Leila El-Kayem moved to Berlin ten years ago, right after college, with no definite plan of what she wanted to do. After working on a project-per-project basis, living the typical Berlin artist lifestyle for two years, she found a permanent paying job as a graphic designer, which led her into the world of advertising. Now the creative director for Razorfish, she enjoys the balance between the corporate creative world and her own side projects.

Berlin is one of those places where you always dabble into other things; I have my own illustration projects on the side, and I just started writing for a new blog. Sophie and I also just enrolled in a creative writing course. It’s one of those places where whatever you feel like doing, you have the opportunity to do. Here, even though I’m in a corporate job, there’s not the same push that New York or London would have. It’s more of a café culture rather than a lunch-at-your-desk culture.

Born in London and raised in Johannesburg, where she also spent her university years studying literature and film, Sophie Mayer has been creating stories in South Africa, for various brands, NGOs and the government and has also worked on the national AIDS agenda to help South Africa cope with the stigma of HIV and AIDS and also fight the many damaging preconceptions and myths surrounding the disease. Two years ago, when she decided it was time to get out and see more of the world, the company she worked for had agreed to transfer her to New York — but the idea suddenly started seeming too obvious. An article she read, comparing Berlin to NYC in the 90s, was one of several things that caught Mayer’s attention. Intrigued and excited by the different culture, the foreign language and the surrounding hype she changed her course in favor of the German capital.

Berlin has a really interesting way of making every other city seem redundant. It cuts away so much superficiality and pretentiousness. It’s a humbling place!

We were graciously invited to spend a few hours with these storytellers, to hear the tales behind their six favorite objects. As time passes, autumn is still autumn and we see how, in their world, everything just seems to fit.

Sophie opens the dialogue, and with fervent excitement, picks up two magazines and starts.

POV Female — OODEE publishing

We just went to South-Africa, and found these two magazines in a shop. It’s a project led by a London publisher called OODEE who have chosen to promote the female gaze. Five female photographers from Johannesburg were asked to find unusual stories and share them. I found one from Nadine Hutton entitled I Have Fallen, and Nontsykeleto Veleko’s Urban Life. If you put these two together you can see the cultural memory of South Africa. I am interested in the discourse around white guilt or post-apartheid angst, related to post traumatic stress disorder. Anthony Bordain went to Johannesburg [with the TV show Parts Unknown] and he was stomped at how polarized it was. The situation is similar to Jerry Springer stereotypes of white trash; Poor, morally deficient, stupid, fat, lazy, drug addicted, drunks and pathetic and misanthropes who were a “waste of white skin”, the very notion has become an aberration in the language of disease and contamination.The Antwoord are brilliantly parodying this poor white emasculated community living in tents. A lot of shame is associated with being white [in South Africa] at the moment which is so interesting coming from a colonized, and now rainbow nation. On a more positive note, running parallel, is the rise of the black hipster. There’s pockets of hope and despair running alongside. There’s not enough images and stories coming out of the African diaspora. The transition has been really tough and no one is talking about it. I am reading a book right now called The bondage of white fear about the fall of the white empire in South Africa. I think that people don’t know what actually went on. In 1996 Thabo Mbeki made a speech called I’m an African, related to Martin Luther King’s speech, and it was almost too academic for the country at the time because it was so profound. What is also interesting is that a London publishing firm [OODEE] is drawing these stories from South Africa. I’ve gotten in touch with them and am trying to see how I can bridge the gap between Africa and Europe. I drive Leila crazy with this [we all laugh].

Sophie points over to a bright red typewriter at her desk and story continues…

Berlin has a really interesting way of making every other city seem redundant. It cuts away so much superficiality and pretentiousness. It’s a humbling place!

