Conversation with a Painting
A long frame, 90 x 40 inches, is suspended from just below the ceiling at the far right-hand corner of the living room. The colours match the pastel background of a painting on thin canvas. It is an overwhelming montage of an entire city under construction.
Walattaa’s eyes zone in and out of focus through the detailed, multiple, construction sites that are packed with mountains of steel, cement piles, rocks, boulders, cranes, crates, rubble, trucks, cars, workmen, people, mud and streets that neither resemble squares nor roads but are clearly market places and bus terminals. She is drawn to the detail and loses herself in hours of brooding over impact and change in neighbourhoods and slums. Aspects of life and its extremes flash through her mind offering new meaning in words that suddenly hold magical significance – transformation and change. The whole that is never the sum of its parts makes sense and, in this painting, breaking apart and coming back together appears relevant to things wonderfully both great and small.
She has a fantasy about interactive paintings . . . that they come alive and respond to the thoughts and feelings of the admirer . . . it’s an absurd idea that sends Walattaa off into loud giggles – it sets her adrenalin going and lights up her face in a sparkling smile. The smile lingers in memory of the work of great artists some of which she has heard about and others she has experienced first-hand. They proved that interactivity is limited only by the boundaries of the imagination.
Walattaa turns to examine the piece of art on her wall more closely. The foot of the painting is where the composition starts and ends. Two women are centrally positioned in the midst of the bustle. One, standing in profile, is dressed in brown, looking towards Walattaa, with her right hand on her chest. Her shawl is sliding down from her head onto her shoulders. The other, clad in white cotton garments, strides forward, looking sternly at the woman in brown. Walattaa’s thoughts are elsewhere and initially she is not aware that she is talking out loud to the women in the painting.
“You remind me of the barefoot women who trudged into the hills to make a living from the forest clearing,” she says staring at the woman in brown. “You know them, everyone in the city does. They have appeared in newspapers and magazines, thanks to the ferenjis – the foreign tourists, journalists, aid workers – who stop to photograph them. Then they pass around the pictures, bitterly complaining about women’s degradation, usually over glasses of whiskey or bottles of beer. Some sneak out later to pick up one of the girls from the dark street corners of the night. Is it possible, could you possibly be… one of the beautiful daughters they have dared to humiliate?”
For a moment, the woman in brown who stares back at her appears real, her hand no longer gently resting on her chest but clutching at her.
“Ok, maybe you were not one of the daughters,” Walattaa mutters. Her tightly pinched lips relax, and her expression softens as she studies the discreet yet purposeful stride of the woman in white who stares sideways at the one dressed in brown. A Toyota pickup approaches from behind and a white Sedan emerges from a right angle struggling to get past the puddles heading towards the woman in brown.
Walattaa’s eyes hover between the two women. She peers at the one in white and asks “Are you going to tell her off? What has she done? Are you trying to stop her from getting into one of those cars? I think she’s likely to jump into the pickup truck. That’s what my buddy Joy said she did to get away, to escape from open lavatories, flies; and insect bites. She did it, you know, she managed, but it cost her. She thought it was a matter of a ride but once she got in the car, they had a conversation about fast money. Everyone is tired of currency that never lasts and it’s not enough to speak a foreign language with no notion of how to read or write it. That’s partly how she was blindsided, and they sold her off to a family. That’s what I heard. Yes, they sold her for money, like a slave.”
Walattaa had met Joy on a bus after she broke free. The residue of her experience was still fresh, and the consequences continued to scar her. For years, Joy spent her days shining marble tiles at the family mansion. She was loaned to the neighbours when she finished so they could have their own slabs done. Her friend, who was not as subservient, was shoved from behind and sent hurtling from a terrace on the fourth floor onto a concrete pavement. Her neck snapped. Her funeral was not the first or the last kind Walattaa would attend.
“Of course, they told us it was suicide,” Walattaa says to the woman in white, “You know that story, don’t you? Is that why you look so stern? Is that what you are trying to stop?”
The woman in white gives nothing away. There is no movement to hold onto beyond her stride and sideward gaze. It was as though she is unable to take on that responsibility, it is the woman in brown who has her eyes fixed on Walattaa.
