A tribute to Africa’s beauty and my first art teacher


Africa’s beauty first struck me—and it hit hard, like a well-aimed arrowtoward the end of a long Lufthansa flight from Frankfurt to Nairobi in 1977. The cloud cover broke, and there it was, near a gracefully curved stretch of dark trees speckled with white birds : a patch of reddish-brown earth, with a group of conical huts inside a circular enclave and patches of bright green grass scattered, like drops from a wet brush. Here is the sketch I made, only a few hours later in my hotel room at the Serena Hotel in Nairobi:


first glimpse sketc0002


That initial glimpse of Africa filled me with an intense joy. A few days later, in an excited letter to my parents and older sister back in Vienna, I wrote, "It was like that first meeting with a stranger: the (respectful yet critical) scrutiny, followed by a brief uncertainty, and then immediate sympathy. And as we touched down on the landing strip, in a flatish countryside with vague silhouettes of the mountains, I felt it in my heart : I was going to feel at home in Africa." 

Beauty is all around us, on this planet we call Earth, if we take the time to look for it. I'm very grateful for all the beauty I've encountered throughout my professional and personal travels in Africa. An impish look in a child's face seconds before a smile as bright as a mini-flash of lightning. A tall, striking woman with a baby on her back. The heart-stopping expanse of bush, bush, and more bush, and then, only a few feet away, a pride of lions. A well-tended city park filled with exhuberant flowers. An awe-inspiring and intricately carved traditional mask hanging in a dark museum. Each experience has enriched my life, leaving me in debt to Africa's beauty.

I also feel I owe a debt of gratitude to Pierre Belvès (1909-1994). As my first art teacher, he had a profound influence on the way I look at life. He was a French artist, an illustrator of children's books (most were published by Flammarion in the series "Les albums du père Castor" (Father Beaver's albums), as well as craft and art books, and a high school art teacher (at Lycée Janson in Paris). He was also the author of articles about art education, including one, written sometime in the sixties (the date and publication details are unfortunately missing from the yellowed clipping I still have), that starts with the words, "L'art est avant tout une façon de vivre" (Art is above all a way of life).

But I knew him as the tender-hearted director of a children’s art school ("Atelier des moins de quinze ans") at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, located at 107, rue de Rivoli, in the Marsan pavillion of the Louvre Palace, in Paris. I attended his school from age six to ten, and later, from twelve to thirteen.  

Would you like to see my student card from those happy days? Let me go and scan it in for you. Here it is:


Diana atelier card0001


During my school years in Paris, Thursday afternoon was my favorite time of the week. Time for art lessons. Two whole hours from 2:30 to 4:30 pm! Monsieur Belvès was the best art teacher I've ever had (and I had quite a few, later, at university level). He believed in "showing, not telling" and often took us to exhibits at the Louvre, where we would be allowed to sit on the parquet floor long enough for a quick pencil sketch. Slide shows often took up the first part of the afternoon; one, on Paleolithic cave paintings in Lascaux, in southwestern France made a deep impression on me. To our great delight, he once arrived with live, white bunny rabbits and drew our attention to the pastel pink shade on the inside of their ears. Another time, the whole class walked to a nearby park (Jardin des Tuileries) where he showed us how fresh snow covers only one side of a tree's branches. Not once did he criticize any of us, offering instead warm, individualized encouragement, often prefaced with the question, "May I borrow your paintbrush?", and followed by a short demonstration. I vividly remember him showing me how to draw smaller and smaller branches on a tree and then asking me if I wanted to continue on my own. My answer was an enthusiastic yes. 

When I came to say goodbye before moving to New Delhi, Monsieur Belvès who sensed both my sadness and nervousness, smiled and said, "Think of all the things you will see with your artist's eyes!" After India, I came back to Paris and his atelier for another glorious year, before moving again, this time to Vienna. He and I kept up a sporadic correspondence (his letters were beautifully illustrated) but then, as it so often happens, we lost touch.

I believe he would have been happy for all the beauty I have seen in Africa. And I have a wish for you: if you haven't already been touched in some way by Africa's (natural, human or man-made) beauty, I hope you will be. Soon. 

Not many of us live within easy physical access to a museum which happens to have a permanent African art exhibit, but the web has great resources. For man-made art, here's just one URL, you might enjoy: 

www.africa.si.edu/

It's for the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art (located at 950 Independence Avenue, SW, in Washington, D.C.). If you follow the links for "Explore the Collection", and "Highlights", then you can take your pick among many sub-collections. I chose "African Mosaic" and love the late 19th- to early 20th-century "Bottle" from Cameroon, made of glass beads, attached to a gourd intended to contain palm wine. (Please don't hold it against me if the URL has been amended or the site has been rearranged by the time you check it out.)

I just realized I have about thirty minutes of "free" time, before going home to cook supper (it's my turn tonight). Can you guess how I'm going to use this time? Yes, I'm going to keep exploring the National Museum of African Art's website.

Bye for now! Until your next visit, take good care.


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