Breyten Breytenbach: The 81 ways of letting go a late self

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Breyten Breytenbach

The 81 ways of letting go    a late self

Study for late self | 2014 | Mixed media on paper | 42 Ă— 30cm

‘He who asks is mistaken, he who answers is mistaken’ Breyten Breytenbach in conversation with Joost Bosland

You’ve given a fair number of interviews, ranging from the formal literary format to, especially recently, press interviews around the publication of certain books. How do you feel about the format of the interview? Actually I interview myself quite a lot as well. You interview yourself? Yes, either as my double, or as Panus. Over the years I’ve been having interviews with Panus and, when he became too old to think straight, with his understudies. He’s a painter who gave up on painting. He’s not a very good writer either, but he knows enough to ask me very precise questions and we often quickly veer off into various sophisticated,

supposedly intellectual forms of verbiage like economics and pseudo-philosophy. Who knows what types of questions will emerge? It is not the kind of stuff that would generally be used for publication although I have published a few of the interviews between Breytenbach and Panus. The problem is you tend to guess and apprehend what the other person is likely to ask and so you are liable to answer in phrases that reflect the consensus of the person asking the questions. He says I have a tendency to digress or be too loquacious. He knows me and my weaknesses well enough to treat me as a has-been, as a romantic, as somebody who will twist the facts to serve his own purposes and all kinds of things like that without me complaining. In Afrikaans the saying goes: Ons praat mekaar na die mond. We speak with the same sweet lips and forked tongue. 7

‘He who asks is mistaken, he who answers is mistaken’

Would he be wrong? No, no. Of course not. Although I was always hoping that somebody else would come across him as well, call his bluff as it were. But after all these interviews he’s good at ducking and diving.       Do you read many interviews as a literary form? Say the Paris Review interviews or anything of that sort? Not really. Not unless it’s a person that interests me. Recently I came across the rather long series of conversations between Denis Hirson and William Kentridge. They seem to have known one another from youth. I also knew Denis for a while. He translated some poems of mine ... Into French? No, into English. When I was in prison. The published selection was called In Africa even the flies are happy. His father, Baruch Hirson, had also been a bandiet, a long-time political prisoner in South Africa. That may have been the initial point of curiosity. Baruch was released just when I entered that seething Nomansland, so we never had the chance to Hello and Goodbye. Denis has been living in Paris for years and I was surprised that he’d known William for so long. They’re two quite different people. I like the interview because I think William really makes an effort to get to the bottom of things, you know, the nitty-gritty. I’m not sure that I’m that interested in his work and the way he approaches it. It seems to reflect a sort of fieldwork project in a sociologist way, very historical, which is 8

not my area of exploration, but on the other hand he’s consistently as honest as possible, a consummate craftsman, and of course I’m also intrigued by his crossing of borders between genres of expression. I’m reading the interview at the moment in fact. I happen to be reading it as well. Kentridge talks a lot – in 2017 alone he published three books of conversation. I have to say the Hirson interview does bring out the best in him as a speaker. I wonder if it’s because they’ve known each other for so long … A familiarity with a shared background does help. It’s very interesting when you try to explain South Africa to an outsider. Particularly when someone like William, who has become a white shaman, does it. I’d seen some of his work abroad from very early when, as a member of a theatre group, he had a hand in the staging of material based on facets of my life. I saw this production in Holland of all places. That’s how I first became aware of him all those many years ago. Our paths never cross, but I like what he does. I sometimes envy him for seemingly having a whole factory of people working around him and with him. I like his impossibilities. I like the way he introduces movement where nearly by definition there cannot be any. You can see where the marks have been rubbed out. You can see where the new drawing came to occupy the place of the preceding one and to interact with it as with smudges and alternatives and absence. I would like to borrow Hirson’s very first question: do you have any recollections of images from your childhood?

Breyten Breytenbach in conversation with Joost Bosland

for a few hours. And then being walked back by him and coming upon an old woman on the road. This old lady was obviously an eccentric beggar woman. Antjie Somers. I don’t know if you are familiar with the mythological figure of Antjie Somers. She lives on in folk tales, probably of Khoi origin, and as in a European fable she would steal misbehaving children if they’re not careful. That, at least, was what we were threatened with. She was a scary figure of our collective imagination. So my grandfather would walk us back and I remember the setting and feeling protected by him. I remember the sun. I remember the graveyard. I remember crossing the canal. Was that your grandfather on your father’s side?

Entre los labios …, 2009 Watercolour on paper, 55 × 37.5cm

You know, I grew up in the western and south-western Cape, Bonnievale at first and then a little bit further towards the coast where my people had a farm for a while in the district of Riversdale. When I was very small I remember going with my brother, who was a year younger than I was – he’s passed away now – to visit my grandfather. The house was against the hill above Bonnievale. Oupa was sort of intimidating and very quiet and strict. He was also very old. There was no reason for us to go and visit Oupa, not really, except maybe our parents wanted to get rid of us

Yes. There was a huge age gap between my father and his father, my father and us. So Oupa Jan would have been as ancient as Antjie Somers by then. I remember that. I remember the roads of the little Karoo. My parents were poor people. They lived along the irrigation canal, which was partly dug by my father who worked as day labourer in a team that brought water to the village. In fact, I’m told my brothers and I were born in a tent pitched by the canal that would be moved along as the work progressed. It was our home. So in my memory those experiences are a mixture of light, of fear probably, of space, but also with a sense of the supernatural and the presence of the graveyard. Not necessarily the ghosts there, but all the generations I never knew, who had passed away, and the lineage I knew was due to pass away soon too. This stayed with me strongly. And then of course we went on to Riversdale. My father was an errant farmer, a trekboer looking for roots or somewhere to grow them. 9

‘He who asks is mistaken, he who answers is mistaken’

We often moved from home to home as people still do, as people of his generation did. There was not the sense of settledness one would have found in Europe, you know, where you stay in the same town your entire life or you farm the same land for as long as you live. People move, either inland or away from the extended family so as to start their own, or simply to find their way out and forward. Maybe they were just not capable of keeping anything going. Which was the case of my father, I think. The nomadic necessity becomes an ingrained reflex. So we went to Riversdale to farm. I remember the trip there very well. I remember travelling through the landscape. I remember the farm. I remember the horses and a slightly dangerous life in the veld. My brother would go out and shoot jackals or something and so yes, these are visual images. And do you remember the first time that you encountered an image that was constructed by another person – a painting, say, or a photograph? I remember seeing photos of my mother and her siblings dancing with their shadows and their dreams in the moonlight on the werf of the farm where she grew up. That would have been Brandwag in the Bredasdorp district. My mother comes from a big family, mostly girls, and they are totally different from my father’s family. My father’s family was very dark. Very self-enclosed, very ancient, and never talking about immediate relatives. I learned much later that my grandfather had two brothers living in the same area, but I never knew about them when I was small. Up to today they have neither names nor faces. That’s the formality of it. Whereas on my mother’s side, they were a big brood, gregarious, forever laughing and 10

visiting one another. They were also poor. My maternal grandfather sported a pocket watch on a chain. He drove lorry for the Divisional Council. I don’t think he ever owned any land. I remember seeing photos of them young. So my first images, my memory of images, would be of that, I think. Painting came later, when I went to Wellington. There we had an art teacher, and I was fascinated by what he was doing ... Was Wellington where you went to high school? I was actually moving up from primary to high school when we first went to Wellington. It was a boys-only school, the Boys High. Very macho with fights outside behind the shed over break and people really going for one another and they seemed to be enormous, immensely fierce. And cadet parades and great pride in rugby and all that kind of nonsense. The principal of the school was a man called Hennie Roos, the brother of Paul Roos who was the legendary Springbok captain, with a big mustache. But you had an art teacher? Well, there was a painter who gave art classes in the town and for some or other reason he was attached also to the school. That’s how I got to know him and in fact I started running foul of the teaching authorities because I wanted to take art classes instead of sports. In the end I did not take art formally, but I did learn from him how to paint. Another very strong formative influence at the time was a man called Henry Kuit, of Belgian origin if I remember well. He gave piano lessons. Also a Roman Catholic, although he played the organ in our Dutch Reformed Church. Both

