Sunset On Desert Sands ~ And Escaping From Kenya

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It is a kind of alchemy. As the sun sets, and its glow flows out across the desert, the dunes that in the full light of day had been dun coloured, inert, dull even, transform into waves of molten copper.

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To drive into the desert in late afternoon was blissful. The emptiness. And more emptiness. AND NO PEOPLE. We had come to Dubai for a break from Nairobi living. Sometimes life there could become too nerve-fraying. During the Moi era, security was always an issue in Kenya. Whenever the political temperature heated up – which was often during the 1990s’ donor push for multi-party democracy – so the crime wave spiked. It was mostly white collar crime too – run by crooked lawyers, senior officials and cops – all people who should know better.

Car-jacking was a speciality, and the diplomatic and aid community were particular targets with their newly imported 4 x 4s that were shipped in with each fresh posting. So it was that High Commission cocktail party talk mostly involved expats’ tales of having their vehicles stolen in hair-raising scenarios, usually by men with AK47s who had followed them into their driveways as they were returning home. Then there were the stories from Graham’s Kenyan colleagues. If they were driving project vehicles they would be car-jacked AND taken hostage for hours on end. We never did understand why car-jackers did this – driving around the city for hours until they finally decided to dump the unfortunate hostage in some god-forsaken wasteland.

Then there were aggravations such as coming home from a four-day seminar to find the house without electricity and the freezer dripping into the hall. In our absence some officious meter reader had been let into the property to read the meter. He misidentified our house number and claimed we had not paid our electricity bill. He then went off with our house fuses, and it  took a week of hideous argy bargy with closed-minded officialdom to have the power restored.

They claimed they had never heard of a meter man taking the fuses with him. Usually, they said, he would simply hide them somewhere handy, to be reinstated once the bill had been paid. In the meantime, nothing in our house worked since everything was electric. And all the security devices which the High Commission insisted we had, pretty much useless.

We have paid our bill, we kept saying to the electricity men. We have the receipt. These were the wrong words. Kitu kidogo were the right words. A little something. But as we didn’t play, we had to wait. Eventually a couple of very pleasant engineers took pity on us, and called in to see what was going on. After remonstrating at the lack of fuses as if this was our fault, they decided to make some new ones, standing on the kitchen stoop by the fuse box, winding wire round spools while admiring my crop of Tuscan kale, a variety they had never seen before but were much taken with. It was nice to have the lights back on. Playing scrabble by candle-light might seem vaguely romantic, but it wasn’t really, not after the first night.

And on top of the power-out dilemma, the weather had been vile – an El Nino special of weeks of endless torrential rain – people drowned, homes and whole villages washed away, impassable roads, the place unnaturally cold and grey and impossibly WET. It made us realise that we had very little to complain of. At least we had a roof over our head, and it only leaked a bit in the sitting-room corner.

But then the long wet spell next promoted an outbreak of ‘Nairobi Fly’ or Nairobi Eye – a rove beetle that causes extremely painful skin conditions if you happen to brush it away with too much enthusiasm, and then use the same hand when touching some area of bare flesh. For a time the whole city seemed under siege from this nasty little bug, the press burbling with horror stories of men whose private parts had become horribly inflamed due to some inadvertent contact. (Er, hem).

So it was good to fly away. It was good to spend a night in the desert even if our Tanzanian guide did lie in the back of the 4 x 4 with the door open and snore all night. It was good to get up at dawn to a bright, crisp day and walk alone through the dunes, and to see for miles and miles, without a soul in sight, only the distant blue spine of Oman’s El Hajar Mountains. It made the spirits soar, all that aloneness, as if you could face anything, though a month there might have truly done the trick.

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P.S. In case you are wondering, the green areas in the last photo are plots of alfalfa – high octane fodder for Dubai’s racing camels which are also reared in the desert on small camel farms.

copyright 2017 Tish Farrell

Daily Post Photo Challenge: Atop

Early Morning On Menai Strait

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I like the notion that everything is moving in this apparently static image: time, tide, clouds, shadows, light, the ash tree, me. And maybe even the mountains across the water.

 

Photo snapped in Dynamic Monochrome setting. For a very finely composed rendition of the theme ‘passage’ visit Paula at:

Black & White Sunday: Passage

On Edge With Stormy Weather Over Wenlock

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Before and after last summer’s wheat harvest.

