Mountain Vigil

A painting that combines two stories; the legend of Van Hunks in Cape Town and the legacy of Black Mountain College, North Carolina.

Oil, acrylic, spray-painted branch, wood and candles on canvas (40x40cm).

The legend of Van Hunks

Legend has it that ex-pirate and enthusiastic pipe smoker Captain Jan van Hunks settled in Cape Town, South Africa in the early 1700s. He would often ascend to his favourite spot amongst the surrounding mountains to achieve greater smoking pleasure.

One day, as he neared his normal position, he saw a tall, lean figure wearing a cloak and broad-brimmed hat, sat in his spot. Not wishing to be rude, he sat beside him and they began to talk and smoke.

Van Hunks began boasting about the sheer quantity of smoke he could inhale without getting sick. The stranger replied he could easily match him – and so began a smoking contest which sent plumes of smoke around them and up the mountain on which they sat. All day it continued, with the town’s people below in awe, as a cloud of smoke began forming over Table Mountain.

Suddenly, unable to continue, the stranger slumped forward causing his hat to fall from his head. Van Hunks was faced by the devil himself! As the reality of his victory was dawning on him, so did rise the devil’s fury at having been beaten by a mere mortal. All of a sudden a bolt of lightning struck, vaporising them into their smoke and leaving only a scorched patch of earth in the spot they had been sitting.

The cloud they left behind became Cape Town’s ‘tablecloth’ – the white cloud that spills over Table Mountain during the summer months. In this sense, they repeat their duel every year.

‘Tablecloth’ on Table Mountain, Cape Town

Black Mountain College

In 1933 the Nazis shut down the Bauhaus (a progressive arts-based educational institution). Many of the school’s faculty left for the US, a number settling at Black Mountain, North Carolina, along with other artists and intellectuals fleeing persecution across Europe.

Here Black Mountain College was founded. It was interdisciplinary and saw art-making as a necessary component of education and thinking within all fields. The school flourished and became well-known as an incubator for artistic talent. It operated using non-hierarchical methodologies that put students and staff on the same level. Balancing education, art and cooperative labour, they were required to participate in farm work, construction, kitchen duty and institutional decision making. Students could also decide when they were ready to graduate – which few ever did. There were no course requirements, official grades or degrees – however graduates would be presented with symbolic hand-crafted diplomas to celebrate achievement.

Whilst some of these concepts may seem radical to some, Black Mountain College is considered an important precursor to many modern, alternative educational institutions.

How are these stories ‘combined’ in the painting?

The places in which these ‘stories’ (one fact, one fiction) are set share difficult histories of persecution. It is tradition across cultures, when time has passed after traumatic events, to remember them in poignant ways – sometimes with the undertones of a religious ceremony, like a vigil (the gathering of people to light candles and stand together in devotional observance). The outputs (painting, film and deck) therefore take on the role of the symbolic ‘hand-crafted diplomas’ to these ends, like the ones made at Black Mountain College. The candles on Mountain Vigil can therefore represent different things to different people, or several things simultaneously.

A mountain is a good example of a [thing] that can go some way to framing conflicting cultural mindsets of, for example, an indigenous people and those of industrialised ‘western’ societies. Wade Davis articulates this masterfully in his interview with George Stroumboulopoulos (2013) when he explains; “…indigenous culture is built on the idea that we have responsibilities for the planet, that this relationship will direct destiny… Western culture might see the earth more as a bunch of raw materials ready to be mined.”