Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Cecilia Alvarez: Chicana Warrior Artist

Cecilia Concepcion Alvarez
Con Las Esperanzas de Vida
Overview:
Cecilia Concepcion Alvarez’s large painting (49”x38.5”x2”) Con Las Esperanzas de Vida, presents a mother with several children, looking beyond us with eyes that seem empty of hope, in spite of the title of the painting, “With hopes of life.” They convey stoicism and deep sadness. Each one has a slightly different direction to their steady gaze, but all but one face us with their bodies, but do not see us.  Behind them are the outlines of falling female bodies and pink and white crosses.



Artist's Statement by Cecilia Concepcion Alvarez: “The pink crosses are about the continuing femicide, poverty and death that they are leaving in their home country. Only to find another version of violence in this country. In the corners are architectural drawings of gated communities parks and natural landscapes. There is fencing to keep The “others” out.  On their clothing I have images of other species in nature. I use this to convey that these people that ICE is trying to keep out, come from societies who are the protectors of nature and our connection to the natural world.  If we, The industrial societies, were not encroaching on and exploiting The wild spaces and The traditional homelands of these protectors, the industrialized societies would not be exposed to viruses like Corvid 19.

In this piece I attempt to spotlight the horrific conditions that refugees from violence suffer in detention centers.  Due to the current pandemic, the close quarters and inhumane treatment in ICE detention centers, asylum seekers are an exceptionally vulnerable population.  ACLU and other Immigration Rights groups are demanding the release of asylum seekers.  They have not committed any crimes and should not be incarcerated.

We the American taxpayers subsidize these for profit detention centers with our taxes.  These detention centers predominantly incarcerate refugees from Mexico and Central America.  These people are held indefinitely in deplorable, dehumanizing conditions and subjected to the same type of violence they were fleeing from in their home countries.  These peoples’ migration has been spurred by the violence created by USA drug addiction, arms sales and USA policies/CIA/Corporate destabilization of their governments.
In order to heal the wounds of capitalistic colonialism, we need to be honest and interested in creating a discourse and action plan that confronts the violence.  We need to examine our part in creating this sorry state of affairs.

In my artwork I attempt to bring to light the parts of our society that are rendered invisible/without value;   in a visual vernacular that does not use violence as a symbol of power/excellence.  Each person held without legal recourse has a story and a reason to flee.  They come here with the hope of life.”
Susan Platt
Cecilia Concepcion Alvarez was born in National City, California. Her mother is Mexicana and her father is Cubano. Cecilia was raised between San Diego, California, USA and Ensenada, Baja California, Mexico. This cultural and political mix inspires much of her work.
Alvarez is a self-taught artist. Her work reflects her perspective on being a Chicana/Latina. She is primarily a painter who has also created large public art. She has worked extensively with youth in creating murals and cultural awareness.

Alvarez is committed to creating discourse through her art, on issues of entitlement, poverty and who is expendable in our collective. She hopes this discourse will create a new and healthier perspective on what is beauty, power and important to our societies
During the last few weeks, the residents at the Northwest Detention Center have staged multiple hunger strikes and work stoppages. Detainees have always been treated like slave labor, paid one dollar a day to do the cooking, cleaning etc, now they have the virus to confront in their crowded conditions. In one recent protest, they spelled SOS with their bodies on the ground ( photograph above).


https://www.facebook.com/LaResistenciaNW/videos/1539881136160196/https://www.facebook.com/LaResistenciaNW/videos/2632349890425924/?tn-str=k*F

As Cecilia says, these people have not committed any crime.

The Present Crisis
The links above speak of the demand to free the detainees. Inside high rates of death from COVID 19 are inevitable because of the impossibility of following any of the standard guidelines of masking and distancing, there is no protective covering. And this is in addition to the entirely inadequate health care that is already in place in these facilities.

Detainees have always been exploited for profit, now the capitalists running these privately operated facilities are killing people as well.

In the painting by Cecilia Alvarez, we see the desperation of those on the outside who are also suffering from fear, and isolation from loved ones. We see this supported in the La Resistencia NW facebook video, in which family members speak of their feelings.

Cecilia speaks of migrants coming with "the hope of life." The film Which Way Home by Rebecca Cammisa, focuses on the child migrants from Central America who hope to reach the US, mainly traveling on "the Beast" a freight train. We understand immediately what "the hope of life" means to these children, aged 9 - 14, they hope to reunite with their mothers, they hope to get a job and send money back to their families, they hope to rise above the immobility of poverty in their village, they hope to escape violence ( that aspect is not covered in the film).

