He who delights in solitude is either a wild beast or a god.
WUA#1 Oliver Barnett
As a newly formed WUA team, we got really lucky – or were gently guided – when our first interviewee turned out to be perhaps the most important character of all.
Fresh mountain air and daily movement routines are the source of his calm yet wild, powerful energy. He is relaxed and his voice is mesmerizingly calm. There is no rush or even the slightest stress in his presence. He seems to be very much in tune with the environment, as though he was the wind on the trees or the leaves in the wind.
WUA: Oliver, how would you describe your time spent in search of creativity?
Oliver: Icall it courtship, the delicate dance with nature, which is compelling me to be in its presence. I’m always exploring this idea of what it is about my time on the mountain that actually compels me to be there? And it doesn’t give me a choice. It’s not like I can say - I’m going to take a day off from you today. At the time when you are in creative mode, that’s not a factor. You just have to do the work.
So for me this kind of nature immersion helped me to realize I was starting to recover some of my animal sensibilities.
We are living in a world now where most of our time is spent with humans. We are always interacting with human beings, whereas for millions of years we only interacted with the wild,
...It’s kind of a date with wilderness I suppose.…
with the wild parts of ourselves. So surging through our blood and our bones is this animal connection that we’ve lost. So I sensed that it was coming into me and I really wanted to explore. It’s kind of a date with wilderness I suppose...
WUA: When did you first wake up in Africa?
Oliver: It happened about 10 years ago. At that time, I was working in London, project managing in the music industry. And although this might sound like quite a creative field, it wasn’t leading anywhere interesting. One day I was in a taxi in Kings Cross, creeping through the London traffic. I remember that moment - the taxi driver played a West African melody which immediately took my breath away. It had such a special calming yet exciting effect. A Soul-call in its essence. This music captivated my attention so much that I not only asked for the name of the song and the artist, but I was drawn towards the source.
..I was drawn towards the source...
A month later I was on the plane from Marrakech to Bamako, the capital of Mali, ready to see and experience the place where this powerful melody was born. In the seat next to me was a stranger - a young woman.
We started chatting during the flight and, believe it or not, it turns out that she is the niece of Toumani Diabaté, the very musician I was coming to look for. With no social media in those days I can still not believe the serendipity of this sudden gift of life.
So guess where I woke up in Africa? I was guided, welcomed and hosted in the very compound of Toumani Diabaté’s family. The rest is history. My life, adventures and discoveries in West Africa were both mind and heart opening. Tribal music festivals and gatherings of ancient Tuareg people changed my life forever, bringing new dimensions, the grounding I didn't even know I craved. Something like going back to the roots of creation, the depth of the powerful tribal culture we all come from.
WUA: Do you think living in Africa has shaped your creativity?
Oliver: Absolutely. I grew up in a home where my mother was an extremely gifted gardener. She has a garden, which has been kept and manicured to the point of perfection. This was always very inspiring and created a deep aesthetic within me. But moving here I realised how that manicured and trimmed version of nature is extremely different to being somewhere where one is completely not in control. So there are many places in the mountain here that I would call my power spots, places where I go and just fill myself up. It’s a little bit like with meditation, where you feel yourself starting to dissolve into the space around you.
And moving here was the first time I’ve experienced those feelings. I’m not saying they are not available in the UK. I think there are certain tracts of wilderness in the South West and in Scotland, places like that. But for me it was about realising that I’m not in real control over my destination whatsoever.
WUA: Which piece is the most representative piece of the current exhibition?
Oliver: The picture which carries the show title ‘Foraging Photons’ encapsulates the show. And it was the reason that I approached a restaurant to show the work. I found this particular mushroom called the Wood Blewit, on the very top of Table Mountain.
It’s fairly common on the lower parts of the mountain, but I found it in a very unusual spot, and also, it’s much earlier in the season because it gets colder on top of the mountain which the mycelium respond to.
...when your attention is completely demanded by what you are looking at, and for a moment nothing else exists...
So when I found this I felt like a kid, I was suddenly seeing the world through these lilac-tinted glasses. It felt like I was in a sort of courtship with this mushroom. And it turns out to be an edible, incredibly tasty mushroom. So I wanted to create a picture that took me back to that same place, to just being immersed in nature to a point when you are no longer thinking about the world around you, It’s like a non-dual, non-separate experience when mind is fully out of the way. That is really what this piece is about. It’s about finding things when you walk, about curiosity being brought to life, finding these amazing things.
WUA: So what did you put inside? We can see the flowers in the middle?
Oliver: I’m always looking at plants when I am on the mountain. I take a little stove and I make tea out of things. I was drawn the the simps beauty of this flower, in the Pachycarpus family, so I know it is medicinal but is extremely bitter on the palette. I have a friend, Craig, a herbal doctor, who is very interested in these and other poisonous plants as medicinal tonics.
WUA: Can you briefly describe your origins? Any creative background tracing back to your childhood? Any artistic connection that you can recollect that made you want to be an artist eventually?