Breyten Breytenbach in conversation with Joost Bosland

of these configurations were rather unusual in a small town like Wellington, then still quite platteland even though it housed several colleges. Kuit used to wear his hair long. He had a lot of children and he was totally absorbed by his music and I started taking music lessons, but of course music leads to an awareness of art and to an awareness of literature. My big break came when I managed to obtain a bursary for further studies in Stellenbosch and decided to forgo it unless the bursary could be transferred to the University of Cape Town where I wanted to study Fine Art. I had been head boy in my matric year, and we started a tradition of leaving the school with a going-away present from the matriculants, and I insisted that it should be a painting. We went to visit a painter who lived in neighbouring Paarl, it might have been Dawid Botha. I was fascinated by the lives of professional painters and we bought a painting from him which, I believe, is still hanging in the school. You were at Michaelis for a year? Yes. I was at Michaelis when Lippy Lipshitz, Maud Sumner and Maurice van Essche taught there. Lipshitz was the one who really influenced me. The way he approached material. Did I show you this? It is from 1959 and belonged to my mother. I have it in my studio now. We just had it reframed and it’s about that big and that tall. Was this painted while you were at Michaelis? Yeah. My mother had it for so many years and then I think my sister inherited it. She came to Cape Town

a few weeks ago with the painting under her arm. It’s very badly framed but still intact, not scratched or anything like that. It’s oil on board. A selfportrait, supposedly. And there’s a feather stuck to it. A real feather that happened to be stuck in the frame that she came with. So I had it reframed and had the feather put in again and it’s good. I’ll probably try and keep it there. It reminds me of your later creations. Jumping to the present, while you were in South Africa you sent me an email in which you wrote that you have “been shoring up (and sorting out) a lot of ‘beginnings’ in image-making for when we return to Europe. I have a sense of having imbibed much here – the doom and the sadness as well – which will be ‘manifest’ in due time, I think, in fact urgently so – and then much more so in the painterly vocabulary.”      I find it very difficult to paint now in South Africa. I find it an extremely inspiring place and it gets me going in all kinds of directions, including visually, but for the necessary space to pull back into I need to close the doors to get the light right and to find a transferrable rhythm. I make a lot of notes, many sketches. I know I’m shifting. I have been immensely struck by the light and the sunsets. I find myself making endless photos on my iPad of sunsets and the sea and in retrospect they always look the same. Although sometimes they are quite spectacular and one does all kinds of things with them. Like, now it’s getting to where the water amongst the rocks will 11

‘He who asks is mistaken, he who answers is mistaken’

invert the buildings reflected or the people coming by, and without doing anything much to it. When you say the “beginnings of image-making”, are these the images you are speaking of? A kind of kaleidoscopic effect occurs in the breaking up of the narrative in telling different stories at the same time. In other words, I’ve taken to not paying much attention to dimension and perhaps, for that matter, not to perspective either. But maybe it’s always been like that. I’m not particularly concerned with telling a linear or coherent story, obviously not, but I’m very concerned about the urgency of wanting to convey a process that would have the trappings of a story. There’s a notable difference between producing

the thrust of a narrative and telling a story. I notice that when I do introduce little bits of text, for instance, they don’t seem to have anything to do with whatever the painting may be about. Of course I’d like to remember that the snippets may relate to a particular poet as subject. You’re involved with the establishment or revelation – as in to reveal – of cause and effect. How the metaphor mutates into an image. Correspondences really. For example, I did a whole series called Abbavaders and Oermoeders representing iconic figures, some of whom I knew, and using as elements of the painting quotes identified with them. Although the words didn’t necessarily have much to do with what was happening in the paintings. So yes, I think I’m involved with the beginnings of painting, sketches, but more so just mental notes and up to a point visual notes or verbal notes linked to the visual imagery. Have you read Edward Said’s On Late Style? No, but I did get to know Said in his late life when he was already suffering from cancer of the blood. He was a wonderful guy, an emblematic Middle Worlder. Also a very sensitive pianist. We often believe that artists late in life will bring their project to completion and be at their most refined, most articulate – and according to Said this is a fiction. He says many interesting artists start making work that is recalcitrant. Work that doesn’t fit. Work that is jarring. I was reminded of that argument looking at your iPad photographs.

iPad photograph, 2018


One is storing up random images as mouth-clay against oblivion. Or as padkos for the long memory

Breyten Breytenbach in conversation with Joost Bosland

wake to come. You have to share them with the ants always avid for clay. I suppose one could say that nothing concentrates the mind quite as brutally as imminent disappearance of what may still be alive within the present context. Theoretically, that is, because the process of growing late is rather incontrovertible biologically. The other ageing may always have been there but now it is telling you to move up and make room. Room for what? What you face is the presencing of passing, if I may put it like that. One can say, well, I’ve got another 10 or 15 years or whatever the case may be and not all of them will be clear. So you let go of continuity and of coherence. But what is time if not freedom? I came across an old poem this morning, by an 86-year-old Chinese poet talking about the monk’s progress, and I’m fascinated by how he mirrors a non-stop continuous quest that gets more refined, the quest to die properly and with a clean breath, which is the same as living and breathing decently. What concerned him specifically here was the meeting point between what the monk does in his quest and, say, normal or realistic life. You know that’s the bit that concerns me. Or to continue with the matter you raised, I’d say the heaving into view of the points of passage concerns me. With time the lines between fantasy and reason become far less clearly demarcated, and I’m not sure whether that’s a continuation of what I’ve always been doing, a refinement, or if it is looking at the face of despair. It could be any one of those. It is clear that if you’ve been painting or writing or drawing all your life, you’ll continue doing so. There’s no doubt about it. I think one underestimates the extent to which you also format yourself to look

at things in a certain way so you end up seeing things through a mirror. I’m often reminded of it when I walk with Yolande and I take these photos. That I see something she doesn’t see. At least not in the same way. Maybe because she’s not that way inclined or she’s not particularly interested. Sometimes it can be very tiny things I do not notice in the interstices at the moment of perception. It will be when I am looking at the photo afterwards that I see this is actually what makes the photo, what makes the take. She, in turn, will have seen things I didn’t notice. Are these photographs works of art? I had a very interesting outing with my brother who has been a photographer all his life. We have a complicated relationship, and when I started showing him what I was doing with these photos he was very critical, but also very curious. He started looking at them closely. He said, too much foreground, far too much foreground. He says never have somebody moving out of the frame, have them move into the frame, and then he said something very interesting. He said, you must get to the point where your camera becomes totally invisible. You are unaware of your camera. Which is of course an old way to the attitude or wisdom of dissolving, of letting the late self go, you know that your thinking falls away and your intention falls away and you become totally part of what you are doing. I’ve never associated him with that, perhaps never saw that it was what he was about. Maybe he was saying that the person using the lens ought to be like a samurai cutting the knot instinctively, in a flash. Whereas I’m still more interested in the knots. For the time being I think of it, if at all, as looking from the 13

‘He who asks is mistaken, he who answers is mistaken’


Holy smoke | 1970 | Pen on paper | 23.5 × 31.5cm

Breyten Breytenbach in conversation with Joost Bosland

corner of the eye, as constituting a memory of seeing. One could then ask, yes, but who saw what exactly? Let’s not go there. So no, I don’t think I would present my photos the way he does. I don’t think I would want them framed and signed, they’re not art, whatever that may be, but I certainly would be incorporating them in some form or other into the paintings. Including them as they are, probably. Maybe in a collage way. Maybe as is. I also want to use them in relation to my poetry, in published form. And in any event, they are teaching me about seeing or observing without expectations.

acquaintances, people she admires, and she lost a publisher over it.