In the current environment of COVID 19, migration is at a halt, people are even reverse migrating, as the dangers of the crowded shelters, the denial of all asylum laws as the Trump administration uses the pandemic to wholesale deport tens of thousands, the horrifying treatment of children detained in the US ( the environment shown in the film, completed in 2009 is far better than the current cages with space blankets). That means they are without hope, they must accept poverty, lack of opportunity and in many cases extreme danger from drug gangs. For these migrants, movement is opportunity, immobility means poverty, kidnapping, and death.

Protest at NWDC May 27, 2020

Detention Watch Network is demanding release as the lack of healthcare is leading to catastrophe.
https://www.detentionwatchnetwork.org/sites/default/files/reports/DWN_Courting%20Catastrophe_How%20ICE%20is%20Gambling%20with%20Immigrant%20Lives%20Amid%20a%20Global%20Pandemic.pdf

Mark Auslander:    In 2016, Cecilia Concepcion Alvarez’s painting “With Hopes of Life” (Con Las Esperanzas de Vida)  was the centerpiece of the exhibition “Liberty Denied: Immigration Detention Deportation,” which Susan Platt and I co-organized at the Museum of Culture and Environment Central Washington University, Ellensburg, WA.  (The work was most recently displayed in March 2020, in Ellensburg's Gallery One, just before the shutdown.) As Susan suggests, this powerful painting speaks to us anew during the Covid-19 pandemic.  The crosses and chalk body outlines on the landscape behind the figures, initially evocative of the unmarked graves scattered across the US-Mexico desert borderlands, now serve as haunting reminders of lives lost or imperiled by the novel coronavirus within immigration detention facilities  With our present-day eyes, we might now be inclined to read the crosses not only as marks on a map, but as viruses floating in the air, threatening all those within densely confined spaces, including spaces of detention and unsafe work environments. (The Yakima Valley in central Washington state is now the most dangerous COVID-19 hotspot on the West Coast.)  Even the colored circles in the painting's two upper corners, which once signaled gated communities closed to migrants, take on new meanings, reminding us of those who through race and class privilege are relatively protected from the full brunt of the pandemic.

It is a strange feature of our present moment, as politicians and media personalities endlessly proclaim “we’re all in this together,” that the faces of those most threatened by the pandemic, especially those incarcerated in correctional and immigration detention facilities, as well as New Americans laboring in the food industry, are so systematically eclipsed or erased from public view.

The current celebration of frontline workers is laudable, but that should never be at the expense, especially in a nation of immigrants, of witnessing and celebrating those who have traveled here in search of a better life. Instead, the current administration has used the pandemic as a cover for accelerated deportation and denial of the universal right to asylum. Political leaders in areas that depend on the undercompensated food production labor of New Americans are often, perversely, calling for immediate relaxation of social distancing policies.   In our more cynical moments, it even seems to us that those in power are inclined to let the virus do the dirty work of ethnic cleansing, behind wire fences and closed doors, ravaging those whose bodily defenses are already compromised from histories of poverty and violence, the cross border journey, and poor treatment during confinement or at work.

As in 2016, I remain impressed that Alvarez’s reference to “Vida” is not merely about what Agamben terms “bare life,” the minimal conditions for biological survival. Her powerful female figures, most gazing unflinchingly and directly, are presented with great dignity and a vibrancy that speaks to proud indigenous and national heritages. Their garments shimmer with elements drawn from the natural world, hinting at a profound life force that overpowers the monochromatic background of the desert deathscape. Their eyes confront us with immediacy but with composure, even a sense of sacred serenity.   The central maternal figure nearly leaps out of the canvas, a protective presence infused with the long history of votive paintings in Latin America, offering a compassionate vision of hope even in the darkest of hours.

Amidst the endless statistics and mathematical modeling with which we are bombarded each day, Alvarez’s work re-emerges as a powerful reminder of what is now at stake.  Our task is not only to contain the pandemic and provide each person with the basic conditions of health and physical security, the rights denied to those who now form SOS with their own imperiled bodies.  It is equally to return these powerful, uncompromising gazes, to see in each and every individual the light, and the unquenchable aura of life in its deepest sense, that is our common birthright, on every side of the walls, fences and borders that arbitrarily divide us. 

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

The Old Births and the New: Stompie Selibe

Stompie Selibe
The Old Births and the New
2020
Stompie Selibe
The Old Births and the New (Shangaan Dress)
Acrylic on canvas
2020

TLC Extension Collection (South Africa). May 2020. 


Overview: This largely abstract image may have implicit figurative elements. The core of the image has dark black forms, perhaps evocative of a body in motion, with bright orange, blue, yellow and red segments superimposed, moving outwards to lighter surrounding washes, towards white and pink edges.

