AfrikaBurn 2024: 29 April to 5 May

Making, Breaking and Burning of Hearts at AfrikaBurn 2023

“Someone said I don’t have a heart, so I built myself one…” Nathan Honey said laughingly, reflecting on the epic red heart he and his team* built and burnt at AfrikaBurn 2023¹. Every year, Nathan’s spectacular creations bring joy and awe to the Binnekring; this year, it touched us deeply on many levels.

We know that Tankwa Town becomes a magical space once a year, and this year is no exception. Themes of heartbreak and heartache, death and dying, healing, re-birth and falling in love all over again were like red veins threading through the fibre of our clan of Burners. We are tied together, and the fractal images of human existence are expressed and celebrated while opening up all the multi-coloured feelings of the rainbow (red hot passion and anger, green envy and challenge, blue fear and contraction, purple compassion and expansion, pink pain and vulnerability… all kaleidoscoping into a cacophony of exhilaration or confusion – depending on your resources and current position in the cycle of change).² For many Burners, going to ‘the Burn’ is a pilgrimage, an epic journey, not only bringing light, love and joyful release but bringing a flame thrower to test your mettle and expose your shadow, cutting away at the sculpture that is your life – sometimes with a scalpel, sometimes with the hammer of Thor. It is this experience of authenticity that makes me loyal to my clan of fellow Burners. This realness makes the words “Welcome Home” at the entrance gate more than just a ritual. It is a truth of the heart. Burners are a special crowd, like a real family – you have to love them, even though you don’t like all of them equally.

This reminds me of my love-hate relationship with my fellow humans. I have to confess that I don’t always like humans. I feel sheer rage towards the species when big, blind people with big cars drive mindlessly over defenceless Karoo-bossies, wanting to claim the best camping space for themselves. And then, just a few hours later, I am gob-smacked by my fellow human’s creative genius passing me in the dust, building stuff of spectacular beauty or tender love. Being human is complicated, and our light and dark aspects are dancing in and around us in the dust.

The gorgeous Clan built this year was more colourful, voluptuous and feminine than ever before³. Sean Marais, heading the Clan-build team this year, said the different colour of the wood (forming red, yellow, light and dark figures, all twirling to hold a beautiful colourful ball) represents humanity in all its diversity. “If we could work together in unity, despite our differences and diversity, what magnificence could we create?”

Create while we can,
what we can
when we can
because we have limited time.

On the morning of the Clan burn, one of the building team members of the clan died very unexpectedly from heart failure, according to someone on Facebook. His body gave in at the tender age of 41, and no amount of expert medical attention could prevent it.⁴ “Natural causes”. Death is part of this life, after all, but it still comes as a shock every time. For the first time ever, the Clan burn was a silent burn, beautiful in its solemness.⁵ The clan becomes a temple and is then celebrated by a thousand runners: if you want to do something, do it Now. There might not be a tomorrow…

Back to the Heart artwork, called Live the Love You Feel. Nix Davies, a collaborative conceptual artist par excellence, is the doula of this work; it was in her that the first sparks came together and were eventually born as a big red heart in the dust, to be burned on Saturday, 29 April 2023.

(Arial photo by Wesley Green)

As all things worth existing, there were months and months of gestation. Back in 2019, Nix brought a heartbroken friend to the Burn, and as with many of us, the experience not only liberated him/us from the painful past, it opened him/us up to a whole new kind of beautiful, within and without. So, long story short, Nix and said friend returned to the Burn in 2022, now with a newfound Beloved at his side. The idea of “Let’s build something to Burn”, representing “From brokenness to mending”, was strong and grew into the absolutely simplistic, human form of a gigantic heart.

Then, they had to find someone to build this ridiculously difficult architectural feat: a 12m high voluptuous form that balances on its tip. In comes the crazy, daring, brilliant Nathan Honey, who immediately says Yes. It warmed Nix’s heart to be yet again an instigator of an awesome expression of collaboration and creativity.

The name of the work is based on a book title and the autobiography of a very special person, Barbara Burrell. She is the late mother of Nix’s once-heartbroken friend, who also decided to fund the project (proving that the one with the vision gets the job). It touched me to read about a mom who was the joyous heart of her family. I wonder what my boys will say after I have passed on and what the title of my autobiography will be.

The heart took five weeks to build on-site, with even more weeks of preparation beforehand, and it cost more than R500K – with many hours of volunteer workers contributing their hours. It burnt on the Saturday before the Clan – a jolly affair, rowdy at sunset. It was the blackest smoke I have ever seen… The flaming heart was silhouetted as a teardrop from my angle. The passion and the pain took my breath away, and I could sense the hurt going up in vile, toxic smoke. The outside crumbled and fell masterfully into itself, revealing the centre structure. The core of the heart, four pillars of strength – and later only 1 – burning a pure white smoke against the dark background. The symbolism was clear for everyone to see: the magic of healing found in releasing grief and anger through creative matter to soothe the soul and become light.