By now you could have bought a fancy camera if you wanted to. What is the fascination with the iPad?

In Painting the Eye, the little book you did with David Philip in 1993, you wrote that “In South Africa I would find it impossible to paint. I’m certainly not a South African painter by any measure.”

Firstly, as Yolande will confirm, because I’m a monkey pretending to be a monk when it comes to technology. I know just enough to click on the button. Then, because what I see or think I see on the screen of the iPad is what gets archived and even I know how to transmit these by way of conversion. Maybe too because the instants have no historical or intrinsic importance and can be deleted immediately. There is no history to these takes. And maybe because I have the illusion that the iPad makes me aware of the unseen lining the seen. And maybe I find the apparatus less intimidating exactly because it is not a fancy camera. Do you know the work of Claudia Rankine, the poet? I know the name. She started using visual images in her text. Not images she made herself but images by her friends,

My publisher doesn’t like it either. Maybe W.G. Sebald introduced us to the bad habit. He used really bad photography – but it went so perfectly with what he was talking about. The effacement of the memory and a thing half seen, et cetera. And I too sometimes use images produced by friends or people close to me. In that respect I’m very much a jackdaw picking up whatever shines or glitters. Thieving comes naturally. You could say I’m a true South African!

I think J.M. Coetzee also said some years ago already that he finds South Africa impossible to write about in that it is too dramatic. It is so blatantly in your face, as it were. But you don’t say you find it impossible to paint about South Africa. You say you find it impossible to paint in South Africa. Perhaps I need the distance. In some way, obviously, I’m always painting about South Africa but that would be more in a kind of deep fumbling way or perhaps in a brutal or a kind of cruel, alienated way ... That’s a word you use a lot, ‘obviously’, especially if things aren’t that obvious. I imagine you are alluding to your time in prison. If you do not want to go there, just say so. 15

‘He who asks is mistaken, he who answers is mistaken’

You are right, I don’t. But let’s go. I think that is why I love Mandela, because I saw the other Mandela behind the public figure, the one that he tried not to let people know about. It was in the set of the mouth, the smallest mannerisms. That’s why I wrote Mandela’s Smile, because he was killed in prison. Of course he didn’t die, but you are humiliated beyond redemption. Let’s put it this way. In prison the death of human empathy is what is done to you objectively, and how this humiliation, this imposition of impotence impacts on you because you are rendered powerless to do anything about it. You are denied the possibility of any agency, the capacity of being able to react as a normal human being might to the horrors and indignities you may be a witness to. You cannot and you dare not do anything. You are locked in your cell, for example, and through the bars you see or hear what they are doing to other prisoners in the corridor and you cannot do anything about it because you don’t dare. There’s the finality of it. It is not a contextual or a conjunctural choice, it’s a final one. So they reduce you to your basic animal instincts and that kills something in you. The human part of you is snuffed out under the circumstances of incarceration, that human in this composure which we call a human being, so that the animal survival instinct is the only thing that matters. It is about the worst thing that can be done to you, because it is a denial of everything that we’ve been about for so long and the only reason we keep on living, I hope. It can’t be power, it can’t be money. And now what the hell are you going to do with what you know? It goes with you, that kind of stuff. If you had to be part of such an experience I think that’s what you’d have recognised in Mandela and that is what I certainly see in other prisoners, 16

and of course it marks one for life, yes. It can’t just be reduced to being in closed spaces, knocking against walls, looking through windows for an outside and all that kind of stuff ... All of which is there, in the paintings. Yeah, which is there. But it is shorthand. I still have nightmares of people peeking in through the windows, the barred windows. One is standing on tiptoe trying to look outside for some fresh air or whatever the case may be. Is that why it is impossible to paint in South Africa? When I’m in Cape Town I’m awash in daily South African life, even though I’m now a foreigner. Not necessarily always in pleasant ways, and I’m not talking about the edge of danger, not knowing where the next kidnapping or stabbing is going to come from, but something much more intangible. It may be something that has to do with age. I get back a lot of what I experienced when I was in prison with people I don’t want to see, which cuts both ways because I’m sure they’d rather not notice the likes of a leftover relic – now there’s a bad memory refusing to be effaced! – and a lot of the people I do see I get hellishly angry with for their duplicity and their hypocrisy and, you know, their lying. Which is all in the South African way of doing things. People never tell each other straight-faced or straight-up what they think. In contrast though, when I go on the promenade in the evenings, like over the last few days, a lot of the people who don’t normally come there, who perhaps didn’t used to come here not so long ago because

Breyten Breytenbach in conversation with Joost Bosland

The naked king | 1970 | Ink on paper | 56 Ă— 47.5cm


‘He who asks is mistaken, he who answers is mistaken’


Doggod | 2000 | Mixed media on paper | 61 × 45.5cm

Breyten Breytenbach in conversation with Joost Bosland

they instinctively and even overtly knew they’d not be allowed, now come for holiday outings with their kids and their old people and all that. And I hear Afrikaans all around me, Muslim families enjoying the holidays, also the homeless, the drug addicts. Now we get to know one another and that’s very interesting and they’re very uncertain and very uncomfortable, but it’s a working relationship which I probably won’t bother to have any more in Paris. It’s texture and it’s interaction. The more interesting question might be whether one would be interested in dying in Africa. Since you deem it an interesting question, would you want to die in Africa? Well, the more interesting question is why would you want to die anywhere? And why do you think it’s any matter where you die? Because after all, once you die you die and what is it that you would like to keep away from once you are dead? If I could die without anybody knowing about it, I think I’d go for it any day and come back here anonymously without anyone knowing. Maybe die in more than one place to try out the options? Then, if after five years, if it happened that a friend or two of mine were to inquire, “Hey what happened to old so-and-so?”, “But don’t you know he’s been dead for five years?” that would be wonderful because by then there’ll be a whole new logic going and a whole new impetus and people won’t try and convince you of whatever it is they are trying to do or make you feel sick of yourself for just being alive. I feel a bit like Panus now, asking the question that you put in my mouth and then getting an answer that says it’s not the right question to ask.

