South Africa’s first mural town

2011-11-17 00:00

A THOUSAND kilometres from Howick, nestled somewhere between nowhere and beyond in the Great Karoo, lies the little town of Richmond. Dating back to the 1840s, it’s big enough to have a church and a bottle store, a number of little businesses, and a community that is vibrant, proud and clinging to the hope that they will not be forgotten in the helter-skelter of the 21st century. A lot of it is impoverished but somehow it all kind of goes together. But nothing much happens there.

Some quaint buildings remain — others trashed for the value of the materials, the yellowwood floors and doors, etc. which are of greater worth than the whole. The odd newish face-brick building has gone up, but who wants to break their frantic stride on the NI scurrying to or from their holiday to see a face-brick building? A few years ago, lecturer Darryl David (also founder of the Midlands Literary Festival in Howick) and Peter Baker, a vet by early morning and evening, and a dreamer the rest of the time, initiated the first steps in creating South Africa’s first Booktown, a Pandora’s Box of old, dusty, rare, and collectable books — all stashed neatly in old, dusty, collectable buildings in Richmond. And an annual three-day book festival, Boekbedonnerd, was born.

This is one of the big events for the town. It’s probably the main one on its calendar, and a day or two before the little dorp opens its doors to visiting authors, publishers, and new book launches, a veritable cloud of dust can be seen from afar as townsfolk and shopkeepers frantically sweep the streets, pavements, shop floors and anything else they can find in anticipation of this deluge. For this is the one occasion when their little town Richmond becomes noticed and much-needed revenue enters the dorp.

I had always wanted to create a beautiful madness and with Booktown Richmond I believe I achieved that. But I am a restless sort. A few months ago, there appeared an innocuous article in an Afrikaans newspaper by one Engela Duvenage of the University of Stellenbosch who had visited a mural town. She ended the article saying how nice it would be if South Africa could have its own mural town.

After researching the concept for a day, I phoned Peter . When I told him about Booktown Richmond, he uttered a phrase that has become folklore in the Great Karoo: “That’s a whale of an idea!” But when I told him about the mural town, he said : “Great idea but not for us. We are spread too thin on the ground.” But I know Peter better than he knows himself. And I knew that he was off to Canada to see family in a month. So I persuaded him to visit the granddaddy of mural towns, Chemainus in Canada. Chemainus has similarities with Richmond. It was once the largest logging port in the world, but with industrialisation, the logging industry shut down and Chemainus began to die. But some nuggetty inhabitants came up with the notion of reviving Chemainus through tourism. And so the world’s first mural town was born. By the time Peter got back from Canada, he only had two words on his lips: “Mural town”.

In the South African context, I know murals have the connotation of graffiti or artwork inspired by politics as you find in Johannesburg. But mural towns tend to operate in the idiom of someone like a Pierneef, who used the landscapes and townscapes to evoke the history of a region. The idea is to create a large outdoor art museum. The walls must speak of the history of the town.

With determination and no money, we set about finding artists who would help us “dream the impossible dream”. As luck would have it, after my book on 101 Country Churches of SA, Nikki Tilley, who helps me organise the Midlands Literary Festival, said I should talk to artist Mike Norris. From the time he opened his mouth, I knew I was dealing with a kindred spirit. And so, in two short months we plotted the path to South Africa’s first mural town. Better still, he brought along a certain Louise Ghersie, a highly talented portrait painter. Together they will both go down as the founder artists of South Africa’s first mural town.

The task given was simple. Louise had to create the first of many well-known literary faces, to tie in with our reputation as a booktown. To this end, I told Louise I wanted the portrait of the late actor Patrick Mynhardt in character as the pipe-smoking Oom Schalk. Patrick was the man who helped launch Booktown Richmond in September 2007. And his show in Richmond was probably his last performance in South Africa before he died in London. So Louise did a close-up of Oom Schalk Lourens measuring two metres by 1,5 metres.

Mike was asked to create a mural of one of his signature tractors — this time a derelict tractor with a local Karoo background. This was to be a whopping 3,4 metres by 2,6 metres and painted on a wall of a veranda on an old building on the corner of Church and Loop streets. Mike is probably the only artist in South Africa specialising in vintage tractors. Mike is constantly commissioned to do portraits of beloved tractors that have transformed untamed bush into homesteads.

The paintings took three days to complete and provided one of the biggest challenges that either artist had encountered yet. Apart from the sheer size which necessitated frequent runs over to the other side of the street to view the progress, they were confounded by the weather which consisted of a cold, howling gale that only seemed to gust along the veranda like a tornado in early morning, followed by extreme heat as the day progressed. To add to these extreme conditions, they discovered that the dry Karoo air had the uncanny ability to dry paint (acrylic) so rapidly that their brushes would literally seize up while in use and if they dared turn their backs on tin lids or palettes — history!

What surprised both Louise and Mike (otherwise known as Chuck Norris), was that community members, many of them well into the poverty zone, embraced their efforts with gusto. The completion of the works, which in Mike’s case was adding a personalised numberplate to his tractor “Moeggeploeg” somehow sent a signal over the river to the onderdorp and within minutes a stream of people of all ages, came running to see what these two people had done for and to their town. For the artists it was extremely heart-warming to understand that they had done something to brighten the community’s day and dorp. The townsfolk have in their own way taken ownership of these pictures. I think they felt that someone had noticed them and something great and historic was transpiring.

So, like the dust storm that it was, Boekbedonnerd came to an end. The shopkeepers counted out their shillings, and packed away the best cutlery until next year and the faraway numberplates headed off to their home towns. But the one numberplate that remained on the wall of Richmond Gallery and in the hearts of the people was Moeggeploeg.

And opposite the church on the corner of Loop and Church streets there are two fantastically colourful, larger-than-life paintings. And again as Mike laughs: “ They, like the artists, won’t last forever, but they will be there for a long time — long after Chuck’s ashes have drifted off and everyone’s forgotten him.

 

 

• To contact the artists: Mike Norris at 082 081 9249 or norris. mikeh@gmail.com and Louise Ghersie at 082 551 7402 or louisegh ersie@vodamail.co.za

• Festival director: Darryl David at 078 598 2312 or davidd@ukzn.ac. za

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