Sarah Britten
Sarah Britten

If it weren’t for my ex-husband

Like most people who emerge on the other side of divorce, I don’t have very good memories of my ex. If memory with the pain removed is nostalgia, then I’ve experienced the opposite. But here’s the thing: it’s thanks to my ex-husband that I’m holding a solo exhibition and that, if I’m lucky, I’ll get to spend more time painting and less time on PowerPoint.


Here’s how it happened. Nearly 10 years ago, I quit my job to finish my thesis. Needless to say, the lack of structure and routine imposed by salaried employment was a disaster, and I got almost nothing done. Towards the end of 2002, my husband decided to look for work in London. The plan was he’d get a job, I’d get the PhD, and we’d live happily ever after in the UK. (Yes, I’ve noticed the weird symmetry with my return from Sydney.)


So there I was: no job, no real routine, thesis hanging over my head like a post-nuclear apocalyptic sky. And that’s when I noticed all the cardboard. All over the cottage were pieces of a thick shiny board my husband used to build architectural models. He’d slice it painstakingly into tiny pieces with a craft knife, but there were plenty left over. There was also lipstick lying around, one thing led to another and I discovered the unique qualities of lipstick as a medium. Quite how, I don’t remember, which is sad because you’d think I’d have archived my own genesis myth, but there you go.


My husband was horrified when he found out, via my mother-in-law, what was going on. He assumed I was painting feminist vaginas, and was immensely relieved when he returned to Johannesburg to find that I was painting perfectly innocent subjects like chillies, apples and roses, mainly because they’re red. Occasionally I’d branch out, as I did when I painted this, inspired by a bad day at work:

But that’s what I’d still be doing if I hadn’t become involved with a car campaign in a city obsessed with cars and some marketing team at a PR agency in London hadn’t allocated Johannesburg the colour pink. Which was a stroke of luck, because if Joburg had been yellow or blue, or green, none of those paintings up in Braamfontein would exist.


But ultimately, I owe all of this to my ex-husband. If he weren’t an architect, I’d never have encountered Triplex, and if he hadn’t left the country to look for work, I wouldn’t have gone slightly loopy and started messing around with lipstick, and that wouldn’t have led to this headline in Business Day. As I’ve written elsewhere,

In the magic of randomness and the strange connectedness of things, we never know what will lead to something else. When I walk around that space filled with my work and marvel that it exists at all, I know this only too well.

Just before the exhibition opened I was wracked with fear that it would all be a horrible failure. So I am massively relieved to report that there are people who are prepared to pay actual money for my art. I’ve sold about half the work, which is good for the gallery (run by a pair of young entrepreneurs) good for Home of Hope, and good for me — mainly because the more I sell, the more I get to create, and creating matters more than anything except my family and world peace.

And all of this thanks to my ex-husband. Life does work in funny ways.

If you’re interesting in visiting the exhibition, it’s on until July 28 at Velo in Braamfontein, corner Juta and Melle street. I’ll be there on Saturday morning to talk about the work to anyone who is interested in the stories behind it.

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