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As I’ve mentioned once or several times, I spend much time watching the sky behind our house. I never cease to be fascinated by the false horizon created by this low hill. Behind it is a another false horizon created by Wenlock Edge which lies a half mile further on.  Here in Wenlock, then, we see the movement of clouds in the westerly sky  several hundred feet higher than do our neighbours below the Edge. It is a piece of geographic happenstance that makes for dramatic skyscapes. It’s a bit like watching a moving stage set.

I justify the time spent sky watching on the grounds that I need to make the most of this view. Doubtless the local landowner will get his way and one day build a sprawling housing estate here, this despite the fact the town has a Victorian drainage system that cannot cope with any more human effluent. Already, just to add an off-colour atmosphere to the scene, our sewage works is licensed to dump excess untreated waste into the stream which thence flows into the River Severn and through the World Heritage Site of the Ironbridge Gorge. This is clearly what is meant in England when certain politicians bang on about Victorian Values.  Sometimes I wonder how, as a nation, we can be so very smug about ourselves.

The poor drains of course add to the town’s flash flooding risk, and to replace them would cost many millions. We do not appear to have a planning system in this country that says NO to development, even though there is insufficient infra-structure to support it. Developers of course pay a pro rata community levy on the number of houses built, but such amounts could not begin to cover the cost of the kind of remedial work that is necessary. When Wenlock’s population is less than 3,000, why would a water company spend 10 million pounds on such a venture?

The main problem is that the town sits in a hollow behind the summit of Wenlock Edge. The town centre is at the lowest point and thus one of the most vulnerable areas. In 2007 over fifty houses were damaged. Many afflicted families were still trying to restore their homes up to a year later. And while insurance cover may make good the bricks and mortar, it does not bring back the personal belongings that were lost, or quickly eradicate the memory of having a metre high flood rushing through your house.

Mostly of course, the town does not flood, although parts of it are prone to run-off from surrounding hills in times of prolonged wet weather. As far as we know, our house has never flooded, although given its position, built into the bottom of the hill, this is in some ways surprising. There is anyway a low earth bund along the back boundary and, after earlier flood incidents lower down the street, the landowner’s tenant farmer continues to leave a broad swathe of uncultivated ground behind our houses, and then ploughs  in line with it.

In fact to create real problems it takes a certain kind of storm to hit our catchment area. But when it comes there is less than 20 minutes warning before a flash flood. The roads into the town become rivers. Every hard surface speeds up the flow, and given our antiquated system, all the storm water goes into the foul sewer. All of which is to say, as one of the flood alert wardens with the brief of forewarning elderly neighbours, I also have more pressing reasons for watching the sky, and keeping an eye on any storms brewing.

copyright 2015 Tish Farrell

Related:

In Much Wenlock An Inspector Calls

Please visit Paula’s place at Lost in Translation for more fascinating cloudscape photographs.

Thursday’s Special: looking at the sky over Wenlock Edge

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Is it just me, or are our skies growing more interesting in terms of light and cloud formation? I know I spend more time these days looking upwards. Behind our house on Sheinton Street the farmland rises in a series of scarps till it reaches the tree line on Wenlock Edge. Thereafter the ground falls away through hanging woodland. It is quite a drop and means we view the weather higher up somehow, always beyond a series of false horizons. The light and cloud change every minute of the day. You can lose hours simply watching.

This week Paula suggests we post portraits of one kind or another. Here, then, are some sky portraits taken over Townsend Field and Wilmore Hill. You may imagine, too, the frequent exchange that takes place between G and me as we move about the house and garden: I say. Have you seen the sky?

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Lost in Translation Thursday’s Special

#WenlockEdge

Looking inside ‘The House of Belonging’ with artist Sheilagh Jevons

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I thought it was time I welcomed good friend and artist, Sheilagh Jevons, to this blog. She lives a few miles from me along Wenlock Edge, in the little village of Easthope. There, and in her studio not far away, she creates arresting work that explores the sense of belonging that people have with landscape.

From time to time she and I have involving conversations about the creative process – the stumbling blocks, the sources of inspiration, the way we work (or in my case, don’t work). A few weeks ago she came round for coffee. I wanted to ask her about a painting I had seen in her studio. I had thought it striking and mysterious, and wanted to know what she meant by it. Besides which, it is hard to resist the opportunity to grill an artist when you have one captured inside your house.

The image above is a small detail from a work called The House of Belonging. This figure has appeared in Sheilagh’s other works and represents women artists. Some of their names are written on the smock, artists perhaps not well known to the general public. Here she pays homage to their work, but also alludes to the fact that, overall, very little work by women artists is to be found in museums.