There’s a Zen pypkan – the English word would be pirouette - that goes as follows: “He who asks is mistaken, he who answers is mistaken.” Would I want to die in Africa? Would I want to die in South Africa? Actually, quite frankly, apart from the bureaucratic aspect it probably wouldn’t make much difference. In Muslim countries the corpse will be disposed of immediately. Europe of course has its odd customs. In Spain you’ll be put away above ground in a kind of drawer or pigeonhole of an immense cement wardrobe, rented for maybe 25 years. What happens beyond that I don’t know. Some countries in Europe will not allow you to carry ashes from one country to another. You are not allowed to keep them in your possession. I think I’ll feel short-changed if I’m not allowed to keep my ashes on the shelf in the studio. Maybe mix them with the paints for substance. Europe has become too full. Well, the whole world has become too full of people. Too full of too many things, and too much of what we thought we’d be entitled to forever, really important fixed features, is falling away. Old cities are now pillaged by hordes of tourists, for example. You know that you no longer belong in the world when all those around you seem to have a swooning embryonic relationship with their smartphones, deeply breathing in the absence of sense. On a lighter note, I’ve been very struck by your relationship with Yolande, your wife. It is very gentle, tender. How does it affect the way you make art? For me she is the ultimate critic. I trust her eye. She knows instinctively when I’m cutting to the bone, as it were. Or whether I am wasting my time. She knows 19

‘He who asks is mistaken, he who answers is mistaken’

I’m barking up a lot of wrong trees. She knows I may say one thing and do something completely different. She knows all of these things and she tries, in a very gentle way, to remind me every once in a while that I’m barking mad. She also asks me, “Why do you want to exhibit? Why do you impose yourself? Why do you want to communicate? Why do you want to let other people see?”

brownish. Irrespective of the period. That’s the ambient skin. Although it’s a very beautiful light, silvery or dove-like very often. Works made in Spain are far harsher. Objects and situations would be more clearly delineated. When I think of paintings made during the Paris period I would now think from 1980 on when I came out of prison. I desperately wanted to get back to painting as quickly as I possibly could. I’d been allowed sometimes to draw and paint in prison. But mostly

And what is the answer? I believe it is the sense or the illusion of being part of a larger history. Not that it would be of any importance in itself or for other people, but it remains fundamentally true that you too are part of humanity and this awareness is a constituent component of your human being, part of a kind of residual affinity, or a kinship. You have said you like looking back over your own works, and you can usually ascribe a geographical location to them, and the experiential situation as well. So you mentioned a wooden house in Paris. You mentioned Rome where you worked for a while. You also say you find it difficult to paint in West Africa, even though one of the most wonderful things I’ve seen you paint, the tree with all the birds, was painted in Senegal, not so? Now I guess most of the painting happens in Spain. The Independent Republic of Catalonia.        Space has got to do with it. Light as well. I can always tell when a painting was made in Spain now, rather than Paris. Paris would be predominantly greyish, 20

L’arbre masqué, 1992 Acrylic and collage on canvas, 113 × 71cm

Breyten Breytenbach in conversation with Joost Bosland

not, and always under strict supervision. In fact I produced three paintings, two of which I’ve managed to recover and the third one disappeared into thin air. And now that’s a very painful and shameful period of one’s life. Where you had to negotiate for colours, for paints, and you don’t negotiate with the security police easily. I remember remarking upon this to somebody recently. I got very angry. I’m trying to get hold of a painting that had been stolen from me or at least taken or intercepted and I was very angry that the security policeman or his family or the one they gave it to would make money from selling it eventually. As happened, because the work went up for sale in some auction house and ‘etiquette’ forbade me from knowing the provenance. Then this somebody reminded me, “but you probably traded it with the security policeman so why squeal now?” And it came back to me that, yes, I probably did – the condition under which I got enough material to be able to paint was probably by giving him a painting. I remember now, in the case of the specific work, it was actually during the long period of pre-trial and ongoing interrogation in detention. This provider of the material, if I may call him that, was from the Bureau of State Security, leading the cover life of a supposed university professor, and his daughter wanted to be a painter and desperately wanted to have a painting. Of course that was the opening gambit. In any event, to fast forward, when I came out of prison in the early Eighties I immediately tried to get hold of a studio, and the first I found I had to share with another painter. Is that the wooden house in the north of Paris that you described?

No, the wooden house was before. I actually worked in the wooden house for a few years before leaving on my mad escapade to Nomansland. But even before that period I’d gotten to know some artists in the Montparnasse night joints. In fact, looking for a place to sleep, I ended up living on the studio floor of a foreign painter with the name of Nissan Rilov. This was in ‘La Ruche’ which together with ‘La Rotonde’ were beehives of artists’ studios right nearby the big meat market at the Porte de la Convention where you could procure horse blood and horse meat if your blood was too thin. On prescription. Rilov was very tall and thin with drooping eyelids and half-asleep eyes and a long hanging underlip and he made tiny abstract paintings. He earned his life as a housepainter and I became his helper. Thus we painted the walls of an old and kind survivor of the death camps. In his youth he served as a hussar in the Hungarian cavalry still on horseback and using swords. He’d been an ardent communist. Took part in uprisings in Berlin. Old Mister Ronai’s first wife and children had perished in the extermination camps and from his second marriage to a much younger woman he had a boy. Grown by then. Out of pity for me he hired me to teach the adolescent English. The boy was slow on the uptake and that is how I learned French. But for me serious painting started in the wooden house. There was a studio in the wooden house? There were several. Corneille lived upstairs and there was a guy called Delfino, a sculptor of Italian origin, and there was an Argentinian painter called Aznar and there was a German artist named Peter Klasen. They all went on to become well-known. Delfino did, 21

‘He who asks is mistaken, he who answers is mistaken’


Four Gorée sketches | 1993 | Pencil on paper | 58 × 42cm

Breyten Breytenbach in conversation with Joost Bosland

and particularly Corneille who was one of the CoBrA group, and we were great buddies. It was an old wooden house in the northern part of Paris and there was a lovely old studio. Beautiful place. That would have been in the Sixties or early Seventies? That would’ve been in the Sixties and early Seventies. You know I was arrested and sentenced for terrorism in South Africa in 1975. Before that, during the Paris period, I’d exhibited quite regularly. Through Dutch painters living in Paris my connection with Galerie Espace in Amsterdam came about. And with Wouter Valk and with a gallery in Belgium. We had to smuggle the works across the borders. I was actually making and exhibiting these quite big paintings. Some, a whole series, I still have. Very sort of brownish, greyish colours. Big interiors. Some drawings of the period also show the working space. Then came prison, meaning no art anymore. Ultimately I was permitted to do some drawing on condition that the sheets were handed in. Pawed over and scrutinised for subversive hidden meaning. Mostly on very bad quality paper. You’ve seen them in Paris. I’ve tried to – well, I can’t restore them really, but I’m trying to at least get them in some sort of shape where they won’t deteriorate any more. The moment I came out of prison I tried to get back to painting and it was so awful. I remember the first painting I made. It was a self-portrait with no eyes, swollen closed weals where the eyes were supposed to be. It was done on a grey background. I probably still have it. It was pretty damn awful. And then?

Thanks to Jack Lang, who was the then French minister of culture, I managed to rent a studio that was administered by the state. It was quite small, along the Seine. After a while, having learnt the ropes, I managed to exchange it for a larger one upstairs. Was that at the Cité? Yeah, that was in the Cité internationale des arts, and after that came Spain of course. Spain was where I was really looking for working space. In fact, it was a bit of a problem after a while between my wife and myself. I was more curious and more demanding that there should be proper studio space. You know Paris is not the place to live other than to paint in, but I exhibited there and some works ended up in public or national collections. I believe the state has at least six of my works. I think I could’ve continued, maybe even made some way in Paris. So how long were you at the Cité? Those spaces are not big. The Cité des arts was in many respects more of a social environment than a place for serious painting. Then I found this studio space that was allocated to me jointly by the City of Paris and the Ministry of Culture in a building in the 13th arrondissement entirely consisting of artists’ studios, which I moved into immediately, and where I still am. I was on the top floor for a brief period and then the one below became available. A friend of mine observed that art historians often make much of breaks and artist styles and try to 23

‘He who asks is mistaken, he who answers is mistaken’

ascribe them to all kinds of theoretical or emotional concerns. Whereas 95 per cent of them can be explained through change in real estate. You have a wise and observant friend. And then you found a studio in Spain in the Eighties? At first it was just the house. Although I started painting immediately, the studio came later. The previous owner was actually a painter. We extended his working space on top of the garage. I don’t think I painted much, but in the beginning we didn’t go there very often. We were only there a few weeks a year and then it gradually became our primary residence. It’s so beautiful there. Yeah, it is. And you have space.

