He may win, but not before he agrees to lose.
- Czeslaw Milosz
He stands in his stall with his fingers laced behind his back, an obedient schoolboy. Bronze sculptures like taxidermied crows perch on the makeshift wall behind him. Kai, his German gallerist, hands him a glass of champagne and squeezes his right cheek between two fat fingers dripping with silver and Santa Fe turquoise. The gesture is anything but playful.
Sibs balances on his heels and swivels his body to face the visitors, squeaking sneakers on poured cement. The sound gives him goose bumps. He takes a sip of champagne, eyes the glass then chugs the rest. Nobody is recognizing him. Young black hipsters wearing garish eighties blazers and shweshwe dungarees walk past, looking right through him. He averts his eyes, ashamed of what he does not know. Old white ladies in skinny jeans gnash their teeth at him and swig from goblets of wine the color of corn syrup.
This is the first time Sibs is presenting a body of work in the country of his birth, after nearly a decade abroad.
Another life beckons, calls to him like the precipice of a cliff.
He drops his glass. People scatter like cockroaches in the light. A boy with a broom comes rushing. Sibs sees, walking towards his stall, the Ugandan delegation led by the green-eyed monstrously beautiful Brynda Maguire, who has been trailing him around Johannesburg since his arrival. He wants to sleep with her, of course, but he can’t even get hard for himself these days, and so he ducks his head and disappears into the dark booth next door. A film is screening. It’s by his old classmate, Lindiwe. She learned (sooner than did he, stubborn mule that he is) to pimp her heritage, and it has worked. Everybody is talking about her. She deserves it. He sits down in the back, closes his eyes and drifts into sleep. Her voice narrating the film is a memory of his father’s big rough hands cupping his face and the sensation of falling out of a window from three stories high.
“Be good,” his father said to him that day. “Be a good boy and help your mother until I come home.”
The Uber drops him off outside Spring’s house, a fortress fronted by high white walls and electric fences twisting into night fog. The triangle-shaped “Don’t touch” signs, with red squiggles evoking electric shock, only make him want to touch the wires, to feel the voltage surge through his body.
He is unfamiliar with this area of Johannesburg. He had typed Robertson Avenue into the Uber app when he should have typed Robertson Street, and they had circled an industrial park for an hour before he realized his mistake. He was rude to the driver, then tried to make up for it by asking the man where he lived. Soweto. Turns out their mothers go to church together.
“You’re living the dream, man,” the driver says, as Sibs gets out of the car.
Now he’s an hour late on top of the hour he was already late.
The front gates yawn open and Sibs walks up the driveway holding a bottle of whiskey more expensive than he can afford. It is everything he can do to keep himself from turning around and going back to Soweto to drink the whiskey alone in his mother’s kitchen.
Spring’s house is full of people. But what hurts is that it is also full of art. Expensive art. Art that was not made by Sibs. Art that Sibs considers inferior. And now, as he looks ahead and sees in a crowd his old friend Spring laughing beside a glowing swimming pool that is lit from above by the moon and from below by submerged lights, he remembers the day Spring brought a loaded gun to school and pulled it out of his green blazer, showing off. The gun had belonged to Spring’s father, who, like all their fathers, was a freedom fighter. Someone told on Spring that day, but instead of punishing him, the teachers took the whole class to a funeral, where the wife of the deceased broke into song. Senzeni Na. Senzeni Na, she sang. What have we done?
There is a splash and a burst of laughter; someone has fallen into the pool. People point and jeer as the drunk man – whom Sibs now recognizes as one of the country’s most successful artists – flounders and spits. Someone pulls him out, a cream linen suit sticking to his pink body like skin on raw chicken. Sibs looks, suddenly puzzled, down at his hands which are outstretched as though poised to catch an invisible basketball. His hands know things his brain does not.
He turns to see Spring’s wife, Jacqueline, all red lipstick and black lace.
Jacqueline hugs him. She smells like gardenias and expensive shampoo. He does his best to make her laugh, drawing on some bright reserve. Jacqueline has always been a plain woman, a Benoni girl, not much to look at, too skinny, too much yoga. She runs an NGO, one of the big important ones. Everything she does, she does out of white guilt, including, Sibs thinks, marrying his best friend Spring. Still, he likes her.
