Signal Hill – Cape Town South Africa (Twelve Apostles – though there are really 17 in the background)
The Day I took this picture, there was a man on top of the hill where I was standing who was painting the exact same theme. It was a day that actually kind of reminds me of today. It was sunny, but very cold and windy. It was early spring in South Africa (remember – in the southern hemisphere, the seasons are opposite the northern hemisphere).
We (my students and I) had arrived in South Africa several days earlier. We were on our initial tour of the greater Cape Town area, and for that time of year, the weather couldn’t have been more perfect.
On top of that hill there are expansive vista’s in every direction. You can see Robben Island from one spot, the city from another angle, and the beautiful Cape Peninsula mountain range known as the 12 Apostles. Everyone was looking around and taking pictures. For me, though, it was my 2nd visit to Signal Hill, so I was looking at things I hadn’t seen before.
Not to far from where we’d stopped I noticed a man sitting alone, who was sheltered by a few trees. He was painting something; and surrounding him were paintings he was obviously trying to sell. I walked over and saw that there were scenes from the hill we were on, and other local scenes displaying every kind of light one could imagine. The colors in his paintings were amazing. I wanted to purchase a painting, but I didn’t have the funds to do so at the time. So I wandered from painting to painting admiring his work.
After I’d seen the majority of his work, and inquired about the prices, I wandered to another part of the hill for a while and took some photos. I was trying to capture the “perfect” photo. I knew that the lighting wasn’t perfect though, so no matter what I did with my camera, I probably won’t do justice to the beauty surrounding me. Then it dawned on me, that painter may have found the perfect spot to frame his picture and paint the gorgeous mountains. I might as well at least capture the same imagine. Even if my photo didn’t have the same artistic quality, it would serve to remind me of the beautiful day.
So I wandered back over to the spot where his scene began, and I took my photo. Then I realized it was all too beautiful, and this whole scene had inspired me so much, at least I wouldn’t forget the beautiful paintings, if the gentleman would let me take his picture too. So I asked the elderly man if I could take his picture as well, and though still hiding part of his face, he obliged.
As I took his picture, an exchange unfolded, that I will never forget. I commented on how beautiful I thought the paintings were, and asked how long he had been painting. As the elderly gentleman grew more comfortable talking to me, he started to tell me about a painting he had done during apartheid. He went to his supply box, and pulled out newspaper articles and photos. There, I saw, in the midst of his belongings the story of a man who’d painted a portrait of one of Apartheid’s most notable or others would say notorious leaders. This artist had asked for permission and had been commissioned to to paint the portrait. Later, he was invited to the home of the dignitary to present the gift. He showed me a photo and newspaper clipping, of a much younger version of himself and the portrait he’d painted for the dignitary, with himself standing next to the painting and leader.
This artist told me how he’d written letters to the dignitary (the prime minister at the time), and respectfully explained to him, that Apartheid would not work. This artistic gentleman’s logic was not drawn from political science or negotiation theory. Instead, his rationale came from nature and art. In nature, colors are not separated. In fact they are put together, and the contrasts enhance the scenes.. All one had to do to examine his logic, was look up, and glance around. He was right, nature put together all sorts of color, and the more vivid, and different, the more the scenes around us were brought to life.
My new friend pulled out the letters he had written to the dignitary to show to me. As I read them, I could see how very kind and respectful they were.
Imagine – using art, nature, and beauty, as a rationale for freedom.
The newspaper story, the clipping I was shown, only told part of the story. It showed the man and his painting, but left out the communications about peace, and rationale for ending apartheid. The newspaper story, in fact made the man’s work seem small and insignificant. The painter asked the newspaper to print a correction, but perhaps because of the color of his skin and the timing of the events (still during apartheid), the editor at the time would not correct the story. Then, this elderly man showed me more paper. These papers were the draft of book he was writing, to tell his whole story.
Oh, I’m sure no one would credit this kind, gentle man to the ultimate fall of apartheid, but I’ve been left to wonder ever since, how much his kindness, and persuasiveness influenced the powerful leader.
As our conversation came to an end, I realized that this man was most at home on top of this hill. He was surround by everything he loved, including a country scarred by hatred and violence. He wanted nothing more in life, than to keep painting, and to have a chance to share an important lesson he had learned. Beauty doesn’t come by drawing lines and creating artificial divisions. Beauty is everywhere around us. All we have to do is look around. Look at all the colors of nature, the flowers, and birds, and sky and see how they enhance each other. The colors belong together, and we humans, with all of our diversity and difference, are just the same. When we are together, our colors and differences, form a beautiful tapestry.
So, instead of owning a painting from a wonderful artist; today, I own an autograph, from a painter who mostly cares not to be known, and the memory of a lesson on Signal Hill.
It’s a lesson I’ll never forget.