Ruth Baumgarte – A Response to her Paintings. One continent, so many different aspects
I was born in the southern part of Zimbabwe, in the countryside. I experienced my childhood around those rural areas, but was able to spend a little more time in the city during the last two years at high school. It was only when I was at university that I would spend the greater part of my year in the city. I eventually settled down as a permanent city-dweller after graduating, by virtue of having found a job as a publisher. But, to this day, I still occasionally spend time in the countryside, where my parents and a good number of my extended family members continue to live.
Throughout these years, I used to have time to sit in the open and admire the countryside: the landscape, the flowing rivers and the undulating mountains – as I still do today. But my attention to these features does not last very long. My mind switches to the children playing on the river bed; to the girls carrying heavy buckets of water from the river; to the boys herding cattle on the mountainside; to the mothers struggling to collect firewood from the ever-shrinking forests; to the men cutting grass to thatch their family huts; to the young lovers teasing each other down in the valley; to an elderly couple singing while walking back from enjoying a beer; to some angry young men challenging each other to a fist fight. My mind switches to the baboons foraging for food at the top of the mountain; to the fish in the river, fish that could end up in someone’s pot that very same day; to the birds singing in so many different, beautiful voices.
To me, the landscape is not an entity. It is not a wonder of nature that is there for the sake of its own existence. It is part of a whole web of inter-connected facets of life. That reality makes it difficult for my mind to spend hours on end admiring the countryside, without putting everything around it in context. That is how my mind operates, even when I happen to travel to other parts of the world.
When I was invited to write this response to Ruth Baumgarte’s work, I initially hesitated. I belong to the generation that was born and grew up in colonial Africa. We were exposed extensively to paintings that were done by earlier artists from Europe whose portrayals of Africa were predominantly landscapes. It was as if, to the artists, Africa was all about nature, whether good or bad. With time, we got to understand the many factors behind this, which include basic perceptions, mind-sets, intentions and purposes. But still, the portrayals left an indelible mark in our minds. This, surely, was not the Africa that our forbears lived in, neither was it the Africa that we lived in – an Africa which is all about rivers and mountains, trees and flowers, without a single human being in sight.
It was because of that background of mine that I initially hesitated. As the saying goes, ‘the first cut is the deepest”: even though there are several other European artists’ portray of Africa that are broader, the childhood mindset remains stuck, and takes time to adjust to reality. It was also because, even after staying in Germany for three years (and several visits before and after my stay) I was not fully acquinted with German painters’ works. I was not even aware of Ruth Baumgarte, let alone her work. I hesitated because of her European background, and the unfamiliarity with her work.
As such, I was not sure if I would not find myself faced with artworks that would trigger mixed emotions. However, when I was given the opportunity to look at samples of Ruth’s work, I was happily relieved. And when I got more information about Ruth’s background, a lot became clearer. Ruth got to know about Africa through literature. Like many other Europeans, Africa to her was strange and exotic. By travelling to Africa, she would escape the world she knew. Of course, she had been attracted by her mental pictures of the landscape and the colours. Indeed, on arrival, the landscape grabbed her senses, but soon, she was touched by the people, their lives and their traditions, as well as their inner conflicts.
At first, she visited northern Africa, specifically Egypt. However, she ended up travelling to many countries, including South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Mozambique, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Ethiopia. In all these visits, she would spend most of her time in the countryside. She would travel by jeep or train, on tours that would last between six weeks and three months at a time.
One can fully appreciate why she travelled so far and wide. She understood that Africa was not, and is not, one standard area of land. Africa was not, and is not, one homogeneous set of people. The African landscape varies dramatically within each country, let alone in the different countries. For example, the eastern part of South Africa is generally mountainous, while the central and northern parts of the country are mainly flat. On the other hand, while the country of Zimbabwe has a variety of landscapes, its neighbour, Botswana predominantly consists of desert and is flat.
The people, although bound by some common threads, differ from one part of each country to another; from one country to the next. The differences are in the physical features of the people, differences that may not be too obvious to an outsider. The differences are also in such things as cultures and traditions, as well as languages and religious beliefs.
The colonisation of Africa also brought in a host of issues. The famous Berlin Conference of the year 1884‒85 led to the “Scramble for Africa”, that saw several European countries carving and sharing Africa among themselves. The process brought borders that cut between indigenous peoples, with some communities and even families being divided by the arbitrary boundarie.
Each European country brought and even imposed on its new colony (or colonies) such things as language, religion and general culture. While most African people still juggle and balance their indigenous cultures and the European systems, the effect of colonialism is now permanent right across the continent. Most of the countries have their former colonial masters’ languages as their official languages, although they also still use their traditional/indigenous languages. For example, such countries as Botswana, Zambia, Malawi and Zimbabwe were colonised by the British, and now have English as their official language.
Senegal, Cameroon, Congo etc, are former French colonies, while Angola and Mozambique are former Portuguese colonies, and each of them uses the colonial language as the official language. During her travels and sojourns in Africa, Ruth encountered these realities. While it would not be possible for an artist to capture all these aspects of the continent, Ruth’s works are faithful in their portrayals of the experiences and observations that stimulated her muse.
During most of the years that Ruth undertook her trips, a number of African countries were going through some historic political phases. For example, Zimbabwe had just gained independence in 1980, and was on the path to being transformed into a democracy. In the 1980s South Africa was at the peak of its struggle against apartheid, and only gained independence in 1994. While Ruth’s works do not have obvious portrayals of the political dimension of that African experience, we find a number of the pieces to capture brilliantly the mood prevailing on the ground at that time.
All in all, an artist of Ruth’s stature is not a journalist. She was not in Africa to file records of her observations. She took Africa to be a continent that would give her new experiences. Exploring the landscape and mingling with the people opened new horizons for her as an individual and as an artist. Her works are testimony to how deeply she was drawn into Africa. The countries of Africa and their people were not, to her, models for her to capture on canvas. They were part and parcel of her journey of life. As she was travelling, Africa was also travelling on its twisted journey, a journey whose destiny no one can ever predict.