Tuesday, 5 March 2013

I Had a Gallery in Africa

Readers familiar with Isak Dinesen's work might remember this first line from her famous book 'Out of Africa'. I first had it drummed into me by my dreamy African history professor many years ago at university. Isak Dinesen-Karen Blixen's stirring first line read,

I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills.

And her sweeping autobiography told of her sad life in colonial Kenya as a failing coffee plantation owner, as an unhappy wife, as a bereaved mistress. We all remember the breathtaking shots from Sidney Pollack's Oscar-winning film: Robert Redford's Gypsy Moth moving over the green hills of East Africa; Meryl Streep grieving on her dramatic country verandah.

As much as I was entranced by these words, I soon felt guilty for ever being swayed by them. As a young wife posted in pre-war Mogadishu, we visited Isak Dinesen's house on the outskirts of Nairobi. We walked quietly through the preserved, wood-lined rooms, past her trunks, onto the waiting verandah. The guide that day was irritated to see us and unhappily answered our silly questions about Meryl Streep. No, it wasn't the house they used in the movie. Yes, they are the Ngong Hills.

Not a very magical visit, and if one reads the novel (rather than the cheesy film) one sees that Dinesen's personal melancholy is almost on a par with that of the thwarted, subjugated Kenyans, while figures like Denys Finch-Hatton-Robert Redford commanded the skies and hunted the animals.

Years later I had my own flawed dream in West Africa where I lived for a good many years. I've always collected traditional art. Not high end pieces but rather good copies and some surprising authentic works. I love sculptures, fabrics, silver.

So I put together a gallery. Like Dinesen I had a mournful time of it for various reasons. Sometimes, I look at the pieces I salvaged and they give me uneasy comfort.



  1. It's an uneasy necessity when one's idealism and stark reality part ways. And it's difficult to show a love of a country that has suffered from colonialism without also, in some however minor way, falling foul of appropriation. But to raise the dialogue, to speak of unspeakable things, even if just tangentially, is necessary.

    1. Thanks Rae for such a thoughtful response. I've long been bothered by my feelings concerning appropriation and authenticity in my work, especially these stories about to come out. It's so hard when this is your material, and you see other viewpoints, or perceive that you do, or sincerely try to. I believe it's worth the (conscious) effort, which then makes one wonder How authentic are any of our efforts, even with less contentious material?

  2. Love it Catherine ... we collect on a similar par ... the occasional higher end, some souvenir end, and mostly middle-or-the-road. I have a couple of PNG masks ... which I like though they are not as dramatic as your masks here.

    1. Sometimes I walk around my house and it feels like an art gallery.. a very dusty one!