One smoldering afternoon in Juba found me completely uninspired. I needed 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 turned to my ever-intriguing companion and conveyed my predicament. As it is usually the case with him, we delved into a philosophical conversation, ever so cyclical and ended 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 looked at him with all the admiration I could muster at that 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 walked up to the bar where the two of us were seated to order a drink. I wholeheartedly admire her elegance and simplicity. She was wearing a beautiful flowy dress accented with a grey and black bead necklace that she bought earlier that day when we were at the HaganaFestival. She speaks softly and endearingly to the two of us, as we exchanged some small talk and then she offered us a gem.
“I am about to paint a mural. Can I interest you in helping me?”
I looked at my companion, who was as uninspired about remaining in the establishment, as I was in search of excitement. We planned to go to a favorite place by the riverside and 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 bolted up from our seat and launched enthusiastically towards the canvas — a wall. The image was already sketched and 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 proceeded with opening the paint containers and preparing the brushes. We had yellow, red, sky blue, dark blue, black paint, and our canvas with what seemed to be random figures and lines. Our task was to translate an image from a phone of a woman with a seductive collarbone and a riveting long neck, adorned with bright flowers. I happened to be wearing a jalabia colored in the same pattern as the flowers ought to be. And everyone pointed that out.
I carved some yellow paint onto the cover with my brush and began the process, in a careful attempt to match the artist’s strokes as she is painting the body with black and blue. At first, I used so much paint and was in an anxious effort at perfection. However, slowly I relaxed, lightened my strokes and found a rhythm. It became effortless, and the brush became an extension of me. There came a calm 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 with which our hands were moving, and far in the virtue of our absorption into our tasks. I kept looking at him from time to time and conceiving the beauty sparkling in his eyes. He then took to 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 finished filling the flowers, and the lovely artist finished 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 needed a longer reach. The manager, who was shadowing us throughout the entire process, decided to aid our work by a provision of a ladder. I was unsure about using it. I am afraid of heights.
At that point, the onlookers in the bar were quite involved with our process. Even though we were a distraction and at times entirely blocking their view of the TV, they cheered us on and also offered us encouragement and suggestions. They were now directing me on how best to climb and use to ladder. I got up the ladder, quite unsteady. I attempted a few strokes, and my legs were as if jelly, my stomach a stone and my head a feather. I couldn’t stand it, and so I climbed down urgently.
I turned to my companion, saying, “We need your help, up there. Are you up to painting a bit?”
“Sure, if you need me to.”
He climbed the ladder assuredly, lengthened his gait and began outlining the head with black.
“Am I doing fine?” He inquired of me.
“Make lighter brush strokes. You are doing well.”
He continued until he finished and then began filling in with the blue. I decided to take over from him, but what to do with the ladder? We debated using something substantial to stand on to paint, and the guy who brought the ladder got an empty crate that was in the compound, a makeshift table in the Ethiopian coffee tent. I steadied it over the seat and used it for a while to paint the high wall area. However, after some time, it became obsolete.
“Use the ladder! I will hold it steady for you.”
I had no other option, and so I begrudgingly agreed. I climbed the ladder again and found a comfortable posture from which I filled the topmost of the painting. Mission accomplished, assistance complete. Now is where the magic begins! The artist started to add shades to contour, imparting character, depth, dimension, and beauty onto the image. Unlike me, she managed the ladder very well, climbing much higher since she is shorter in height. Contouring completed. We had before us the work of mastery — an unveiling.
Minute by minute the image was sharpened and focused, and light and shadow appear, here and then there. We hunger, and so we decided to supplement our drinks of choice with a plate of nyamashomafrom 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 looked different from varying vantage points, but from the bar, the image is a beautiful rendition of the original. The style of the artist and our touch as participants shone through. The picture was almost complete, and so we began considering the color of the background. We agreed on light blue pain. Generally, we thought it would make the image pop out more.
A young man, a friend of the artist, sturdy and dedicated, completed painting the background after a few friends started their hands on it but got seduced by the lure of drunken and entertaining fellowship. It was almost 10 pm, and a group of friends assembled, and the rest were trickling in one after the other.
We started eating our nyamashoma, all the while admiring our masterpiece. We had been working for hours, drained considering that we spent most of the morning and early afternoon at the Hagana Festival. Some friends urged us to join them for a party in another location, but we decided 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 said.
We all laughed as we greeted 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.”
“Nyamashoma” is a Swahili word meaning “fried meat,” usually fried beef or goat meat.