Oliver: I didn’t show many signs of being creative when i was younger. My aptitude was towards sport. I was the guy who loved chasing balls and winning matches. So I don’t remember making a single picture for the first 15-20 years of my life. The visual cortex was either asleep or just happy to give way to the other parts of my brain that were firing. And I often think that’s why it’s coming so strongly now because it was not something that was dictated or forced in those early days. It was left to assimilate and do its own thing, and suddenly when it was open to the world it had something to say.
WUA: Do you play any musical instruments?
Oliver: I sing. The voice for me is the instrument that I use the most, whether it’s toning or chanting or singing along to sounds. Again, playing instruments wasn’t something I showed interest in early in life.
WUA: Does your family have any influence on your creativity?
Oliver: Yes, definitely. Becoming an artist coincided with becoming a father. There is definitely a connection. My first attempts in photography date back to the time straight after my daughter, Busi, was born.
She is in fact the greatest contributor to the process to this date, often foraging elements for my shoots. There is even a series of images we've done together.
WUA: Do you meditate? And what kind of depth do you find through meditation? Are you able to bring it into your art?
Oliver: I do but i struggle to sit for long periods. I consider mine a mediative art practice, where the mind is engaged in the process of making images while the other aspects of my being are able to engage with nature as inseparable from my body. I completed a ten- day Vipassana a few years ago, which opened many different channels to what I’m doing now. I went with the intention of opening my art practice visually, and it blew open what I thought was possible. To watch my mind for that period of time, created a stillness that allowed different extra terrestrial energies coming in which is illuminating, but also can feel alienating (quite literally).
I think that it’s an incredibly important topic of our time. The work that I’m doing is interested in different levels of cellular memory.
Most of how we operate today as human beings is Skin Memory. So it’s things that are kind of like our CV, or your profile, or my name is this, I do this, I do that. Then Flesh Memory is going deeper into those points of things that you experience in your life, that trigger an emotion, or make you feel sad, or make you feel happy. These are all of the things that are stored in the body, that can be triggered by factors in our environment.
But the dimension that tribal culture is operating on, where the real stories are that I’m looking to try and unearth with my pictures, is called Bone Memory. Bone Memory is events that occur on a day to day basis that you know have not come from your lifetime on this planet. They are deeper than that. Things that trigger sensations you know are part of the collective soul.
So the stories that we are navigating at the moment in our culture, I believe, are skin deep. Culturally we are not really going into these topics that are important to us right now.
…the stories that we are navigating at the moment in our culture, I believe, are incredibly skin deep…
The one thing that I would say though, is that often I find myself in my studio, behind my computer, making these pictures, and from a tribal perspective you can’t actually access those stories all on your own. So by bringing the work out into the world, by trying to share it and offer those conversations, that is why exhibits work. Because you are looking to try and take it from a singular person and share it into your community so that it may act as triggers to that lost human connection with the land.
Yes, and again we are living in this echo-chamber of purely human contact, when you can spend all day having a relationship with nothing other than a group of humans.
And our bodies: our physical bodies and our spiritual bodies have developed over millions of years and they’ve incorporated every little detail of the evolutionary scale. Our bodies are not tuned for this purely human contact, we are just as much tuned into ravens and waterfalls, and stormy clouds, and all these things. So the work is about tapping into those things, and also finding the way to put it back into the world that we inhabit. We do inhabit this physical world. It’s easy to say that we are ascending or we are evolving. But often the physical body will reject that idea. Because it’s very much hearing in too deep.
WUA: Are you vegan?
Oliver: My daily diet is mostly plant-based. But I cannot call myself fully vegan as there are occasions when I enjoy high quality sustainably produced meat.
WUA: So how about your power spots? Places of power. Seems like you have a few.
Oliver: I visit many notable spots on Table Mountain, not to mention the great tracts of wilderness a short drive outside the city. We have an annual pilgrimage, a group of friends and I, into the mountains about an hour and a half outside of Cape Town. And it’s a very long walk on the first day and you sleep overnight on the mountain. The next day you come down this huge mountain into this untouched river, which is paradise. And you are in the river for these four days. This place is too remote, it will never receive any ecological damage. You get there, and you are immediately touched by the clarity of the water, and the pristine Eco-system. And you feel... the first thing you want to do is just take all your clothes off. It’s got that sort of effect on you that you are immediately in touch with your sensual body, It’s a place that reminds me how my animal body felt long ago. So the three or four days of spending time there – that’s what I call a reset.
WUA: Tell us about your piece called Small Gods.
Oliver: It started with finding a small bird in my garden, that had left the physical realm. This one was called a Cape White Eye.
…creating a cosmology that’s not all about destroying the planet...
I wanted to create an image that immortalised this little bird. I started piecing together different elements and adding other things in. There was another bird that we found on the side of the road, called a Hadeda Ibis.
We are living in a time where humans are very effective at destroying an environment. So a large part of my work is about creating a cosmology where we are actually bringing new life to things. My daughter actually found this particular bird. So I wanted to give an impression to her and to young people in general that humans can actually be a positive part of the biosphere. And I also combined lots of different plant matters and things from mountain fires we had a few years ago, and other little elements and dew drops. So, yes it’s an important part of what I do - creating a cosmology that’s not all about destroying the planet.