Artist's Statement:  My work is a representation of what the lockdown has been for me, it has sheltered me as well as meant that in my deepest thoughts and feelings I have felt deep wells of missing, of loss. The isolation has meant living more with my own, and our own, shadows as well as with our own imaginations and our ideas of new possibilities. COVEN 19 has highlighted for me how we need to find new ways of living life together, of leaving our deepest shadows and fears behind us. All of us need to learn to change what we know, to make new possibilities, new creations of our shared world and own own worlds within that. The work represents a new beauty within COVEN 19, to see the opportunity to have life as making art, making new meaning about ourselves and our lives together and exploring how to work, live and create together as a people, the many branches joined

Pamela Allara;
As an artist, Stompie Selibe has nurtured not only his own creativity, but those of others. Trained as a printmaker at Artist Proof Studio, where he also taught for a number of years, Selibe was active in its HIV/AIDS and other community outreach programs. Classes at Johannesburg’s Art Therapy Center provided additional motivation as well as the skills he needed to lead workshops where people were enabled to learn to use art to transform their lives and help themselves heal. He continues to participate in community workshops in Johannesburg on a regular basis.

His painting Old Births and The New (formerly Shangaan Dress) is his response to the coronavirus pandemic. When left teaching printmaking, Selibe turned to painting, and his art evolved from a linear to a painterly style. None of the careful advanced planning required by printmaking is in evidence here: the painting appears spontaneous, with its thick, layered impasto registering his emotional, intuitive response to each color and shape as it was laid down. An accomplished musician who composes songs for his penny whistle, improvisation from music extends to his visual processes as well. He considers sounds and images to be deeply intertwined.

Despite this improvisational approach, the painting coheres, bringing our eyes from the lightly brushed perimeter to the densely layered center. And there, one can begin to discern a figure or maybe two, although it is not evident that that was what the artist intended. When Selibe turned to painting, his pleasure at the simple laying down of paint was balanced by his enduring interest in the subject matter of portraits of people from Johannesburg communities. Because of my familiarity with his previous work, I see in the lower right, just as the dense impasto lightens, a small black person wearing a patterned green dress. And, although this is even less clear, perhaps behind this small figure is a larger one with an orange face and yellow hair. Is the green wrap the Shangaan dress to which the original title referred? One cannot say for certain. If there is a figure here (or perhaps another), it is one Selibe is calling up from his memory or from the thoughts that spring to mind when contemplating South African culture generally at this moment in time.

Whatever this figure/s may or may not be, it is engulfed in vigorous energies over which it has no control. As the artist has written, “Coven 19 has highlighted for me how we need to find new ways of living life together, of leaving our deepest shadows and fears behind us. All of us need to learn to change what we know, to make new possibilities, new creations of our shared world and own worlds within that.”

What does Selibe mean by Coven 19? A coven is a gathering of witches, who to say the least have been given a bad rap, not only in their own times, but at present. But covens were places where non-traditional, spiritual knowledge was shared, and new communities formed. As he wrote rather presciently in 2018 for an article in Art Africa: “My art is an act of the soul not the intellect. When we are dealing with sounds and visions we are in the midst of the sacred self. We are involved with forces and energies larger than our own. We are engaged in a sacred transaction of which we know only a little, the shadow not the shape. We invoke the great creator when we invoke our own creativity and those creative forces have the power to alter lives, fulfil destinies and answer our dreams in our human lives.” In this work, Selibe may be suggesting that it is from these covens, or newly-formed communities we create virtually as we self-isolate during the pandemic, that we will find new ways of living together. The dense impasto lightens up on the lower right, opening up a space for the figure/s to move forward.

Mark Auslander:  The original title of this work, "Shangaan Dress," alludes to the Shangaan or BaTsonga peoples, of the South African-Mozambican borderlands. The new title, "The Old Births and The New" suggests cycles of reproduction, creation, and discovery- including those summoned up at the present, pivotal moment of crisis,  Both titles put me in mind of the energies of the BaTsonga muchongolo dance form, which Niehaus and Stadler (2004) have interpreted as a dramatization of ongoing struggle between deep "traditionalist" and "modern" cultural orientations, worked out in the idiom of competition for prestige and glory.  Through dance individuals rediscover whom they are, and how they are connected to others, including those who have long physically passed from the scene. Might something similar be happening in the energies externalized on this canvas, through which the artist takes us on a journey into the inner recesses of the soul and its tumultuous engagements, especially during this time of trial?  Hence, the work's revised title, "The Old Births and the New." (Fans of the epic series Games of Thrones will inevitably think of the oath frequently invoked by GoT's characters, to "The Old Gods and the New.")

In the dark center of Selibe's composition we  may see an allusion to the BaTsonga concept of the ndzuti or shadow, a kind of bodily life force that sustains the person that is intimately linked to the moya, a spiritual presence that rejoins the ancestral realm at death.  The artist's statement suggests that the period of confinement during the Lockdown has led to a rediscovery of one's shadow, as profoundly important attributes of the self, previously forgotten or neglected, are rediscovered. The title's reference to "dress" may allude not only to the vibrant dance costumes of Shangaan-Tsonga people but also to the broader meanings of clothing and adornment, which are themselves dynamics frontier between person and the outer society, between past and present, between visible and invisible worlds.

