I saw my first head in Yei, a small town in rural Southern Sudan. Leaving a friend’s house I caught a glimpse of the head of an old man. At first I took it to be real though in the shadow I could not make out where his body was. With a second shock of realisation I saw it was a carving or a sculpture. The uncanny liveliness of its expression, the twinkling mocking eyes drew a gasp of astonishment. I took a closer look. The bust was made of terra cotta. I picked up this fragile, heavy masterpiece and felt my eyes prick, my spine tingle with the pleasure of discovery and appreciation.
"Good, isn’t it?" said my friend. "The artist lives in a village near here. He turns out dozens of heads. Studies of different tribes. Sells them for next to nothing. I paid £5 for that."
Clearly few other people in Yei could afford to buy works of art, however cheap. But in Juba, where I was working alongside about sixty other aid workers there must be a market. The idea of setting up an exhibition was forming in my head.
"If ever this fellow comes to Juba," I said," ask him to look me up."
I did not forget the head. I wondered how I could find time to return to Yei and get out to the village. I would buy some heads for myself. There were no shops in the Western sense in Southern Sudan. Even in the markets there were not, as in neighbouring Kenya, stalls selling craft work. Sudan was not a place tourists visited. The Civil War had been smouldering for decades. Shelter and one meal a day were what most people aspired to. Any ornament in their huts beyond a decorated clay water jar and a cooking pot was beyond their dreams. However I did feel I could help the sculptor if I could bring him to the attention of the small expatriate community most of whom could pay ten times the asking price without noticing it and have a worthwhile memento of their stay. But I also felt that these heads should be exhibited for their own sake. They should be seen and admired.
A month later I looked through my kitchen window and saw a thin, shabbily dressed man lingering in the compound. I pretended not to notice, hoping he would go away. I was frequently troubled by people seeking jobs or money. Finally the man came to my door and asked for me by name. Seeing he had something wrapped in a dirty cloth I took him to be a vendor and told him dismissively,
"I don’t want anything today, thank you."
"Wait," he said quietly and undid his bundle out there on the step. I relented, something in his manner and my own natural curiosity getting the better of me. The cloth concealed another head.
You’re the sculptor from Yei," I said. "Why didn’t you say so?"
"I did not know if you would remember."
The head, only the second piece of his work I had seen, was of a Dinka. The circumstances were extremely contrasting- the old Lugbara man I had examined only by lamplight late in the evening. This Dinka head stood among the folds of the soiled cloth in the merciless light of the late morning sun. And yet it was more than a good likeness of a head. It had humour, it had character, it conveyed the confidence of a proud tribe with the gentleness of this particular subject.
"It’s for you," he said.
"Thank you. But I’m not giving you £5 for it. I’m giving you £50"
"It’s a gift."
I could not offend him by refusing such a welcome offering, but I wanted to give him something in return. At that moment what he most wanted was a glass of cold water. We sat on my verandah and discussed his work. His ambition was to study at art school in England. I suggested he was already sufficiently equipped to make a living by selling his work. He maintained the only place he could sell was abroad. I told him about my idea of an exhibition in Juba. It might be a first step to an exhibition elsewhere. It might get him noticed. At the time I did not think he needed to go to art school. Subsequently I discovered that he did have a lot to learn about the technical side of his craft. Being self-taught he fired his heads in the same way the women made their pots. He simply lit a fire round them. This led to uneven coloration which he corrected by blacking the faces or staining the clay with the juice of a sprouting teak leaf. He would have benefitted from contact with other artists, if not from a formal course.
John returned to his village to work on his exhibits and I began making arrangements in Juba. The Regional Ministry of Culture whose policy was to encourage indigenous arts and crafts and to record the cultural heritage, but which had no money to do so, was helpful. They knew of John, liked his work and were prepared to overlook his refugee status. For he was not officially Sudanese. He was a refugee from the war on the other side of the border. In that part of the world the tribes spill across the artificial national frontiers anyway. I was happy with the moral support of the Ministry. Until then I had acted on my own intuition. Later many people who saw the heads for the first time thrilled to them in the same way as I had that night in Yei.
