The Queens of Creativity: A True(ish) Story
“Here, put these on.” Queen Farah said, handing Rahma a pair of dusty slippers. “You can’t see because of the white floor but there’s porcelain dust everywhere. It gets on everything.”
With her feet suitably shielded Rahma stepped through the archway into the creative wonderland of Queen Farah Hernandez’s ceramics studio. Pots of all sizes and at various stages of completion lined the shelves. A mangle-like contraption stood to the right, prepped to roll sheets of porcelain. A desk in the corner offered an inviting place to pause and await inspiration. The room, like a cave of treasures, offered possibility. Rahma got a sense that anything could happen here.
Her intention, embarking on this journey, was to reach the heart of creativity itself. To seek one guide after another, to follow, from one signpost to the next, until the destination was reached. Here she was, at the starting point, sitting opposite her first guide; the Ceramic Queen of Cape Town, Farah Hernandez.
She was aware, as she glanced around the room, that their conversation was being witnessed by an audience that lined the shelves. The pots looked on with reverence for their creator and the respect was mutual.
“Porcelain is the strongest clay,” said Queen Farah, with a hint of pride. “It can stand temperatures up to 1400 degrees. It’s a lot when you think a normal oven goes up to about 280. And there’s so little you have to do to it. The clay by itself has so much elegance, so much body and personality, and you don’t have to glaze it.”
Rahma searched between the lines of the queen’s words for clues to the truth of creativity. In speaking about the clay Queen Farah could almost be speaking about herself; stronger than most, able to withstand a lot, naturally elegant with little need for adornment.
Does the artist choose the material, or does the material choose the artist? she wondered as Queen Farah began to tell of her journey with porcelain. She told of the porcelain wizard John Bauer, how she would admire his magical creations and how she longed to develop similar skills of her own. Rahma could just picture Queen Farah, as a young ceramic princess, gazing with wonder at the work of the master, dreaming about her future.
“One day he gave me a bag of clay and said ‘just do it’,” Queen Farah recalled. “I worried it would be difficult but he told me ‘just do it’ so I just started doing it.”
Perhaps that’s part of the magic, Rahma reflected, just doing – beginning.
Question after question began to populate in Rahma’s mind. Did Queen Farah plan a piece? Or was it important to just begin?
“I have a very basic idea,” said Queen Farah, “that this will be a vase, or this will be a pot – but I can play around with bigger, smaller, this shape, that shape. Which is why I have so many earrings.”
Earrings? thought Rahma. Confusion washed over her momentarily until she saw the low shelf Queen Farah was gesturing towards. A selection of flat porcelain pieces covered the surface from edge to edge. Ovals, semi-circles and odd shapes without names lay waiting, mid-creation.
“They were pot handles that didn’t work out” explained the queen, “so I’m going to make them into earrings.”
These handle earrings, living lives that had not gone to plan, lives quite different than the ones predicted for them, held another clue to the heart of creativity. Rahma was sure of it. Creativity might be more about revealing a truth than creating one, Rahma thought. Were these pot handles that failed? Or misunderstood earrings from the start?
As Queen Farah continued to shed light on the wonders of ceramics, Rahma learned that the different types of clay could open doors to different worlds. In the land of Porcelain it was important not to touch the clay too much. Even a fingerprint could show on the delicate surface. The land of Black Clay offered a different reality. In the land of Black Clay you could be as creative as you wanted; you could begin with no idea what you were making and start over and over again until you were happy with the result.
Queen Farah handed a black clay spoon to Rahma. The inside of the spoon was a deep and mysterious blue-green colour – a colour you could drown in. “I’m learning about glazing too,” she said, with a child-like twinkle in her eye. “This colour is my own invented recipe that nobody else has.”
Rahma began to feel overwhelmed. Perhaps it was the bottomless blue of that unique colour that had left her feeling submerged. Or maybe travelling so quickly between ceramic worlds had not been wise. Her head spun as she began to sense the vastness of creativity. In the category of ceramics alone there was so much to learn. Queen Farah had exposed her to fine, delicate flawless white porcelain and robust, malleable black clay. She had witnessed pot-handles becoming earrings and uniquely coloured glazes making their debut in the world. Queen Farah, who knew so much and ruled her own ceramic queendom was also a complete beginner. This is endless, she thought. I’ll never get to the bottom of this. I need to go back to the beginning.
Agitated she turned back to Queen Farah. “How does it all begin?!” she asked.
