To begin with I was interested in the power of an iconic image, using Sam Nzima’a famous Soweto Riot photograph of the police shooting of 12 year old Hektor Pieterson. It became the symbolic image of the struggle against apartheid, but it was also instrumental in making the world take notice of apartheid atrocities and apply sanctions, both economic and cultural. Integrating the image in a painting was difficult. I felt like I needed to treat the image with respect, not paint over it, and not deface it.
75 x 56 cm, acrylic on board
I made a silkscreen print of this same image exaggerating the dot screen in Photoshop. I think this could work better as part of a broader narrative, perhaps included in a painting or a bigger collage.
Sketchbook: Collage, 21 x 30 cm, silkscreen on paper
I was experimenting with scale in small 18 mm board paintings in acrylic working out the opposite worlds, my mother’s innocent white life in the 1950’s using magazine illustration style popular at the time, and my father’s stolen Valiant about threat and unease on a deserted track. I am beginning to work with ideas about implicit politics, looking at the work of South African painter Kate Gottgens in particular.
Quick studies: My Mother’s Privilege and Stolen, Acrylic on board, 14 x 14cm
Combining a different expression of separate worlds, this time exclusive predominantly white gated communities where black people work in domestic jobs often as “non-people”. I used Photoshop to make the black woman ghostlike, as a trace of herself, in my painting White Guilt. The house I reference is part of the gated community I stayed in 2018, St Johns Estate, Higgo Crescent, Cape Town.
Significant political events occurred where we were an absent witness, including Biko’s controversial head wound death in 1977 and which threatened the stability of the country fuelling a growing Black Movement. The Soweto Riots in 1976 developed into a psychological landscape where the birthday picnic has a relaxed stillness beside the pool, we were oblivious while the country erupted into mass shootings and violence. The politics is situated in the title, “Vicarious Witness, Soweto Riots, 1976”. I looked at art history’s Dejeuner Sur L’Herbe from Titian to Picasso, and Jules de Balincourt’s BBQ Sur L’Herbe in particular, to help me paint the relaxed figures of my school friends on the grass at my birthday picnic.
Sketchbook art history references
J.M. Coetzee’s evocative language about white children’s innocence being like “bee-grubs” inspired the paintings about my childhood. I found some old photographs of us living our blond, innocent lives, completely unaware of the unnatural way we expected black people to live.
J.M. Coetzee, Age of Iron, 1990
The metaphorical nature of processing memory was enhanced by painting on chalk ground for the first time, following Tim Johnston’s recipes after his demonstration on method and materials. It was like nothing I have painted on before, and I liked the low pigment faded quality of application, as if memory was waning. I was thinking of Luc Tuyman’s paintings using a limited palette with delicate application.
Children of Paradise, Canoe, 25 x 25 x 6cm acrylic on chalk-ground.
Collage ideas combine Juhan Kuus’ apartheid photographs from his book South Africa in Black and White taken during the 1970’s and 1980’s, with other images depicting an escape from reality behind the high walls of gated communities. I am trying to exaggerate the execution of the white world to a dream-like fantasy. I can do more materially using fake paints, glitter and gloss perhaps. The influence of film stills to create unease, like Peter Doig’s Friday the 13th and Peter Weir’s 1975 Picnic at Hanging Rock, creating unease in an atmosphere that sits just below the surface and is a direction my ideas are taking.
Sketchbook: Collage using photograph by Juhan Kuus, Riot policemen drag a man they shot from township crowd, 1976
Developing these collage ideas from my sketch book, I plan to work in a series so that the paintings inform each other. I also think that the final paintings could be much bigger. Or much smaller, but I tend to paint better, bigger.
Work in progress: Politics disrupts white utopia
This woman holding a child and a gun is a powerful image and was typical of the farming community in the Northern Transvaal where my father lived and where many murders occurred during the 80’s and 90’s, and are currently increasing. The men lying dead beside their Mercedes were members of the AWB (Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging) a far right wing commando executed during the Bophuthatswana revolution before the elections in 1994 , and was not far from my mother’s farm near Sun City at the time. Collage enabled butting up of opposite elements to create new jarring landscapes that reflect politics, social history and the a sense of place.
Sketchbook: Collage using photograph by Juhan Kuus, White border farmers in the Northern Transvaal, 1985
Senzenina is a political anti-apartheid struggle anthem performed here by Monde Mdingi with the Cape Town Youth Choir. It is a protest song traditionally sung at funerals. Senzenina means, “What have we done” with the implication “what did we do to deserve this?”
I have permission to use this recording, possibly in an installation with paintings.
