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Group Therapy, Public Meditation


V Moledi Art’s “Art In The Park” is a space for public meditation and group therapy. ART STATE publisher Mpho Matsitle found the fortune to book himself a session, and having failed with the paintbrush, he turns to the keyboard to paint a picture.

Public parks, I once opined, are for lovers, the homeless, and weary workers. I am all three, but that is not why I find myself at the Westdene Park on the overcast Saturday of March. There has been a threat of rain since early morning, and as the morning wears on, grumblings are heard escaping the heavens. I panicked. For months on end I’ve been desperate to attend V Moledi Art’s ampoer-weekly Sip & Paint events. Launched a day after 2021’s Heritage Day, “with eight beautiful women,” it has become the must-attend do in the city.

But events conspired against me; many of the previous iterations were on Sundays — and I have a well documented disdain for bathing on the Sabbath, or doing anything other than listening to the radio. Many others, like the previous week’s Drink & Draw at FourFour Food, fell on a weekend I was out of town. In this my last month as a denizen of Mangaung, I beseeched the rain not to enter into a conspiracy against me; ‘Khutsa, khutsa hle.’ Hardly an hour later, despite the weather app promising a cumulative zero millimetres of rain, the heavens let loose their blessings onto the soil. Luckily, as poet Tshiamo Malatji alleges, Bloemfontein rain lacks confidence. The whole thing was over in about thirty minutes. Hope was renewed. 

A forest of trees. Credit: V Moledi Art

The Sip & Paint movement began rather organically; painter and would-be curator Vuyelwa Moledi invited a few friends for a private exhibition of her work, and some asked they too be allowed ho qabanya pente le canvas. The idea stuck and she tested it with eight beautiful women on September 25. The next event though, they hit a snag. Only one person attended. After troubleshooting, they identified the R350 price tag as the culprit. They pivoted; a smaller, more affordable canvas meant they could charge less. That proved to be the magic pill, the movement blew up. Self-organised events and pop-ups all over the city, from Coterie to Kalahari. Leading us to this Saturday that would be, weather permitting, the second Art In The Park, what Vuyelwa deems a more organic space, and plans to become the staple diet of the Sip & Paint movement.

The hours ambled along towards noon, the anointed hour. I make my way to the park. Families strewn about, adults picnicking, children — ala Andile Q — playing in the park. But nary a canvas laden easel awaiting our acrylic confessions. My heart sank a little. I scour the social media pages; no announcement of a cancellation. Relief. I shoot a text to Malatji, asking in the general sense; ‘dintshang?’ He told me I should join the artsy fartsy at Art In The Park.
‘But there’s no one here,’ I cry.
‘Relax Matsitle,’ he commands.

Lerabele le le tshabang pente. Credit: V Moledi Art

And so I did, the best way I know how; I go for a coffee run. When I cycle back, there’s a hub of activity at the far corner of the park. Empty easels stand proud, content in and by themselves. Blankets and cushions join the caucus, making the circle bigger. Vuyelwa has some of her artworks on display on the outer edges of the circle, forming an unofficial perimeter. A group had already ignored it, they settled themselves under a tree a little ways off. Tasked with being a voyeur, and not at all because I fancy myself a Sister Outsider, I also take up a position beyond the perimeter.

In the centre music healer Damo Mokgatla plants himself and his various instruments. Around him a hundred flowers bloom; easels find canvases, cushions find buttocks, and the aforementioned canvases stand face to face with beautiful people and improve the dreaded Meta question: ‘what’s on your soul?’ Brushes dip into the paint and tentatively, some eagerly, approach the canvas. From the centre, the howling of Damo’s didgeridoo edges us on, “Ride, natty, ride! Go deh, dready, go deh!” Deeper dips, bolder strokes — our souls slowly reveal themselves.  His steel tongue drum gently knocked on our conscience. “Khuluma, khuluma moya wam.” We chorussed to the canvas, our confessor. “Zonk’izono be ndizenza; zis’ebusweni bakho.

Dancing on wine. Credit: V Moledi Art

Do not confuse the centre for a stage, or Damo’s playing for a performance. It is a ritual, a cleansing, a practice of healing. This is meditation. There’s no great silence of the Buddhist temples, nor the dizzying spinning of Postola. We chat about this and that, in our small enclaves, and across them. A child — a bearer of truth — zips through the maze, admonishing herself: “I don’t understand why I don’t understand!” Our hosts, Vuyelwa and her brother Tshepo, do the rounds to share a laugh, an observation, or a complaint about the BMW at the far end of the park, disturbing the silence with its ‘noise masquerading as music’. The silence of the soul, that is. For inasmuch as we may be chatty, this is meditation. Re itheeditse — we are listening to ourselves. All the while providing a running commentary with paint on canvas a smidgen of what he hear in the deep recesses of our souls. If pressed to describe this sort of public meditation and individual expression, only one word is up to the task: Jazz. Harmoniously being yourself, with yourself, for yourself, in a community. 

This is therapy, Vuyelwa insists, and I assent. Our (empty?) speech is nothing more than a mask at worst, at best a desperate foothold on ‘reality’ lest we lose ourselves inside the labyrinth of our inner being. The chattiness isn’t our only guardrail against descending into the arid pit of abyss, into the naked declivity. We walkabout peering into each others’ souls barred on canvases: There’s a woman in a red strapless balloon dress figure skating, or maybe ballet dancing, on the rim of a wine glass. Red wine. Sweet or dry, we can’t tell. A blue moon, the exact size of the paper plates repurposed as palettes, is full and shines bright at the Cruz cocktail stand. Unsurprisingly there’s plenty of trees; thick trunked, skinny as twigs, fruit bearing, and desolate leafless trees by the river bank. The rivers are all full, flowing, and blue. As are the skies. In the main habited by nondescript birds in full flight. And bright, yellow and dark orange suns. The mountains, though imposing, are inviting. For a hike, or a hug. We cannot reserve all the hugs for the trees, after all. Very few humans in the pictures. A grey being plays big spoon and hugs a yellow one, seemingly protecting the latter from the whirling chaos all around the both of them.

All hugs and smiles. Credit: V Moledi Art

There is no time for grandiose, pretentious interpretations of the artworks. If they’re even that. On these canvases are our libations. The scars we see therein shock us not for they’re identical to ours. Scabbed, exposed to light, they begin to heal. Our aspirations dance on these canvasses; we paint it into existence. These paintings will not hang on the walls of our nations galleries, they belong to a more sacred place. They’re ours to take home and keep as a reminder that the work of healing is ours to do, but never in isolation. 

Sip & Paints events take place at various venues in the city on a weekly basis, follow their Twitter account @vmolediartSP for updates.

Also published on Medium.

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