“How’s New York treating you?” she asks. Jacqueline is golden syrup, too good to be true and yet, somehow, true. Jacqueline and Sibs are the two people in the world who know Spring best, and in that regard they are tethered for life, like siblings.
“It’s okay. You know the one thing I really hate about it? The ice cream trucks. They play this song that drives me crazy.”
He hums the tune, does a little jig and whirls around like a deranged clown. Jacqueline smiles with a pinch in her cheeks. Sibs never knows if this is because she finds him charming or because she’s merely tolerating him for Spring’s sake.
She inquires about his work and Sibs finds himself telling her things he has never said out loud. That sculpture for him, to his own dismay, has become perfunctory, done merely to pass muster. That he’s thinking of making performances out of his photographs but is hesitant to change track now that he is finally starting to find what feels like modest success. That he feels guilty for stealing his mother’s dreams.
“At least your mother has interesting dreams,” Jacqueline says, swiping a dill-and-roe-bedazzled crudo from a passing tray. And then she is gone, engulfed by arriving guests. Sibs is left circling the pool, having the same conversation with each of his old schoolmates, feeling his responses grow stale on repeat. He does not believe a word he says.
“Nobody walks here,” says Femke, the lithe Danish wife of somebody-or-other-who-used-to-be-captain-of-the-row team. Her husband and her work in finance, first Geneva then Rio de Janeiro, now Johannesburg for a stint. She followed him here; he’ll follow her to the next place.
“When I walk to Woolworths,” she says, unwrapping a silver scarf from her neck, “people stop me and ask me if I’m okay. Because I’m white.”
Sibs feels powerless in the face of her outrage. He cannot bring himself to engage. Instead, he convinces Femke to do a Springbok shooter with him. They tip into their open mouths the creamy Amarula, then the green peppermint goo. They smack their lips and laugh.
Then Sibs gets so drunk on the whiskey he brought that he has to spend the night in the spare bedroom.
In the morning, he puts on Spring’s sunglasses and stumbles outside. He lies flat on his back on the grass beneath a palm tree that seems impossibly tall. The heat and the blue sky make his head throb. He wonders what it must feel like to own an actual palm tree. He dimly senses that last night, along with half the Ugandan delegation and a handful of Johannesburg’s leather-clad scenesters, Brynda had arrived happily late to the party, and that when she had left, she was no longer quite so happy. There had been dancing. There had been cocaine. Someone had been thrown into the pool against their will, an iPhone destroyed. There had been apologies. He searches his phone for clues: “Fine, I forgive you.” at 3:00 A.M. and a few emoji at 3:15 A.M. A circus tent, a turd and a shooting star. He is the turd, she the star.
He feels the sunglasses being pried from his face. Spring is towering over him, laughing.
“You are a piece of work, my friend,” Spring says. “You were in top form last night.”
“Nice palm tree, bro,” Sibs says.
“Thank you. I’m rather fond of it myself. But we’re having it cut down. Jax says it sucks water. She wants an indigenous garden.”
Spring slaps Sibs’s cheeks a few times. “Did you even know we have a drought in this country? Hmm?”
Spring jumps to his feet and marches inside. Sibs trails behind, groggy and bewildered.
“No rest for the wicked,” Spring says, downing an espresso and chasing it with a blue-green concoction that Jacqueline hands him. Their movements are orchestrated, elegiac. There have been no children from the marriage. Sibs avoids the temptation to ask why.
There is something mafioso about Spring, but this has always been the case, since childhood. Spring recently bought a run-down apartment block in the city center and his team is working around the clock to gut it. They paid off the police, evicted the squatters and set fire to the building, cashing in on the insurance.
“You should have seen this shit hole,” Spring says as he flings a tan suede jacket around his shoulders.
“Literally a shit hole. It was crazy, man. We saw people coming out of holes, there were holes in the building, and they would come out dripping with shit. They would shit themselves so the police wouldn’t touch them. You could see the feces, the maggots, coming out of their bodies.”
