In his quest to find artist Keith Alexander’s Namibia, Nick van der Leek discovers something beautiful balancing on the other side of hyper reality.
Pictures: Nick van der Leek and Keith Alexander: The Artist in Restrospect, Jonathan Ball Publishers
I have met Keith Alexander but it’s terribly frustrating that I can’t remember the encounter. When I pass Bitterfontein, roughly halfway to Namibia from Cape Town, I get a strange inkling. Alexander’s art is simple, his surreal themes clear – but finding them, just like holding onto early childhood memories, isn’t going to be easy.
Right now everything is wrong. The light for instance – it’s too bright. Alexander’s paintings of failing farmsteads and broken homes, like the one he did here at Bitterfontein, are painted in near darkness, as if the artist painted them from a hot-air balloon, a helicopter or low-flying UFO. There are also few reference points to anchor the viewer. What’s that all about? And how the heck am I supposed to get myself into those selfsame vantage points?
From Bitterfontein I have a long way to go and the nuclear balloon is starting to dim. I shoot past Springbok and then it starts happening… the land unfolds on itself. It stretches out, revealing distant mountain ranges and opening up to reveal more ranges beyond a boundless horizon. Impossible vistas materialise at every turn in the road.
I’m minutes away from exiting South Africa and entering Namibia, when two jackals scamper across the road. I stop to watch them run into a bright-purple tapestry of colour. Far-off mountains glint gold.
The jackal is another favourite animal haunting Alexander’s art; and crows, desert creatures that scavenge off the mistakes of the dead. I descend through sweeping arcs of iron-hard rock. The sun has gone. The edge of Namibia in the eerie dusk already feels like another planet.
As I snake along the fossilised canyon, I wonder about Alexander’s art. I think about his images painted after dark. What is he trying to convey with his glowing, egg-yellow interiors? Why is he juxtaposing that amniotic warmth with ominous dunes polished by a silver moon?
Alexander’s art invariably shows some man-made centrepiece decaying in seas of sand. Invariably, the man-made thing, whether an old motor car, locomotive or steel ship, is a ruined island of human invention, wasting away under the onslaught of Africa’s relentless elements. We’re witnessing a war of attrition and, without exception, man is losing his battle against the forces of nature.
As soon as I cross the turbid, silvery Orange River, I feel myself crossing into another world. Star Wars begins in the desert of a planet called Tatooine (filmed in Morocco). It starts with the words, ‘A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…’ Namibia feels like that. A faraway place lost in time.
Immediately after crossing into Namibia I’m disorientated. In the dark, a creamy, dirt road plays tricks on me. The corrugations immediately set about rattling the vehicle, trying to break it. I’m disoriented less by darkness than by time. According to my GPS I’m already at my destination. Because of this I disregard the GPS instructions and take a dirt road in the right direction, but it’s the wrong road.
After 15km I realise my mistake and make a U-turn. The vehicle gets stuck in thick sand and I spend two hours digging it out. I use a flip-flop to scrape away the dirt. It’s gruelling labour in the pitch dark of the open veld. When I arrive at my destination, Canon Village, just opposite the gaping chasm of the Fish River Canyon, it’s well past midnight.
I bang on doors but no one answers. So I spend my first night in Namibia sleeping in the car. I’m awakened twice by the cold, and have to turn the engine on to heat up the interior. Eventually morning comes. I wake inside a landscape where persistent waters have scoured rock down to its two-billion-year-old basement. That’s half as old as the age of Earth. After breakfast I hike through a massive arch of rock, and along pavements and edifices above an ancient plain. My body still feels incredibly bruised from all my digging the night before.
My hands, too, are scratched from scraping at dirt. But the silence is a salve. I pass cairns of rock, and rocks cracked into unreal patterns. I walk on. My skin, especially my neck, begins to burn under the bleeding desert sun. The Namib is a tricky place. Few plants exist here and many that do are poisonous, like the Euphorbia virosa (a name that evokes Furiosa of Mad Max, recently filmed in Namibia). Once a group of tourists used dried-out euphorbia cactus logs to make a braai, and everyone died because even the smoke from this toxic plant is deadly.
Below me another colossal canvas spreads into the distance. In the foreground I see where subterranean forces have bubbled to the surface, creating piles of dark dolerite. There are many places in Namibia where piles of rock seem to have been built by man, or stacked on one another but, no, Nature built these Lego-like piles.
This surreal place is Alexander’s canvas and, as if things couldn’t get any weirder (or more wonderful), this is also the domain of Alexander’s Desert Monarch (the gemsbok). Again and again I come upon a solitary sentinel haunting an extensive emptiness. Invariably the gemsbok stops and turns to look at me as if to say, “What are you doing here?”
