Roxane Jessi is a world traveler who spent the last few years participating in Burning Man Regional Events around the globe — from Blazing Swan and Burning Japan to Fuego Austral and Midburn. In 2023 Burning Man Publishing released her new book, Once Upon a Time in the Dust, Burning Man Around the World, which chronicles her adventures. This is the first in Roxane’s Journal series sharing sights, sounds and connections from the wildly inventive global Burning Man community. Curious to learn more? Hear Roxane speak about her adventures on the Burning Man Live podcast.
AfrikaBurn. A world that is dusty, rocky and raw, deep in the Tankwa desert. During the week, the otherwise tranquil earth rumbles with sound and a stampede of feet that dance with abandon. Stages pump out music that takes hold of the senses from every corner of the playa, as thousands throw shapes against the Tankwa night.
Letting loose through a potent mix of partying, bright lights and sound systems provides an outlet for many, especially in a challenging social context like South Africa. But it is too easy to get lost to the deafening decibels. I want to turn down the volume and peer behind the dusty wall of sound, shedding light on the experience that may be overlooked.
I invite you to break away from the madding crowd and join me on an exploration of art and local culture. Connecting to a community that stands for change, for burning down the old and bringing in the new. I want to amplify these voices — lest they be drowned out.
By the time AfrikaBurn starts, summer has scorched the earth dry, dotted with dehydrated shrubs. On this desert canvas, weeks before the gates officially open, teams arrive to set up the city, building art that will become our landmarks. 8,000 people gather for the event, a population that is primarily white South African with a sizable foreign contingent.
Fresh from the tire-shredding road I crash land in this parallel universe with my travel companions. Finding our bearings in this new world, dazed and confused, we seek out our first taste of dust. Reality fades from view as orderly buildings are replaced by a dizzying skyline, a giant heart, a rocket, a galactic entryway. Cars have morphed into bunny-eared mobile art or flying carpets, their alien drivers heckling passers-by as they carve up the rocky terrain. As AfrikaBurn’s 2023 theme promised, we are well and truly in Space.
But amongst this otherworldly scene, there is still art from this mortal plane, harmoniously adapting to the environment. We pass “Swallow,” by Luan Nel, a piece that flutters in the wind mimicking birdwings, and walk under “Diahelong,” by Neo Monapule, a delicate archway made of lattice wood.
Crouched low amongst the fray is a traditional Khoikhoi ‘Matjieshuis’ hut by Toroga Denver and the Matjieshuis crew. It is covered with reed mats, rounded and smooth. Entering it is like being transported back in time. Within its cool shade are two members of the Khoi clan in traditional clothing. The chaotic world outside melts away as we sit cross-legged listening to the custodians of this land. The Khoikhoi and the San are deeply connected to nature, moving with its cycles for millennia.
Days later, I would be invited to take part in a traditional Khoi healing ceremony. Words fall short to describe the experience. Our spirits are all a little bit broken, like the cycles that once connected us to the earth and each other. But when someone holds you with the intention to heal, a higher force takes over. Within the dusty tent, permeated by the fragrant smoke of plants and held by dark healing hands, I closed my eyes and let the tears stream down my face.
That night, I encounter magic that can only be found in spaces where human creativity has been set free. The Temple holds spiritual weight in Regional Events around the world. Its outer structure is framed by human silhouettes with outstretched arms that gorgeously curve into a heart shape when joined together. Intricate etchings of the moon and astrological signs circle its ceiling — an ode to the immense star-filled sky overhead. “The Temple of Transcendence,” was built in memory of loved ones who had taken their own lives, as explained to me by its artist Carmel Ives. Just like its silhouettes only become whole when locking arms, so we need to hold each other to keep each other from falling.