“It was Patience I pleaded with. I asked her not to go,” said Walattaa to the woman in brown. “She wouldn’t listen. I couldn’t stop her. It wasn’t as though she were poor. She used to sip Grappa with her stepfather after dinner and together they smoked shisha. She walked out of one trap straight into another. I’m sure you’re better at understanding these sorts of things. You look like you do. What do you know? Can you tell me?”
Walattaa’s throat tightens and she tries to swallow but her mouth has gone dry. She feels her pulse thumping in the nape of her neck, her ears, and her head. She breaks away from the painting and raises a glass of water to her lips. Some of the tension leaves as the cool liquid swirls in her mouth and trickles down her throat. Her eyes shut for a moment.
It is dark behind her eyelids but not for long. Geometric shapes flicker in and out of a band of white. A face she cannot place appears in the upper left corner. She contemplates the possibility of the young image belonging to her grandmother or aunt, but before she resolves that puzzle another vivid appearance disappears as quickly as it emerges. She inhales deeply as a medium-height woman surfaces sitting on a high stool with one foot on the floor and the other propped up higher on a foothold. A smile lights up her distinguished chin and accentuates her jaw. Her nose follows her eyes into the distance. Her smile disappears as she rises from the stool, stretching to look out of the window behind her. From one moment to the next she steps out of a door and onto a dirt road lined by false banana trees. A small child with a runny nose crosses her path flashing its bottom bare as it digs its toes in the dirt to jump across the path, in and out of the trees. At the end of the road a woman with a headwrap lifts a wooden pestle high above her head and brings it down hard onto the hot, red, chilli peppers lying in the mortar. Another woman appears from the background, an ornamental cross tattooed on her forehead, dressed in a tailored military green frock and black, dusty, plastic shoes.
Walattaa’s eyes blink open and land on a grey, concrete building in the centre of the painting. She rises from her chair to take a closer look at the detail and follows the lines the artist has used to stop the streets from overlapping. She finds what she is looking for and points to it.
“That’s where he lived,” she says to the woman in brown pulling herself back slightly so that she can hold her gaze without losing a general view of the rest of the painting. “He said Sophia was his sister and the only condition he imposed, apart from payment, was that she would work during the day and go to night school, to learn to read and write. I was impressed by her tattoo when I first met her. She had a habit of pulling out a stick from her bosom and put me off when she used it to clean her teeth – a bit like a refreshment every time she completed a chore. The up and down movement of her stick against her gums was accompanied by a high volume of opera-like singing. It drove me insane. I was alarmed and had enough when she squirted her spit through the gap between her teeth, across the bedroom straight into the bin–that just couldn’t be allowed. Then I found out.”
Walattaa sinks back into her seat. The woman in brown fixes her eyes on Walattaa, who now feels uncomfortable. She shifts in her seat. “Whaaaat?” she asks the woman in brown, not expecting to receive an answer.
There was no sound. However, Walattaa senses some kind of pronouncement.
“Why are you so interested in my story?” says the woman in brown. “Everyone falls in and out of a trap like Sophie did. Her brother protected her after she left the village, she told you that, but he wasn’t there to stop her so-called admirer from following her to the spring every day. She was strong when he took his chance and leapt at her. He had no idea that she would defend herself and will never know what it was that hit him on his head for it put him to eternal rest. She kept her story secret, what use would it be for her to bring that up in court? She’d get caught for it. She simply had to get out of there.”
Walattaa never fully recovered from the shock of that story. She shakes her head and looks squarely at the woman in brown. The tone of her voice rises with the force of her gesturing hands and tensing body.
“You remind me of someone younger. Zenebu. Tricked by her own parents to believe that she would go to school if she helped her city-based uncle. The well-respected Catholic priest took on a child, barely 11, to clean and cook for him. She took her life because she couldn’t stand living the life of a slave. He just hired another servant and continued with his precious life. Not a word was spoken against him. Nothing was said about the poor child.”
Walattaa looks again at the woman in brown and speaks to her more directly.
“I find it hard to imagine the possibility of every woman I meet owning a story like that. What is your story? What are you running from? Rape, murder, prostitution, robbery, beatings or just slurs? Was it your father, your brother, a relative or a neighbour that gave you up for money? Why should I care?”