The invitation:

let go,
of the darkness,
of that which no longer loves in you;
express all of it;
burn down to white ash.

Then later, much later, cool down and soften.
Be inspired again, dream and plan.
Build again, to burn again…
Knowing how magic works does not make it any less magical.

Next to the Clan burn, I bumped into Izak Steyn⁶, one of those magical synchronicities. He is a climber by profession and an international builder of big stuff. He is part of the team that constructed the five story high heart. He told me how the heart was of special significance to him as he had just been through a breakup with a partner of many years. He put hours of sweat and tears into this artwork, and the build helped him work through the transition.

When planning how to burn these huge installations, the artists and fire experts take time and careful planning to get the right effect during a Burn. What it looks like is not left to the elements and chance alone. Izak spotted that the initial idea of burning the heart from the base tip would result in it burning up the middle and then cracking open.

“Ek het net nie kans gesien vir nog ‘n gebreekte hart nie,” Izak said.
(I could not stand another broken heart).

So, they built a platform in the centre of the heart, igniting the fire from the core. It could burn up and out so that, eventually, it collapses into itself. A healing process instead of another heartache.
Fire Safety Lead Rob Erasmus, our trusted strength in the fire department, pointed out that the black smoke was due to a new accelerant used – not to be used again. Over the years, the fire team and burner community developed a good working relationship and built an effective team that keeps the clan safe and entertained and supports the artists in their spectacular creations. For my romantic, shamanic heart, the black smoke (especially if it was a once-off occurrence) was essential to the power of this Heart Burn.
(Oh my goodness, I have just realised that my body suffered heartburn during this time!!)

Photo credit: Chris Leggit

Although the burners did not have to see another broken heart, there was another breaking heart far away from her clan. A very special heart that initially fell in love with the idea of this magical community and then worked hard at creating it. Monique Schiess could not attend her first free burn. She is lovingly referred to as Monz (Solar Santa calls her The Goddess of the Tankwa in his 2019 blog⁷), and she is the figurehead of the old burners, the Mother Mary of our tribe. She was absent, and many of those who knew or knew about her felt the absence, confused by why she was ‘banned’. This arose because she is on sabbatical, and the Directors decided not to grant permission for her to attend this year. I saw the phases of grief and trauma reverberating through the clan. Some hearts felt the shock and then anger that led to this. Some burners preferred not to get involved, feeling numb or indifferent. They did not want to know. They were uncomfortable to be made aware of the undercurrents and nitty-gritty of organising an event on this scale. For them, it was not part of the radical principles and texture they enjoyed in this Town that they co-created – an HR matter to be sorted out on another level.

Laurence Brown unscrewing the Tree of Stories at the re-opening (photo credit: John Steele)

Others felt called to step up and take a stance. Laurence Brown closed the Tree of Stories⁸ in protest for three days, opening it on Wednesday and making everyone aware of the situation by voicing his objection creatively. Protest art, they call it. He said at the re-opening: “It is about a love for Monz… It is just so so bizarre that we are trying to be loving to each other, but there is so much confusion.” He concluded: “At the end of the day, we are all just burners, and burners are so special – and we forget about that – we just do this thing for ourselves and our community… We have to get back to that and work this out…”

Monique, in the voice message sent to her friends in the clan and played at the re-opening of the Tree, said: “It is not just about the spectacle: it is about love and connective tissue … and it is not necessarily about making big works, it is about reflecting the deep, deep currents within ourselves, and in the world as well, in whichever way you do that. We need to remember that we are woven into a larger tapestry”.

Amen, sister.

For the old order to change and renewal to keep on happening, a growing plant needs to be fed, watered, nurtured, and excess growth pruned back. In body-mind psychotherapy, we want flexibility, not rigidity. It takes exercise and effort, failing and correcting over and over again. Finding creative solutions together. Our beloved community is growing and maturing, slowly letting go of its training wheels and playing in its own sandpit. In the process, we need to live the principles that we hold dear: open communication, heart connection, trust in the process, radical inclusion, radical expression, generous gifting and above all, Kindness. This translates into Love for me.

As Monz taught us: “It is really important that these principles and the ethos and the stuff that we do out there do not become glib slogans, empty of meaning. I think that is the most important thing. We have to keep it alive, make sure it practices what is preached…”
In this self-governing community and the human communities we live in all around the earth, we need to reflect on the values we profess and live – continuously. Our community and our lives depend on it.

