It started with a book that I bought to read on the flight from Johannesburg to Capetown: The Search for The Rarest Bird In The World by Vernon R.L. Head, a South African bird-lover. It was a strange book, surprisingly dreamy with a lot of beautiful language, images shimmering like a tree shot with sunlight and a thousand cherry-sized birds. An emotional book, with just touches of natural science. I read that book 8, maybe 9 times…it was not very mentally taxing, just a pleasant ramble through forests and savannahs, chasing birds with one’s thoughts. I wanted to keep it, but didn’t want to read it a 10th time…felt strangely compelled to interact with it, somehow.
I started doodling and painting in its pages…beginning with the catalog of eggs used for the endpaper design, the large white spaces around chapter titles, then moving into the text…
At some point this feather thing took over, and I set aside the altered book project to explore feathers in my sketchbooks. Colours, brush marks, how to make a feather using a single stroke of the brush…
Moved from sketchbooks to watercolour paper, with a mapping pen to draw fine lines, and a lick of gouache to sometimes give a highlight.
The final version is at the top of this post…a series of feathers using yellow and sepia paint, on rough watercolor paper. A present for my Colombian friend Liz.
“Just erotic. Nothing kinky. It’s the difference between using a feather and using a chicken.” ― Terry Pratchett, Eric
Getsemani used to be Cartagena de Indias’ impoverished slum area…this is where epidemics of cholera started in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ book, Love inThe Time of Cholera. The city’s blacks lived here—slaves, servants, fishermen—in the low, marshy area next to the river, on the outskirts of the main walled city.
These days, Getsemani has risen from the ashes and fish offal to become Cartagena’s bohemian neighbourhood. Youth hostels, thumping bars and hip ethnic restaurants, the church plaza (Plaza de La Trinidad) where locals and backpackers gather and mix in the evenings to make music, kick a ball around, stroll, ogle, smoke, eat, drink, discuss politics…the place hums with the activities of everyday neighborhood life, unwinding on streets flanked by colourful houses at least a hundred years old…
Cartagena’s favorite bird, and a symbol of the city, the maria mulata. “Mariamulatas, with their piercing songs, announce the arrival of the night”. If you change ‘mariamuatas’ to ‘palenqueras’, (the city’s colourful, Afro-colombian fruit-sellers in flounced skirts, who bawl their wares in loud, emasculating voices, the sentence maes just as much sense.
In this drawing, I have the bird crying the names of fruits, a hybrid of the city’s two noisiest denizens.
The María Mulata is Quiscalus mexicanus, known in other countries as quiscal or zanate, belonging to the family Icteridae, found in warmer climates. The bird is black, has a distinctive, high-pitched and musical song, and is a symbol of the fauna of Colombia.
Colombian artist Enrique Grau imortalised the bird in several public sculptures throughout the country. Of this quirky, cranky, engaging bird, Grau writes,“The Mariamulata is the one that accompanies us from birth, is the one in the courtyards, where the girl sweeping the corridor at the entrance or leaning on the windows watching what you are doing is “
Believe it or not, this is what I have spent most of my evenings doing in Cartagena de Indias, Colombia:
Sitting on a sidewalk with my friend Liz, who makes and sells her jewelry to tourists and locals out for a stroll, while the nightly parade of freaks, street artists, vendors, young people, drunks, hookers, and horse-drawn coaches pass by.
It was a great way to fade into the local scene…my spanish improved a lot by talking for hours to Liz, her friends, and other craftspeople selling on the street with us. I enjoyed watching the Vanity Fair drift past. Some nights I would bring a bottle of wine, a couple of wine glasses, an herb-infused round of mozzarella, crackers and olives, and we would share our fancy sidewalk fare with a couple other women, talk about music and literature and metaphysics and love…
Cartagena de Indias’ oldest operating restaurant, La Vitrola stands on the corner of Calle Baloco and Playa de la artilleria (Artillery Beach). It is said to be the best restaurant in Cartagena, and among the best in Colombia, though I couldn’t tell you as I have never eaten there (reservations till the end of June, strict dress codes, no children allowed, average price of dinner between 40 and 80 dollars) and when I drew this I sat on the ramparts across the street, eating my pastel de pollo lunch (like a tamale of rice and chicken, wrapped and cooked in banana leaves) which I buy, most days, from an old man who pushes a cart around and cries his wares in three notes, like the call of some bird: “pas-TE-LES!”
A very familiar street to me, because I go most days along here to visit my friend Liz who works in a boutique on Calle de las damas, selling bags and other handicrafts from around the world.
There’s a very funny looking not-quite-aldaba lion on the door next to this street plaque…it’s not a real doorknocker…none of its parts move, it’s one solid cast. And yet it isn’t like the cheap Chinese reproductions that I have seen elsewhere in the city, and all look the same, and very ordinary. This lion looks a little bit goofy.
Called “The street of bitterness” because it was the route from the Palacio de la Inquisición to the Plaza de la aduana for the annual bunch of heretics condemned to execution by the Inquisition.