The tree of happiness flowers and fruits most abundantly for the creative man
Up on the Angolan border we had many hours with nothing to do but to dream and imagine our futures back on ‘civvy-street’ and long for all those we loved back home. Locked away for months in these isolated military bases was in many ways like being in prison. During this time I spent many hours drawing, but not in the conventional sense – for many of the images I created and brought back with me at the end of my two years are akin to ‘doodling’ – the uncontrollable swirling and tapping of a pen on paper. There was therapy in this no doubt, and salve for loneliness and frustration. Some fortunately are a celebration of youth, life and joy.
I have included these images in this blog, for although they do not all necessarily touch on military subjects, they do accurately reveal something about the emotional state of a naive 18 to 19 year old conscript who desperately wanted to return home.
Graham Leslie McCallum
(above) A thumbnail-size image in pencil I drew on the 4th of May 1985 at Opuwo Base. I titled this image ‘For everything there is a Season’. It records my obsession with ‘time’ while I was in the army. The small image in the background is my home province Natal and its lovely countryside. A veritable sanctuary, my O’Neil’s Cottage lying in the foothills of Mount Majuba. The foot print records the path that I must walk through military service to get there, two years (730 days). The title and image was me trying to cheer and encourage myself with biblical scripture – that all things are temporary and will pass, including my military service. The military service did come to an end, but one thing that has proven to be more of a perennial flower – I am still doodling after 30 years.
(above) A surrealistic pencil drawing that I executed on the 16th of May 1985 titled ‘ Kaokoland Vigil’. Much of my army experience was composed of strenuous activity interspersed with times of mind-numbing inactivity. This reality was best encapsulated within an army maxim we would often use – ‘Hurry up and Wait’. This was translated into being a Mortarist too – for after the frenzy of our training, when we got to the border, we were tasked to keep vigil and readied to defend a possible attack on our base.
(below) A pencil drawing in much the same vein as the drawing above executed at Opuwo Base, Kaokoland, in May 1985.
(above) A small pencil drawing, sketched into the corner of a book. It tells a lot about my psyche at the time. Alone, troubled, the unknown future stretching out in front of me into the distance. If only I had known how full and fulfilled my life was to be, I would have pulled out my bright paints and started a happy image.
(below) A mixed-media doodly-like ‘steam punk’ image of a time machine.
(below) I became quite obsessed with time as an unwilling conscript in the army. We counted the hours, the days, the weeks and months, ticking each passing day as a milestone of note. This image has me as the driver to this huge time machine. I consciously knew that the best way to make time tick-by was to keep busy, and for me that was writing and art. What my fellow Mortarists did to make time pass I do not know, but this was my coping mechanism.
(below) A mixed-media image titled ‘Killing Time’ drawn on the 20th of June 1985 at Opuwo Base, Kaokoland.
(below) Titled ‘Waiting’ this pen and ink with crayon records me waiting like a lonesome sentinel. In many of these images the mountains of the Kaokoland make their surreal appearance.
(above) An image I created at Opuwo about the guises/masks I was forced to wear to hide my true identity as a gay teenager. The foetus records the fact that I was this way from the womb. These were the early 1980’s and gays were being discriminated against and criminalised in South Africa. Me as a rather sensitive youth was all too aware what complications my orientation had had, and would have in store for me.
(above) I created many images like the one above by dribbling enamel paint onto paper for effect and then letting it dry before working them in ink.
(above and 2 images below) Three mixed-media images executed at 3SAI Potchefstroom on the 2nd of August 1985 on one of our short return interludes from the border. The snail makes an appearance in many of these images, symbolic of the slow passing of time.
(below) A mixed-media image again of a snail drawn on a piece of discarded type-written paper.
(above) This image titled ‘Keyholes’ and drawn in 1985 records the different keyholes to the doors of one’s future.
(above) a mixed-media image drawn on the 11th of April 1985, 4 days after my fellow Mortarist Willem Durandt (drowned/ taken by crocodiles) in the Cunene River where we were posted. We were all traumatised by Willem’s sudden death. In this image I recorded the swirling waters of the Cunene River and the tumult of the Epupa Falls, combined with red for Willem’s death; all analogous with my emotional upset.
(above) It must have been a dark army day when I drew this noir image of the portal of hell and the abyss beyond. Many days felt just like this – hopeless, lonely, homesick, fearful…
(above) An image I drew in 1985 at Nepara Base. I was teaching myself to type with all 10 fingers at the time, and so a sheet of discarded paper I had practiced on became the backdrop to an abstract doodle.
(above) At night – the border region of South West Africa was alive with thousands of moths. One day a moth flew into some red paint, and besmeared, fluttered over a sheet of paper on my desk leaving a permanent mark of its demise. I used this paper to create this image. Note the pins and awls as in the image above and (3 images below) – insects thus impaled and pinned-down became synonymous to me of my personal incarceration for two years. The image below was drawn while stationed at Bloekombos, Modderfontein Training Grounds 1984.
(below) Another mixed-media image of an embryo skewered. (3rd of June 1985
(above) This organic image no doubt an exercise in patience while I killed time.
(above) A pen and ink drawing of a spiritual nature while mulling on the ‘True Vine’. 1984, Bloekombos, Modderfontein Training Grounds.
(above) This image was created while experimenting with spray paint in my art studio at Opuwo Base, Kaokoland.
(above) A pen and ink exercise of my hand holding a small piece of paper. The shadow of my drawing hand and pen is cast by the strong sunlight onto the paper. Drawn while at Modderfontein Training Grounds, Bloekombos. As a creative person I have always been interested in the visual experience, and the eye in this image and in other images represents this critically important sense, as my glasses do in the image (below).
(above) A pen and ink drawing of my studio at Opuwo Base, 1985.
(above) An image titled ‘my studio’ executed on the 26th of May 1985 at Opuwo Base. I was used as a signwriter at the base by the RSM, and in my free time would draw and paint for my own pleasure.
(above) A calendar of sorts on which I was crossing-off days until I could escape the clutch of the military and return home.
(above) An interesting image of the cover of a ‘Dankie Tannie’ writing pad that I saved as an image. The word ‘LETTERS’ is emblazoned over the front in proclamation at how important we viewed the receiving of letters from our loved-ones. They quite literally kept us sane. A dearth of letters could occasion one ‘cracking’. This term for a mental breakdown was bandied about throughout my two year’s service. We all tried very hard not to let the PF’s (Permanent Force overseers and tormentors) crack us. This image lists all the bases I had been to, among other points of interest to myself at the time like my home address, health, spirituality. One entry reads… “What to write” – and this was an issue as all our letters back home were censored by the authorities and any offending or sensitive sentence or word was blacked-out. We had many ways to get around this. If one of our buddies had to return to South Africa we would load him like a Postman with letters to post when he got back to our families and friends. I would also write nonsensical sentences in my letter to my Mother, that she would pick-up on reading. She would then extract the first letter in each word to make up what I was secretly telling her. I was responsible for post at Rundu and at Nepara Base and I learnt to forge the signature of Lieutenant Abrahams, the censor, on the back of the envelope. It’s not that we had great military secrets to reveal – it was mostly that we didn’t want the prying-eyes of our overseers in our business.