Chinese business concerns are planning to build a road running from Lake Victoria across northern Tanzania and down to the coast.
“This new road cuts the Serengeti migration route three times, takes in a soda mine at Lake Natron and ends at Bagamoyo, a historic stone city, rather than in Dare es Salaam. All of these things are conversation disasters,” says Papageorge.
“The Chinese goal is to take raw materials as efficiently as possible from Lake Victoria to the coast, and the money involved is greater than even the vast sums earned via tourism. This exhibition is a comment on the loss of species and territory that will occur. It’s symptomatic of the degradation of the Earth in general.
“One of the interpretations of the word ‘bagamoyo’ is ‘my heart is shattered’, as it was one of the towns from which the slaves ships would leave the region to head to the New World. Sadly, it might become an apt phrase again.”
Papageorge’s striking, large-scale works (mixed media on canvas; huge photographs; a video installation) often include unmistakably African symbols – an Nguni hide or red Maasai cloth, for instance. And one whole portion of the show involves a giant installation (400m long on one axis) in the Makgadikgadi Pans in Botswana, designed to represent the Southern Cross constellation.
“That’s the Shepherd Principle part,” she says.
“The constellation travels all the way across the Southern Hemisphere each night, so it’s a wonderful symbol; something that oversees what is going on in Tanzania.”
Similar symbolism exists elsewhere, in photographs and paintings representing parts of the Rift Valley, which the proposed road will cut across – an engineering challenge, as the two sides of the Rift move apart at a steady annual rate.
“Those works deal not only with the Rift Valley, but also with the inner rift – where our own cracking point is when it comes to being tempted by corruption,” Papageorge says.
“There is massive corruption involved in this project, and all the money always ends up with one person, rather than benefitting communities.”
Papageorge’s uncompromising stance on the Serengeti road – she wrote a letter to Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete, politely but firmly requesting that he consider putting his country’s long-term wealth (in practical terms and otherwise) before one big payday in the near future – has made it difficult for the artist to continue researching her works in Tanzania.
“The channels have all been blocked,” she says.
“I have been told I should not return to Tanzania for safety reasons, and my e-mails and Skype requests to the authorities there are never answered. I didn’t want to do this project. I was afraid – I’m 73 now. But that’s also why I can talk. I’ve lived a lot of life, so if something happens to me now…”
Papageorge is also hopeful, regardless of whether she can get into the country to make changes on the ground, that her artworks might be used to help the communities affected by the construction of the road.
“The funds from the sales of these works [one large painting is priced at R95 000] will all go to a clinic in the town of Masomo, where the road begins. I’m hoping it will be used to start a unit where kids suffering from malaria can be treated. And there’s another challenge to President Kikwete. I’m saying, ‘If I give my money, maybe you can give some of yours’.”