Celebrating East African Writing!
The cold light of early morning glinted off the chrome and glass edifice of the art gallery as the man in the heavy blue jacket trudged wearily up the steps to the large front door. His breath clouded as he cursed in his effort to unlock the door. He always struggled with the complicated magnetic lock the management had installed three weeks previously, courtesy of a failed break-in. the man finally got the door open and crossed the large marble floored foyer, past the large empty reception desk and into a side door marked ‘MAINTENANCE’. This lock on this door was much simpler and he let himself in without any trouble.
The man shrugged off his heavy jacket and hung it on a coat tree in the corner of the small room that was his office before taking a seat behind the dilapidated wooden desk. He put his feet up, careful not to tip over the old swivel seat and lit a cigarette. Smoking was prohibited in the gallery but it no one was in yet. He leaned back and looked up at the ceiling. There was an exhibition today, in the afternoon, and he was supposed to prepare the main display area for this. Not that there was much to do there, seeing as he already kept it spotless enough, but the manager was a finicky bastard. He finished the cigarette, stood up and opened the window. He tossed the still smouldering butt outside into the flowerbeds.
Demetrius was in a fine mood. Today was the day, the culmination of three months of preparation for his – his magnum opus. He mouthed the words, magnum opus, and smiled a cold little smile that did not touch his eyes.
They all laughed when I told them, when I suggested it to them. They thought I was crazy. Well, as cliché as it may sound, today they will see.
Demetrius stood up from the recliner he was sitting on in his living room and walked to the window. Outside, on the busy road that ran past his apartment block, a bunch of people stood at a bus stop, waiting. He thought they looked miserable, a bunch of rats waiting for their daily seeding into the race. If they only knew that the race was fucking rigged, and they were only bit players in a grand production written and produced by Life. Today, I am going to fuck Life, he thought as he moved away from the window. I am above being an extra, an afterthought, a tiny drop in the seething masses that lined up every day, hoping for that bit part.
Today they will see.
He went to take a shower.
The janitor took one last look around the main hall, checking to see if he had missed anything. The crew was due in any moment now to brand the place, the manager had said, and the place had to be spotless. It was spotless, the janitor figured, and he rolled away his trolley back to the storeroom in the back. Stupid artsy people with their ‘modern’ art, he thought as he trundled the squeaky wheeled vehicle. What happened to a nice painting of a landscape, or a portrait?
The last exhibition had been something featuring light bulbs, a bathtub, stuffed giraffe toys and copious amounts of molasses. The young woman artist had explained the concept as a metaphor for global warming. The janitor was disgusted if anything, and especially pissed off that he had to clean up the mess afterwards. Molasses clogged up the mops, you see. He hoped today’s idiot would keep it simple. He locked up his equipment and went back to his tiny office. From his window he could see the branding crew unloading their van. From what he could gather from the banners, the artist’s name was Demetrius. The janitor sighed heavily. With a name like that, there would be something to clean up. He decided to check out what Demetrius was about.
The banner at the entrance read: LIFE, AN INTERPRETATION by Demetrius. It did not specify the genre. The janitor also noticed that apart from the branding, the crew did not seem to have any actual pieces. They were just setting up the scene. Maybe it was performance art, like poetry, the janitor thought. He didn’t mind poetry as long as it made some sense, not that abstract screaming thing that woman from Jo’burg had presented some time ago. He stepped outside to where the branding crew’s van was parked. The sun was brighter now and held the promise of a blisteringly hot afternoon.
“What’s this guy about?” he asked the driver. “Is it painting, video, what?”
The driver shrugged. “I don’t know, man,” he said, “we were paid to bring this posters and stuff. That’s it.”
The janitor nodded his head and went back inside. It was half past noon. The exhibition was scheduled to open at one o’clock. For some reason he wanted to see it. He was curious as to how some fancy artist would interpret the daily existence of man, the futile plunge that we all take with the hope that the landing will be soft. He knew his interpretation: life is shit. So he decided to hang around and not saunter off to an early lunch like he usually did. The crew finished up and left. People were already streaming into the foyer where cocktails (non alcoholic) were being served along with those silly little bitings that consisted of meat paste and thinly sliced vegetables. They were the art crowd; young overpaid people with too much free time. If anything, the janitor thought, they were probably the antithesis of what Demetrius, if that was his real name, wanted to show. Their lives were fake, plastic even, like the cards they carried in their Italian leather wallets and crocodile skin purses. He hated them, the yuppie bastards, with their fake airs and condescending tones. Even now as more of them walked up the steps, he could feel it. They were here for the social aspect of visiting the gallery of modern art, here to be seen. He figured most of them did not understand half the stuff they saw. Maybe today’s exhibition, LIFE, AN INTERPRETATION by Demetrius, would open their eyes.
The nearby basilica’s bell tower proclaimed the arrival of one o’clock. The janitor walked slowly inside the gallery. The foyer was full now. Voices competed for attention as the manager bustled about, making sure everything was in order and the thing could start. Was the artist already here? At five past one, the ushers called upon the decent sized crowd to proceed to the main hall. The janitor followed them, keeping to the back and trying to be as unobtrusive as possible. He caught a few of those air filled glances from those yuppies in the back though.
In the centre of the large room, well lit by its compliment of large windows, a man stood on a wooden crate. The area around the crate was cordoned off with red silk ribbons. The man had his head bowed and was not paying any attention to the crowd that was streaming in. was he the artist? Once everyone had filed in and the murmurs had died down, the man on the crate raised his head. His steely gaze roamed around the room for a whole minute before he spoke.
“What is life?” he asked. The janitor grimaced. Another poet.
“What do you think it is?” the man continued. “Is it what you do? How much money you have? How much you fuck?”
The crowd tittered at this. The artist glowered at them and they quickly fell silent.
“Today, I will define life for you. I will show you how much it is not, how fickle it really is and how, at the end, none of us escapes alive.”
The crowd waited, baited breath not withstanding. The janitor really wanted to know now. The artist was reaching for something behind his back. He pulled out what looked a whole lot like a semiautomatic pistol.
“It is with this that the greatest masterpiece in the world shall be defined,” he said. “This is the instrument that shall defy the mystery that we all call life. And the best part is that it begins with you.” He paused. In the audience someone began a slow clap. The artist held up his hand.
“Not yet,” he said. “Behold” – he raised the gun and pointed it at the audience – “the art of death.”
He pulled the trigger and the pretty, expensively coiffed head of one lady in a remarkably short dress exploded in a red spray of blood and bone chips. Her body crumpled to the floor. The guests were horrified, and intrigued. The ones closest to the body were covered in blood and grey gooey stuff that had to be brains. It was a long pregnant moment before the first thin scream rent the room.
A man in a suit fell down, clutching his chest. The crowd turned as one to flee, the janitor now leading them.
As the janitor fled down the wide curved staircase into the street, it occurred to him that he would have to clean this up as well.
© Mwangi Ichungwa 2010
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