Portrait of beautiful Malawian woman with bright crimson flower and raindrops

Thelma with Unfallen Rain

Imagined, Portraits

Acrylic on canvas 120cm x 180cm

This is about waiting. We wait for the rain the way we wait for the government (or big business) to rescue us. There has been a “green drought” in the Western Cape for the past three years. In combination with ongoing urban growth and government mismanagement it has turned into a full blown water crisis. Living our daily lives has become synonymous with water saving. We count our showers and never bath, we have bowls in sinks and showers to catch water, we keep precious washing water to flush etc. Every action, everything we buy and eat, is measured by how much water has been used for its cause. The heavy wait for water and the evasive hysteria from the media and government inevitably slipped through my fingers and onto the canvas.

Early stages of underpainting for an acrylic portrait about drought

Work in Progress 1  – The huge canvas waiting in a corner of my Cape Town studio

It happened almost by accident, in between other paintings. I’d begun an enormous painting of Thelma in an ornate black necklace but I just couldn’t bring myself to finish it as it stood. I’d smoothed the canvas with texture paste, applied pretty washes and laid out a structure that really compelled me but I couldn’t work out what happened next. I spent time with my family, waited for insight and we all waited for rain.

Four months passed with little inspiration and even less rain; and ever more hysterical media messages about saving water, not using taps, penalties, bylaws and threats of  punitive taxes for living in a city with big, new buildings and small, old dams. There was deathly silence from the politicians whenever it rained though. Perhaps they were hoping we wouldn’t notice it running off the Civic Center, or into the hovels of the people who live under the broken Metrorail station roof next door.

The big painting stumped me. I tried all my favourite things: pure colour, transparent glazes, messy splashes of wet paint over areas that annoyed me. Nada. Only small parts worked. The whole felt thin and unresolvable.

Progressing underpainting for an acrylic portrait about drought
Work in Progress 2 – Massive and unsolved… .

Painting is problem solving. You may have a plan when you start out, but as you go the painting flows or argues with you in no predictable way. Colours fight for dominance, parts of the background refuse to recede, and details in the source image bicker with emerging character of the painting. When I’m really stuck, I find it helps to develop a bit of a martial attitude to the work. I decide to start putting paint on canvas and not stop until the solution appears. I drank a lot of coffee and dug in for about a week.

After a few days I’d given up on the background, the hibiscus and the necklace several times with no end in sight. The painting was never going to work as it was, so I reexamined Thelma’s face. She is tiny and sweet but her character and will are indomitable, and I needed the viewer to see this in her eyes. During the photo shoot we’d played with jewelry, dresses and fabric but the thing we’d all loved most was the face paint; which I’d left out of the paintings entirely… .

Progressing underpainting for an acrylic portrait about drought
Work in progress 3 – With some parts working and others fighting me tooth and nail

The thing with acrylic is that it’s painfully difficult to experiment with it in hot weather. No matter how much glycerin I add, some edge always dries where I least want it to and I have to spend an eternity with ethanol, tiny brushes and earbuds to get it back off if I change my mind.

At moments like this, artists learn to “lean in” or face never finishing anything at all. With the first white streaks on her cheekbones everything started to cohere. I drank more coffee and  reveled in the dopamine rush of “things coming together”. Who needs sleep?

It stopped raining.

Beginning to add detail on an acrylic portrait about drought
Work in Progress 4 (With my foot)

Playing with colour and getting to “fiddle with reality” brings me intense joy so I reveled in colour and texture for a while. It’s so good to forget life and chores and politics and fear for a while. I’m deeply grateful for my work.

Eventually I had to do some basic housekeeping or run out of dishes, clothes and patience with the sticky summer heat. I did my weekly load of laundry, filling buckets with water from the washing machine to reuse flushing, mopping and cleaning and keeping my tomato plants alive. I hauled buckets around the awkward old apartment and watched fat drops of water fall from the sky and into the gutters and storm drains outside.

Adding detail to an acrylic portrait about drought
Work in Progress 5- Water for diamonds, water for gold.

The necklace was black and pointless, I’d already tried white but it was equally pointless. Water poured from the sky outside and my frustration and boredom with lugging buckets of precious liquid around my elderly flat, fighting with 1950s plumbing and shitty water storage found it’s outlet at last, hovering untethered above Thelma’s skin.

How many schools, hospitals, and blue-light brigades was this rain splashing off while I took time away from earning a living to make up for ancient plumbing? How many kids were getting yelled at for splashing in puddles and for leaving taps on? How many porta-pools were folded uselessly away, legally forbidden in every garden, while rain ran riot through gutters and downpipes, and out to sea?

And to pump sea water back onto land: How much money will the failing bureaucracy “reallocate” toward desalinization tenders, and away from hospitals, public works, universities and the very people who could fix the problem?

Portrait of beautiful Malawian woman with bright crimson flower and raindrops

Will you be ready when the rain does fall? Because it still falls.

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