Pale Sand Sorceress

Under a verdant orange tree, in her al fresco African art studio, savvy sand sorceress, Kay Cowley, builds an array of mandalas, earth shrines and fertility figurines from earth, stone and just about anything on offer in Mother Nature’s craft shop.

Ever inspired by nature, Cowley fashions sand from all over Namibia into naturalistic and functional art pieces aimed at celebrating femininity and elevating nature while providing calmness, strength and focus.

“Most of my work carries the message to elevate nature and women while promoting creativity and fertility. However, we must also exercise caution as abundance can affect fertility. If we think about how nature regenerates itself, it is all quite amazing and we need to protect that by replacing, restoring and nurturing what we use,” says Cowley sagely.

Presently, a renowned mixed media artist and lecturer at Unam’s department of Visual and Performing Arts, Cowley began her ascent into the artistic when she was just a child. She describes art as a refuge and escape from feeling somewhat left in the middle.

“I was one of those kids who never fitted in at school or with anyone else. I loved art because it was a whole other world I could escape into and as I developed and studied it, I finally began to understand and appreciate my difference,” she says.

Though Cowley’s earliest focus was that of drawing and painting, she cites the years following independence as a particularly inspiring and invigorating time for artists.

“As creative minded people, we experienced incredible freedom and hope after Independence and as young artists and musicians, we knew we were going to create and advance Namibian culture. It was a great time to be starting out.” says Cowley.

Still stuck into her painting but feeling the spirit of change and emancipation, Cowley decided to branch out by attending some Tulipamwe Arts Trust workshops where she got her first taste of African experimentalism. “I suddenly realized that I could make art from anything around me and from then, I just experimented and mixed whatever I could find that seemed like it would have an interest effect. That was in 1995,” she adds.

Following Independence, Cowley attended many artist workshops which taught her to be inventive and marked the beginning of her career as a mixed media artist. “African artists are very innovative because we make art out of anything we find. Europeans don’t have the resourceful mindset that we have in Africa . They don’t always believe in the multi-functionality of an object like a coke can,” she expresses.

Today, Cowley’s most cherished works are those that she has made from natural objects such as sand, porcupine quills, dassie skulls, leather cut-offs, lucky beans, driftwood and the fantastic flotsam of nature in all its poignancy and progression. Basing her dominant technique on “impasto”; a technique favoured by Vincent van Gogh where paint is laid thickly on a canvas, thereby giving texture to the finished painting, Cowley works her sand into undulating reliefs that seem to give her pieces a living, moving quality.

“I collect sand from all over Namibia - orange sand from Sossussvlei; greenish sand from the South; red sand from the Kalahari - and I mix these in with white marble dust to make it strong,” says Cowley.

She says she has evolved a special technique of working the sand to get it in relief and this technique can be used in all sorts of different ways. Much to the delight of passersby at the recent Aegams Festival, Cowley was able to demonstrate this technique and is particularly grateful to the organizers who made this year so interactive.

“At Ae //gams, people could see artists making art and that was really exciting and different. It was also encouraging because artists got to meet people they would usually never meet such as businessmen and ministers who may be interested in furthering or purchasing our art for their establishments,” says Cowley.

While nature is the hallmark of her work, Cowley stretches this concept to the nature of aging, particularly in women. Her piece “Phases of Fertility” presents a woman’s ovaries wilting as they would naturally and Cowley believes this is beautiful because it is as nature intended.

“In today’s society, we have to stay young, thin and beautiful but what happened to maturing naturally? What happened to those big mamas with status whose lines and wrinkles are something to be proud of and a symbol of an admirably long life?” says Cowley.

Fertility figures, earth shrines and meditation mandalas?

Though at first glance Cowley may be a little too hippy for some, the open-minded among us will soon realize that her views on nature and conservation, expressed through art, touch on the precise issues and environmental concerns facing the world today. Those of preservation, renewable energy and the need to protect and elevate the resources, we have all but razed to the ground.

Currently, Cowley is working on a piece just as close to her heart; a tribute to her late friend, Jackson Kaujeua. She says: “I’m working on a mobile piece for Jackson Kaujeua using Kalahari sand as he is one of the Hereros who came from the desert.”

The mobile will be made of large brown and white tear shapes inspired by Kaujeua’s book, Tears over the Deserts. In a bid to get as many hands as possible to help in the making and honouring of the icon, Cowley asks visitors to her home to make a few tears with the technique that she is evolving.

And thus she sits, honouring the earth and an icon in strange sand suggestions beneath the shade of an orange tree amidst her innovative imagination.

Catch Kay Cowley’s next naturalistic offering at the Women’s Art Exhibition at the NAGN this month.