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Artist, Grey-Green Greasy Limpopo

Grey-Green Greasy Limpopo was an exhibition of two interactive video works, namely Waiting to Cross and Coming and Going but Never Leaving.

These works are a response to the extreme circumstances under which Zimbabweans were being forced to survive at the time. The works focus on the Limpopo River, border between Zimbabwe and South Africa. The river is illegally crossed almost daily by people needing to escape the country or simply seeking supplies in South Africa.

This piece is particularly close to my heart at I was born on the banks of the river and my family have endured a great deal under the failed Zanu PF leadership of Zimbabwe.

The two works where exhibited together in a solo exhibition at the Wits Sub Station. Following this,  Waiting to Cross appeared on the 2010 Harare International Arts Festival (HIFA) and Coming and Going but Never Leaving was shown with the Goodman Gallery’s annual group show [Working Title] held in August 2013:

This year’s [Working Title] is curated by Emma Laurence and includes artists who are pushing the limits of the contemporary South African art scene and who have produced work that is at the cutting edge of current art production. The exhibition is concerned with works that are born out of dynamic and independent practice. Included in the exhibition are artists who work across disciplines and who bring into the perceived elite gallery space sub-cultural aesthetics and standpoints.

Background Story to the works:

Coming and Going But Never Leaving was originally made with another work titled Waiting to Cross. They work together under the umbrella title “The Great Grey Greasy Limpopo”. I had adapted the phrase from a short story titled “Elephants Child” by Rudyard Kipling published in 1902 , as it reflected poignantly the complex history of the region and brought to the fore the river as the location for both the works.

The two pieces however were made after a deeply emotional encounter I had had in the summer of 2007. I was visiting my brother who was living on the Zimbabwe side of the Limpopo river. Like him I had grown up on this river bank – our view being the South African side. During Apartheid in South Africa the South African Defence force soldiers watched us; hiding in the bushes with binoculars watching us eat breakfast and go about our lives. Every now and then they would send a military chopper over the house and glare down on us, their legs dangling over the edge of the chopper. As kids we would play tricks – getting older brothers to dress in guerrilla gear and march up and down the front of the house, pandemonium would break out and trucks with big guns would come rushing up on the SA side. We would run and hide till our parents found us and gave us a stern talking to.

In 2007 the situation in Zimbabwe was at a tipping point, the economy had crashed and it was almost impossible to buy even basic supplies in Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe Military police had moved into my parents home in 2003, where they sat in their hides high above the river watching for what we call “border jumpers”: Zimbabweans illegally crossing the Limpopo River into South Africa, not only to find work and money, but some simply crossing to get basic supplies like bread and vegetables. Down the river an odd economy had begun around people who had lived on those banks all their lives, helping people cross and smuggle everything from bread to blood diamonds through the border.

In December, which is high summer, the river (which was mostly dry the rest of the year) would flood its banks, and crocodiles would come down river from Botswana making the river crossing incredibly dangerous. Young boys acted as touts, making small amounts of money to either canoe people across or when the floods had subsided, show people the shallowest places to walk across.

It was a story that one of these boys told me that led me to making these works. He had been helping a couple with their baby cross over, the father had made it to the other side and was waiting for the mother and baby. The boy was with the mother, who was petrified of the water, she slipped and dropped the baby. The boy chased after the baby, but the mother on seeing this was devastated and let herself be taken by the current. The boy had no choice but to take after the mother, as he tried to help her but dropped the baby who was then taken by the current. This story pushed me that little bit further that summer.

On Coming and Going But Never Leaving :

is an interactive video work that lets the viewer navigate video of an illegal dawn crossing of the Limpopo river, to the SA side and back again. It plays on the notion of a game; a game controller (covered in Zimbabwe dollars) is the navigation device. The ‘player’ can only ‘walk’ between the Zimbabwe riverbank and the SA riverbank, eternally stuck on the river and never able to move beyond either bank.

The Limpopo valley has incredible natural beauty, when filming the crossing by myself that morning I could hear a lion roaring not too far away and some birds and antelope had gathered at the pools to drink before it become too light. By itself the video gives no indication of the fear experienced in making that crossing. It was for this reason that I made the video into a ‘game’. I worked with the back and forward video, blurring, grading and pixelating the video – creating with this an anxiety for the viewer not only because of the rapid shifts but because it breaks ‘visibility’ for the ‘player’. At certain points I created ‘pause’ moments (arrows indicate these) in which the player can stop and ‘look around’ – these bits of video are kept at their original form showing the natural beauty of the riverbed. Along the way and between these pause moments if the player tries to control left or right, text appears: this starts with quotes from the young mans story and as one moves toward SA it becomes commentary on the political situation in Zimbabwe.

What I describe above is the basic navigation and interaction with the main video. I also made all the other buttons on the controller active. The Y button (left top) will take you to a scene high above the river, as if you were scoping out the scene to see where it is possible to cross. The A button (under Y) will take you to a telescoping close up of the border fence on the SA side. The buttons on the back of the controller all trigger sound recordings: three of these are sound bites on getting supplies and news reports, while the fourth is a closer recording I made of the lion I heard while crossing.

For the participant /viewer the relationship between the concept of game and the fear factor that comes with this, is played up against an understanding that this is an interactive video work filmed on location and is far from playful.

Find full pdf discription here: Grey_Green_Greasy-Bristow