Currently consulting in the creative industries, Michelle Constant is a journalist, radio presenter, business leader and champion of the arts.
The role of artist and creative as translator, decipherer of complex worlds, identifier of difficult concepts, decoder of universal conundrums, is one that gives me great joy. In particular, it highlights how dance, literature, and visuals act as a metaphor for understanding our world and us – metaphors that are powerful instruments of interpretation for us.
A few weeks back, in an exceptional talk on his work, artist and academic Karel Nel spoke about the relationship between the universe of our minds, and the expanding metaverses of space. As the artist-in-residence working with a group of academics and astronomers on the COSMOS two square degree space project internationally, his view on science and the humanities is profound. As he says, ‘The deeper we look into space, the deeper we look into ourselves,’ connecting the temporal and the cosmic.
Nel’s work with the scientists on the new James Webb Space Telescope is extraordinary; he describes the telescope, which will travel one-and-a-half million kilometres beyond Earth’s orbit, as an observatory that references palm fronds, and origami – ancient nature and ancient culture.
If astronomy is the study of light and dark as Nel describes it in myriad ways, then perhaps space is a reflection on the human condition, and requires the artist to translate the shades and shadows of our humanity. Perhaps too, in his role as artist, he acts as the storyteller, the griot, and the terrestrial guide to the work of the scientists.
Nel’s journey is that of the wayfarer. It’s an idea probed by poet David Whyte in much of his work. Whyte’s poetry references the journey of the pilgrim – the internal conversation on courage and aloneness that pilgrimage elicits – and it is something I feel deeply connected to.
My recent commitment to climb Kilimanjaro in 2020 as part of the Trek4Mandela campaign, driven by the Nelson Mandela Foundation and the Imbumba Foundation, has highlighted ideas on resolution and commitment, courage and aloneness, questions as to what ‘leadership’ truly means – all with the mountain as a metaphor. When we listen to adventurer and mountain climber Sibusiso Vilane talking of the ‘courage to climb the mountain’, it is less about the physical and more about the psychological. In much the same way as Nel describes how the journey through space and time is also a metaphor for the journey into the intrinsic self, so too is Vilane using the mountain as an allegory for our personal growth.
At drama school, we used a metaphor on how to approach our world – with either ‘open or closed hands’. Neither is wrong. They are just different, and bring different rewards. In the last few years, my hands feel as though they have slowly closed. This year, a lot has happened to make me realise that the time has come for me to open them again – not just for my personal growth, but also as an active South African citizen. In his extraordinary poem ‘Pilgrim’, the poet David Whyte writes, ‘I promise myself to the mountain, and to the foundation from which my future comes.’ The words seem to be utterly and insanely prescient given the relationship between Kilimanjaro and the Nelson Mandela Foundation. So, with that in mind, I promise myself to the mountain, and to the foundation from which my future comes. And what a beautiful metaphor that promises to be.
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