The Red Portable Typewriter

I didn’t realize how frustrated I was living in Johannesburg for so long. People bask in their ignorance because everything is so censored. There is no open dialogue about the true situation there, which is really difficult and complex. After moving here I met Leila, which was amazing, and she gave me this red portable typewriter. It functions as the bridge between my abundance of thoughts and the written text. Using it to write is really calming for me, as it requires me to be very specific about what I am trying to say. It forces me to slow down and consider what it is I want to communicate. There isn’t an erase button, so I can’t delete. It’s almost a meditative and cathartic space to be in… although quite loud. [laughter]. The clackety-clack, kind of becomes a rhythm. This model was revolutionary, being the first portable one with a carry case. It made the cumbersome task of writing on typewriters less cumbersome.

I want to create a correspondence with friends and family — some of which are still living in Johannesburg — to open dialogue in an analog way. I’m really so excited to have this in my home as a reminder of conversations. I hand type and post all my proposals on the red typewriter, it is my analogue touch in an algorithm obsessed world. We need more craftsmanship in our overly commodified communication industry. Perhaps the red typewriter will be the start of a new type of company that puts purpose first and profit second.

Sophie proceeds to leading us all into the kitchen where she points at a color gradient, round object, hanging on a wall surrounded by a carefully selected collection of framed prints, pictures, postcards, magazine cut-outs and handwritten notes.

Using it [the typewriter] to write is really calming for me, as it requires me to be very specific about what I am trying to say. It forces me to slow down and consider what it is I want to communicate.

The present by Scott Thrift

One of the most beautiful things about it is that it doesn’t show time in seconds and minutes, but in seasons. The gradient is representative of where we are in terms of season and weather. Now, you can see that we’ve just lost autumn with its red-orangey glow, and we’re heading into purple and the inevitable it’s-so-cold-I-can’t-breathe white. Which ultimately brings up the question of “why do I live here?”. [we all laugh]. But then, as you transcend the white icicle, there is new hope.

I am quite obsessed with time, and I find that we can’t quantify it. Sometimes we forget to be in the moment and enjoy it, because we are thinking about the next thing instead of being really present. Scott Thrift, the inventor of this clock, was saying how crucial it is for us to be more rooted in the now — to be aware of the seasons. This is difficult and it involves eating what is ripe and taking the time to really feel the changes. We have lost touch with this because of globalization and technology. The clock is therefore a beautiful thing to have in the kitchen when we are cooking, as an initiative to slow down and be conscious of what is around us and what we are eating; It’s not just Saturday and time to cook dinner, but it’s autumn and time to make some home made pumpkin soup.

We need to teach this generation to be more critical of technology and about empathy in a time of technology. We need to not forget about basic pleasures.

Leila points over at an old cassette player on the counter and adds joins in.

For us, 30 year old generation, we’re fluent with regards to the internet, but there’s this weird conflict between being online one moment, and the next, you’re playing cassette tapes you had as a teenager. This cassette player is a flea market find, and it fits well in the kitchen alongside the clock.

As we contemplate this last statement, we switch rooms for the bedroom and move on to Leila’s objects.

It’s not just Saturday and time to cook dinner, but it’s autumn and time to make some home made pumpkin soup.

The Panasonic Circular Alarm Clock

It came at a time when my phone became everything from a communication tool to an alarm clock. Although I had a really nice 30 second Raz Ohara track with all these nice bird sounds that woke me up, I came to the realization that I didn’t like that my phone was the first thing I checked in the morning and the last thing I looked at before going to bed. We had a consultation about it and decided to get a real alarm clock. I did my research online on fancy new alarm clocks but didn’t find anything that fit, but when I saw this one at a flea market, it spoke to me. There is something quite spatial about it, like a satellite. Now we wake up every morning to the Jazz channel, at exactly 8:02. I just missed the 8 by two minutes, and it’s a pain in the ass to go through the 24 hours to get it back, so we left it there. The alarm makes a fuzzy crick noise when it comes on, but it makes me feel good to have Jazz be the first thing I hear in the morning.

