The life and soul of SA women

The N7 snakes away from Cape Town up the West Coast, shrugging off fences and farms as fast as it can. At Vanrhynsdorp the landscape opens wide, the outflung arms of mountains beckoning north. It is a long road, mirroring, I think, the long journey Karina Turok has taken in bringing her beautiful book into being.
We are on our way to do the very last interview, take the very last roll of film for her book Life and Soul: Portraits of Women Who Move South Africa (Double Storey).

The person we are going to meet is Grietjie Adams. She lives in the tiny hamlet of Garies, a place that bursts into life during the September flower season and then falls back into its own quiet rhythm for the rest of the year. Adams’s home is sparsely furnished, orderly, unexceptional. Yet she is both custodian and creator of a unique blend of songs, oral histories, trickster stories, jokes and riddles. She has performed, singing and doing the Nama-stap at weddings and parties and church events that mark the rituals and transitions of life in her own and neighbouring hamlets for half a century. Her oeuvre has been shaped by inherited traditions and by her talent, humour, compassion and a resilient creativity.

How she has lived her life resonated with the other interviews Turok had done while photographing the 75 women in Life and Soul. Adams might not be as well known as struggle stalwarts Albertina Sisulu and Adelaide Tambo, Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer, or story-teller Gcina Mhlope, nor is she as powerful as Gloria Serobe, Wendy Luhabe and Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka. They are all women who have made exceptional contributions to the lives of their communities—whether that community is a rural village, like Epainette Mbeki, the president’s self-effacing mother; or South Africa’s Constitutional Court—Yvonne Mokgoro and Kate O’Regan; or Alison—the rape survivor who has inspired so many with her courage; or Anusuya Chinsamy-Turan, the palaeontologist.

Each of Turok’s black-and-white portraits is accompanied by a short extract from the conversations she had with the 75 women. Listening to them, reading them, was like being allowed to sit quietly in the corner of a comfortable, sunny room and listen to the intimate and revealing conversations of older and wiser friends, sisters, mothers, aunts. I read and reread the interviews—many of them 10 000 words or longer—to distil the essence, a word portrait as it were, of these exceptional women. In each interview a small kernel would emerge—an anecdote, a comment, an experience—that illuminated for me the woman telling the story of her life, of what had made her the particular individual she is, of what had made her wise and given her soul.

Turok’s book reveals these women as they are now, reflecting- back—such as Fatima Meer and Amina Cachalia—on lives of great achievement, or meditating on what it is like to be at the pinnacle of her career—like swimmer Natalie du Toit or designer Nkhensani Nkosi, or artist Marlene Dumas. The interviews are maps of the arduous journeys these women have taken to reach who and what they are now.

So many of these women’s lives were shaped by the educational and economic inequities and racism of apartheid. The loss and separation, especially from small children, that resulted from being forced into exile or imprisoned, like Thandi Modise, is wrenching. These are wounds that have to be healed, that often have healed but the scars are there to be lived. There are other, more private woundings—family violence like that experienced by gospel singer Rebecca Malope, the death of a partner, like Mamphela Ramphele endured after Steve Biko’s murder; or living with HIV/Aids as traditional healer and Aids activist Prudence Mabele has done.

But present too, overwhelmingly so, is delight in work well done, joy in children and family and solitude, and celebration of what women do in spite of—or perhaps because of—the hurdles they faced in the past and continue to face now.

It is a mercurial thing to capture—that sense of both the dark and the light of a life well lived. The life and soul really of the 75 women Turok photographed.

A photographic exhibition of Karina Turok’s Life and Soul: Portraits of Women Who Move South Africa is showing at the Iziko South African National Gallery in Cape Town until September 3

Margie Orford edited the text of Life and Soul

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