The woman in brown and Walatta lock eyes. “Remember the 15-year-old boy who was tricked into fathering a child so his predator could have a financially secure family? She was never charged for child abuse and he was the one who paid a price. No court room would ever have a hearing to defend him, not to this day.”
Before Walattaa can react, another example emerges like a voice in her head. “Remember the young man who was promised a wife and shelter in return for his labour. He was turned away at gun point the day he gathered the harvest. His wife left him – she was forced to marry him and then to betray him. Their new baby died of exposure in the corn fields. The plot was evil, yet no God-loving person defended the victims or took him to court.”
Walattaa averts her eyes from the gaze of the woman in brown and looks toward the flyover painted at the helm of the painting. She reaches out and takes a magnifying glass from her desk drawer. Standing on a table she closely examines the artwork. It wasn’t as precise as she had imagined but it was detailed enough for her to see where the new road meets with the old and she discovers an interesting spot that she loved to frequent on her way to middle school.
She returns to her seat, excited by the prospect of sharing a joyful moment with the woman in brown. She points to the location.
“See that? That’s where The Den used to stand. It was an old tin shed that belonged to an equally old war veteran. He loved the crackle of his short-wave radio and would let the students stop by to listen to Radio Monte Carlo – it aired the best music. We wanted to catch the scandalous pop songs – Donna Summer’s I Love to Love, Barry White’s Come On, and Hot Chocolate’s You Sexy Thing. Oh, the giggles and exaggerated dance moves . . . The Walkman simply added to the sensation.” Walattaa’s enthusiasm dies out suddenly. She stares at the woman in brown who stares back.
“Yes, I know,” says the woman in brown eventually, “the novelty wore off when Babbi, the only boarder left in the school dormitory, went mad, because there was nowhere left for her to go.”
Walattaa looks around as if to make sure nobody was listening then leans over to the woman in brown in the painting and confides, “I sneaked into the dormitories once without being announced and I caught Babbi with the others pinning a girl down on a table. Babbi had a long stick in her hands and threatened she would stick it up inside the girl if she did not cooperate. I was so frightened. I ran back to my classroom to tell the seniors what I’d witnessed. Some of them went to find out what was going on but Babbi and her friends had already dispersed.”
Another silence falls, this time for a bit longer.
“The music was indeed exciting,” says the woman in brown. “But the excitement died out after the police dragged Patience into the police car and off to the station where she was arrested. It wasn’t her fault. Everyone blamed Mr Pimp, but nobody said a word to him about it. It started like a joke, didn’t it? Mr Pimp and three foreign men started frequenting the school just before the summer break. They invited the girls to meet a challenge. Any that would go into town for three consecutive nights would in return receive a colour TV. Only Patience would fall for that kind of thing, agreeing to be driven away in broad daylight. And then, when she finally returned, the men were out to kill her.”
“I remember that. Strange cars came and left and finally the police appeared,” says Walattaa. “Patience was accused of stealing a colour TV and was arrested. It was a big deal and we didn’t know what had become of her for months. She did come back to school eventually, without the spark in her eyes. We all felt robbed of something. The only penalty the pimp and his friends received was the stones we threw at them.”
Walattaa walks to the window and looks up at the sky where the clouds start to gather. She remembers the sound of her teacher’s voice drowning under the din of hail and storm as it crashed against the school’s corrugated iron roofs, shook the high voltage power cables and eventually blinked out leaving the school in complete darkness. She shuts her eyes for a moment.
It is dark behind her eyelids and all is quiet. When she opens her eyes, the painting is once again part of the household furniture.
Nightengale Jennings: I was named Chuchu at birth, in 1968, a time when outer space was politically and scientifically significant. My parents named me Venus the year I was admitted to an English nursery school in Addis Ababa. Everyone was surprised to discover I already spoke fluent English, which I had picked up from TV and my older English-speaking siblings. At school, I had access to English language children’s books, unfortunately not in Amharic. I started keeping a diary in primary school, and wrote short stories and poetry in high school, primarily in English and in Amharic. I destroyed everything I wrote in fear of being incriminated in an uncertain society that suffered civil war and famine. I have written professionally for international organizations, and love writing both fiction and poetry. *Nightingale is my pen name, which I adopted from the bird and for the quality of the song.