Back in the living room, where we started, Leila pulls out an old Scrabble game and starts spreading it out on the coffee table.

I came to the realization that I didn’t like that my phone was the first thing I checked in the morning and the last thing I looked at before going to bed. We had a consultation about it and decided to get a real alarm clock.

Scrabble is one of those games which, contrary to common belief, is quite strategic. It’s not about knowing your vocabulary, but about memorization of words and how you place them.

The Scrabble Game

I have a strong childhood connection to Scrabble. My father and I used to play a lot, and it was nice to beat him, although it rarely happened. I have a couple of sets, including a travel set. This one is quite old, and I picked it up at a flea market around the time I moved to Berlin. It’s hard to find an English version in Germany with the correct distribution. Scrabble is one of those games which, contrary to common belief, is quite strategic. It’s not about knowing your vocabulary, but about memorization of words and how you place them. There is an amazing documentary called Word Wars and there are very interesting characters, all quite nerdy and isolated, not very social. One of the more social players also teaches Scrabble to underprivileged kids and he uses a lot of Scrabble analogies to talk about life. He said that “life is very much like a game. You are dealt a certain amount of tiles, and that’s what you have to work with”. It’s an interesting way to look at life. It’s one of those games I really love playing because you fluctuate between having the moments to yourself where it’s only you and the tiles, and having conversations in between. When it’s your turn, you are quiet and independent and thinking about how you are going to beat every one else [we all laugh again]. There’s a nice internal “Hooray!” when you place an amazing word. It can sometimes be just a two or three letter word, but it’s all about where you put it. My father and I still play whenever we see each other, and we just played this October, for his seventieth birthday.

Constantly reaching for the next step, you’re never able to live in the moment. I’d much rather appreciate what I’m doing right now, not waiting for the next best thing. It’s all about being present and being more selective about how you spend your time and who you interact with — it’s about reduction.

The David Shrigley Print

Sophie gave me a David Shrigley print… I guess it’s evident that we are made for one another! He is my favorite artist and deals with every day observations in a very matter-of-fact, no bullshit type of tonality, which I can identify with. He was the big inspiration for an illustration series I did called The Tree Story, where I drew trees. The project was ongoing for a few years and started with a group exhibition I did with friends who were non-practicing artists. All the pieces were for sale and the proceeds were donated to a charity; a children’s hospice. It was so much fun with the trees, and they were so well received, that I decided to continue. I collaborated with Trees for Cities which is a London based tree planting company, that plant trees in urban areas. Lastly I took it to New York and collaborated with a local organization called Million Trees NYC where the proceeds went to planting and sustaining new trees.

The print, Aim High in itself is a great piece, and quite different from the rest of Shrigley’s oeuvre, with white lines on a black background, as opposed to his regular black on white. I enjoy the irony of the idea of aiming high, suggesting that you may in fact miss the goal. His message just resonates with me. I’ve come to terms with the fact that I might never be a millionaire or own a penthouse. Who knows, maybe… But actually, I don’t even need a penthouse…

[Sophie adds] —That is what is really interesting about the piece. A lot of the stuff we aim for, we might not even need. This whole view on goals, and five-year-plans, and aiming high — everything that we’re brought up to believe that we need, is beside the point.

[Leila responds] It’s another thing that is so lovely about this city. the conversations. In NY, a lot of people are missing the essential point. Here you manage to talk about everything and anything with 1 or 10 people, and everyone is engaged and have a point of view.

With the five-year-plan, you’re always working towards and trying to aim for something new and better. Constantly reaching for the next step, you’re never able to live in the moment. I’d much rather appreciate what I’m doing right now, and in my free time, not waiting for the next best thing. It’s all about being present and being more selective about how you spend your time and who you interact with — it’s about reduction.

As we realize that we’re not only physically back to where this conversation started, but thematically as well, we decide to end on this note, of taking time and being mindful.

Photos by Rita Braz of Analogue Stories.