Sidney Nolan’s African Journey

I never expected to travel to the other side of the world for a painting. But in 2014 my partner Rachael and I found ourselves there – struggling for breath on the muddy, near vertical slopes of the Rwenzori Mountains in Uganda, fighting through bamboo forest to alpine plateaus chilled by winds whipping off the snow-laden peaks. Then again in 2016. Under a relentless sun we entered Harar in Ethiopia, the fortified town and fourth holy city of Islam, making our way through ancient gates and navigating narrow winding alleys to stand under the 500-year-old mud and rubble walls infused with history.

By the time you read this we will be on our way back from Dar es Salaam, the spice markets of Zanzibar and the isolated deep south of Tanzania.

When we looked at Sidney Nolan’s African paintings we saw more than just landscapes, animals and people. It was strange. We had seen more famous paintings, much more famous, but they never produced the same sense of excitement, foreboding or melancholy. It was as if there was something alive and vital buried under Sidney’s 50-year-old paint.

So for the last three years we have committed to searching for the brooding figures, the luminous wildlife, the despair, violence, joy and energy, and to uncover the secrets within his African works. We have also been looking to add to his legacy.

When Marlborough Fine Art unveiled 35 of Nolan’s African paintings in May 1963, the catalogue was devoted in its entirety to arguing the images were derived from self-exiled French modernist poet, ‘Rimbaud himself, or to images remembered from the poems, or to African experiences which seem to relate to Rimbaud’s own.’ And yet, hung on the gallery walls were elephants, wildlife from the east African savannah and more apes and monkeys in human-like form than any other subject. There were only six Rimbaud-recognisable paintings.

You can imagine the confusion. John Nash wrote in the Yorkshire Post: ‘So we are given Rimbaud at Harar (after a photograph), Head of Rimbaud (after another photograph) and 32 paintings of Africans, monkeys, elephants and gnus.’

Critics thrive on clear classification, but things were definitely not clear. Michael Levey of London Magazine said: ‘It is hard to see the link between these quite stunningly attractive pictures and anything that concerns Rimbaud … Africa does not seem to offer him a mythology into which he could enter.’

An easy option was to judge the catalogue explanation against what they expected from the man, and it was ‘out of tune with what we have come to expect from Nolan’. Like Harari mud, that judgement has stuck for more than half a century.

The gap between the public and the critics was vast. The BBC broadcast the works live, Francis Bacon praised their colour, Her Majesty the Queen made a rare purchase for the Royal collection and it was written Princess Margaret had to force her way through the crowds on opening night as her husband, ‘Tony ploughed a way through the throng for his missus’. It was a strange paradox.

In 2013 we decided that the only way we could make sense of it all was to start where Sidney had started. We teased out his itinerary from tenuous clues in notes, books and fragments of interviews – crossing the Serengeti’s Seronera River on a Friday, entering Uganda’s capital Kampala in the days just before the 1962 Independence celebrations, a letter to friend and artist Albert Tucker postmarked Nairobi 10 October, and Cynthia Nolan’s account of the Ethiopian Emperor’s coronation day celebrations in Asmara, at that time part of Ethiopia.

We traced his path on Uganda’s rural red-earth roads, from Kampala to Kisoro, stopping to talk to village elders of life in the 1960s. Scrabbling over the cone-shaped peaks and misty mountain saddles of the Rwenzori National Park we scoured the vegetation for Sidney’s apes and monkeys.

His Blue Monkey peered at us through lichen-shrouded trees in the Mountains of the Moon. His Ape with raw-red buttocks ‘the colour of flame tree flowers’ sauntered nonchalantly across the road outside Bigodi village. And his Gorilla, cradled in a misty-green landscape outside Kisoro, returned our gaze with human-like eyes.

Ethiopia was a different kind of world. Our 4WD bumped and rattled along dusty roads from Addis Ababa. Camels grazed in dry watercourses and rough brown rocky patches were suddenly splashed in colour from flowering red hot poker plants. We walked deserted alleys and packed-earth paths in Harar, that snaked their way maze-like behind ancient walls, and past mosques to emerge suddenly into markets seething with life.

I stood in doorways for hours watching Sidney’s Seated Beggar plead for coins on a street corner. At night the Harari hyena man called the descendants of Sidney’s Hyena to the walls to snatch bones in the moonlight, with their ‘blunt nose black and rounded ears upright’. Rimbaud’s sepia eyes watched us from a famous faded photograph Sidney had used, while we spoke to Abdunasir Abdulahi, the curator of the Arthur Rimbaud Museum about the Harar Sidney had seen in 1962.

These journeys opened our eyes to a time and place untainted by the opinions of 1960s critics. In the paintings we now see colour palettes, landscapes, faces and patterns that make sense. And with the help of diaries, letters and interviews we’ve found a way to read this rich and extraordinary poem, Africa, that Sidney wrote in paint.

Consider this: every image is influenced by something else. He took a geographic context, transforming and shaping it with layer upon layer of overlapping narrative – using world art, politics, literature, global conflict, photographs, experience and history – until a new series of works rich with nuance and hidden meaning emerged.

What appeared to both critics and the gallery as disparate themes are actually clearly linked on a scale they could not have been imagined. Paintings he anchored in the West are a study of humanity and humanness with a new global proletariat emerging through rolling, humping, surging, washes of Francis Bacon.

In the East there is ancient energy; animals in a gentle calligraphic landscape with a sense of place for the disordered mind, but shadowed by the ever-present threat of the disappearance of species, including the extinction of man. The centre is the chaos and menace of post-war politics, and to the north, changes wrought by the ‘civilised’ European are cloaked in Turner, Gauguin, Degas and the desperation of Rimbaud’s poetry.

The secret of Nolan’s Africa is that it is the most unique and intensely creative series ever completed by Sidney. His two and a half month personal experience – fuelled by the literal, literary and artistic – ended in works broader, deeper and richer than anything he had created before.

This article appeared in Artist Profile, Issue 41, 2017