After Marlene Dumas, Conceptual Development, acrylic on board, 25 x 25cm
Emotion and empathy
Dumas’ painting is about the end of beauty, she says. It’s from a film clip – Marlin Brando holding Greta Garbo. (interview in The Image as Burden). I have thought about this image for a long time, with its Pieta-like similarity to the death of Hektor Pietersen in the Soweto Riot image of 1976. More recently, I noticed the death of normality in suburban and rural South Africa. Loss and grief are wrapped up in ‘cheap life’ and removed from reality. I am researching Susan Sontag’s views on the impact of violence to ordinary people. Dumas says she knew she was inherently bad as a little white girl, one of the oppressors. I knew I was not. I came from a liberated English family and from a young age felt I was laying the foundation for my sympathetic involvement. In 1994 I worked as an art director on the first free and fair elections.
Marlene Dumas, The Image as Burden (1993)
Emotional connection is what real life is about. Dumas’ painting is this at its most raw. Probably why it haunts. In South Africa, because every day violence is normal, non-real coping systems are necessary for survival.
Blue Pieta (2018), oil on canvas, 260 x 240 cm
Jenny Saville, Ancestors
I’m trying to see if it’s possible to hold onto that moment of perception, or have several moments co-exist . . . Like looking at a memory.
Jenny Saville, March 2019
Jenny Saville’s new work, Ancestors, currently exhibiting at Gagosian, New York, is a new direction of fusion. Informed by collage, figuration and abstraction sit comfortably together in the same painting. There is a strong reference to Renaissance sculpture which also interests me, and most co-incidental of all, is her reference to the Pieta and that this image had been “simmering inside her” for a while, as it has with me and the Hector Pietersen image.
Sketchbook: Idea for a painting called Un – Rest
I have been working on the idea of the gated garden being an escape from violence. This is a rough photocopy of the sunbirds forming a nest around the pool chair and in this way form a protective enclosure, but the birds have a sinister portent and inflection. To convey the violence I could use this excerpt from Mike Nicol’s The Waiting Country which is about raw anger that grief triggers. I am thinking of making a very hot painting, warm red background and integrate drips and dribbles in painterly abstraction.
Copyright permission given to use Mike Nicol’s The Waiting Country (1995)
This unfinished painting has a quality that reminds me of Sarah Pickstone’s Park work from 2006 which isolates information on large scale light grey grounds and infers a dislocated memory. I am considering how different paintings will inform each other in the final exhibition. Some scant and disappearing, others burdened with the weight of the past.
I visited the Temperate House at Kew Gardens to research sub-tropical plants familiar to me from our childhood garden in White River, Mpumalanga, including Frangipani and Wild Dagga (Leonotus Leonurus) featured in this developing painting.
Frangipani, Wild Dagga and Sunbirds were abundant in my childhood garden in White River
Text as Image
Eden Overblown, Acrylic on canvas, 103 x 103 cm
Violence is included using text as image in a painting, either as a slogan in BANG BANG referencing Kudzanai Chiurai, or as a body of text embedded in the painting, part concealed, part revealed. This adds another dimension to make meaning of the wall as a division between the escape from violence and keeping affluence within, and from violence itself.
J.M. Coetzee’s visual language transports us back in time to a place so vivid I can almost smell it again. The sense of smell is an accurate trigger for memory. Coetzee taps into ordinary lives and creates an extra-ordinary viewpoint. I have permission to use this text from Age of Iron.
As long as I pinched tight I could hold in most of the flow. But when I relaxed blood poured again steadily. It was blood, nothing more, blood like yours and mine. Yet never before had I seen anything so scarlet and so black. Perhaps it was an effect of the skin, youthful, supple, velvet dark, over which it ran; but even on my hands it seemed both darker and more glaring than blood ought to be. I stared at it, fascinated, afraid, drawn into a veritable stupor of staring. Yet it was impossible, in my deepest being impossible, to give myself up to that stupor, to relax and do nothing to stop the flow. Why? I ask myself now. And I answer: Because blood is precious, more precious than gold and diamonds. Because blood is one: a pool of life dispersed among us in separate existences, but belonging by nature together: lent, not given: held in common, in trust
(J.M. Coetzee Age of Iron p63)
Painting as Installation
Stitched collage sample
I am planning to develop the land rights idea further by making work that becomes an art object; an excavation of memory, rich and layered in visual meaning in both image and text. The fabric of the work will be sewn, patched, ripped and reconfigured, metaphorically interpreting these ideas into the physical and considers how a painting embodies the material remembrance of a land in conflict. I am planning a visit to Kettles’s Yard in Cambridge soon to see the work of Oscar Murillo.
