Bonfire of the Vanities

Feature: Horizons, January 2008

It is utterly still here. The sky is hard blue like pottery glaze. The skeletons of spring’s daisies – little papery discs on dessicated stems – stand stiffly between small, sharp, black stones. An invisible insect flies past, making a metallic whirring noise like a miniaturised helicopter. The sound stretches until it melts back into the hot silence. Nothing thrives here. Except us.

Tankwa Town, a village of tents on the edge of the Tankwa Karoo National Park in the Northern Cape, is the home of the 1000 people making up Afrika Burns. Afrika Burns is an “invent”, an art and culture event created entirely by the people attending it.

The concept is based on Burning Man, a week-long creative explosion at Black Rock in the Nevada desert. The climax of the event is the torching of a 12-metre high wooden man, but with every person bringing their own weird wonderfulness to Black Rock, there’s plenty more to see and experience. In 2007 nearly 48 000 people took part in the big daddy Burning Man, with thousands of others attending smaller regional offshoots around America and the world. From co-founder Larry Harvey saying “Let’s build a man and burn it” on a San Francisco beach in 1986, the Burning Man philosophy has developed into a global movement. Afrika Burns 2007 is its first South African incarnation.

At Afrika Burns there are no curators or directors. There is no passive consumption of programmed entertainment. There aren’t even cash bars or branded T-shirts or bouncers or bins. There are just the participants, their creativity and their generosity. (And emergency services and long drop toilets.) Afrika Burns is anarchy meets carnival: individuals express themselves in consultation and collaboration with their community, beside huge flaming sculptures, while dressed in kilts, feathered headdresses, gold platform boots, cowboy hats… or nothing at all. No, it’s not something you see every day.

So Sean the photographer, his wife (with nine-month old baby) and I find ourselves packing 20 litres of water, four bottles of sunscreen, some boxes of old polaroid film and a carrot cake, and driving three hours from Cape Town into the desert, just to see what will happen.

At the Africa Burns welcome point we hit the pile of scrap metal called the Virgin Gong. Its clashing sound heralds our crossing over from the “default world” of daily life to Tankwa Town, a world filled with its own marvels. We see a patch of flourescent toadstools sprung up from the stony ground. A mud mermaid with a tail of mussel shells reclining next to a baobab tree made of plastic containers. A forest of tethered balloons; bright spheres shivering like living things in the hot breeze. A beaded sheep nibbling on a tumbleweed. Two giant wheels joined together – a person walking, like a hamster, in each – perambulating across the shimmering plain. A matt black scorpion made of car tyres. A latticed dome like a huge sea urchin in the distance. It’s Yeats’s line “I would mould a world of fire and dew” made manifest, a dream created by human hands in a place that offers us nothing but the harshest elements.

We spend an unfun half hour hammering tent pegs into the scorching, iron-hard ground. With camp set up, we go and explore. Sean takes his polaroid camera and I take my carrot cake. We go up to strangers and Sean takes their pictures with the old polaroid film. The photos come out pre-faded, like the hot sun has beaten its way inside the camera. When Sean hands the photos to the subjects they already look like memories, and the people laugh with delight. I hold out my container and they dig pieces of carrot cake out of the gooey mess of the melted butter icing. “Thank you!” they shout as they set off again on their own adventures.

We find Camp Desert Rose, a Western themed camp with a bar where they serve free vodka sunrises. A jewellery-maker gives me a necklace with a pendant of a multi-headed and -limbed person – the symbol of Afrika Burns, inspired by San paintings. Someone hands me a chunk of cool watermelon. A woman called Jan comes up to me holding out a purple shawl covered in butterflies. “Take one,” she says and I do, pinning it to my shirt.

The people of Tankwa Town practice an ethos of decommodification: nothing is for sale. Instead, there is the practice of Gifting. Gifting is about giving things away without expecting anything in return (although Sean does get a “Heaven Note” which he is told can be exchanged for an unlimited number of spanks from a certain young lady. He doesn’t cash it).