I always had enough room to paint in Gorée. I have a big living room and I have a bedroom separate from that and then we installed a printing studio in another building. The studio came about fairly quickly, but I wasn’t really painting that much in Gorée. I was mostly doing drawing or participating in etching projects. So at this point, how much time were you spending in Gorée? At one point I actually spent more time in Gorée than away from it. I tried to be there for the greater part of the year. That went on for about two years. In fact, we were going to stay there and then it didn’t quite work out. So we’ve got Paris, we’ve got Spain which started in the late Eighties but really began in the midNineties, after Gorée. In between there were regular yearly periods in New York when you were attached to NYU. And then you started coming back to South Africa more, with some friends who gave you space to work. Did any painting happen here?


Gorée because it’s nearly inevitable not to, you know. In the sense that it is so spectacularly colourful and beautiful.

I would have to think about it. Obviously some watercolours and a number of drawings. I was painting, but did painting actually happen here? Yes, the one painting you have on loan, the one with the piece of mirror – the Mayakovsky portrait. Of course there are also the paintings made in Clifton in a house so generously put at our disposition.

Looking again at L’arbre masqué (The masked tree), 1992, this was painted in Gorée? Was this an exception, a rare painting from that time?

I came across a beautiful line by Hilary Mantel: “The question is not who influences you, but which people give you courage.”

And where else? You’ve painted a little bit on Gorée.


Breyten Breytenbach in conversation with Joost Bosland

Give me courage? Among writers, a person like Edward Said. Painters? I think oddly enough somebody like Dubuffet. Writers go mad and they die very early in their own madness. Whereas painters forget that they are supposed to be mad and they look beyond their madness. So I’m making one last attempt at getting another lease on life. Maybe out of curiosity because I’m really not afraid of dying. It’s just a matter of knowing that there’s nothing beyond life and why the hell cut it short?

work, but in a very different way from what it was before. The gallery exhibited quite a number of other painters, some from Paris, some from elsewhere, and when they saw what I was doing it seemed to resonate with them. That’s the only reason they took my work and from there we started working together.

I am asking about influences because for a long time I could not place your work in relation to contemporary art history, until I revisited the work of Francesco Clemente. I think partly because of his relationship with poets which made sense to me. Derek Walcott has written about his work. He collaborated with Allen Ginsberg.

I could accept that, but then I don’t think a poet is a writer. I believe many poets pass themselves off as writers, good luck to them, but I think poetry is something quite different from narrative or prose or novel writing. There’s somewhat of a confusion because of the fact that we share words, which obviously must to some extent have the same meanings, but a poet would be applying the words in terms of colour, in terms of pattern-making and texture and resonance. A poem speaks to you exactly the same way a drawing or painting does.

Clemente and I showed together at the Galerie Espace in Amsterdam. He’s someone that is trying to fit what he sets out to do within a frame. He will have somebody squatting inside a very confined space, the canvas, which seems to be a translation of, “I can’t say what I need to say entirely through the means of painting or at least not what you expect to find when you look at the painting.” Or maybe the statement of the work is just being slightly sardonic, maybe a little bit taking people for a ride as well. The neorealism, the return to figuration in Paris at the time was important. It was called ‘La nouvelle figuration’. One knew that, in Holland, Espace was a gallery that provided space for the CoBrA artists, people like Pierre Alechinsky and Corneille and Asger Jorn. They were doing a lot around figurative

Somebody who saw the newest painting we showed in Johannesburg made an observation that has stayed with me: “He paints like a poet.”

That sounds really good, and I would like to be convinced, but I think there are a lot more poets who write essays and a lot more essayists who write poems than there are painters who write poems or poets who paint. We don’t know nearly enough, in the two disciplines, about the proximity or even the similarities of movement and presencing, demarcation and what’s not presented but very much contributing to the surfacing because of its absence. Perhaps I ought to have suggested that poetry may be more like music 25

‘He who asks is mistaken, he who answers is mistaken’

than it is like picture-making, obviously. Let’s put it another way and imagine that both in poetry and in painting it is more about the processes of making than the product. And ideally the viewer or reader is relied upon to participate – different from the essay where an insight may be flattered or a debate started because the intellectual faculties can be wound up like a watch, or from the narratives of fiction where the reader may identify with a character. These would be the essential differences. I don’t expect people to understand what I’m doing or to identify with it. But it may not be true in general for painting. For instance, I can’t imagine a Van Gogh painting – we’re not talking about expressionism here – as exhibiting the open-ended going nowhere as I’m proposing a poem might. Even though there are similarities of approach, for instance in the way he breaks up a surface in strokes thereby shifting attention to the gestures of stroke-making, whorls and rushes, and to the illusion of surface. I know it has often been tried to put Van Gogh into a poem or perhaps to make poems the way he painted. Antonin Artaud tried. Van Gogh was however totally immersed in his means and perhaps by attempts to convey a state of mind that had to be captured to remain clear. In the best sense of the word he was depicting conditions. There’s no other medium in which he could have done what he did in painting. Even if his letters were powerful and visually evocative. Similarly Goya. I’m sure he kept a diary. I think he wrote letters, but there’s no sign of anything that he was doing in his painting in there. Even if he described in detail what he was painting. But that obviously does not mean you could imagine a Goya painting as a poem. I don’t think so. I don’t think you 26

can imagine any painting as a poem or any poem as a painting, the one is not the transposition of the other except maybe of course in an illustrative way. But what you do is that you are working in similar ways with the absolute impossibility of breaking through to the meeting place between the process of making, which involves a whole and yet scattered being in, at times, a very focused approach, and that which you are trying to access, because it’s around you and you need to make it coherent. Coherence is not the same as meaning. The thing for the active viewer is to get into the painting beyond conditioned expectations. One tends to ignore the core paradox that liberation leads to a new orthodoxy, a renewed puritanism. For instance, we see the writing of poetry as distinct from painting – whereas it was not at all exceptional in previous times. Think Lucebert! The 20th century flowing from Surrealism and Dada and avant-garde African fire thieves where imagination was alive and real and had far more room than in our so-called liberated and decolonised modern times. We think we are more free because the feathers of the ego are stroked and appearances respected but in fact we have become poorer and more afraid of being, of losing face. We are traumatised by the phobia of being othered whereas to be other could be a liberation from the empty norms of supposed power. One would have difficulty and trouble now to envisage strong collective creative surges that existed and have since disappeared or gone underground. I’m thinking of the generation of the Fifties in Europe, the so-called Experimentals. And let us not forget that they emerged from the horrors of war, ruin, genocide, exile, famine, slavery and deportation. Although each discipline has its particularities

Breyten Breytenbach in conversation with Joost Bosland

The wrestlers | 1972 | Mixed media on paper | 48.5 Ă— 55.5cm


‘He who asks is mistaken, he who answers is mistaken’