Months passed, the rains came and contact with John was difficult. Eventually the roads became passable again and we got a Landrover through, loaded with heads packed in grass and cotton waste for protection against the jolts; we negotiated all the police checks and unloaded our precious cargo in Juba. None were broken but several were slightly damaged. In Europe, I thought, they could have been cast in bronze. Or at least they could have been fired in a hot kiln. This clay remained so brittle.
John himself was unable to accompany me, but I went ahead with arrangements, hiring and whitewashing the interior of a tukul or straw hut. I had asked John to prepare a CV so that I could produce a catalogue. What he sent me was half way between a letter, a short story and an autobiography.
He told of his childhood in a poor family and of his struggles for an education. When he first got to school he was bullied and left; he tried again but this time his uncle dragged him out to tend the goats forty miles away. After three years of intermittent schooling he became cook for the Verona Fathers and worked as houseboy and cobbler. In the Italianate churches he saw statues or Jesus, Mary and the Saints and was inspired not so much by their religion as by the art form. But he believed then that only white men were capable of such work.
So poorly paid was he by the missionaries that he could not afford secondary school. He moved to the employ of another slightly more generous sect, got to school and made friends with some boys who played the guitar. He obtained a guitar of his own and set his sights on music school in Nairobi. Then his guitar was mysteriously burnt while he was out of the house. His role seemed to be that of the victim- the instinctive bullying by the primary kids, the guitar burning, and later the intimidation by the villagers as he gained success with his modelling. They resented the fact that he was selling "their" clay. But I am jumping ahead.
At the age of 23 he was still trying to get into Junior Secondary School.The priests said he was too old. He was accepted on the plea of his own parish priest. He did well, got to teacher training college and by working in the college garage and as caretaker managed to pay his way to becoming a qualified teacher. During this period, too, he was modelling in clay, perfecting his art. Perhaps it was this spirit of determination and of self reliance which both attracted and set people against him. He struck me as a man who knew his own mind.
His hard won independence in Uganda coincided with the downfall of the brutal Idi Amin and civil war. Along with his fellow tribesmen, wife and six children he fled to the bush and crossed into Sudan in 1979. He worked as a primary teacher and lived at subsistence level, all the time modelling his clay heads. He was accepted by the local community as a teacher, something they understood, but when white men from the nearby development project began visiting him to buy his heads resentment set in and the Sudanese villagers tried to prevent his access to their clay. At the same time he was realising that he must get out into the world if he were to try and make a living from his art. And that is when he got my message.
This I condensed into a CV for the catalogue. We improvised stands from upturned boxes covered with material from the market. When the heads were set upon them we were delighted with the effect in our makeshift gallery.
On the morning of the opening we swept the floor, arranged flowers and pinned a strand of wool across the doorway for the Director-General of the Ministry of Culture to cut. He was due at nine. At 8.55 there were no guests and no officials. At nine some guests arrived but the place seemed unusually quiet. At 9.15 it was uncomfortably hot. I tried to telephone the Ministry as usual without success. Vashti, my colleague and helper was unperturbed. "Our people never come on time," she observed.
We gave the guests cool drinks and sure enough at 9.40 a Toyota pick-up arrived carrying a contingent of ministry officials, photographers and reporters. They joined us for a drink and we trooped into the sun where the DG read a brief, prepared speech and cut the wool. A minor event, but thanks to which there was a full report on radio Juba in English and Arabic. I hope John had heard it. None of my letters had reached him, or if they had, he had failed to reach Juba for the opening.
A few months after the exhibition there was one bizarre event. I was visited by an official from the British Embassy in Khartoum. In itself this was a rare event, but the purpose of the poor fellow’s journey was hard to credit. He had been dispatched to ascertain the truth about rumours circulating in Khartoum concerning a certain Englishman who, it was reported, had been was making a collection of shrunken heads. That Englishman was able to scotch the rumour with a copy of the exhibition catalogue
This beautiful and potentially rich and fertile part of black Africa has now gained its independence but tragically the new leaders have led the country in famine and ruin, genocide and despair.