Spring drains the last of his smoothie and daubs his lips with a handkerchief.
“It traumatized me to see that. I promise you, I couldn’t eat for a week.”
Sibs cannot seem to find any words.
Spring grabs his keys and says, “Come in with me on a building, Sibusiso. You’ll make more in rental income than you make on your art, and then you can make work you really want to make, not work you think will sell. Think about it, comrade.”
Spring is the only person in the world who would be this honest with him.
As they part, they say in unison as they always did with fists raised high, “A Luta Continua.”
The struggle continues.
“Is this your American wife?” says his uncle as they pull up to Sibs’s childhood home.
“We’re friends,” Sibs says. He turns to Brynda and says, “Old friends.”
Brynda wobbles her head, purses her lips and stares at him like an alien fly-creature, her face swallowed by black Prada sunglasses. She has tired of his antics. She is still beautiful to Sibs but unrecognizable, costumed in a beaded peach-colored dress too ornate for the occasion, just a casual braai. Her hair, now dyed jet-black, sits too severely, Sibs thinks, against her powdered Geisha skin, her emerald eyes. She is so thin she looks almost ill. Ten years ago she was rounder, her skin blotchier, her hair wilder. They devoured New York: Jamaican jerk chicken, pitchers of Budweiser, food cart pretzels, Junior’s cheesecake, 99-cent pizza, day-old bagels smothered with cream cheese and stolen strawberry jam. He recalls now the day they took ecstasy together in Central Park. It rained all afternoon; Brynda led them from umbrella to umbrella. She made friends with everyone. They bounced to shards of light and sound darting around them. They licked warm rain off each other’s cheeks and foreheads. It was the closest they ever got to kissing. Now she is divorcing her husband of five years. She refuses to speak of it other than to say, “I should have left five years ago.”
He pinches her belly; she slaps his hand away and gets out of the car.
They climb into a three-hour lunch that ends with his teenage cousin turning the pages of Sibs’s passport and exclaiming each city aloud, bungling the names for comic effect. The crowd – his mother, his granny, his sisters, his aunts, uncles, cousins, neighbors, half the church it seems – is in hysterics. They are spread out on the front lawn. Sibs is standing at the helm with his arms folded, the jean-clad seigneur of a scarred family he barely knows but loves so much he feels he must atone for the rest of his life to deserve the adoration that now flows toward him. A cow has been slaughtered in his honor.
Brynda seems to be having fun. She is being inspected and prodded by two of his toddler nephews. She is showing them her phone, snapping selfies with them. Earlier, she had with gusto eaten the cabbage, chakalaka, beetroot and chicken stew his mother piled high on her plate. Sibs searches the crowd for the face of his mother; he knows her by her shining cheeks: pure happiness like white sugar bursts through the seams of her two front teeth. He wants to clutch his mother’s ankles and say, “Mummy, mummy, what have we done?”
His mother gave her pension to the church. His uncle gambled away a mining fortune and a ministerial position his father would have killed for. Dimly it dawns on Sibs that he left at the wrong time. If he had stayed, he could have forged a life. Now he must fake one. He begrudgingly accepts his uncle’s challenge to dance. Bravely, Sibs stomps the ground, kicking up grass and dust, twisting his torso like a snake poked with a stick, thrusting his legs high above his head, higher than his uncle’s. He remembers. The women ululate.
He falls to the ground, rests for a moment on his back, laughing. He wonders if Brynda is watching.
The children are restless; they run down the street to play.
It is the hour of dread.
They are asking him: “When are you moving back?”
Suddenly, he longs for New York on a Sunday morning after a snowstorm. He wishes he were walking down the middle of a silent street, past cars mounded with snow like the humps of submerged animals, hands in his pockets and not a soul anywhere in a city of eight million that gives a damn what Sibs does next.
“Can you come to church tomorrow?” his mother asks.
He says he’ll try, but he knows he won’t.
