drive – from white quartz shimmering against the black basalt rocks, to mountains striped in layers of deep rich ochre and black, to the pink flatlands, where the garnet in the sand is mottled with a grey stone to give rich texture. The beach at Möwe Bay is a vivid maroon, from the finely ground garnet, the rocks dark and sea a vivid blue. Over the years Alice has found a treasure trove of moods and images here. Sitting with her in the late afternoon as the mist rolled in and shrouded the sun, she was transfixed. “Now the magic begins,” she said, as the light turned from the stark heat of the day to the shimmering colours of the evening.
Painting is an intensely private affair, and no-one is invited to share in Alice’s communion with nature. The result, I have found, is there are next to no images of her working, and I was one of very few who caught glimpses of it. Such concentration, such involvement, is achieved by laying the paints out so she doesn’t ever need to take her eyes off the subject in front of her. Because the storm would be raging, the waves crashing or the light fading (dawn wasn’t a subject often painted) her painting would be distilling a period of time, rather than capturing a single moment as a photograph does.
There was no money for the luxuries of life, but Alice never skimped on her art materials. At a time when she was careful with household expenses, she would happily spend lavishly on the best artists’ paints or handmade paper. A single pan of a colour such as vermillion was very expensive decades ago. Nowadays that little colour block is carefully prised off the palette before it is cleaned, as its toxic content means it is simply no longer available.
Trips around South Africa were much easier to organise than Namibia and Alice scoured areas such as the Waterberg and the Cape coast for subjects. “I was so lucky. My subject never bored me,” she says. “That was because of working out of doors.” Alice would go up and down every little road in an area, often tramping up hills or dunes to get the best vantage point. Many a time I have cursed the fact that she would not take the convenient viewpoint, but found a different, usually awkward, angle. She never managed to reduce her art equipment to the lightweight essentials. Lugging that apple box with all the paraphernalia of drawing pins, full wooden box of pastels, heavy wooden drawing board, paper, paints and the battered old pot for water, I always thought there had to be an easier way.
But the easy way was never Alice’s way, and that is surely why her work has such vitality and energy. It is an intense delight in her subject that was there from the earliest paintings, and has hallmarked her work ever since.
© Estate Alice Elahi