We were a little bit nervous about the upcoming art adventure. We knew little to nothing about where we would be staying, what we would be doing and how it would all come together. We had trouble getting in touch with Seppo, the man who runs the residency and were starting to get nervous until we received an email explaining that he had been deep in the bush and was returning the next day. So we waited expectantly in the lodge for this mysterious Finnish man to arrive.
A beat up car pulled into the compound driven by a local Tanzanian boy accompanied by a European man and we knew that Seppo had arrived. We made quick introductions and loaded the car, driving through the rough streets towards Arusha town. We turned into a road a few kilometers before the town which was unusually smooth as it was being repaired as a subtle bribe to the local people prior to the upcoming elections. It is a very local area, with ramshackle shops and bars and we soon arrived at a block of land fronted by a closed shop and small mud buildings. Seppo had explained that we would be living with a local Masai family. The land is owned by Emmanuel, an ancient and smiley old man who’s Masai name we could neither pronounce nor remember but whom every one called Babu and his daughter Sara who is the head mama of the household. We made our way nervously through cracked mud buildings, dodging washing lines, electrical cables, cows, goats and chickens and arriving at the back of the property at a small western style building which would be our home for most of the month.
Our little house was surrounded by banana trees and was just in front of Seppo’s outdoor workshop. With table and couches under a hexagonal marque that would become our new lounge area. Soon it was night and we were plunged into darkness with only the light of an oil lamp to sit by. Seppo explained that they had had the power connected recently, they even paid an extra ‘goodwill’ amount to have them come and connect it because it was taking the power company so long. However after having the power on for two weeks it was cut off again. The power company is now asking for more money because they need a ‘new registration’ even though they have already registered. We were to learn quickly that Tanzania has many kafkaesque games to get anything done. It was the same story with running water. So it was that our privileged prissy sensibilities were quickly tested by the lack of power and water. We totally luck out with food though, Sara prepares all our meals and is a trained cook specializing in baking.
Awakening to the sound of sweeping on our first morning we would soon grow accustomed to the morning ritual of the women sweeping the dirt around the huts. After a tasty breakfast of home made bread made by Sara and a bucket shower Seppo took us to meet Anna, a Canadian dancer, to see her dance studio Ibuka. The Ibuka stage had been torn down in a storm after just two shows and was in the process of being rebuilt. Anna teaches many different dance styles and holds auditions for an intensive program to develop shows with a core group of dancers from Arusha. Luckily for us there was to be a show in the upcoming weeks.
That afternoon Sara and Seppo drove us to the Primary school that Sara’s son Michael goes to. When introduced to Michael he raved about St Judes school when he found out we are Australian. The school was set up by an Australian lady called Gemma Sisia thirteen years ago and still gets the majority of it’s founding through Australian donations. The school slogan is “Fighting poverty through education” it gives free education to struggling families. The government schools of Tanzania are underfunded, overcrowded and notoriously bad and so Sara has worked extremely hard to ensure that both her children have been given a good education. The school was amazing, it had gone from 3 students in 2002 to over 1900 students in 2016. We were given a thorough tour by two recently graduated students and it was really inspiring.
On the way home from the beautiful school we were pulled over by the police who have a habit of setting up roadblocks at extremely regular intervals. This is basically a targeted system for extorting bribes. White people are targeted as money machines in many ways in Tanzania. We are expected to pay more than we would at home for things when the locals pay a fraction of the price. We usually go with a family member to buy anything, it is interesting to watch the barter process, it can go for a long time. In this case we were lucky to have Sara in the car who talked down the bribe after a heated and long winded negotiation. The encounter left us all a little shaken and angry, so we went to a local bar for a beer.
During a conversation about African culture with Seppo it was interesting to find out that it seems only west Africa used masks in their ceremonies. Sensing our interest in traditional masks and carvings Seppo introduced us to Michel Irlinger, a Frenchman and an avid collector of African artifacts who has been living in Tanzania for over fifteen years. He just happened to be a co-creator of the upcoming Ibuka dance show as well. Michel’s collection was amazing with an overwhelming amount of masks, carvings and oddities. A very creative and vibrant man he dabbled in many art forms including musician, filmmaker, painting, and sculptural work among other things and had too much to show us. His favorite phrase was “Poly poly” which means “slowly slowly”. Something of which he seemed to need constant reminding.
One of the things which originally enticed us to the Warm Heart residency in Tanzania was Seppo’s paper making workshop. Seppo has lived in various places around Africa on and off for 20 years and has explored various creative pursuits over the years. Everything he puts his hand to is beautiful, with a strong aesthetic for the organic and traditional crafts. He has focused for many years on paper making with a wide range of natural materials and uses the paper to create books, prints, sculpture and much more. Before moving his studio to Sara’s land Seppo had a business which encompassed a pizza cafe, gallery, studio and garden, but all this was unfortunately lost in dubious circumstances. A regular part of life in Tanzania apparently.
We decided to try to make paper using material from the ubiquitous banana trees in the garden, while practicing the basics with some already boiled fibers from a mulberry tree. It was a very slimy and stinky business.
Sara planned to bake some bread, as all the locally made bread is white and cheaply made, Sara makes all her own bread, rolls and croissants. As rye flour has become expensive, Sara has taken to using millet flour mixed with wheat. The best way to make millet flour is the traditional Masai way we are told, so Sara gave us a demonstration with the help of her niece Witness before putting us to work. We used a large flat stone which has been used in her family for generations and a smaller grinding stone and begin the process. It is a lot of work, but satisfying to make our own flour, stone-ground by hand.
Soon Emmily was to gain a small smiley shadow. Following Emm around and calling her Aunty was the gorgeous Ian, Sara’s 3 year old nephew who was living with her while her sister worked far away in Dar Es Salaam. Neither could understand each other very well but words are not necessary for play. Although Emmily did learn the phrase ‘Hii nini?’ ‘What’s this?’
Warm Heart’s other main drawing card for us was Seppo’s NGO working towards recognition and conservation of the ancient rock art of the country. Focusing mainly on the Kondoa region of Tanzania, Seppo has set up a camp called Amarula close to the rock art of that area. We spend quite some time looking through an amazing book of Seppo’s by Mary Leakey which covers the rock art of that same area. Mary Leakey was an anthropologist and archaeologist, who along with her husband Louis discovered a wide range of fossils tracing back to the dawn of man as well as a huge range of rock paintings, some of which are believed to be thousands of years old. We are captivated with the imagery believed to be created by the Sandawe, Nilotic and Bantu people. All the tribes have stopped practicing rock art now for over 200 years and have lost the stories and meanings of their ancestors art.
This loss of culture is seen all over Tanzania with an abandonment of traditional crafts and music in favor of modern and foreign consumer culture. This loss is also seen in the disappearance of the native tribal languages as it becomes more practical for children to learn only Swahili and English.
Taking inspiration from the surroundings lush garden of banana trees Dotahn decides to use the amazing patterns, colours and textures to create moving textures for projection. Creating a painterly effect from the combined coloured layers of the banana tree trunks
Carrying the strong influence of the safari and merging this with the rock art images of animals Emmily begins cutting out shapes of animals based on the rock painting. Dotahn dreams of shapes on sticks in the natural environment being projected on and with these vague fragments we begin to coalesce into shape a project which will keep us busy for the residency and hopefully allow us to come back with an interesting collaborative piece of art.