Monique Schleiss, one of the people who has been putting together Afrika Burns over the past 13 months, explains that they focussed on getting people to understand Gifting because everyone can do it: “It’s not intimidating, like making a 10-metre high metal sculpture in the middle of nowhere.” Gifting promotes the Burning Man principles of Radical Participation and collaboration. “The value of the gift is not in the object, it’s in the interaction with another person,” she says.

In the desert, collaboration and co-operation is important. “It’s an extreme environment,” says Steven Raspa, the American Burning Man Special Events Producer who has come to help out at Afrika Burns, “you have to work together to survive.” Steven is wearing a white net skirt. His beard is twisted with wire, looped around his neck and tipped with a daisy. He looks quite at home. So is Afrika Burns different from the Nevada version? “It’s a reflection of South Africa through a common philosophy. But Burning Man manifests differently wherever it is, because it’s a conference of the human imagination.”

Of course, there are practical concerns too. We meet Jono Hoffenberg, the Head Ranger, while he’s refilling the oil lamp hanging on one of the signs marking Tankwa Town’s “roads”. As a Ranger, one of Jono’s key functions is to educate people about Afrika Burns’ Leave No Trace policy: “You are responsible for your own waste. There are no bins here, so you need to learn to carry a bag around and put everything in it.” When Tankwa Town disappears from the Karoo, it must disappear completely. Every bit of burned wood, every bright pink feather, every watermelon pip must be gone.

A dust storm whips the sunset into muddy orange and when it settles, the full moon rises, huge and yellow like a second sun. It is so bright that we cast shadows as we set out from our camp to see Tankwa Town by night.

The excitement is palpable after dark – this is when stuff burns. We follow the glow to Main Camp, where Triple Bypass is being stoked. This three-metre high metal sculpture has three flues, punched with patterns, that are filled with burning logs. The wind is picking up and is funneled through the aortas of the sculpture, which periodically spurts a huge veil of sparks from its peak. It’s mesmerising.

But we’re looking for wooden stuff that’s going to be burnt to the ground. Not because we’re destructive, mind you, but because there’s something liberating about The Burn. The burning of the art, explains James Happe on the Afrika Burns website “is meant to be constructive in the sense that it frees people from attachment to the material objects and focuses their attention on the experiential aspects of the process of creation.”

The experience of the art and the environment is different at night. The 12th Key – which looks like a rather dull wooden radio tower by day – has a collar of lights near the top that slowly change colour, like the lights on the masts of Nelson Mandela bridge in Jozi. As we get closer we see that there are screens on each of the four radiating arms. Each screen shows a video of an eye, looking at you and blinking. It’s deliciously creepy.

Art Cars like the sangria buggy and bright orange Voo Voo Vehicle beetle about the camp offering lifts and free booze. At Camp Desert Rose there’s a non-stop line-dancing party going on while at Camp Vuvuzela there are women doing astonishing things with hula hoops to live saxophone music. We’re invited for flaming sambuca’s at Camp Here And Now. While we’re out dancing at The Turbine (a beautiful dome built by a set-building crew called The Upsetters) people spread the rumour that the Burns have been cancelled because of the high wind.

On Sunday morning we hear that some smaller stuff – like the Post Boxes filled with notes on issues people want to let go of – was burned. But all the big structures are still standing. “I’m not too stressed about it,” says Monique. “I just remind myself that Afrika Burns is not about the Burns, it’s about everything that happens around the Burns. It’s about the community.”

If asked a Burner how they thought the spirit of temporary Tankwa Town could work outside the Karoo, they might paraphrase Voltaire: “The experience of Afrika Burns is like fire. We fetch it from our neighbours, kindle it at home, communicate it to others, and it becomes the property of all.” The experience of the event is intended to ignite acts of generosity, creativity and community back in the so-called default world.

On the Monday after Afrika Burns it’s raining in Cape Town. I’m driving to a meeting and see a woman making her way down the hill, shoulders hunched against the rain. I catch her eye and grimace in sympathy. Normally, I’d think that was enough of a kind gesture. But this time I stop. “Would you like a lift?” I offer. “Thanks!” she says, smiling as she jumps in.

It’s said that one of the great joys of travelling is the fresh perspective it gives you on your everyday life. Afrika Burns will change the way you look at things for a very long time.

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