South Africa - a reflection

SOUTH AFRICA – a reflection

South Africa, what can I say. As I reach the time in my life where I have more memories behind me than I may have ahead of me, I can say I am extremely grateful to have visited South Africa. From day one, 31 July 2019 to the last, 28th August, I was treated and welcomed with such generous hospitality. I consider myself very fortunate to have been invited to teach calligraphy in SA and for the workshops to have gone so well. One thing I can say with certainty is that calligraphers the world over are connected by the craft of letterforms, a spirit and camaraderie like no other. The trip would not have been possible without the huge effort of one woman Dirmu Gouws. To Dirmu, I offer my humble thanks.

After one night spent in Johannesburg with Anne Marie & David Moore and a day out with Paddy Balsdon, I started my teaching tour in Port Elizabeth. Sue & David Patton kindly dropped everything, even packing boxes & moving, to entertain and welcome me. The Cnut Charter Hand was our workshop theme, and my eager participants had a weekend of delving into a letterform from the 10th century. They engaged with analyzing early manuscripts, decorative capitals … and very fine food catered by the group for everyone to enjoy. Erin’s corn & chili soup was to die for!

A real highlight of my PE time was the visit to Addo Elephant Park. An amazing adventure all of it’s own. To be right in the middle of up to 35 elephants at any given time was in the true sense of the word, awesome. But I digress. Thanks to Sue and Erin for giving me an experience of a lifetime. And to top it all off, many of the class participants joined me for an impromptu lunch on my day off after the workshop.

From PE to Cape Town and into the warm & sharing arms of Bev & Colin Gillespie was a treat like no other. To find such likeminded people to talk books, words, people, mysteries & politics was stimulating in itself. Provided with material on people, arts & crafts in SA I had my own little apartment aside from their home where I could hide away at times and read, or join the conversation at other times. Through their eyes I was able to see a side of South Africa I have been longing to know about.

There were two workshops in CT. The first, an amazing group of very talented people created backgrounds for calligraphy, collage & mixed media, with lettering taking it’s place as the backgrounds demanded. Oh the lunches … again the lunches were a delight with Con Meyer creating delicious bobotie, lasagna and salads etc. for all to share. It was my first, but certainly not last, bobotie. I have the recipe!

Our second CT workshop was an evening workshop over two nights where the participants wove Italic letters with delight. Again the importance of history was a focus in the learning and the group was keen to know more about this aspect of our preparation.

A highlight for me in CT was a visit to Robben Island where many South African political freedom fighters including Nelson Mandela were held as prisoners. I went by myself and enjoyed the knowledge gained, the thinking time it allowed me, and the treacherous water crossing to get there … and back. The barren and bare nature of the island was a harsh enlightening for me, of the wretchedness and hardship of any person who had been incarcerated there.

Bloemfontein was an unknown place to me before going to SA. An Afrikaans town which was full of languages and sounds new to me. I picked up a lot of new words and again enjoyed the company of very talented people. Everyone was determined to learn more and more about our craft. We studied the Trajan inscription, with a great deal of fascination. We drew, painted and wrote solidly for three days with the participants producing amazing works. The workshop was held in the private studio and home of Willemien & François Kruger who treated all of us with a fine welcome and generous hospitality. Our lunches every day catered for, so no demands were upon any of us apart from being busy with our craft.

I didn’t see much of the town itself except a fabulous art shop, a sweet café and … of all things … a beauty salon. It was a wonderful opportunity for me to stay with a young Afrikaans family in SA. 

Back to Johannesburg, wow! Again I was greeted with warmth and generous hospitality. Pearl & Paul de Chalain were perfect hosts who made sure I had everything I needed and a whole lot more. Pearl has a highly equipped studio and classroom where we spent three days considering the early art deco movement with a little history thrown in. One of the great things about calligraphy travel is that you see how particular lettering and art/craft movements in time impacted on various places. It is the art deco period that I find the most diverse around the world. We looked at a whole variety of deco lettering styles and work with painted, penciled and penned the essence of Art Deco into our work. All participants excelled in their outcomes.

Pearl & Paul continued their hospitality by continuing to host me over the duration of the next workshop.  We drove back and forth to Pretoria, another mostly Afrikaans town so close to Johannesburg that they will surely meld one day. For each of two days I taught a workshop called Alphabeats: rhythmic letterforms.  Again we started with analyzing the skeleton roman capital but diverged here by using this skeleton as a basis for adding weight and changing the forms to create letters that play off one another. Again, it was a workshop with outcomes that exceeded the participant’s expectations.

On the first day off after the completion of all my workshops a very relaxed Pearl and I visited the Cradle of Humankind out at the Maropeng & Sterkfontein caves at Magaliesburg 60km northwest of Joburg. Both of us could not have been more fascinated and delighted to find an installation there called The Long March to Freedom, a monumental celebration of South Africa's struggle for freedom & democracy. As for the Cradle itself, the major discoveries in these lands have shifted the focus on the origin of our species to Africa. I can’t quite put my finger on it but for me, coming to Maropeng, gave me real sense of place. I have had this feeling in other places such as the Australian outback, the New Mexico desert and the divine forest of Taiwan. Strange eh?

I could not have left South Africa without a better impression and understanding of the rich cultural history of its varied peoples, arts & crafts and its country.  Thank you so much to all involved.


Gemma Black 31 August 2019




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