The meaning of six avocado’s or the Telesma’s of Laurien Renckens by Manuela Klerkx

In Laurien Renckens’ studio, situated in a garden surrounded by a lush edge of a forest, a wood burning stove is purring. It is a somewhat autumnal Monday morning. The warm space and the bright colours of her art contrast with the damp chilliness and grey skies outside. As it turned out later, the notion of contrast popped up at various moments and for different reasons in the course of our conversation. Since I know that Laurien and her husband, Alwin Willems, recently visited Kenya, I immediately bring it up. 

‘In my view, the contrast between our culture and that of Kenya couldn’t be greater. All those bright colours, the cheerfulness and generosity of its people, it all was heartening.’

More than ever before, Laurien realized how far we Westerners have drifted from this life source called happiness that is so hard to reach and has nothing to do with material wealth or power but everything with inner richness and the ability to seize the day and find contentment in small things.  

‘I remember wondering how it is possible that we, to this very day, dump our discarded synthetic clothes on waste mountains in Kenya. Nearly a third of our disposed clothed that are shipped off to Africa by European companies end up on a landfill there. By now, we know that this inflow has devastating consequences for the environment and the local population. And yet, it doesn’t stop.’

The longer she stayed in Kenya, the more she became aware of the contrast between the kindness and generosity there, and the cynicism, commercialism and self-interest in our western culture.  

‘I remember, many a day, seeing a man sitting at a ramshackle little table with six avocados on it. He smiled all day and spoke to everybody until he had sold all avocados and returned home. At first, I wondered why he didn’t come with a truck full of avocados so that he could sell more, until, after a few days, I realized that this mind-set is typical of the way we think, based on economic growth and a mentality of more, more, more.  This man, however, went home merrily after having sold six avocados and having earned enough money to help him through that day. The contentment and kindness he radiated gave me a sense of happiness that has lasted until this very day. Like many Kenyans I met, he lived in the moment and drew happiness from a casual encounter, a chat, a smile returned.’

The real culture shock, however, manifested itself upon returning home. More than ever before, she realized how much ‘greyer’ and ‘poorer’ our way of living was in comparison with the human warmth and emotional richness, she had experienced in Kenya and that she wanted to hold on to so eagerly. Out of gratitude, and to put things to rest, the idea of the Kenyan as a talisman and a harbinger of happiness emerged.   

‘I wanted to pay tribute to the population of Kenya, and even though I knew that this would involve lots of colour, I had yet to find the right materials and technique. Then one day, by chance – or is there no such thing as chance? – I was unfolding a Nespresso Sleeve and, all of a sudden, in it, I recognized the shape of a talisman. Talisman is derived from the Greek word Telesma , meaning ‘sacred object’, as in a harbinger of happiness. Since I find the term talisman obsolete, I decided to use the original word Telesma. Even though my telesmas are ‘neutral’, they can evoke male or female associations. However, that is of no importance to me, because all telesmas are equal and everybody, male or female, and everyone in between, can be a harbinger of happiness.’

Two cups of coffee later, I wonder why this trip made such a profound impression on her, much more so than was the case with previous travels.  

‘For years now, I have been researching how colours respond to each other, how they reinforce or weaken each other, or why they collide with each other.  Colours can indicate a notion of urgency as we can see in traffic, on an ambulance, a police car, or they can refer to nature and evoke a sense of tranquillity.  In Kenya, they use colour to draw attention to hand-painted advertisements or to distinctive clothes. The Kenyans, however, didn’t just inspire me hugely by their use of colour, but also by their resilience. For although their living conditions may be poor, they remain positive and show the strength to keep on building. A mentality to be envied.’

As I look at the Telesmas, we come to talk about the Nespresso Sleeve that, thanks to Laurien’s creativity, is recycled and upgraded from a packaging material to a meaningful work of art. Thus, we end our conversation with the Japanese notion of wabi sabi, which embodies the art of living in the present, accepting mortality and transience, and finding beauty in imperfection. Qualities most Kenyans experience on a daily basis. 

We say goodbye to each other and as I leave the garden and the gate closes behind me, I realize that without Laurien’s trip to Kenya, her Telesmas would never have seen the light of day and the world would have been deprived of ninety-nine harbingers of happiness. 

Manuela Klerkx

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