Ceux qui nagent l’hiver | 1972 | Pen on paper | 48 × 66cm

Breyten Breytenbach in conversation with Joost Bosland

I don’t think I do the one because I can go no further in the other. It is easier to say this clearly in Afrikaans where to write poetry, om te dig, is a distinct and active verb. It could also be translated as to densify. So I can say I densify my interaction with the environment of being through words as a form of continuing to paint, just as painting is a prolongation or another way of writing poetry. To make becomes an essential way of trying to understand. But even as I try to defend and perhaps define the indefensible here, I must question the finalities. Someone said that all things are true at all times but some things are more true than others from time to time. Of course I’d like to do a series of paintings as if they constituted a volume of poems but without carrying any words to distract you from the seen. Linda Nochlin wrote, I believe of the second half of the 20th century, that “Images and writing in some sense have become more and more alienated. Literary painting, that is, painting that tells a story, evokes an emotional response or has a moral, was no longer looked on with favour.” And I quite like that phrase ‘literary painting’ because I think it describes what you are doing – not as a genre or as a school, but what you are doing is literary painting. There may be something there. Let’s not forget that the artist is also the digestive animal in human society, the one who breaks down things, the horrible things and the good things, and make them acceptable in other ways. It helps us to maintain the illusion of being alive to ourselves and in charge of our lives. It is a function, nothing more. I don’t think one should put that particular category of person on a

platform. We don’t seem to be able to accommodate irony, let alone allow for decadence. Can we imagine transgression? Our not so subtle expectations as societies in mutation have become very prim and prudish. Do we really want to be reminded of what we know and see and want to look away from? Think Bacon and maybe Lucian Freud. The horrors of the flesh. The isolated and contorted human in a glass cage. Biko bludgeoned to death by his politically correct interrogators. Think the searing writings of Aimé Césaire. The opulence and arrogance of our political masters and mistresses. The unwelcome flashes I refer to, although some people seem to indulge in the perverse pleasures of misery, should probably be read as emerging from a deeply wounded general sense after the carnage of world wars. In Europe particularly. It is interesting to note that visual work in the African context often seems to have another function, to placate the forefathers and the spirits. Even though we have far more reason to be horrified by the world we share in Africa. It seems to really come through only too rarely, not in the specific idiom and woof of our creative work at least. That again is another wound. What we propose or reflect only too often becomes decorative, a language to flatten out the codes of horror. Or some gesticulation. It becomes pattern-making. Nothing wrong about that necessarily because we work from a tradition of seeing, for instance, in the halls of aesthetics where even our anger will be formalised. I am interested in how you selected the people you portrayed in your series Abbavaders and Oermoeders, ‘Abba’ being the Hebrew word for father, or rather ‘daddy’. 29

‘He who asks is mistaken, he who answers is mistaken’

Of course, but abba has quite an interesting number of connotations in Afrikaans. It also means to be carried on the back as an older person would carry a child, particularly among nomads, and I think in that sense it is probably not of European origin. It could be Malay? I was using bits of text, as you can see here, that I then ultimately felt were no longer necessary and faded or subsided into the painting again. Why these people? The point of departure was that they would be writers or poets in Afrikaans to whom I feel especially indebted, and then it spread a little wider. Something about Eugène Marais has been fascinating me for quite a while, maybe the way he looks out from his photos. Peter Blum I knew personally in Cape Town. You may notice that the figures are consciously depicted as rogues, misfits, mutants, outsiders. There is Jan Rabie, Herman Charles Bosman, Dirk Opperman, Pieter Philander, Adam Small. And then I have always felt a filial affinity with Borges. Kafka. Benjamin. Arendt.       Two things attracted me right from the outset to Hannah Arendt. One, that she was not trying to make a monster out of what was, without a doubt, a monster. I’m referring to her work on the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem, of course. She saw that he was indicative of something much more ambient at the time. There’s no use in suggesting that by offering a few scapegoats you are going to redress the world. The second characteristic or attitude that she maintained 30

SA angel, 1997 Watercolour on paper, 68 × 55.5cm

all through her life because it was how she imagined the incarnated political morality was of course that of flying in the face of what everybody else was doing at the time, the politically correct herd instinct of consensual thinking, and she seemed to be constantly picking fights with everybody around her. The intellectual environment, the hierarchy ... Is that where you feel an affinity? Hahaha. Probably. She was a harregat old lady and I love that. You’re very consciously placing yourself in literary tradition, but sort of keeping yourself out of pictorial tradition. But your interests are pictorial?

Breyten Breytenbach in conversation with Joost Bosland

Skrouman 1, 2010 Acrylic on canvas, 144 × 144cm

Oh yes. Definitely. Yet the range of ancestors … It is not restricted to Afrikaans writers because we just saw Benjamin and Kafka. But we’re still not seeing other painters. At the outset I was interested in merging images and texts, imaging and resurfacing fragments that are often hackneyed phrases associated with these people. It was also by way of paying homage, however much tongue in cheek, to my voorlopers. Hence the writers. To try and paint painters is much more confusing particularly since they so often painted themselves. The way they saw themselves gets in the way. You can and ought to ignore what writers say about themselves. They lie in ways painters cannot. However, there is

Velázquez at some point, though not in this series, and I know there’s a Goya somewhere. In the case of Goya I have been fascinated with the way he lived crushed between nightmare, dream and reality. The reality often being very harsh. People hanged and burnt and impaled in public places in the Spain of his time, and how he reacted to that. How he reacted politically, that’s not important. Whether he ended up in exile or not is not important either, but Goya for me is a fascinating kind of a central figure. Velázquez I tried to paint because of the way he looked at himself. Like in Las Meninas where he appears standing in the back. I don’t believe that one distinctly sees the face of the painter in that composition or even necessarily that he must be the painter in the way he’s dressed or even in what he holds, anything that one would associate immediately with the court artist. What struck me was that reaching in to the canvas of a painter looking out. Obviously it’s something that intrigues me. Looking out, being present, trying to communicate, trying to break through the interface and perhaps not really succeeding. And this? [points at Skrouman 1, 2010]       These are coffee capsules flayed open and stuck to the canvas. It was actually one of the few that were painted in Cape Town. The frame works nicely because I could continue painting on it, incorporating it, going beyond the confines of framing. There are still parts that don’t work. What really interests me here, I think, would be this particular space. Also the teeth if you can call them teeth and then the eyes. The top part of the painting doesn’t work. Now somebody looking at the painting would say, oh wow, it’s like a figure screaming at you. Yeah, well, maybe. Hahaha. 31

‘He who asks is mistaken, he who answers is mistaken’

If I can read something that you wrote: “Painting, any manner of making, even the performing arts even though it’s different, is always a process of never-ending decisions. Every step represents and then respects a choice. At every step you are faced by a number of alternatives. Why the white which you are painting should stop here, for example. Completing a work is simply a matter of step-by-step reducing the choices or increasing the bid. The final form, if successful, is arrived at by eliminating the has-beens, the mighthave-beens and the progeny. It ought then to be unquestionable, perfectly natural, preferably without even knowing about the murdered options, the what-ifs that had fallen by the wayside.” I’m interested in that description of the creative process.

It’s not defined by anything. Why would one still want to allude in a believable way to a representation of something or somebody that could be, for someone who knew him maybe, a resemblance of Peter Blum? Is it a matter of using the known to access or enter the unknown? Blum had an orangy mustache for instance. Why not have no mustache at all? But then there’s this interaction between the vraisemblable – what would be the English word for it, verisimilitude? Believability of the fake imitation. Between that and what’s actually on the canvas. The result may be that it ends up looking more like Peter Blum than he did himself, which it probably would if you think about it.

Yeah. Definitely. When do you choose what? Friends for life, a painting showing Blum and Marais together, is an interesting example of knowing when to stop. For instance, why would you want to have to retain these brush strokes? I think the steps of choices and eliminating options are defined according to what there is at that particular moment. For instance, I don’t think I retained these because I wanted to have a sense of the roughness that goes with the collar or goes with the rest of it, but because I needed some texture there as balance or counterpoint for the sake of the whole. Once you start unstitching the whole you are left with a pile of senseless thread. Are those what Duchamp would call retinal decisions? Decisions that are purely visual? 32

Friends for life, 2012 Acrylic on canvas, 145 × 145cm

Breyten Breytenbach in conversation with Joost Bosland

Without the extra eye. But how do you know when to stop? At some point this work was considered finished because it was photographed, catalogued – It was already reproduced in print … – and then you went back to it, repainted it, and this is the version which we exhibited here in Cape Town at the gallery. You just mentioned that you might want to go back to it again, which is kind of tricky because it hangs in someone’s home in Los Angeles.

