Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Conscripted artist

Oh, I don't think I've yet mentioned the army. As a young white male growing up in apartheid South Africa, the prospect of military conscription weighed heavily from about the time one reached puberty. And, as the 1970s wore on, so the period of conscription increased - from a year, to 18 months, then to two years. By attending art school from 1975 till my higher diploma year in 1978, I successfully evaded the call-up. But things caught up with me in July, 1979, at the ripe old age of 22, almost 23. And by now it was two years' initial "training", followed by "camps" totalling four months in every two-year cycle - a one-month camp and a three-month camp. Not an altogether pleasing prospect for anyone, really.

So, as Arlo Guthrie put in in Alice's Restaurant, I got good and drunk the night before I had to report at the East London station for a train trip around Lesotho (Transkei had pseudo independence and wouldn't let a "foreign" troop train through) to the 5 SA Infantry Battalion base at Ladysmith, Natal, in the foothills of the Drakensberg.

Despite years of art training, art was the last thing on my mind as I slowly recovered from my hangover and considered my next two depressing years in uniform as an apartheid soldier. Landed up in a tent with about nine other ous on the banks of the Klip River. It was mid-winter pretty cold and very hazy for the first week or two. Then, suddenly, a crisp, clear, icy morning - and you could at last see the distant Drakensberg. I turned to the only drawing material I had to hand - my little A6 army-issue note book.

These were drawn, often while standing in long queues for food, or possibly when we had some free time over weekends. I even penned a bit of verse about the visual effects of snow on mountains. It was the first time I had seen it and I was stunned by its beauty.

The middle of the three pictures above is the view of a koppie seen, if I recall correctly, from the camp. The others were sketched while on the many route marches we were sent on.

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