People in South Africa are talking about little else but the state of Nelson Mandela’s heath. Since he was hospitalised three weeks ago the nation has been on a permanent vigil. Will he make his 95th birthday? Will he make tomorrow? While the rumours rise and ebb like the tides, and the Mandela family call for privacy, the people who love him in the country that was changed by him search for ways to pay tribute.
I recently signed up for a seven-week Coursera MOOC, ‘Introduction to Art: Concepts and Techniques’, which has been more fun and stimulating than I could have imagined. Like all courses, what you get out depends on what you put in. This particular one, which is run by Penn State School of Art and Architecture, brings together thousands of people from all over the world. There is something quite awesome about doing an artwork a week, to a theme, along with people from India and China and Brazil and anywhere else in the world you can think of. The creativity is mindboggling, the interaction always inspirational.
This week’s assignment was to produce a temporary site-specific environmental installation. Given the situation that is uppermost in everybody’s mind right now, at least where I live, I dedicated mine to Nelson Mandela. It’s called ‘Madiba Flowers’.
I was inspired by Ana Mendieta’s works in sand. In the same way that she was influenced by Santeria, I have been influenced by the Afro-Brasilian tradition of candomblé. Although it is not commonly practiced here in South Africa, in our family we still do an annual offering to Iamanja, which involves sending white flowers into the sea on New Year’s day from our local beach.
I am lucky to live so close to this beautiful natural environment, and so I chose Noordhoek beach, where I walk every day, as the site for my installation. I wanted to create an artwork that would be claimed by the sea, leaving no trace of its having been there.
I collected 27 bunches of flowers – one for each year Mandela was in prison – from my local flower market, in yellow, white and green to symbolise the ANC colours. (Technically they are yellow, green and black, but – black flowers?) Plus I like the purity symbolised by white flowers.
At low tide I chose a spot just beneath the high water mark. Used the flowers to mark out the word ‘MADIBA’ in letters about 5 foot high. Planted them in the sand so they looked like they had grown there spontaneously. Included some red flowers, in the shape of a heart underneath his name.
I said a prayer for Madiba, gave thanks to the sea and the spirits, and left the flowers to the rising ocean. On our way home we went up to the cliffs above to take some pictures of the installation, to give a sense of the scale of the work and of its environment. From up there we were able to watch the interaction of people who came down to the beach with their dogs or their children or their surfboards, with what they found in the flowers.
Almost everyone who passed by took a photograph of the Madiba Flowers. It felt surprisingly satisfying to anonymously share a private tribute with others whose lives have been touched by this great man.
The intention was always that this would be a temporary installation. I liked the idea that its existance would be fleeting. One tide cycle and it would be gone. A little like a life.
I went down to the beach again the next morning to see what was left. There were still a few flowers there, tangled up with mussel shells and seaweed, but they had been spread along the shoreline, and all signs of the lettering were gone.
After one more high tide those too will have been taken up by the sea, where they will naturally biodegrade.
All things have their time. That is the ebb and flow we live in.