And then there was light...

January 17, 2013

After a lazy afternoon of lying out in the sun in the back garden with Lula Blue last week, I wanted to mention something about light, but without it sounding all weird and esoteric or anything.  It’s not just light per se that I wanted to talk about though, but rather the way it seems to bring out the best of everything that is Africa.  Here, for reasons only known to those strange science types with white coats and pocket protectors, light seems to bounce around more than in any other place I’ve been to… the way it plays around makes a bunch of fireflies on heat seem rather lame.  Impressionism they say was invented in Europe… which is bizarre.  Had Cezanne, Monet, Gauguin, van Gogh (during his less daring two-eared phase), and the boys been more adventurous and traded the wild women of Tahiti for the luscious light of Africa – I think Impressionism could have reached even higher heights (higher heights?? lighter lights? abject adjectives, wordier words…)


It is odd though, to think that art in Africa started in caves.  Dark, dingy, smoky caves far from the rays of the sunlight majoris… why would this be, if Africa – well at least if my afternoon under the oak in the garden last Friday is anything to go by – is the birthplace of some of the best light displays known to man…?  And then through the smog of the ancient smoke-filled cave, whose walls are littered with naive imagery of oversized eland, of giraffes, of rhinos (remember them my son? look it up under ‘R’ in the book of extinct animals my boy), of men with bows and spears and funny little rounded bottoms, comes the answer – one that is more African than the horny fireflies that somehow found their way into a mixed metaphor a little way earlier…


Yes, I talk of fire – the campfire, the hearth, the centre of the cave, the gathering place of all Africa come night-time… the place where dark and light meet in a… (I want to say kaleidescope but that is one serioulsy over-used analogy)… Bacchanalian festival of sparkle and spritz.  For is it not around the fire that light is allowed to flow?  In the stories on the tongues of the ancients, on the brush tips of the rock painters, on the rises and falls of the trance chorus; in the dust kicked up by the stamping feet, and in the drummers heartbeat.  Fire is Africa’s primal version of primetime television – it’s our news, our weather, our favourite soapy and our favourite thirty-something sitcom all rolled into a bundle of coal and ash… without it, the paintings on those cave walls would be a series of Monet’s Waterlilies hung in a dark basement.  Without it, the excitement on the faces of singing, dancing, dirty streetkids would be a watercolour left out in the rain – smudged and messy and lacking any form or figure.  Perhaps that’s it then – Africa would never have been appealing to Impressionists, Neo-impressionists, Post-Impressionists or Post-neo-impressionists, not because it doesn’t have great light…


I think even with my poor choices of simile, I have made it abundantly clear that Africa revels in light in every form.  No, the reason that an artisitic style that rides on the back of Mrs Nature’s loopy light-displays was never a big hit in Africa was not because we were too busy fighting wars and settling major land disputes at the time (which is unfortunately factually true), but primarily because the light in Africa is difficult to capture on canvas – it is an enigmatic light, one that is neither a pointilist’s point nor a van Gogh’s sweeping brushstroke.  It is something more of an abstract impressionism, and impressionistic abstraction of light, energy and… well, yes, darkness…  it’s as if the washed-out and weathered cave paintings of Africa are exactly as they should be – celebrating both the dark, and the light…  And all at once he thinks he’s hit it on the head – the thing about African light is that it is made up in no-small-part of quite a substantial squeeze of dark.


A friend in the photography game describes a certain time of day – that hour just before sunset, when all light melts into a magical golden hue – as the gravy hour… I’m not sure why I like that description – the honeyed hour, treacle time, chardonnay on ice… these are far more worthy titles for this fabulous photgrapher’s dreamtime… and yet, there it is: gravy.  Gloopy, dark, oily and staining.  The oozing, boiling fat from the roast leg of beast mixed in with red wine and corn flour… what could possibly be romantic about that?  Calling the last light of the day gravy hour is a bit like calling van Gogh’s paintings childish… and yet they are, and so it is…


And it is exactly in this etymological dichotomy that we have the perfect description of Africa’s light that I have yet heard – for in that boiling, oozing mass of meaty fats and winy starch, is the perfect topping for any communal meal around any fanciful flickering campfire in any painting-filled smoky cave. Gravy completes a good meal like the last light completes a good day.  Like fire completes a great night.  Like sunrise completes a hopeful morning.  The gravy hour in Africa is more than a distinct timeframe, it is a feeling, a warmth, a motherly embrace that keeps us all guessing – it is the light of this dark continent that makes it what it is.  There is no better way of saying it other than that.  The light completes Africa’s darkness.  And then there was light, and it was good…

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