You just added a green feather to a painting from 1959. One of those happy accidents and I may even try to find a way of actually making it stay there. I am not sure. Some birds – or hands – take forever to breed. Apparently even an extinct species can now be cloned again. Occasionally I see you repeat or go back to the same imagery without reworking the same painting. Yeah.

Wow! Peter Blum was the archetypal nomad. Nobody knows where he came from. But he’ll be glad to know that at last he made it to California! Who was it said you must never allow the painter into your living room if there are any of his paintings on your walls because if you have your back turned he’ll probably start … Penny Siopis does this. She quite happily keeps working on paintings long after she first decides that they are finished. Corneille apparently did the same thing when he was allowed into a place with some of his work. If you didn’t watch him he’d continue to write on it or to work on it. No, I think it is because you see things that still want to be clarified. Paintings do need time to mature and it is good to undo your own legacy. You look at it in totally different ways after completion, sometimes years later. I often find that there comes a point beyond which a painting goes through a phase of being no longer alive and then you don’t want to change it because it doesn’t really matter and then it becomes part of another set of memories or references.

One example I found is on page 37 of All One Horse. It’s an oil painting. In terms of the creative process, wanting to crack an image, what happened here? What made you go back to this painting? The illusion of depth and the illusion of realism is what’s important in both cases. What’s also important, of course, in this particular case, is that it would have been part of a series trying to paint hats. And now I see there’s actually no hat to be seen in the watercolour. In fact the hats existed and still do, living on a shelf in Spain. All that I have left of my father is his hat sitting there. The omission happens often when one is absent – you get carried away and leave the frame without a hat as it were. But if we’re looking at the same page I can also pretend that it is a painting of Velázquez as seen from the back looking at a landscape that would be impossible to paint. And in fact the hat, my father’s, did figure in the larger variation on the theme. Sometimes a prop or object in the studio becomes a motif again and again because it happens to be something which you 33

‘He who asks is mistaken, he who answers is mistaken’

find fascinating to try and paint. Like there was this stuffed parrot that appeared in quite a number of the oil paintings. The green one? Yeah, the green one. Also this must have been a very particular shoe. Yeah. It’s a running shoe and there’s the other one. One forgets that each depiction or take is unique even if you walk again over the same ground. In the bigger work the painter out for the day wears a shoe; in All One Horse he is shoeless and wears only socks. Take the little trees there. If he was wearing a sock and not a shoe and if it was not a blue shoe, if that bit of blue didn’t come in there, I think the painting would’ve fallen flat. It would’ve fallen into the red tree trunks behind. Now you may ask why is this happening here. There’s no philosophical or existential statement why he should be barefoot here and have a foot there, other than to trip you up, to pootjie you. To be barefoot in a suit would be a way of disrupting the process of one wanting to congeal in understanding the production of something realistic. It is not. It is not a story. Rather, the point is that it is as urgent and as clear as a narrative with no point. Why do we paint? Why would you want to paint now? Why would you want to make things that are going to be put on the wall? Why is it necessary to have a thing on the wall? Is it because one needs a window? Is it because you want to break the space? Is it because you want to break the monotony? Is it because you want to show off? Is it because your daily existence 34

needs this reminder of the texture of inner pain that may take form and shape if it wants to in something tangible? Is it because you keep on wanting to write footnotes? But then we should assume we’ve read the same mother texts. Is it because you want to talk to this exteriorisation of dumbness? Like to a mirror? That’s why I don’t think I would go into total abstraction because if there’s no narrative without any clarity – or with intense clarity but not necessarily with any logic, indeed not with any logic at all – if that were totally absent or subsumed I would say what a pity not to have that as well. I love how Sarah Lucas once described that eureka moment, the moment when you know something is finished. “And once I’d got the legs stuffed” – this is a sculpture she’s speaking of – “I wanted to see how they looked. So I just clipped them on the back of this chair and that was it. I added a couple of things, but that was it. It was brilliant. It doesn’t happen very often that you really get that eureka feeling and you want to grab a beer or suddenly laugh and smoke fast, really fast and phone people up and say ‘you’ve got to get over here’, which is one of the things you dream about.” It’s something I really miss. Painters look at each other’s work very differently than anybody else I’ve ever known would. You know I’ve worked in many studio situations, like in Paris for instance. Working in the same building as Peter Klasen and Aznar and Delfino and Corneille and Martin Engelman who was an important influence to me. Painters were influential in my life. Not necessarily their painting, but the way they looked at painting.

Breyten Breytenbach in conversation with Joost Bosland

The insight that brings us to the other shore (the heart sutra) | 2015 | Acrylic on canvas | 145 Ă— 113cm


‘He who asks is mistaken, he who answers is mistaken’

Do you have it with every painting? Does every painting get finished with a eureka? Do I myself get that sense of elation that I want to share? In a kind of delayed way perhaps. Everything you do in the studio is equally important. Whether drawing a bird or scraping old paint off the palette. But there comes a moment when what happens on the surface of the cloth or canvas or paper is more important and takes precedence over and may take over from what you think you’re doing, from what may have been in your head or what you’re trying to trace from looking. There’s take-off. Autonomy. That will be the pivotal moment not to be afraid of either outline or texture. I don’t think I really ever show anything to anybody while I am working on it. But I miss the camaraderie. It is like, you know, going down to the local for a beer, for a glass of laughter with people who do the same thing or are interested in the same things that are not objectively of any importance at all and you can let your hair down and you can relax and then you go to their studio and you look at their work. May I ask you about the Gongshi or scholar stone drawings that you have been making these past two years? You most certainly may, even though I wouldn’t trust the answer if I were you! In my new and unpublishable volume of poems I start with a quote about a Chinese philosopher asking two stones if they will remain true to him, and they answer, “Well, we are not human, but we will promise to remain faithful friends right up till the end. The 36

three of us will get along well.” Two stones and the old man. I am drawn to that intimacy. There is also the aspect of meditation, the stone being the point of concentration for random thoughts, bringing them together when it can’t go anywhere because there’s no resolution. The stone doesn’t give you an answer, but it carries all the history and self-evidence of creation in it, of all time and everything. It calms the hand. You can just about imagine killing a bird with the universe. I would like to go back to Footnotes for the Panther, the William Kentridge conversations. Kentridge said, “I feel so limited to the part of Africa I am from that it doesn’t feel like a continental experience.” I know it’s not something that’s true for you. In many ways you’ve been at your happiest, most creative in Senegal. That’s true. You’ve always had quite an active Pan-Africanist take on the region. It is a position few South Africans share, not even younger ones. They see the rest of the continent as quite an alien entity. I would call your position instinctual PanAfricanism – it’s not an argued or an intellectual Pan-Africanism, in the technical historical sense. It reminds me of a friend of mine who grew up in an Ethiopian diplomat family. It isn’t a specific political position, it is more reflexive than that.        You are absolutely right. Of course, in due time one gets disappointed. We are all disappointed in the quality of our leadership, but that’s

