Painting Portraits

I wrote this after a teenage girl approached me at Junction (a Western shopping mall) trying to sell me a tortoise (that’s another story…).

The slip of the tongue revealed you’re from Dandora slums – phase 2. You mentioned it, and then immediately back-tracked. Not because you didn’t want me to know that you were from the slum, but because you assumed I didn’t know where it was. That I don’t know ‘those sorts of places’.

You had looked at me and you had added a brush-stroke to the portrait of me you were painting in your mind.

You saw my skin colour. A brush-stroke of white.
Saw my clothes, my handbag, jewellery. Strokes of red and gold.
Saw where I was sat. Adding sequins and glitter to the portrait – showing the luxury.

When approaching me for money and through that slip of the tongue, I saw you painting an image of me.

But the picture you’d painted, it wasn’t me. It was rich tourist who spends her days sitting in expensive shopping malls, browsing the shops, eating at pricey restaurants. It wasn’t me. You didn’t capture my heart, my emotions, the images I see everyday as I walk to work. You didn’t capture my real life.

But as you hung your picture, I looked at the one hanging next to it. The portrait I had painted of you.

Brush-strokes that reflected the judgement I’d made of you.
A stroke of orange for the hope in the way you’d approached me, sat at the same table despite there being many other empty ones.
Strokes of browns, blues, and greys that illustrated the stories you told me of how your grandmother’s sick and you can’t pay rent and you have no bus fare to get home (all the way to Dandora).
And maybe an added stroke of green to reflect the jealousy I’m sure you must be feeling of my luxurious life.

And I hung my portrait of you next to the one you’d painted of me. They looked very different.

But the pictures we both painted in those short moments, where our worlds collided, are blurred. They’re painted the wrong colours, with wrong proportions. And although our pictures may look clear to us, they deceive us. The picture you painted of me looks funny. It doesn’t show me. You painted my appearance but you didn’t paint my heart.

And I can get frustrated and upset about that. But, no lies, I can look at the picture I painted of you and think it’s beautiful, and see it as a true. Yet maybe you see it as a messy picture that captures just the shallow surfaces. Neither paintings depict the inner emotions, truths, hopes, dreams or pains.

The only true portraits we can paint are the self-portraits. And even then they’re skewed.


8 thoughts on “Painting Portraits

  1. Mmmmmmm…….. you always give us plenty of food for thought.
    Looking forward to part two and three of the story……….
    And what about the tortoise?

  2. Pingback: The hope of the tortoise | Made in Africa

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