Inherited linen table cloth with Juhan Kuus’ Border Farmers and Louisa Gerryts’ Sunbird with text from my mother’s memoir.
The idea was to address the current land rights / land grab issues in South Africa as a crumbling connection and a disappearing sense of belonging to a landscape which could be interpreted as a fragile memory. This also includes the Afrikaner farmers’ history in search of independence from colonial rule and their relationship to farmland, described as a marriage in J.M. Coetzee’s White Writing : On the Culture of Letters (p89) alongside their belief that God ordained this ‘Promised Land’.
Using the circular motif for Juhan Kuus’ white border farmers refers to religious iconography, and the land rights issues currently politically relevant, as are the escalating white farmers’ murders. The former PAC slogan “One settler! One bullet!” has been adopted by Julius Malerma’s militant ANC Economic Freedom Fighters. A settler is interpreted as an Afrikaner- who farm most of the agricultural land and were also the architects of Apartheid.
My family were English speaking farmers, once the enemy of the Afrikaner too, having arrived on the first ships from England, known as the 1820 Settlers. I refer to their history on farms in Natal and in the Eastern Cape, and mine on orange farms which bordered the game reserves of the Lowveld, renamed Mpumalanga, the Zulu name for “place where the sun rises”.
I see this work suspended in the exhibition space, and it expands on the idea of painting as installation.
Winnie Mandela, unknown source/date
Conversations with Lauren Jacobsen
I have stitched large canvas pieces in red thread as a base on which to build a selection of memories, combined with politics and the birds as portents of evil. Using text and symbols, looking at the work of Jean Michel Basquiat and Oscar Murillo.
The political content would be based on Lauren’s legal cases defending victims of human rights cases, whilst living in Johannesburg during the 1980’s. I am interested in making a layered painting that carries the burden of memory, including testimonies in the TRC, and uses material metaphorically, spilling onto the floor, obdurate and aching. ( See SA Research, Contributors)
Keith Coleman’s cell
This could be a separate small painting, made by him with my help, as a process hopefully of cathartic healing. Possibly painted on chalk ground or on an old T-shirt. Detainees were often arrested on the street or dragged from their beds having nothing more to wear than the clothes on their back. We didn’t manage to work together but I am still hoping to achieve this project.
Escape from Violence, Gated Community
Locquat tree I photographed near the railway line in Wimbledon
I have been developing the idea of creating an artificial world using silkscreen constructing a leafy enclave where violence is an uneasy inflection within the walled garden. The leathery leaves of a Loquat tree are metaphoric for a boundary through which privacy is glimpsed. It was a significant tree in our childhood garden in White River, sub-tropical and easy to climb. I have never seen one since, and yet I walk past this inconspicuous small tree every day to university. On a perfect spring morning the new growth was lit by early sunshine creating a vivid lime green, while the rest of the tree was in deep shadow with strong graphic shapes. The sky was a saturated blue. Since then, the development in the print room and then the dye room was necessary, as the painting is almost 2m wide.
Sketch book collage working out first gated community concept
Screen printing in the Dye room
I am looking at Kate Gottgens work again and how subtle inflection can create instability, or unease. This sickly, acid green was an important choice. Not all greens are good.
Jacaranda tree at the homestead of Coolgardie, my mother’s childhood farm
I am making a film as a digital collage using sampling with an abstract slow image to expand on the land rights idea. (see FILM)
Painting as series
Collage working out a constructed poolside within gated community using architecture based on an internet image of a house in Clifton, Cape Town.
The more closely I develop the gated community from a voyeur’s perspective, the more I am leaving explicit politics behind. The focus now is to make a series of 3 paintings borrowing from print process as an edition in painting terms. The implicit threat and the proximity of violence include private moments viewed from the spectator, prospective perpetrator or security surveillance camera. I am interested in situating scenes in Modernist architecture with a swimming pool, signifier of affluence in South Africa’s luxurious gated communities. Considering the voyeuristic qualities of Caroline Walker’s work, I realise that I am the voyeur too, looking back at my life from an immigrant’s perspective.
Small study working out architectural elements and angle of view with foliage as a barrier, Oil on canvas paper, 35 x 45 cm
Working on 2m paintings has been a physical challenge but I think the integration of printmaking and painting on this scale creates a contemporary language about a current political issue the viewer can engage with on their own terms.
Getting people to take another look at South Africa, to raise awareness of current socio-political issues has been my intention and I am grateful to have had this opportunity to explore these issues.