This is the text of my TEDxJohannesburg talk from August 15.
This is a story of a chicken and an egg. The chicken was a gift for my 33rd birthday from my husband. He is now my ex-husband. When I have told you my story, I hope this will all make sense.
The egg is a perfect analogy for the theme of this session, because it’s both a repository of genetic material and a powerful symbol. Before they are fertilized, eggs contain half the chromosomes for new life. They contain the developing embryo. The vast majority of animal species on earth hatch from eggs.
So it’s no wonder that eggs are a symbol of new beginnings, fertility, potential – the power of creation itself. Eggs are associated with many ancient cultures across the world, almost unvariably in association with the vernal equinox and Spring.
Mary Magdalene is often featured holding an egg. This comes from the Eastern Orthodox legend which holds that she was taken eggs to feed the women mourning Christ; they miraculously turned red when she saw the risen Christ at His tomb.
It was during Easter that Lent came to an end and people were allowed to eat eggs again, which is probably why eggs came to be associated with this festival, and why we go into a collective diabetic coma around the same time every March and April.
And now the egg has taken on a new meaning, thanks to Twitter. Instead of symbolising creativity and fertility, the Twitter egg represents a lack of identity. Naivity. Low status. We all start out as eggs on Twitter and then we grow into ourselves and write Twitter bios – the elevator pitch for the self – and then we despise eggs. I’d never follow an egg, we say, and somehow that makes sense.
It’s sheer coincidence that my own Twitter handle – Anatinus – is taken from the scientific name of one of only 2 species of mammal which lays eggs.
But the link between eggs as symbol of creativity and Twitter is a logical one, because Twitter happens to be a wonderful creative tool. For example, the idea for this talk was born in a tweet.
When I first got the theme – genes and memes – I was stumped. Then I tweeted a link to an egg I had painted, and Yusuf came forward with this comment, and in that instant, the idea for this talk was born. Thank you Yusuf.
So there we have it. The egg.
You may have noticed that I painted this with a rather unusual medium. I paint with lipstick. Which brings me to… the chicken.
This is a painting of my marriage. It was inspired by a scene from The Right Stuff, a movie which influenced me a lot as a kid. And yes, that was painted with lipstick – shout out to the Goths of Joburg – I owe you guys.
Back in 2008, when I lost my job, my husband said to me: “Let’s use the recession to have a child!” And a cold shiver ran down my spine. I thought: I can’t be with this man for the next 20 years. I said… no. (You can guess how that went down.)
So here I stand before you today, divorced, childless, 38 years old, turning 39 at the end of the month. I am never going to have children. I am never going to pass on my dubious genetic heritage to another human being. But somehow, through an entirely random sequence of events, my husband and I catalyzed the creation of something else.
Back in 2002, I had quit my job to finish my PhD. I was sitting at home, going quietly loopy. My husband was overseas looking for work. He’d left cardboard lying around the cottage, thick shiny stuff he used to build architectural models. I had lipstick. Somehow one thing led to another, which led to…
When my husband got wind of what I was doing, I was terrified that I was painting feminist vagina art. That is a feminist image, by the way – it’s a reference to the myth of Adam and Eve – but no vaginas.
For years, the lipstick painting was a strange hobby. Lipstick is inherently limiting because it only comes in certain colours, so I stuck to painting things like apples, chillies, roses. For eight years, there was almost no innovation at all.
Then, as luck would have it, I got involved in a campaign to market a car. The campaign colour happened to be bright pink, and to thank the marketing director, I painted this: my very first cityscape.
That first cityscape led to this one, which is called Panic because I painted it while I was having a panic attack.
That in turn evolved into this, when I started using a lot of black. This was inspired by the xenophobic violence of 2008.
This is the lady I buy my black lipstick from. I think I might be her best customer.
After that, I started painting Nguni bulls. Then cats. Rhinos. Even leopards, because I discovered that lipstick comes in an amazing range of shades, some of which are truly hideous but great for painting.
Something else happened. I didn’t just want to create art for myself – I wanted it to be useful. I felt really uncomfortable with painting the Johannesburg skyline when I know about the reality of what goes on beneath those distant towers. That was especially acute because I’m using a medium that is normally so intimately associated with women.
So I decided to donate 10% of my sales from my first solo exhibition to Home of Hope. Mam Khanyi started it just before I started painting with lipstick. She rescues girls involved in the sex and drug trade in the Joburg CBD, and she does an amazing. Job. I’ve also raised funds for Lawyers Against Abuse, which helps victims of gender-based violence to get justice. So the lipstick painting has evolved from a private hobby into something that does some good for others, and that is gratifying.
Even the cats have got involved. This one left paw prints all over one of my paintings last week.
Not only do I get to create meaning for myself, and be useful – I get to connect with others. This is a painting of another marriage. It was inspired by a friend on Twitter, a man I have never met. Ten days ago his wife, the love of his life, suffered a stroke. She is in her 30s, and she has been lying in hospital in a coma ever since, with him by her side.
Thanks to Twitter, I knew about what they were going through, and I felt an image, and painted it. This is the territory of miracles, he said in a tweet, and that is what I call this work.
And that is how this chicken led to this egg. My husband has remarried, and has two children. But despite the chaos and mess and pain of my marriage – and not a day goes by that I am not grateful that it is over – we created something good.
This is going to sound cheesy, but I can make meaning, and so I can soar above the bonds of earth. Traffic, the comments facility, trolls, the chick at the office who smiles at you with her mouth but not her eyes – none of that matters.
In the end, all we have is our story, and all we can do is tell them as well as we can.
Thank you for listening to mine.