One smoldering afternoon in Juba finds me completely uninspired. I need two things: a refreshing drink and some excitement. Well, the first is a no-brainer, Logali House’s kerkedemixed with tonic water. It always satiates that desire. As for the latter, it is nothing a bar could offer. So, I turn to my ever-intriguing companion and convey my predicament. As is usually the case with him, we delve into a philosophical conversation, ever so cyclical, and end up with the need for definitions.
“What excites you?” I ask.
“I am excited by three things,” he says, “Conversations with a beautiful mind, a new experience, and observing beauty in all its shapes and forms.”
“And what is beauty?” I inquired gently. “You’ve mentioned it severally.”
“Beauty is unrestrained self-expression and being unapologetically in a true manifestation of essence. It is vulnerability and strength. It is essentially freedom.”
I look at him with all the admiration I could muster at the moment. He embodies profoundness in a most unassuming manner. A beautiful mind he has beautifully encased in a quiet humility that multiplies his intrigue. He is shy, fierce, and piercing at once. Moreover, he possesses a frame that, though unimposing, evokes grandeur. His voice is soaked in assuredness and beaming with kindness. I could see that he was startled and puzzled by my stare and silence.
“Forgive me! That was the most profound definition of beauty; I’ve ever heard.”
Then, as if by providence, a dear artist walks to the bar where we were sitting to order a drink. I wholeheartedly admire her elegance and simplicity. She is wearing a beautiful flowy dress accented with a grey and black bead necklace that she bought earlier today at the HaganaFestival. She speaks softly and endearingly to the two of us as we exchange some small talk, and then she offers us a gem.
“I am about to paint a mural. Can I interest you in helping me?”
I look at my companion, who was as uninspired about remaining in the establishment as I am in search of excitement. We have planned to go to a favorite riverside place to be re-enamored by the Nile as we conversate.
“Do we join her?”
“Well, yes of course. Is it not the excitement you seek?”
We bolt up from our seats and launch enthusiastically towards the canvas — a wall. The image, already sketched, is ready to be filled in with paint. I draw but have been married to portraits as a form and pencil as a tool. Though I can play with shadow and light, I fear color. I guess it is about control. I’ve recently contemplated abandoning that fear; however, I am unsure if I can manage the multiple variables of painting all at once.
“So, what would you like me to do?” I eagerly ask the artist.
“You can start by painting the flower petals yellow.”
We proceed with opening the paint containers and preparing the brushes. We have yellow, red, sky blue, dark blue, black paint, and our canvas with what seemed to be random figures and lines. Our task is to translate an image from a woman’s phone with a sexy collarbone and a riveting long neck adorned with bright flowers. I happen to be wearing a jalabia colored in the same pattern as the flowers ought to be. And everyone points that out.
I carve some yellow paint onto the cover with my brush and begin the process carefully to match the artist’s strokes as she is painting the body with black and blue. At first, I used much paint in an anxious effort at perfection. However, slowly I relax, lighten my strokes and find a rhythm. It becomes effortless, and the brush is now an extension of me. A calm came over the anxious energy prevailing inside of me. Something about creating, even the simplest of things, is so sacred!
“How am I doing?”
“Wonderfully. You hold the brush as if a painter.”
“Thank you! I love this experience; quite stimulating.”
My dear companion appears immersed in beholding the beauty our hands were imprinting onto the wall. Now in the grace of our movements, and far in the virtue of our absorption. I keep looking at him from time to time and conceiving the beauty sparkling in his eyes. He then begins documenting our experience by taking photos and then videos of the two of us and the apparition of the blue lady taking form on the wall.
I finish filling the flowers, and the lovely artist finishes sketching and painting the lady’s collarbone and a portion of her neck. However, the figure ascends the wall a bit shy of the ceiling; we need a more extended reach. The manager, who is shadowing us throughout the entire process, decides to aid our work by providing a ladder. I am unsure about using it. I am afraid of heights.
At this point, the onlookers in the bar are pretty involved with our process. Even though we are a distraction and at times entirely block their view of the TV, they cheer us on and offer us encouragement and suggestions. They are now directing me on how best to climb and use to ladder. I get up the ladder, quite unsteady. I attempt a few strokes, and my legs are jelly, my stomach a stone, and my head a feather. I can not stand it, and so I climb down urgently.
I turn to my companion, saying, “We need your help, up there. Are you up to painting a bit?”
“Sure, if you need me to.”
He climbs the ladder assuredly, lengthens his gait and begins outlining the head with black.
“Am I doing fine?” He inquires of me.
“Make lighter brush strokes. You are doing well.”
He continues until he finishes and then begins filling in with the blue. I decide to take over from him, but what to do with the ladder? We debate using something substantial to stand on to paint, and the guy who brought the ladder got an empty crate in the compound, a makeshift table in the Ethiopian coffee tent. I steady it over the seat and use it for a while as I paint the high wall area. However, after some time, it becomes obsolete.
“Use the ladder! I will hold it steady for you.”
I have no other option, and so I begrudgingly agree. I climb the ladder again and find a comfortable posture from which I fill the topmost of the painting. Mission accomplished, assistance complete. Now is where the magic begins! The artist adds shades to contour, imparting character, depth, dimension, and beauty onto the image. Unlike me, she manages the ladder very well, climbing much higher since she is shorter in height—contouring complete. We have before us the work of mastery — an unveiling.
Minute by minute, the image is sharpened and focused, and light and shadow appear, here and then there. We hunger, so we decide to supplement our drinks of choice with a plate of nyamachomafrom De Havana.
“How does it look?” The artist asks me. “Why don’t you go to the bar and look at it from there?”
The face looks different from varying vantage points, but the image is a beautiful rendition of the original from the bar. The style of the artist and our touch as participants shines through. The picture is almost complete, so we begin considering the color of the background. We agree on light blue paint. Generally, we thought it would make the image pop out more.
A young man, a friend of the artist, sturdy and dedicated, completes painting the background after a few friends started their hands on it but got seduced by the lure of drunken and entertaining fellowship. It is almost 10 pm, and a group of friends assembles, and the rest are trickling in one after the other.
We start eating our nyamachoma, all the while admiring our masterpiece. We have been working for hours, drained considering that we spent most of the morning and early afternoon at the Hagana Festival. Some friends urge us to join them for a party in another location, but we decide to retire to our homes and reassemble the next day to put the finishing touches.
“You should have placed the flowers a little lower,” a mischievous admirer says.
We all laugh as we greet in departure; everyone’s eyes were sparkling with pride and admiration of the lovely blue lady with a riotous bosom we collectively imparted onto the wall.
“Kerkede” is an Arabic word meaning. “Habiscus flower,” consumed as a juice or a hot drink.
“Hagana” is an Arabic word meaning “ours” or “our own.”
“Jalabia” is an Arabic word meaning “turban.”
“Nyamachoma” is a Swahili word meaning “fried meat,” usually fried beef or goat meat.