Heat and dust

Aidan Walsh, renowned painter of South African places, journeyed to the desolate vlaktes of the Northern Cape and Karoo.

The result is Pofadder and Back, a series of landscapes that provides a visual tapestry of forgotten Karoo dorpies, heat and dust, scrawny landscape, unending roads littered with sparse greenery, derelict churches and hotels, and the characteristic silence of abandoned, rural life

The artistic journey moves in a zigzag through Klawer, Van Rhynsdorp, Garies, Pella, Pofadder, Hope Town, Verneukpan, Matjiesfontein, Deelfontein, to Gonnemanskraal, with numerous stops in Walsh’s quest to find meaning in the South African rural landscape.

What was the originating idea for your Karoo journey?

My friend and co-exhibitor, Lize Hugo, drove from Gauteng to Cape Town and commented that she passed many of my “paintings” along the way.
Lize and I then decided to drive up to the Northern Cape via the Karoo to explore legendary places like Pofadder, a source of many jokes — but for us, a source of wonder and inspiration. Our journey covered 5 000km from Cape Town up the West Coast and back. We drove through the area with nothing in particular in mind, just optimism for fresh ideas and new experiences.

Why your obsession with places?

Some people think it is quite bizarre, but my idea of what is interesting is places such as a battered house with the corrugated iron roof falling in; or a very stark, arid landscape. Temples and churches fascinate me — preferably if they are reasonably old. I feel that stone takes on the place of people over the centuries. [Stone buildings] have an air of sanctuary or sanctity. People have lived and worshipped there for aeons, so their spirits must have impressed upon the stones. I have always been fascinated with the Karoo. I first had a glimpse of the place about 20 or 30 years ago. Dan Cook once commented at one of my exhibitions on my “Calvinistic background”, in terms of my obsession with the Karoo, when, in fact, I have a Catholic/Irish/French background. My maternal grandmother farmed in the Hex River valley — it could be some sort of ancestral strain coming through. But she was Irish. My other grandmother was from Malmesbury, in the Swartland. As a child all I had seen were illustrations of the place and I read a lot about its desolation, and drought, and the waiting for the rains to come.

How was it possible to get an almost realistic portrayal of the scenes in your paintings?

I can sit and stare at a painting I am working on for hours. Painting to me is a kind of translation. In the time between seeing a place and painting it, the colours get inside my head and grow and change, or I adapt them subconsciously. I spend hours mixing colour. There are strange colours in the Karoo — the funny tawny colours, the oranges and yellows. It sometimes looks dreary in a photograph and I redraw it and work it out as realistically as possible.

Would you briefly describe some of the paintings?

The strange and desolate landscape made me almost sick with enjoyment, for example, the Knersvlakte. It means “gnashing” in Afrikaans. I can imagine people arriving there in their wobbling wagons looking at this place and saying, “My God, what do we have here?” Pella is quite an odd place. I first saw it in an airways magazine and was fascinated. It is a mission station. I looked it up on the map and drove on a dusty road with a few battered houses and enquired, “Waar is die groot kerk?” The church was built by two missionaries who referred to an encyclopaedia for their architecture. All around and stretching into the distance are masses of date palms. They reminded Lize of Algeria, where she had spent some time. Pella is the place that exports the most dates in Southern Africa. The Victoria West dam is one of the surprises of this journey. The dam was absolutely dry. It was an extraordinary image of the dereliction of this place.

Is there any social commentary in these paintings?

I think there is beauty in dereliction, desolation and loneliness. The place is totally silent, we can hear absolutely nothing. It is wonderful. It is a journey to discover places and, in the process, yourself.

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