“Don’t worry, my travelling friend,” said Queen Farah, “I’ll explain everything.” Queen Farah began to describe her process. The gentle cadence of her sentences had a calming effect on Rahma. She explained how she collected images; images of all sorts of things, not just ceramics.
“I just look at things that I like,” she said, “and all that sort of gets stored in the back of my mind and then I put the blender in and something different comes out.”
A metaphorical mind blender thought Rahma, interesting… Surely all sorts of things could get mixed up if you play around with a mind blender?
“Is it ever a surprise?” she asked the queen. “Are there revelations that come out of the process?”
“The biggest revelation is that I don’t know much,” she said. Then she fell silent for a moment as if deciding whether to release the next sentence. “Before, I wanted to make things very perfect and everything was very very neat. I really haven’t had it in myself to go back to that.”
The queen’s eyes flickered to her new collection of asymmetrical, disproportionate pots. “I’m starting to allow my real self to be reflected in the pieces. I’m awkward and trying to stand and just kind of trying to balance.” She looked again at her creations and laughed. “It looks like it’s not going to happen but it does, I can manage!”
“I’m playing around with things that usually wouldn’t work geometrically. You shouldn’t make a tiny body with huge arms and thin little legs because it’s awkward. Well, I do and that’s exactly it: awkward.”
Queen Farah stopped laughing. “I don’t have the strength to hide myself anymore or to pretend that I’m any other way.” Rahma hadn’t expected this. Here in the cave the beautiful queen could acknowledge her troll side, and expose her goblin side. It really was a place where anything could happen.
“I think in the last couple of years, I lost so much of myself through motherhood, marriage and the difficulty of all kinds of things. I find, maybe, that bit of awkwardness and insecurity is the last true piece of myself that is left.”
Rahma’s eyes began to prickle. Queen Farah’s words had seeped through her skin and were now seeking an escape. A still presence filled the room as the queen, no longer hesitating, told the whole story.
“My body has changed, my mind has changed, the way I draw has changed. I’m in my thirties. I either start embracing and accepting all of that and really start working through that or I’m not really going to get anywhere in myself.
“I allow myself to have a playfulness with the pots, to not be so perfect all the time. I make something; it’s kind of square, it’s kind of a rectangle, it’s kind of a circle. Allowing myself to do that in my work is a way of trying to love all of that in myself.
“I still try to control it in myself and I act a lot more normal than I really am, but with my work, I can make things like that and then I can sit there and look at them and feel better. It’s okay to express that, even if I don’t allow myself to express it in my own persona yet, at least I’m starting the process of allowing it to come out somewhere.”
There was a silent recognition as Rahma and the queen looked at each other, eyes glistening. Creativity, Rahma was realising, was inextricably connected to the business of life itself.
As Rahma’s time with the queen drew to a close she got up to leave. She slipped out of her studio slippers and left the magical studio where anything could happen. It was time for her to move on now, to her next guide, the newly crowned Queen Nadia of Batavia Cafe.
Queen Nadia was in a meeting with her subjects when Rahma arrived. Rahma dipped her head towards an armchair as if to say “I’ll wait for you here, Your Majesty”. Queen Nadia smiled briefly and nodded as if to say “yes, I’ll be with you in just a moment.”
Above Rahma’s head, a garden of green leafy plants hung in mid-air. The armchair she sat upon was upholstered with green leafy fabric; a two-dimensional reflection of the three-dimensional reality above. To her right an enormous mural stretched from ceiling to floor; a blossom-filled tree with its branches reaching across the full height and width of the wall. Colourful long-tailed birds were perched between the leaves. She wondered for a moment if it was possible to step through and wander into an orchard of blossom-filled trees.
On the table before her was a reminder of where she had just come from; two small Farah Hernandez pots, crafted from black clay. One was filled with pepper and one with salt. A little clay spoon lay at the centre of each. It’s the details, thought Rahma, this is why Queen Nadia came to mind when I thought about creativity. It’s these small touches and the way they come together.
Before long Queen Nadia approached and took her seat on the throne. It was clear she didn’t have a lot of time to spare.
“Your Majesty, I’m not here to waste your time,” said Rahma, “it’s just — I’m on a journey to the heart of creativity and I thought you might be able to point me in the right direction. How did you create the beauty that surrounds us?”
The queen smiled at Rahma. “Two years ago I came from the faraway land of Bali. I was so inspired by the food and décor there. I wanted to bring something of that back to my own people, to offer them healthy food in a beautiful environment.”
