Retha Buitendach Kubu Island Retold 2017 | Art.co.za | Art in South Africa
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Kubu Island Retold 2017

Landscapes and creatures by Retha Buitendach

For many years I kept an old almanac with photos of Kubu Island in Botswana, and this became the number one place I wanted to see in all the world. In August 2015, encouraged and supported by Anton and Lisa Crouse, and travelling in their big 4x4 with a tent, I drove with my partner through Botswana to gather inspiration and photographs for a new, site specific art project focused on Kubu Island.

Kubu Island is not an island. It is an outcrop of two billion year old granite, surrounded on three sides by Sowa Pan of the Makgadikgadi salt flats. These salt pans form part of the Kalahari Basin, and are the largest salt flat complex in the world. They were once the bed of the ancient Lake Makgadikgadi that began evaporating millennia ago. People have lived in and around the pans since the Stone age, and the area is rich in archaeological remains. Kubu Island is considered a sacred site by the people of the area. In the Kalanga language, 'Kubu' means 'large rock'. Amongst these ancient rocks giant Baobabs stand tall in all their fantastical splendour.

Our month-long journey in Botswana took us through unforgettably beautiful landscapes, and to Baobabs in as many shapes and sizes as one could wish for. We saw the salt pans of Makgadikgadi, in their dry wintry vastness. We saw Ntwetwe Pan, Nxai Pan and Kudiakam Pan, where we were the only campers under the famous Baines Baobabs. It was here that I discovered an enchanted Commiphora forest, where I lost all sense of time as I wandered from one magnificent tree to the next, against a backdrop of finely spun golden grass and birdsong.

At Kukonje Island we saw red mottled Sterculia trees nearly as big as Baobabs themselves. We camped underneath a giant Baobab with its velvety pods strewn all around like small scurrying creatures.

And then we took the long dusty road to Kubu Island. Words and even photographs fail to describe the uniqueness and beauty of this place. I did keep trying though, to capture something of the spirit of Kubu, with camera in hand from sunrise to sunset. Most of the paintings in this exhibition are inspired by what I experienced here.

We ended our journey exploring the Okavango swamps, where we balanced all the desert sunrises with some sunsets over the waters of Guma Lagoon.

October 2015 was the start of 14 months of painting, photoshopping and sculpting the artworks for this exhibition. My aim was to capture and reveal the essence and the detail of a truly inspiring place that not many people get to see for themselves. These paintings in oil paint on wood tell a true story where the names and characters have not been changed. The artistic license was in choosing exactly what to reveal, from which viewpoint and in what light. In the words of Paul Klee : "Art does not reproduce what we see, it makes us see."

The Geomorphera series of digital landscapes follows the same quest. Here I have taken some fine details of grass, rocks or twigs belonging to a specific landscape, and shaped , swiveled and mirrored these to form patterns in the foreground of that same landscape. These patterns are not always immediately visible but unfold and reveal themselves. Like small scale geoglyphs, in the age of Photoshop technology, elements like stone pebbles become symbols in a new pattern language.

The Metamorphera series of digital insect prints plays with a mix of microscopic and macroscopic elements. Fragments of landcape are re-formed into the body of an insect. Fern fronds become the feelers of the Okavango swamp moth. Tyre tracks on the salt pan become the patterning on the wings of the 'Makgadikgadi spoorsnyer mot'. A twig, sometimes a whole tree, becomes a leg. In the bigger web of life, all of nature is interconnected and interdependent.

And then there are also the three-dimensional insects, small sculptures assembled from sticks, leaves, pods and seeds. I have been creating creatures like these for over twenty years. Habitually I scan my surroundings, whether the streets of Pretoria or the saltpans of Botswana, for the potential foot or mandible of some creature yet to be created.

These fantasy insects are very nearly real insects, and so each warrants a Latin as well as a common name.

Looking at these artworks that bring the very large and very small together, I find these words by the surrealist Leonora Carrington capture what I feel: "The task of the right eye is to peer into the telescope, while the left eye peers into the microscope."


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