Brynda folds and unfolds then refolds her legs, tugs in vain at a black pleather miniskirt, fiddles with polka dot stockings, applies then reapplies red lipstick while peering into a round mirror she pulled out of her purse. Brynda cannot sit still and it is irritating to Sibs. For the past few months, he has been sketching the faces of people he loves, rendering their features as tiny black ink dots, then digitizing and animating the ink dots so that the faces morph into each other. It is merely an exercise, he expects nothing of it.
Sibs recalls now how fiercely at the age of twenty-five Brynda remade herself in the image of the curators she admired. She spent her afternoons at the Salvation Army, spent her waitressing tips on makeup instead of food, starved herself skinny. Now Sibs sees a new sadness in the corner of her eyes like a certain quality in the old drag queens he knows; it renders itself as a slow blink as Brynda stares, suddenly still, out the window as weekend rush our traffic slides over the elegant spine of the Nelson Mandela Bridge. Sibs turns around to look at the sunset too; the sky is baby-bib pink and the sun’s final rays fall heavy on the vacant lots of Newtown like a blanket. Sibs thinks of his mother sitting at the kitchen table leading him and his siblings in prayer, how she prayed for his father’s safety in exile, how she was never religious before his father’s disappearance, how his father despised the church. To him, it was ‘The System.’ Everything was ‘The System’ – he would even refer to individual people as ‘The System.’ Sibs laughs now, thinking of it, and shakes his head as he draws Brynda’s nose.
Brynda says, “What?” but it is a faux indignation; her voice is tinged with warmth.
“Nothing,” Sibs says, and his voice sounds to his own ears like his father’s voice, baritone as can be.
Whether or not his father would consider art to be part of ‘The System,’ Sibs does not know, but he is starting to suspect that it is something he is able to neither navigate nor escape. His sculptures sell from time to time. He is accepted to the good residencies. He has a decent reputation, a few loyal collectors and a devoted, if distracted, gallerist in Kai. Taken together, it hardly feels like a life he wants.
He sketches Brynda’s hair. She shivers, suddenly cold, then snaps out of her trance. Something in her has shifted: her whole being now radiates with expectation. She wasn’t like this when she was married. Sibs makes a mock-serious face as he finishes the sketch, then hands it to her. She inspects it. Finally, cracking her powder and piercing the fluid outline of her lipstick, she smiles.
“Let’s go,” she says.
They do a shot of whiskey and then Uber to the closing night party of the fair. Someone has bought one of his sculptures. A small red dot like a bindi has been placed on the one Sibs likes best, the one that looks like a city in flight, a spaceship with feathers, a hash of skyscrapers and body parts both grotesque and sublime. Like a bindi, the red dot signifies true love and prosperity. Once expenses are deducted, Sibs will be left with enough hard cash for half a years’ rent in New York, plus something left over for his mother and his sister, his nephews, his nieces, maybe even a new gearbox for his uncle’s car, a need that was mentioned at lunch more than once. Or he could use it for a small downpayment on a flat, maybe in Hillbrow or Jeppestown. Either way, it’s good news. It’s a relief. And yet Sibs feels again a boot upon his neck.
Kai introduces Sibs to the Brazilian Cultural Ambassador who feigns interests in them while leering at the sister-princesses from Venda whom everybody wants to fuck.
Kai waves the man away. “Guess who.”
“No, he doesn’t have any money, are you nuts?” Kai pulls Sibs into a room where one of Lindiwe’s videos is playing in a loop. She is knitting a long carpet made of thick, blood-red wool. Kai whispers, “Anonymous. Says he’s an old friend of yours. Bought it in cash.”
Sibs lowers his forehead into his palm and shakes his head slowly. “No, no, no, no.”
His whole body has turned cold and yet his face feels hot. Sweat prickles his underarms and the back of his neck. He fights the urge to curl up in the corner of the room and cry.
Kai slaps his face harder than is necessary. “Pull yourself together. I don’t care who this guy is. Go be nice to him.”
Kai points across the room to Spring and Jacqueline who are walking around like they own the place. Maybe, Sibs thinks, they do.
He circles the room a few times as though he’s going some place, then taps Spring on the shoulder.
“I thought you didn’t like my work.”
Spring laughs and hugs him.
“I never said I liked it. It’s an investment.”