Breyten Breytenbach in conversation with Joost Bosland

Gorée couple, 1993 Watercolour on paper, 44.5 × 31cm

another discourse and part of a general rotting. My belonging there did not flow from either an intellectual or a political decision but an empirical one. My irrevocable attachment may be more because I found myself, at a very receptive age, living under the same circumstances with people there, and then of course for other reasons as well. Like wanting to go back to the continent when I was not here. In a sense I was lucky to be alienated from South Africa. South Africa is not part of the continent. In odd but natural ways I experienced – and still do in Senegal or Burkina

Faso or even in Algeria and on the Cape Verde Islands and in Zanzibar and in Mozambique – that to be an Afrikaner is to be African. Quite naturally and obviously so. I can’t really remember now for instance any of my non-African friends in Europe or in America, but I do have sharp memories of African friends that I’ve known over the years and lived with over the years and laughed with, particularly those I got drunk and joked with and all that. And the European and American and Asian friends I feel a kinship with I consider to be Africans. There’s always been that. I’m intensely aware of the kind of thing I am, the hybrid, a product of métissage, of necessity and maybe by choice from the Middle World. Not necessarily in the way people from the islands, like Édouard Glissant, would use it, but in a Cape sense. I know if I had to take sides, say, between Europe and Africa the question would not even arise. But if I had to choose between being a South African and being part of the rest of the continent, I think I’ll be part of the rest of the continent. How much time have you spent in Senegal if you add it all up? At one point there’s nearly an uninterrupted twoyear period. For my sins and possibly because of my big mouth I inherited the position of executive director of the Gorée Institute. And even if I go back as regularly as possible, I sometimes wonder why we are not still living there. I would like to ask you about a line you have written that has stayed with me: “I cannot paint Africa or 37

‘He who asks is mistaken, he who answers is mistaken’

that crackling of the mind which singes the wings. I can only paint a painting.” Do you remember writing it?

so much beauty in the world it is incredible that we are ever miserable for a moment; there is so much shit in the world that it is incredible we are ever happy for a moment.”

Yes I do, and oddly enough it was probably the first trace of what eventually became ‘Imagine Africa’, the project that the Pirogue Collective midwifed with the Gorée Institute. I cannot paint Africa. I cannot see it whole – nobody can, except the empty mouths who’d like to shift responsibility for self-induced impotence elsewhere. I can only continue being as close as possible to it, and continue to work with it as intimately as I would work with the self. Even if it were an absent entity. To imagine it because the process of imagination, of an ethical and maybe even utopian imagination, of imagining and imaging, becomes a nearly biological necessity to be able to move. Even if you have lost your voice. The nomadic instinct of imagination, of putting things together that then become different, that is for me very, very powerful. To let go of a late self. It is still so.

And that is the shameful truth. Absolutely. And in turn I’d like to thank you for this opportunity and for your patience in listening, and conclude with a quote from Marcel Duchamp whom you referred to earlier. He wrote: “The conundrum is always how to pass on your part of trying to clarify the notion of consciousness, an ongoing breathing as it were, when you do not conform or subscribe to the expected paradigms of ‘understanding’.” Consciousness, one could add, however difficult to pin down when pairing with ‘ethical imagination’, will give birth to ‘conscience’. But perhaps this is a line of thinking to take further with Panus. He would agree as we all do – don’t we? – that, “Ultimately the cloth or the shroud is not important. It is only the momentary ‘support’, skein or skin against which the efforts to give substance to time and space are being played out. It is a sort of drawing board you might say, momentarily assuming and acquiring presence in our making it so.”

I would like to end with a quote by Geoff Dyer: “I am seized by two contradictory feelings: there is



Green feet in white flat | 2018 | Mixed media on canvas | 146 × 114cm





Autoportrait masqué | 1990 | Mixed media on canvas | 146 × 114cm





Light dream | 2018 | Mixed media on canvas | 289 × 113.5cm





Autoportrait avec cape de Fatoum | 2018 | Mixed media on canvas | 146 Ă— 114cm





Peintre du dimanche | 1985 | Acrylic on canvas | 200 × 180cm



Paysage intérieur | 1993 | Acrylic on canvas | 146 × 114cm





Hulle praat mos nou berg | 2015 | Acrylic on canvas | 145 × 113cm

Vanité | 1990 | Acrylic on canvas | 100 × 80cm



Portrait | 1968 | Oil on canvas | 92 × 73cm

Dancing the dog blues | 2018 | Mixed media on canvas | 146 × 114cm



The late self: Don Qiuxote y M de Cervantes Saavedra | 2014 | Acrylic on canvas | 145 × 113cm





Taal 4 (P Blum) | 2011 | Acrylic on canvas | 150 × 150cm


The rhinoceros at sundown in green pastures | 2017 | Acrylic on canvas | 146 Ă— 114cm



Memory out of hand | 1983/2004 | Oil on canvas | 195 × 130cm



Portrait de famille | 1985 | Acrylic on canvas | 162 × 130cm



Punishable innocents (Benjamin and Kafka) | 2013 | Mixed media on canvas | 162 Ă— 119.5cm





More than 1 (Bruno Schulz) | 2015 | Acrylic and mixed media on canvas | 76 × 61cm

Boetatjie van die Kaap | 2009 | Acrylic on canvas | 157 × 109cm



Gongshi 4 | 2017 | Mixed media on paper | 140 Ă— 100.5cm



Gongshi 3 | 2017 | Mixed media on paper | 140 Ă— 100.5cm



Gongshi 8 | 2017 | Mixed media on paper | 140 Ă— 99cm

Gongshi 7 | 2017 | Mixed media on paper | 140 Ă— 100.5cm



Gongshi 6 | 2017 | Mixed media on paper | 140 Ă— 100.5cm

It is raining eyes | 1993 | Watercolour on paper | 45 Ă— 31cm



Albert Cossery | 2014 | Mixed media on paper | 42 Ă— 30cm

Sheltering sky | 1998 | Mixed media on paper | 77 Ă— 57cm



Mayakovski | 2012 | Mixed media on paper | 56 Ă— 43cm

Dwerg akrobate | 2000 | Pencil on paper | 61 Ă— 45.5cm

Werfetter | 2009 | Mixed media on paper | 55 Ă— 38cm

The laughter of flies | 2000 | Mixed media on paper | 61 Ă— 45.5cm



Birds of bad omen | 1995 | Watercolour on paper | 31 Ă— 35cm



BIOGRAPHY Breyten Breytenbach was born on 16 September 1939 in Bonnievale, Western Cape. He left to travel Europe at age 20, and in 1961 settled in Paris, where he married a young woman of Vietnamese ancestry. Legislation against mixed marriages prohibited his return to South Africa, which solidified his opposition to apartheid. On a clandestine trip to South Africa in 1975 he was arrested and sentenced to nine years’ imprisonment for terrorism. Upon his release in 1982 he returned to Paris, where he was granted French citizenship. His awards include the Alan Paton Award for Literature (1994), the Mahmoud Darwish Award for Creativity (2010), and the Zbigniew Herbert International Literary Award (2017).


Breyten Breytenbach The 81 ways of letting go a late self 18 October – 24 November 2018 Stevenson, Cape Town

CAPE TOWN Buchanan Building 160 Sir Lowry Road, Woodstock 7925 PO Box 616, Green Point 8051 T +27 (0)21 462 1500 JOHANNESBURG 62 Juta Street Braamfontein 2001 Postnet Suite 281 Private Bag x9, Melville 2109 T +27 (0)11 403 1055 Catalogue 91 October 2018 © 2018 for work: the artist © 2018 for text: the authors Cover Autoportrait masqué (detail), 1990, mixed media on canvas, 146 x 114cm Page 1 iPad photograph, 2018 Design Gabrielle Guy Photography Mario Todeschini Transcription Bongani Matabane Printing Hansa Print, Cape Town

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