I just spent the past ten days opposing the route of the swallow and flew south for a little autumn break. After a few days spent on the East coast of South Africa in a little town called Port Alfred I headed up to the Highveld to Jo’burg to visit the rest of my clan. On mentioning to my hosts that I love art and am on a quest to find out the truth behind what art is they kindly whisked me off to Nirox Sculpture Park. This a place of tranquility, northwest of Johannesburg, a wide open space where art, attitude and the atmosphere of the outdoors collide.
We took a leisurely drive out from the far-flung suburbs of the sprawling and diverse city of Johannesburg, Jozi as it is referred to by the locals. We were headed towards the Cradle Of Humankind, the Unesco World Heritage site. It is here in 1947, and earlier in 1924, that fossils of some of the earliest known life forms were found. Not only does the Cradle of Humankind offer up the remains of the first people but also it holds one of Johannesburg’s best kept secrets — attached to this heritage site is Nirox Sculpture Park, 15 hectares of nature reserve. This was once a private trout farm but is now a foundation set up in Trust and run by an organisation which offers an international artist residency program. Some of the artist’s sculptures are then left in situ around the park. It is a beautiful and peaceful setting, especially on a sunny autumn day as can only be experienced in Gauteng. Air as crisp as champagne flute glass, the soft warmth of the low slung seasonal sun and the grass the color of dried hay. The park was full of families on this particular day as they were hosting a special children’s story telling event. The park is so vast though that we never felt crowded in.
The current Winter exhibition running in Nirox is titled ‘Power of Site’ — 4 May – 31 July 2019.
About one million years after the first spark, a stone’s throw from the first campfire – now the core of the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site, where Nirox Park lies at its heart- 20 artists from around the globe explore and reflect upon the sources, control, sustenance, and sharing of the energy that underpins and dominates existence. (Taken from brochure issued at site).
The first sculpture we stood in front of, in sheer amazement, was by Egyptian artist Moataz Nasr, titled Sunboat 2016 –gum poles. This sculpture was reconstructed in Nirox after a few years in repose. It rises up from the soft green-brown grass, salutes the sky and the sun as it offers us a sanctuary of peace and contemplation. It is made of 45 tonnes of treated gum poles which are balanced together by their own counter weight and tied together where they meet in the middle. What I loved about this sculpture was it’s whispering of solitude yet it’s command to come together and the way it inter-played with the sunshine, creating soft shadows and shapes. Another little secret we found, was that some of the poles in this exhibit pivot, allowing the viewer to enter the sculpture. While we were experiencing this, two young boys ran in whooping and shouting and we told them to ‘shh’ as this is a meditative space. They immediately became silent and told a third friend who ran in a bit later to do the same. It was so lovely to see them deriving such pleasure from these few moments of stillness. A few minutes later they ran off whooping and hollering again but they definitely were captivated for a moment.
Around every corner of this vast and beautiful landscape there lies a new exhibit to encounter and engage with. The next installation that caught my lengthened attention and which was part of the current exhibition was by South African artist Jake Singer, Dawn Chorus,2019–marine grade stainless steel. These were three bird like sculptures set into the streams of the park. The construction of them is copied from the age old craft of thatching. They resemble birds in flight and seem to move before your eyes. In assembling thousands of pieces of steel the artist has created a vision of transcendence. From different angles the sculptures seem to be either lifting off, landing or bowing down, the side wing like structures on one of the pieces speak of a hug which opened my mind to love and protection.
On this particular day my favorite sculpture, which was not part of the current exhibition, was a piece which is probably permanently in the park but a piece I couldn’t seem to find much information on. It is by the American photographer and filmmaker Ayana V Jackson. This piece pulled my eye from way over the other side of a lake. Large black glass sheets vertically rise up from the ground. On these are images of a woman dressed in Elizabethan styled clothing –a corset– in a suggestion to colonialism and the enslavement of black people, especially women. This seems to be a theme in a lot of Jackson’s previous work. In doing some sleuth work it seems this sculpture was from the 2018 Winter exhibition in Nirox, titled ‘Not a Single Story’. This particular exhibition took it’s inspiration from the novelist Adichie Chimamanda. She so eloquently highlights in her TED Talk the “danger of a single story” where she elucidates: “by only considering a single story about another person or country, we risk a critical misunderstanding”. On spotting this piece I couldn’t wait to get around the lake to see it, I was though, stopped in my tracks, on the way, by the previously described steel bird-like sculptures. When I reached the glass sheets what most transfixed me was the astuteness applied in the placement of them. You could walk around them and through them and from all directions the sheerness of the black reflected my image and the image of the water and trees opposite them. It looked in the beginning as if they were transparent. A beautiful and thought provoking installation.
I thoroughly enjoyed my walk around Nirox park and all the others around seemed to be having a blast too. The storytelling looked a great success among the little ones, but I did notice it was the grandmothers most adept at performing the moves the storyteller was encouraging among her audience. The one snippet of a story I heard was describing and showing the sound and movement of the African rain. Beautiful.
Amazingly I returned home to Ireland to find the swallows had already arrived from Africa and were inspecting the nests they had left behind in the eaves of the roof of our house from the summer previous. I, flew by British Airways Jumbo jet, they, flew the same distance on their own tiny little wings.
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