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A note on crayons from far away: Elmarie Costandius, RIP

Prof Elmarie Costandius

It is hard losing a caring, giving, creative spirit and friend in such a sudden and unexpected way. We were to meet on the 19th of January to work on one of her dearest and nearest projects, promoted by Kopano Ratele, a multi-media event that was to challenge the dilemmas of her University in the Rooi Square. It was to happen in February or March of 2024.  

It was to involve dozens of creative people: composers and musicians, performers and visual maestri. 

Although she was never a formal colleague of mine, we had covered a long road to here: our first real encounter was over the creation and drafting of the Charter for the Future of the humanities and the Social Sciences in the country. If there is an iota of care for the visual and the creative fields in that Charter it was thanks to her prompting and questioning as a member of its steering committee. Also, about the need for such work in communities and the gathering of talent from everywhere. 

Stop it, I said once you will send even me back to work with crayons! She did. 

I stumbled recently on one of her notes on re-imagining the Humanities from 2011. It had this to say: “some suggestions for this re-imagining may include exploring the notion of art making and viewing as a more public process (which is not circumscribed by the traditional Western notion of the singular artist) which works towards social healing of past wrongs... Another is exploring the use of art in educational curricula as a medium of transformation and communication. Here we must think beyond art in a strictly disciplined form, as creative thinking and imagination is crucial in all spheres of life and should be developed widely in education and society, not only as the prerogative of a privileged few.”

She also picked up her own metaphoric crayons and designed the artwork for the Charter’s manuscript: little figures wading through layers and layers of assembled maps. Her artwork was incorporated in the design of the National Institute’s vast wall-spaces. It was the work of a delicate muralist.

Since then, the tree of our interactions grew multiple branches: now, doing the artwork for a book of selected poems; now coordinating a team, including her wonderful protégé Stephane Conradie to execute a wondrous casing for an award-winning album, Storming;now, advising of how to create the visual language of what became a pluri-medial text, from which a visual theatre was congealed as Dark Things in Delhi. She volunteered images of her abandoned glasswork which she was to return to, she threatened, in 2024.

I admired the creative hives she managed to create and the few of her proteges I had the pleasure to work with, especially Sophia Sanan (nee Rosochacki), one of the best scholars we poached from Stellenbosch through a Global Studies Programme and later at UCT; the aforementioned Stephane Conradie that helped us visually launch three giraffes from Africa to China via Bengal recently; Talia Simons, Adrie Le Roux and their knack for illustration and story-telling and many, many others. 

I knew that many colleagues just teach-she ploughed. She was always proud of what she harvested.

What I found invaluable were her ideas of how to turn many of the more violent-infused themes I and some of my friends were exploring into more delicate and thoughtful images, how calligraphy was beyond a concatenation of letters, how a few simple lines could change a backdrop to powerful effect. But on this and her enduring craft, friends and colleagues in the visual worlds will be better equipped to trace and explicate. 

Elmarie’s departure will leave all of us with a major challenge: can we be kind, giving and excellent in what we do? Will her open-ness and moral backbone be preserved at this University and within the visual spaces future students will be facing here and everywhere? 

In another note in 2012, she argued: “I believe that the link between creativity and critical thinking is undervalued. Recognising critical issues in society and finding appropriate solutions requires a creative mind that can harness a ‘narrative imagination’ (to borrow from Martha Nussbaum). This is the ability to practice empathy and imagine oneself in the shoes of others in order to determine a possible solution. The development of this capacity for a ‘moral imagination’ has traditionally been the prerogative of the arts.  Ilyenkov argued that the transformative power of imagination lies in its ability to not only to make visible that which does not exist, but also to seeing and recognising that which already exists.”

We owe it to her, to do both!

Our last encounter was sadly humorous: she was trying to get a January 2024 meeting together for the Rooi Square project. I objected to her timing: “there you go stopping me from trying to find myself in solitude, in peace to play with my crayons…” Her response: “Yes, I am trying hard to get you away from the crayons. But it seems that you cannot escape the tag of a graphic wannabe ”. 

Then, the unthinkable happened. She and her much loved son Alexander, left us.

In memoriam, shared by Emeritus Professor Ari Sitas, former founding chairperson of the NIHSS Board