Outside, we follow soft lighting to the playa’s outer edges. There is not a soul out here. We pass a treasure chest saying “open me” containing candles. We then make our way to the breathtaking “Moonrise” by Inga Viugova, an optical illusion of the eight phases of the Moon. We crouch down placing our candles beneath the totem-like moons, bowing low to the cycles that govern our world. Further ahead is “Red,” by Nathan Victor Honey, a maze of tall poles studded with soft lights that moves with the wind. We walk through this surreal field as it sways gently around us. In the stillness, it’s as if dozens of illuminated arms were reaching for the stars, pulling our gaze upward to the vastness of space. We stand in awe feeling small, yet part of something limitless at the same time.
The following days accelerate. There are workshops and live music at Chillaz, an incubation space for diverse African expression. We gather as three saxophonists and two trumpeters jam, playing the type of rhythmic music that moves the body against its will. As the sun sets, I climb to the top of the “Tree of Stories.” This mighty tree began life as the 2020 Clan (canceled due to the pandemic), built to honor the sacred land and tribes. Its roots connect us to the history of 13 AfrikaBurns, its hollow trunk filled with tributes to art from past editions. High up in its branches I observe the world we have created. Everything is stained pink, the powdery clouds suspended in the cooling air, the mountains sketched out on the horizon, the art igniting with the last rays of gold. The sea of smiling, flushed faces taking it all in.
At night, I hit the backstreets with my campmates, reclining on dusty beanbags at the open air cinema. Dust rises from drums pummeled by steady hands at the Twisted Saloon. Out in open playa, we watch amazed as the MEMNOC collective perform tricks on their giant illuminated skipping rope Hyperjump. On its outer edges, we crawl through “Chakra Tunnel,” which connects us to the body’s energy points. Amongst the sparse bushes, we discover and marvel at miniature fairy gardens that invite people to write their own fairy tales. Art lets us rediscover ourselves, reaching out like the outstretched hand of a child, beckoning us back to play.
And then there is the art that comes forth like a battle cry. That speaks for those who have been silenced, demanding to be heard. The weekend is upon us and with it comes a flurry of burns. We gather for celebration, healing, and to collectively let go. In a far corner of the playa is a tall structure with three letters carved in wood. Three letters that have affected the lives of so many. What started as an epidemic is now a manageable condition that with treatment cannot be transmitted, yet stigma and fear persist. Its artists are bold, challenging outdated uninformed views. Their message is simple. HIV is no longer the disease that it was — it’s time to change the name, so we can change the conversation. As the outer wooden structure collapses in flames a message is revealed “Change the Name, End the Stigma.” This fiery exorcism carries the needless suffering of so many up into the night. No one should bear the indignity of shame. By turning our backs on some, we turn our backs on our humanity. Such powerful pieces should be celebrated. Let us uphold a community that challenges ignorance and stands for inclusion, for burning down the old and bringing in the new.
As our time in Space draws to an end, we watch as the center of our parallel universe, the Clan effigy burns. The night is alight with thousands of fiery sparks, falling to the earth like a meteorite shower. It is a silent burn in ode of an artist who passed while at AfrikaBurn. As the Clan topples, a sea of humans break rank to run towards the fire. Hundreds of bodies of every shape, color, and age circle the smoldering embers, like shadow puppets in the night. Through this wave, our oneness is laid bare.
The odds of people crossing paths are one in a billion, but somehow we have all been called to this desert to create this temporal community. What we get out of it will be the sum of what we put in. While the partying has its place in this world, let us not fall prey to mass escapism and only cater to those seeking the bright lights. Let us continue to use this blank canvas to its full potential, to build what we lack on the outside. A place for creative expression, Communal Effort, where all voices are invited to be heard, and where we champion greater diversity and inclusion. A space where minds can be opened and hearts can be changed.
This week has shown us that, both on Earth and in Space, we need healing in all its forms. It is in the hands that hold us, the music that takes hold of us, the art that awakens us, and the rituals that remind us we are not alone. Only when we stand together can we truly be whole. As the temple burn rages, the human silhouettes bend like bows, the hearts they form pulled and stretched to breaking point. Only when all are undone to the fire together do they eventually let go.
Cover image of AfrikaBurn at sunrise, 2023 (Photo by Christo Giliomee)