What happens on the outside is also what happens on the inside. I was challenged to hold these tensions in my psyche and spirit: what is it in myself that I need to transform, transmute and metabolise? The grief of relationships changing, of course. The phase where I find myself in my family life and my quest for bliss and integration came under scrutiny, and the Yoniverse showed up with Her blessings and support: I could go on a deep journey of personal body-work, butt in the dust, sun in my eyes, where I had to feel it and work through all the complicated emotions. After the high, there is an inevitable low, and a maturity of spirit is needed to navigate all of this. Preparation of body and mind pays off in these moments. I feel grateful to be able to have the richness of this experience and enough tools and support to come through feeling grateful on the other side.

I am not the only one. Checking in on Laurence later, after witnessing his sadness and anger, he said: “It was the best burn yet. Truly incredible!” Things change.

I could see this changing of the guard very practically in my little camp: My youngest son and his girlfriend (they turning the tender age of 18) joined us for their first burn (and possibly our last? One never knows what the future holds). They are currently madly in love and joined at the hip – that sweet puppy love that you think only lives in romance novels, reminding you of many things long gone in your own life. It was scary and magical to see the beauty of the young ones stepping out into this bold new world we created for them. The scary part was my mother-heart, who knows the dangers of this freedom, the helplessness of being unable to protect your young from the inevitable lessons they need to learn themselves. The magic came in sharing their unbridled joy and life energy, soaking up the moments of synchronicity and beauty that are there for the picking in this special time-space.

It is time to set my heart on fire, to connect to where the journey takes me, burn the excess and travel lighter. The Heart was the clan, the Clan was the temple… so what was the Temple⁹?

The next level of transformation is looking into yourself and seeing the whole universe there. The temple is no longer an external building but an Internal Connection, together part of the bigger thing we call Life.

Can you feel it? Are you living the love you feel? Feeling the life you live? For your family, your community… our world?

Eleen Polson,
21 Sept 2023

¹ Description of this artwork in the WTF guide: “12. Live the Love you Feel. It takes deep inner knowing to understand our fullest capacity to love. It takes an adventurer to embark on the quest to understand this love. It takes outstanding courage to live this love out loud. This artwork is blatant. A slap on the horizon line, a punch to the heart, you cannot miss it. For some, this will be a reminder to have courage, for others, a call to answer the quest, for all of us, this is a celebration of arrival to stand tall in the truth of our love.”

² Based on the phases of grief (by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross) therapists understand that human growth and healing are cyclic in nature – going through different phases, including shock, numbness, anger, overwhelm, depression, then finding support, meaning and integration. We were actually designed to survive this stuff, if we just go with the flow of natural growth and have the right support.

³ Description of this artwork in the WTF guide: “Clan: The World is our Clan. Many roots strengthen and support our connection to each other and to the great energy source, which is our Earth. Many hands guide and support each other through this life, creating things beyond any one individual’s imagination or ability. Together we stand mighty, interlocked by our minds and souls, reaching into the eternal sky. Knowledge, strength and energy are shared amongst the many individuals that make the whole unit, spiralling from our grounding roots, through our hearts and minds and, through many hands it is expressed upward and outwards into the universe.

⁵ For more on the silence of silent burns:

⁶ Izak is the descendant of a stone mason who worked on building the Castle in Cape Town around 1666. Today he follows in his ancestor’s footsteps.

⁷ Read Solar Santa’s stories and his deep appreciation for Monique here:

⁸ The description of the artwork in the WTF guide: “37. Tree of stories. This mighty tree roots itself here at Quaggafontein to honour our incredible tribe of makers, creators, performers, artists, musicians, jokers and burners. Its hollowed out trunk is filled with memories and tributes to all the wonders and magic created by us gathering year after year. We have all personally evolved in some way out of these desert sands. What is your story in all this?”

⁹ This year’s temple is called Transcendence. “Transcendence offers a reflective opportunity for investigating your inner space. Twelve figurines arch into their heart space. They represent the human capacity for love. A safe and supportive collective gives the individual the opportunity to stretch beyond their own limitations. Transcendence is a journey. We reach towards understanding of ourselves. Self mastery is the greatest act of love. The spirit is intangible yet we humans are ever striving to know this aspect of ourselves. From the ancients looking to the stars in astrology to sacred geometry. What will you see when you look into the mirror of your soul?”

One Response

  1. Back in the day when we were collaborating on my stories I called you MOBS – My Organised Burner Sister. And wow! you’re back at it again. Five months after the event to chrystallize your story to share with everyone. I enjoyed your tracking down the heroes who make it all happen behind the scenes. Their selfless efforts deserve a little limelight.
    The Burn is certainly an event with something for everyone. From simply escaping the madding crowd in the default world to mending a broken heart, and everything in between.
    Thank you for the honorable mention. See you in the dust in ’24.

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