The iconic gemsbok is undoubtedly the star of Keith Alexander’s show. Again and again, it seems to materialise out of the metamorphic fabric. Suddenly one is standing there staring at me. When a gemsbok looks at me like that, the ground stirs beneath my feet. At Canon Village a gemsbok stares at me through my window. This is classic Keith Alexander stuff.
And so I drive on, north to the dunes and icy sea of Lüderitz. I visit Diaz Point where I get another inkling. Alexander’s art, like this landscape, spans 500 hundred years of history. One of his favourite subjects is ships. He’s even painted the Titanic, and I guess there’s some irony in that too – painting this colossal ship triumphantly sailing the seas… well, we know where that hubris ended up, don’t we?
Alexander’s thematic scope spans wide swathes of time, which is why his ships aren’t made just of steel, but wood. It’s also why some of his masts feature tattered sails. Bartolomeu Dias, a knight of the Portuguese empire searching for a sea route to the East, came ashore here (circa 1488) to what his men saw as a God-forsaken hell.
Dias didn’t get much further than Lüderitz – four ships and their entire crews disappeared in a storm near the Cape. No ships and none of those hundred or more skeletons have been found. Dias’ dreams, just like the Titanic, were defeated by the whims of Nature. And this is the essence of Alexander’s art – Nature as the slayer of dreams. Doomed ships and their doomed crews is just one of the themes Alexander, an ex-Rhodesian, explored. It’s a big canvas, when you think about it. How do you portray the attempts to colonise a country that cannot be colonised? The attempts to build an empire across a country designed to break men, their machines and their dreams into little pieces?
The ghost town of Kolmanskop is just outside Lüderitz, and it’s in this little enclave that Alexander found a treasure trove of inspiration. Surreal yet real. Surreal because the houses at Kolmanskop feel haunted with memory, like something out of a dream, or possibly someone’s nightmare. What we see are broken egg shells that were once elegant and opulent mansions belonging to German mining barons. There it is again – Nature the slayer of dreams. And it’s not just human wreckage lying on a derelict landscape. There are also animals – healthy, flourishing, thriving, in the absence f man. In the jackal there’s possibly a nod to an idiosyncratic Namibian deity. This deity is buried and reborn again and again, which is why it has many graves (cairns) all over Namibia. Eventually, according to folklore, this deity found its form as the jackal.
My first revelation of Alexander comes here, at Kolmanskop, at the same place where he brought his wife Elizabeth. They came here in a battered Mercedes-Benz to celebrate their honeymoon. They came many times to photograph and capture material for yet another overseas exhibition that would sell out.
While the wind gusts and dust swirls outside, I rifle through some research papers. I find Alexander’s own words about the land seizures in Zimbabwe, and he’s watching them on television. The words Alexander uses to describe watching the news of these seizures are ‘violence’ and ‘helpless’.
His family came to Africa thanks to the arch imperialist Cecil John Rhodes. They started farming about 100km north of present-day Bulawayo (then Salisbury). The trauma of losing a legacy and, more, the struggle of the European to assert himself in Africa, permeates much of Alexander’s art. There’s humour, occasionally, but a darker dystopia forms a strong undercurrent to much of his work.
Having made some headway on the man behind the desert mythology, I begin to make my way out of Namibia along the same road that brought me here. But questions remain. Why is it that I can’t remember meeting one of my favourite artists?
Keith Alexander’s epic desert scenes are some of the most expensive African art out there; his paintings typically sell for more than R300 000. Besides being world famous, his beautiful but disquieting scenes are the kind of intellectually riveting stuff I’d put on the walls of my home if I could afford it. And then I remember how, in the early eighties, I met him on the Wild Coast. I was a lighty, while Alexander was tall and thin and in his thirties. He had just become a South African citizen. The bearded, khaki-clad desert cowboy resembled a hybrid of Indiana Jones and Steven Spielberg.
Uncharacteristically, I kick over a cairn of teetering rock. To not respect these cairns invites misfortune. I drive to the viewpoint over the Fish River Canyon at Hobas. Sure enough, when I arrive at the lookout point I have a flat tyre. After repairing it, I venture towards the abyss. The colossal silence calls to me. Keith Alexander died at just 52 from brain cancer, his wife six months later. Life is fragile, even the memories of life are constantly slipping away from us. But, next to this delicateness of who we are, the quietude of a canyon is Nature’s own portrait of resilience.