I have always loved painting portraits, there is just something about bringing to life human emotion on canvas (however subtle it may be) that is a true pleasure and privilege. The experience is of course all the more profound when the subject of your focus is an old friend with an interesting story to tell. This work is extremely special to me.
I started working on this piece a few months back. I was browsing through old photos when I stumbled upon a very special collection…
After I finished school I spent some time in Botswana, getting work/life experience in a remote little corner of Northern Tuli. Ultimately, my time spent in Tuli was completely unforgettable, definitely most significant and I always get rather nostalgic when my mind wanders back there. I must say that I have done my fair share of Lodge work over the years and I think it probably goes without saying that the very best part of partaking in said area of work is undoubtedly living in the bush, and all the wildness and excitement that comes with it.
This little spot in Tuli was no exception, the lodge was extremely remote, not overly busy with guests and because of this we (the staff) ended up with quite a bit of free time on our hands, which is EXACTLY what you want when you’re living in the bush, not so? The lodge grounds were completely unfenced, and whilst the guests enjoyed the comfort of stilted accommodation, our staff houses stood alone, quietly secluded, existing unobtrusively alongside the dry Majali riverbed. Encounters with elephant and hyena whilst walking to and from work were almost a daily certainly.
It didn’t take me long to develop strong friendships with the staff who lived and worked in the lodge grounds, I found the Tswana people to be incredibly warm, charming, intelligent, interesting, hard-working and friendly and, being just 19 and rather far away from familiarity I immediately felt comfortable and at home with my new found friends.
The majority of staff who worked there had done so for years. There was one elderly gentleman in particular who certainly knew the land like the back of his hand.William Thipe Pilane, known to us as “Rhampo” was the grounds caretaker from 1960 until it was bought by the owners (at the time) in 1985, after which Rhampo was employed at the lodge. He was a true gentleman, kind, softly spoken, exceptionally wise and well respected as an elder by all who worked with him, myself included. He was extremely hard working, sweeping the lodge walkways spotless each and every morning, clearing the car park of every single Mopani leaf and seed pod that dared gather there in the hours between his attendance. Rhampo had very kind eyes, when he wasn’t working he would sit quietly in the shade, atop an old paint bucket, observing his surroundings, watching over us with a soft smile on his face. I always found his eyes to be reflective of something pleasant, quiet laughter perhaps. He was a patient man, always encouraging my attempts to speak Setswana, he had a wonderful sense of humor too, we would often end up in fits of laughter when I said something incorrectly in my efforts to converse daily pleasantries in his native tongue.
By the time I returned home from Botswana I had developed a wonderful friendship with the Lodge owners which made it much more bearable to revert back to my life back in SA, knowing i could return to Tuli whenever I pleased. I was able to visit Tuli quite often, usually to house sit/ sausage dog sit the private residence of the owners when they traveled- these times were TRULY some of the best of my life, I have the most wonderful memories of those carefree days. This little spot in Tuli was free from cellphone, internet and electricity connections, wonderful when you’re there but definitely making it a little bit difficult to “keep in touch” when you’re elsewhere. Because of my frequent trips to Tuli I was able to maintain my friendships with the wonderful people that lived there which was a massive bonus to me. I last visited Tuli in 2009, by this stage Rhampo had retired and was living happily with his family in his home village near Semolale.
So, whilst browsing through my photos I found a picture of my old friend, I couldn’t believe that I had never considered painting his portrait before. I have been working on the painting for the past few months and I have loved every minute of making those kind, wisdom-filled eyes come to life (or attempting to at least). This is a piece that I am truly excited to share. I just love this reference photo, I can’t wait to complete and share my version of it. The perfect reminder of the most special journey, and the most wonderful old man who showed me what it truly meant to take pride in the work that you do.