Rahma glanced around her as Nadia was speaking. It is beautiful, she thought, and the greenery infuses the environment with life and health.
“I just love beautiful things,” said Queen Nadia, “I collect beautiful images. That was the start actually,” she said gesturing towards the green velvet bench at the back of the room, “I wanted velvet. I knew, if I was going to put my energy into this I needed it to be my own.”
Rahma’s ears pricked up as Queen Nadia spoke of beautiful things and image collecting. Hadn’t Queen Farah mentioned the very same thing? Was this the first step on the path to creativity?
“So what about this wall, Your Majesty?” asked Rahma. A smile spread across the queen’s face.
“I came across a picture and I wanted it. It was a chinoise wallpaper that I wanted and in those colours. I spoke to a few artists, but they couldn’t quite offer what I wanted. I considered a wallpaper but nobody could get the picture big enough to get it on the wall. Then one day, I mentioned my sorrow to a Lord at court. I showed him my picture and explained my need. ‘Your Majesty, what about Mansur?’ he asked me and I had no idea who he was talking about! The very next day I met Mansur. He painted a mock-up on an A3 board and I told him ‘you’re hired!’
“Just this base colour took over a week you know? I spent hours sitting here with him. Perhaps it’s not correct for a queen to say this, but he’s become one of my very best friends. I know people thought I was mad when I wanted this. Even he thought I was mad, but he still tried. I’m so glad he had the courage to try.”
The courage to try, thought Rahma, bravely stepping into uncertainty, without knowing quite how things will turn out. That too seems to be close to the heart of creativity.
“Your Majesty, how does one communicate an idea to somebody else? How does one shape somebody else’s creative process?” Rahma asked.
“The picture was a starting point, young traveller, and I was particular about the base colour,” said Queen Nadia, “but with everything else he was just an artist, I can’t explain it more than that. There’s all of him in there. It’s his own”
Hmmm, thought Rahma, there’s all of him in there. Like Queen Farah’s awkwardness infuses her pots, like Queen Nadia’s wish for health and beauty infuses this interior.
Rahma thought of the trust Queen Nadia had put in the young painter, giving him a responsibility that he himself did not expect to live up to. She had offered him space. He had offered her his bravery. They were both surprised by the result. It could be that trust is important for creativity too, thought Rahma, I certainly think it’s a sign of a good queen.
“Heavy is the head that wears the crown” sighed Queen Nadia at that moment as if reading Rahma’s mind. “There’s no glamour, as a ruler. It’s a responsibility and it comes with its challenges.”
“Tell me more, Your Majesty,” said Rahma, “perhaps your words might help me on my way. What has been your biggest challenge?”
Queen Nadia looked off into the distance. “Before I was Queen of Batavia I was the queen of another queendom; a household beyond those hills. I’ve been a mum for many years now. This new position has been liberating but it’s also been challenging. I question: ‘Am I doing the right thing? Is it the right time? Am I a queen before I’m a mother? And how do you juggle all of that?”
Rahma remembered Queen Farah’s mind blender and how much creativity seemed to relate to the unexpected. “What’s been your biggest surprise?” she asked the queen.
Queen Nadia’s eyes scanned her surroundings. “The biggest surprise is when I look at this place and I think, I kind of did this.”
As Rahma left the Queendom of Batavia Cafe behind her and stepped out into the wider city of Cape Town she thought back over her journey so far. Collect things you like, she remembered, that was an important first step. Then begin quickly because the creative magic happens during the process. Queen Farah was surprised and delighted that her pots could even stand and Queen Nadia was filled with wonder that her green space had actually come together. Then there was something else. She had learned something that was difficult for her to grasp. The artist and their work were somehow connected. There was something of the artist than was transmitted to the work.
Rahma looked down at her chest. Could it be that the path to creativity is not out there, but in here? Her mind was already filled with images and memories from her time with the two queens of creativity. Now I must just begin, she realised, I must switch on the mind blender and start writing the story, she thought, let’s see what comes out. And with that, she headed home to tell the tale.
You’ll find Queen Nadia’s Bo-Kaap Queendom, Batavia Cafe, on the corner of Church St and Rose St in Cape Town. Follow @restoranbatavia for the latest news from the palace.
Rahma is a freelance writer, who recently moved from corporate to shape up her own venture! She is passionate about personal development, storytelling, women’s empowerment and hiking.