The writing of names and of repeated key-words and equations is characteristic of many of Sheilagh’s pieces. It was one of the things I was going to ask her about. But first, the painting.

 

 

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It is a large canvas, some 4 feet (120cm) square. The next photo gives a better sense of scale. Here it is hanging in Sheilagh’s studio:

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I asked Sheilagh how the work began.

She told me that some years ago the idea of belonging had become very important to her. As she says on her website “Our ‘sense of belonging’ ripples out from our homes to our village, street, town, county, region and country and help to shape our identity…”

Key, then, to her work is a sense of connection to land and how that relationship defines us. This in turn has physical expression in community repositories, the places where we keep artefacts, our history, the knowledge of ancestors – all the familiar things we recognise and which tell us something of who we are. In other words, the museum, or as Sheilagh describes it: the house of belonging.

The script running down the left-hand margin of the painting in fact repeats over and over the words ‘the museum’, the house of belonging’. The repetition reflects the strong political stance of Sheilagh’s work. To me this is ‘the writing on the wall’, a statement of collective ownership; The House of Belonging staking a claim. Its contents are manifestations of how humans have interacted with their landscape and the place they call home. Sheilagh also says that adding text creates a certain texture; that the sense of a hand moving across the work creates a connection with her, its maker.

The wheeled blue structure, then, is the House of Belonging. The words written inside say ‘everybody’s knowledge’. This is written twice so there can be no mistake. It feels like something to stand up for, a rallying call. It is also important, Sheilagh says, that the House can move across the landscape to where the people are, rather than the other way round; this makes it more egalitarian. Inside the House are images and artefacts, symbols of creativity. Some of them are stereotypical of ‘heritage’ and therefore instantly recognisable. For instance, the chess pieces (centre left in the painting) are derived from the Scottish Isle of Lewis Chess Set in the British Museum. The set dates from AD 1150-1200 and suggests Norse influence or origins.

 

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Sheilagh copied and simplified the images from a sales catalogue that specialises in heritage reproductions. The placing of the queen in the central position is also significant. She says she feels bound to redress an imbalance: the fact that in most of our media women only occupy centre stage when they are being commodified in some way.

And then there is the mathematical equation painted in red beneath the red tree, centre right of the painting.

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The presence of equations in Sheilagh’s works adds a further layer meaning for her, and although she doesn’t think it necessary to explain them, she is always very pleased when people recognise them.

This particular one refers to mathematical research by American academics in the 1920s called The Geometry of Paths. The appearance of equations in Sheilagh’s paintings also has more personal origins. She tells me she started to include them some years ago – after she had been helping her daughter revise for her Maths and Physics A’ level exams. It is another connection.

There are many more signifiers in the work: motifs that have links and resonance with Sheilagh’s other works. The red tree above the equation is a symbol of timelessness, indicating ‘forever’ in human terms. 

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The red arrow in the top right creates a sense of energy and direction; a ‘look what’s here’ sign. There is the sense of a force field, drawing people to the House of Belonging.

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Finally, we talked about the overall composition. Sheilagh says that she began the work some years ago after she noticed that a small building denoting ‘museum’ often appeared in her landscapes. This time she wanted it to have it as the main subject, and to make it both an enticing and a mysterious place. At this point she also created the friezes at the top and bottom of the picture, these in order to suggest other layers of reality behind the surface painting. The top frieze is the wider, timeless landscape of which the museum is also symbol. The bottom frieze is deliberately ambiguous and suggestive; it invites the viewer to consider what might lie behind.

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And having created the work’s essential structure, the painting was then abandoned. It was only some fifteen months later, when Sheilagh, looking for a large canvas to start another work, returned to it. She was fully intending to paint over it, but when she looked at it again she suddenly knew how to proceed and completed the work very swiftly. She says it probably is not quite finished, and suspects that something may still need to be added.

In the meantime she has been occupied with a large body of work relating to Scotland. Having strong Scottish roots herself she has been moved to explore that nation’s landscape against the backdrop of the upcoming referendum on Scottish independence. In the next photo, taken in her studio, Sheilagh explains the preparatory work she has done for a project inspired by a recent trip to St.Kilda in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides.

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For more about Sheilagh’s work and exhibitions please visit her website and blog:

Sheilagh Jevons Contemporary Artist website

Artist at the Mogg blog

 

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Artist’s makings in Sheilagh Jevon’s studio

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Frizz’s ‘L’ Challenge for more stories

© 2014 Tish Farrell