Back in the studio after lunch, Lou and her assistants, with beads and tweezers, crouch over works from Lou’s new series of wall reliefs, whose intricate patterns were inspired by Islamic prayer carpets. People tell stories, joke around and fall into beautifully harmonious rounds of singing. For months they have been teaching one another gospel songs in Zulu and English. (The lyrics for one are written on the wall: “If I had the wings of a dove... I’d fly to the utmost/way out into space.”) Sitting next to Lou is a young woman named Sphilile, who mentions that Zulu men never cry, because it’s considered an unforgivable sign of weakness. She explains that when a man hears that his lover has died, the correct response is, “Shame. When is the funeral?” Lou’s studio manager, Buhle, a tall and striking woman in tight jeans, says that she once noticed her father in tears after his mother passed away. What did she do? “I laughed at him,” Buhle says. Lou looks at her, amazed.
When Lou is in the studio with her team (and when she’s not), she comes across as a beguiling combination of wry intelligence and earnest, by-gosh-by-golly enthusiasm. At one point, when Buhle mentions a killing that took place in her neighborhood, Lou turns to her and asks, “What’s the worst thing that you’ve ever seen?” Buhle mentions several incidents: There was the time she watched her aunt being murdered, and the time a boy died in her yard after being beaten for stealing a watch. And she was once called to the scene after a friend’s husband had shot himself in the head. As he lay dead, his cell phone kept ringing; finally Buhle reached into his pocket and answered it, to tell the caller the news.
Despite the seemingly hopeless degree of violence and illness in Durban, one thing that’s kept Lou around, she says, is the fact that “you can make the smallest gesture and save someone’s life. If I notice that someone’s got a wound, I can take them to the doctor. And if the wound is septic, they get antibiotics and a life is saved.” At the studio she has started medical and educational programs and organized museum trips. She emphasizes that the teaching goes both ways. “I’m not, like, the white lady with the answers,” she says. “I’m a total student here.”
Later in the afternoon, as Lou is showing me around, a social worker stops by with an update on the case of one of the beadworkers, a young woman with a five-year-old daughter. Both are HIV-positive, and the child was recently abducted by her father, apparently because obtaining guardianship would make him eligible for grant money. He neglected to feed his daughter properly, so she began to die, and the social worker managed to reunite her with her mother. But now the girl needs new medication. Lou lets out a long sigh. Sometimes, she says, “it just makes you put your head in your hands and weep.” I ask if the woman was part of the group dancing cheerfully this morning, and Lou nods. “There’s a real quickness to joy here,” she says. “When your life is so close to the edge and people are dying all around you, if somebody’s giving you an opportunity to have fun, you totally take it.”