Spring squeezes Sibs’s shoulder. “I’ll sell it one day when you’re famous.”
Jacqueline pushes in for a kiss. “He’s already famous, sweetheart.”
“No, I’m not,” Sibs says.
He gestures to a woman wearing a bright pink wrapper around her beehive weave.
Lindiwe is holding court with the ambassador and some of Spring’s rock star friends. Her black skin is almost golden, her eyes wide and bright. She has learned to speak a new language, one that the executives from the bank that underwrites the art fair seem also to understand.
They sit together for the awards ceremony. Lindiwe gets the grand prize; Sibs an honorable mention. At the end, all the award winners are called up on stage. Sibs scans the room, looking for his father.
His father used to threaten to show up at their high school graduation in traditional garb, cheetah tails dangling from his shoulders, his legs and feet bare. As a teenager, Sibs dreaded that day, but his father disappeared before making good on his threat.
Lindiwe’s hand is on his waist; they are moving off the stage.
“Congratulations,” he says.
“Congratulations yourself,” she says. “Move back already and come share my studio with me. I have so much space I don’t know what to do with it.”
Sibs says, “I’ll give it careful consideration.”
Lindiwe says, “Don’t you want to work with all the cool kids in Jeppe?”
She hands him the award she just won. “It’s too heavy,” she says.
Sibs does some mock lunges with it then drops it by mistake. It has a small hairline crack that she assures him adds character.
“I’ll fill it with gold,” he promises.
For the rest of the night, he brings her drinks that he presents kneeling down on one knee.
Lindiwe invites him to her apartment for an early breakfast. She lives on the hill high above the city, adjacent to the Yeoville Water Tower, where as first year students they would go to drink malt liquor and watch the sunrise. Sibs does not know if the area is still considered dangerous.
He arrives too early. He had allowed extra time for Johannesburg’s horrendous morning traffic but forgot it was a Sunday. He peers into Lindiwe’s flat to see if she is awake. A curtain has been left open. The living room is painted daffodil yellow; dawn has not yet made it bright. There is a red couch, a long wooden table loaded with monographs, wooden chairs reupholstered in blue shweshwe fabric. The smell of shweshwe to Sibs is home: his mother used to make dresses out of it; now it adorns Johannesburg’s plushest hotels. There is an ashtray that needs emptying and in a corner, an old Steenbeck editing contraption that must have been a gift, for their generation never used the things. For them, “undo” has always been an option.
Lindiwe’s apartment is the kind of home he wishes for. He wishes now that he could marry her, move back to Johannesburg, Berlin’s too damn cold, New York’s too damn hot and the rent is too damn high, he could take a teaching job here somewhere, he’s been inundated with offers the last few days. Maybe he would even open his own gallery; certainly he can do things here that he could never dream of doing in Europe or America.
Lindiwe’s floors are wooden parquet arranged in a geometric pattern that pleases him. He thinks about waking her; instead he walks to the patch of grass next to her block of flats and sits on a fallen tree trunk beneath the water tower. The city is slowly waking up. He wonders how many of the buildings are owned by Spring; he once read online that the number runs into the hundreds.
A woman and her two small children crest the hilltop. The woman smiles at him, familiar, like she had just popped out to the supermarket and is returning home with drumsticks for dinner.
“Sanibonani” he says to them, and he can tell from her reply that they’re not from here. Mozambique, DRC, Zimbwabwe, somewhere like that.
One by one they appear, walking now towards him in droves, mostly men, but women too. They each find a corner, on the edge of the hill, or under a tree, or on one of the cement slabs, remnants of an aborted construction site. The devout and weary who have come to pray face East. Some pray quietly, kneeling, some stand and sing, some pray at the top of their lungs as though preaching to a large congregation. One man is much louder than the rest. He paces up and down, chanting in Sesotho, hailing, raging, foaming at the mouth.
At first, Sibs simply watches them. Then, he unfurls himself like a black cloth and rises to his feet. He spreads his arms wide and tilts his face to the sky.
Suddenly, there is the sun.
Main Photo: Johannesburg’s skyline — by Chris7cn