Up there in the vicinity of the Arctic Circle, the various ways of keeping warm keep you busy, I guess.
Producing and consuming vodka seems to be a critical part of all of this. The Siberians originally set the pace, with the colonial Russians hard on their heels. You could say that the Siberians (and who knows, the Eskimos, who nobody talks about anymore) refined the rough art of turning potatoes, grain, rice, sugar, whale blubber or whatever else was lying about, into blood-curdling alcohol to keep the wolf, so to speak, from the proverbial door. They put the whole thing in motion, and eventually turned it from a household pursuit (grandma knitting by the samovar as the stuff was boiled down into a vicious, dizzying narcotic by her elbow) into an industry. From there, it stepped out into the world.
Much of our African revolution, such as it was, was fuelled by Stolichnaya vodka downloaded from Russia, Siberia, Georgia and wherever else they would have us. As vodkas go, Stolichnaya is not such a bad thing at all — certainly beating the Westernised version of Smirnoff into a hole in the ground.
The tougher among us were given access to the more esoteric branches of the vodka family tree along the way. I remember sitting with a comrade who was busy studying agriculture on a long-term basis at the Lumumba Freedom University in Moscow and attempting to kill off an unmarked bottle of something very suspicious from Siberia in his private dormitory before catching a plane back to the West.
The ethos of vodka is part of the culture of all those places and times. Anton Chekhov’s plays are full of it — a love-hate relationship with the colourless lifeblood of the icy tundra. In Chekhov’s plays, people seem to be prepared to shoot themselves at the drop of a hat because of inherited angst, as long as someone will give them enough vodka to make it worthwhile.
Then there’s Absolut, which also comes from around that area of the Arctic Circle, but a bit further west — namely Sweden.
The Swedes are rightly proud of their peculiar vodka product. The first bottle of Absolut Vodka was first exported into the rest of the world in 1979, I am told. The late, iconoclastic artist, Andy Warhol, stumbled across it, or one of its successors, in 1985 at Grand Central Station or there-abouts and decided to make a painting of it to join his burgeoning collection of 20th century iconic images, such as cans of Campbell’s soup and Marilyn Monroe transmogrifying in various colours.
OK. Here was the first step into Absolut as art icon — those clean Swedish lines containing, for all time, a clean Swedish product — even if it was just vodka.
Since then, some 500 international artists have joined the Absolut bandwagon. Our own Zwelethu Mthetha is the latest of these, and the first African artist to be hauled on board, producing a work of art that, like all the rest of the Absolut body of original artworks, is both his own and not his own.
Why do I say this? Each Absolut Artist (and I am next in line, make no mistake) brings his or her own existing brand of excellence to the subtle, powerful brand of Absolut. As in days or yore, creative genius is cleverly aligned with the genius of entrepreneurship.
The genius of Absolut, of course, is that, in its image of a clear bottle, filled with a clear liquid that supposedly has nothing to hide, all things become visible. Which is, I am sure, what gave Andy Warhol and all the other artists who followed him that initial impetus to try to capture it — the art of capturing nothing, or whatever it is you see. Or, whatever it is that might end up going down your gullet, for better or for worse.
Zwelethu Mthethwa has done a beautiful job of following in the footsteps of those who have dared to follow in the footsteps of Andy Warhol down the Absolut road of fame. He is rightfully cautious about telling me what this all comes to in rands and cents. The fact of the matter is that each work of art becomes an advertising campaign, and whatever the sly Swedish alcohol company paid, the input accessed from these extraordinary artists is invaluable.
It must also be said that no one else thought about doing it quite like this. This is the very Swedish thing about the whole deal.
The Swedes protest that they come from a ”small country”, and have contributed only a small amount to world culture. Placed against the power of Coca-Cola and Johnnie Walker, this might ring true.
However, methinks they do protest too much. Swedish entrepreneurship, tied in with a highly sophisticated, liberal political culture, has more than made its mark on the world stage.
With the Absolut campaign alone, they have straddled the world in an original and witty way. Zwelethu is the latest in a long line of fine artists to be recognised in an enterprise of this kind. His Absolut painting shows a ”typical” African scene, with two women walking into the foreground, one of whom, in typical African female fashion, is carrying the famous Absolut bottle on her head.
In the background people are jiving in a ”typical” African shebeen scene — with the exception of one dark, brooding figure in a dark, brooding hat, who is said to be a writer well known to the artist and the general public. I might not like coming across like that but what a compliment. Just to be there. Absolutely.