On Making Things

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My father, Karel “Karlo” Poupeye, ON4PU in his radio shack, c1953 (Maria Poupeye-Roose family archive – all rights reserved)

My father was a ham radio amateur. His call sign was ON4PU. He was a technical engineer by training and made almost everything for his hobby himself, from scratch. He made his own radios, his own antennas, for use at our home and for his car, buying components from old army stocks and other, more random sources. It did not always make us popular with the neighbours, the big ass antenna in the garden, the occasional interference with their radios and TVs (although my father volunteered to install whatever it was that was needed to stop the interference in their devices – I believe it involved a diode).

My earliest memories are of playing in his “radio shack,” while my mother was out shopping on Saturday mornings. It was a small room in our attic, chock-full of radio-related stuff. I would play on the ground with boxes with radio components and other fascinating objects, while he was busy on the radio. My first visual memory is of two world maps on the wall of his shack. I must have been about two years old then, since he apparently had two maps while we were briefly living in a particular house when I was that age. In our later home, he only had one map.

I was mesmerized with him endlessly repeating, “CQ, CQ,  ON4PU,” into his microphone, like an incantation, inviting other ham radio amateurs from all over the world to chat with him. The calls involved all sorts of other abbreviations and coded phrases and most were with total strangers – a world in itself, limited to the initiated and the technical. It was quite difficult to get a ham radio license at that time, since there was a stringent technical exam, and he had the greatest contempt for CB radio amateurs, who did not have to meet those technical standards and did not use the prescribed call codes.

Ham radio was my father’s window on the world, much like social media today. My father kept a record of his calls in his log book, and on his world map – I wish I could find both now, and know how far his network really reached. While it was an almost exclusively male world, there was a curious lack of judgement in these conversations, quite unlike social media and, no doubt, other aspects of my father’s own life. He was as excited about talking with a ham radio amateur in Nigeria, as with an American army man in Fort Bragg – strangers who found each other and managed to communicate, although usually only fleetingly, over their shared passion.

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Picnic with the Dacosta Pinto family near Lisboa, c1972 (Maria Poupeye-Roose family archive – all rights reserved)

Even our vacation travel was shaped by this global fraternity, as my father would only travel to countries where he could get a visiting license (Franco’s Spain was out of the question, for that reason). After he finally managed to get permission to drive through Spain with his radios in the car, albeit without being allowed to use them, we had two amazing, month-long vacations in Portugal where we were hosted by fellow radio ham amateurs. I remember an amazing picnic in the countryside near Lisboa, eating spicy foods from East Timor (the daughter-in-law of our host, a Mr Dacosta Pinto, was from there). Our family vacations were surely not ordinary. When I moved to Jamaica, my father tried for to make contact with ham radio amateurs here but never succeeded. I even identified and visited a ham radio amateur in Hope Pastures, but to no avail. They never found each other.

Not that living with my father was easy. He was a brilliant man, fiercely intelligent and perceptive, and technically gifted, but he was no match to his own demons, his self-doubts, his explosive temper, his addiction to alcohol. Everything I wanted to do in my life involved passing a test of wills with him and I was as determined as he was to get my way, which led to many conflicts. My father died of a stroke a few years after I moved to Jamaica, just short of his 58th birthday. I have made my peace with our history, although I wish that he had found greater peace and balance in his own life, and his relationships with others. But I also recognize that I am my father’s daughter and that I learned a lot from him, if only how to channel my own demons more productively. But I also learned how to stand up for myself and for what I believe in, even if it goes against the tide or involves talking back to power.

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Eddie Harris shantie (2017)

And my father also gifted me with a deep admiration for people who can make things, for the inventors and the creatives among us, who can make something of great beauty or utility (or both), whether it is out of practically nothing or with high end materials and technology, using their intellect, their imagination, their talents, and their skilled eyes and hands. It is this admiration, I believe, that shaped my interest in art, as a form of invention, which involves both imagining and making things and communicating through them.

It makes me as interested in the shanties of Eddie Harris, which are made from found and recuperated pieces of wood or bark, or the rag mats of Sane Mae Dunkley, as I am in the visually mesmerizing, interactive video installations of David Gumbs or the incredibly intricate, symbolism-laden paintings of Jan van Eyck – gifted and passionate inventors and magnificent artists each of them. And while ham radio allowed makers of things like my father to communicate  in real time across space and culture, art allows people to communicate across space, culture and time. We became human when we started making things like that and it is what ties us together beyond difference and conflict, and allows us to look beyond, into who we are, where we came from, and how we can shape and re-shape the world we live in.

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Cueva de Manos, Argentina, c11,000-9,000 BC (image source: unesco.org)

[Updated with photos of my father and the picnic with the Dacosta Pintos on August 21, 2018]