WUA: What is your process like? Are you driven to go to a certain place?
Oliver: Yeah, I’m drawn to the small world. That’s what you see from the pictures. My photography practice is well suited to macro. I just remember the first time I’ve put a macro lens on, I was getting pictures that for me looked inseparable from what I would hope to get. Whereas with landscape you need certain gradings, you need certain lighting - all these things which I wasn’t familiar with, so admittedly it was probably the easiest choice in those early days. I had the right sense and the right camera. And I was just immediately getting killer shots. So there is nothing to say that that kind of interest in the smaller world won’t suddenly move into the stars and to the cosmos.
But for now, I like this thing of being able to see things that everyone can see. It’s not all about going microscopic or doing things which are beyond the perception of normal humans. Everyone can notice these things.
WUA: The elements you brought in with the use of Photoshop - who taught you how to use Photoshop in this kind of way?
Oliver: Photoshop is the tool that I allow for all this material to come together. I taught myself how to use the program and I still maintain that I probably only know about 10% of it’s capacity. To an extent the quality of the material gathered is still the key component to the work. It’s easy to overwork a good image in Photoshop, and nature, if reflected authentically, doesn’t need over-embellishment .
WUA: So how did you start? What camera did you use?
Oliver: My very first pictures of plants were made with a first iPhone soon after I got it. There was an app, which fascinated me, and I played a lot with the options and zooming closer. Later on, I got myself a proper camera and now I'm combining and bringing in Photoshop to create the full effect.
WUA: What was your first camera after your iPhone?
Oliver: Crop Frame Canon 300D. As long as the camera allows me to do something that looks individual... I’m not spending a lot of time poring over the internet looking at camera gear. Nowadays I shoot with a Canon 5 DSR for its hi res print capacity, coupled with high quality 100mm and 50mm macro lenses.
WUA: Shortly after coming up with the concept Woke Up in Africa we figured that the letters combined make out an exciting sound similar to WOW. So our own WUA is an expression of ultimate excitement. Please share what it is that makes you go WUA?
Oliver: When I started doing this work there was an initial WUA to everything. It was all about rediscovering what DH Lawrence called THE LOST FERN SCENTED WORLD.(4/23:00) It was this idea of a place rich with plants and bubbling water, where everything is completely harmonious and interconnected. That brings up something in me, an ultimate fulfillment. There is nothing that I enjoy more than being in a place that is absolutely untouched and pristine, where all the different elements of nature are working together.
But since living here in the Cape, you start to visit new places. There is a particular place called Nature’s Valley, which is down the Garden Route.
So in terms of individual moments, what I experienced on the beach in Nature’s Valley that night was without doubt the most powerful nature experience I’ve ever had. I arrived there late in the evening. I didn’t know the place. I was the only person on the beach, alone. And this very dramatic sunset was starting to happen, there was this incredible line of red and black heading towards the western side of the beach, the light on the sand was creating this... Something you get used to in South Africa ... And then I suddenly realized that from behind the Tsitsikamma Mountains a thunderstorm was brewing. The mountain was starting to shake. And at the very eastern side of the beach a very big rainbow appeared. And every time the mountain started to rumble, the rainbow kind of like buzzed. I remember putting my hands up and seeing this perfect bow there. All this was absolutely fizzing through me. And I realize it was all there and there behind me. And I realized now I’ve moved to this part of the world which was, you know... for want of a better word ~ WUA!
Our interview has eventually moved from a busy Village into Noordhoek Common, where Oliver admits he spends a lot of time with the family.
Oliver: Willow trees remind me of growing up in England. I’m always looking for these kinds of threads that reconnect me with my childhood. The creative process is at its most potent when it’s childlike. To become too serious about what you are doing is to deny the fact that you are a really small component of this landscape. It’s the William Blake quote (which I always get slightly wrong:)
To see a World in a Grain of Sand And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand And Eternity in an hour...
Oliver: I love looking through leaf litter. I’m not always looking for that perfect dahlia flower or a perfect arum lily. I’m also looking for things that are inherently broken, a bit fragmented, and already going back into the earth. The humble subjects make things just as interesting for me as the things that are heroic. Because often psychologically speaking, I’m very much interested in a Hero and a Villain, the sort of shadow parts of my being that are very alive and well in real life.
So, for me that’s an important thing to do. It’s getting your hands into the soil and really trying to discover things that aren’t quite as obvious as these beautiful lilies here. Like a porcupine for example. My animal being immediately resonated with the idea of digging around looking for scraps. and often porcupines dig up amazing things. There is one picture from the show, which is a casing of a bulb that a porcupine dug up. It has a pattern on it, which is, everyone I know who sees that pattern is just like...there is a resonance there somehow that you recognize as being grounding. All of these things really appeal to me. We are living in this infinitely complex web of frequencies we’ve manifested into this physical form. And we are essentially here to express our gratitude for that mystery.