Two sides of what used to be one wooden box hang on the walls of the Smart Gallery in Chicago. At first glance they are unremarkable: vaguely Italian-looking landscapes populated by two vaguely Italian-looking lovers, all flowing hair and slit silk. In the panel on the left, a woman lies improbably across some rocky ground—perhaps sleeping or dead—while a man leans on his staff and peers over her with a neutral expression. In the panel on the right, in front of a section of silvery sea, the same woman stands apart from the man who reaches toward her. His mouth is open. Her hands cross upwards into two woody stems and blossom into the unmistakable broccoli-floret silhouette of a tree: Daphne, turning into a laurel to escape the god Apollo.
On the day I was born, the air was a supple stew—heavy with overripe fruit and armpits, ocean salt, and slow-roasted goat meat. Of course, I don’t remember that day, but I was born in the Tanzanian city of Dar es Salaam—just ‘Dar’ to the locals—and the viscosity of the air is the first thing that visitors remark on. It is what they remember most.