Rachel Shaw, Umpundulu Bird, 1992. Photo courtesy of Joshua Pearse
The Umpundulu Bird hangs on the wall, reminding me of my grandmother. She wove the tapestry when she was living in Durban, over the course of three years, between her piano lessons and her book clubs on Proust. The loom was in her weaving room: a dark space, detached from the house, on the other side of the swimming pool. As a child, I imagined the creature in the tapestry coming from that room, out of the wild trees and warm air.
The source-image – a print by Walter Battiss – features the impandulu bird, or lightning bird. A figure from Xhosa, Zulu and Pondo folklore, it is the size of a man and can summon thunder and lightning with its wings and talons. Battiss appropriated this figure and mutated it; my grandmother reproduced it and now it inhabits our lounge.
Sometimes I wondered why we had a giant bird with a Licorice Allsort in its butt in our house. I didn’t understand the people astride its back, or their funny hats. As the years changed, I came to understand what “art” was. We learned about Battis in school; like Picasso, Battiss revered what he called “primitive art.” The hierarchy here is implicit. Between “traditional” Africa and the “progressive” West, Umpundulu Bird stands as a symbol of cultural superstition or mysticism, rendered modern and valuable by the white male artist.
My grandmother bought the image rights of Umpundulu Bird from Battiss – they were friends. She bought a lot of art and had great taste, which is to say she was “cultured,” which is to say, she was wealthy and educated in white culture. When she was twenty-one, she bought her first piece of art – a tiny Gerard Sekoto. My mother always says that if the house is burning down, we can leave everything but take the Sekoto. All the art I made growing up was framed and put on my grandmother’s walls, next to the works of such famous artists. This, then, is my heritage: the melding of property and culture.
Speaking of the nature of one of his early landscape paintings, in its breaking from the European tradition, Battiss said: “It’s not African, because we live in South Africa, or in Africa, but we aren’t South Africans… we suffer from schizophrenia. We don’t know what we are.” This is what the tapestry says to me: “I don’t know what I am.” Schizophrenic yet poetic, a prehistoric and modern vision, dreamscape commodified as a valuable object – all of this bound up in the delirium of line and colour.
It is also part of the memory of my grandmother, who swam naked in the tidal pools in Durban and whose use of the word titties always made me cringe. She was the only person in my family unperturbed when I said I loved a woman. “You fall in love with a person my darling, not a sex,” she said.
In this way, the Umpundulu Bird watches over me: a particular entanglement of whiteness, love, and privilege, woven into me.