Our bodies are under attack from an invisible enemy in the era of COVID-19, which the artist in his statement wryly renames, "COVEN-19," implying it is a kind of latter day assault of witchcraft. Yet in the struggle we are reintroduced to inner resources we never knew we had. Radiating out from the painting's inner, dark shadow are a grand panoply of colors, in powerful solids and gentle washes, ultimately merging into the surrounding lighter field. Something profound is being created here, as suggested by the artist's revised title, "The Old Births and the New." Might we be beholding a great dance of life and death, from which something new, both terrifying and strangely beautiful, as Yeats puts it in The Second Coming, "Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?"

References

Niehaus, Isak, and Jonathan Stadler. "Muchongolo dance contests: deep play in the South African lowveld (1)." Ethnology, vol. 43, no. 4, 2004, p. 363


For more information:
#TLCExtensionCollection #ArtForGood #TheLockdownCollection



We are Happy: Vusi Beauchamp

Vusi Beauchamp
We are Happy
Mixed media on Fabriano paper
2020
TLC Extension Collection (South Africa)

Vusi Beauchamp
We are Happy
2020

Overview: In a style that curator Gordon Froud compares to street art graffiti, the words "WE ARE" are scrawled across the image, atop four grimacing figures. The three to the left appear to have skeletal bodies, the one of the far right has an open pink mouth reminiscent of colonial or Jim Craw racist 'blackface" iconography.


Mark Auslander : Ironically titled, "We are Happy", Vusi Beauchamp's work parodies a long history of colonial racial stereotyping and minstrel iconography that renders people of color as reveling even amidst tragedy. The grotesque allusions to Jim Crow imagery will be difficult for many to stomach, especially at a time when the global COVID-19 pandemic has unleashed a new wave of racism and xenophobia in some quarters.  This may be the artist's point precisely, that the scourge of racial terror and  ethnonationalist nativism has been let loose, once more, in our midst. The grimacing figures could thus be read as the fevered delusions of a resurgent global white supremacist imagination.  (Having resided in the Lansing, Michigan area during the recent anti-Lockdown protests, we were made all too aware of these connections as white marchers displayed Confederate flags, nooses, and automatic weapons,  some declareing that the pandemic was of no concern to people like them, implying the primary victims were urban dwelling people of color for whom they had no sense of compassion or solidarity.)

These skeletal apparitions may also directly allude to the early modern genre of the "Danse Macabre" and "Memento Mori," reminders, especially during times of pestilence, that earthly pleasures are fleeting and that Death stalks us all.  We may also in the four figures see echoes of the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse, prophesied in Revelations and other books of the Old and New Testaments. The fourth, pale horseman has often be identified with plague, and that imagery may inform Beauchamp's fourth, lighter figure to the far right, with the gaping mouth of racist blackface stereotyping. The plagues of racism and viral infection are perhaps here conjoined: like proliferating strands of pathogenic RNA, racist memes seems to be be infecting the body politic and reproducing helter-skelter across the world. It is the mission of the artist, Beauchamp may be implying, to represent and denounce this foul pestilence, and stop it in its tracks.

How are we to understand the discrepancy between the painting's title, "We are Happy," and the words scrawled across the top of the image, which are only "WE ARE"?  Why is the word "Happy" so conspicuously absent from the painted surface itself? Perhaps the Horseman, like the physical virus and the virus of intolerance, are resolutely proclaiming their existence: we are. The harbingers of death and destruction may indeed be 'happy" and overjoyed by current events, but it remains for us, the living, to inscribe the final message, and perhaps write for these invaders their epitaph: we are vanquished.


Monday, May 25, 2020

Waiting for Food Parcels: Themba Khumalo

Themba Khumalo.
Waiting for Food Parcels. 2020
Charcoal, coffee stains on paper

The Lockdown Collection Extension (May 2020, South Africa)



Themba Khumalo.
Waiting for Food Parcels. 2020


Overview: Reminiscent of recent photojournalism of miles-long queues for food relief in South Africa, Themba Khumalo's panoramic drawing shows a long line of at least fifty people, many stooped over, stretching back to the horizon, under a dark ominous sky and rolling storm clouds.  To the right, two electrical power pylons tower above those in line, with two other towers visible in the distance, electrical lines strung in the background. Several low trees are visible along the horizon line, and several structures, perhaps lighting towers, reach towards the sky. In the middle of the image the dark cloud descends closer to the earth, a bit like a finger pointing towards an electrical tower.

Artist's Statement:  Covid-19 has affected households in many ways, including job loss, higher prices, rationing of food and basic goods. Already in a country struggling with high poverty rates, we are seeing more particularly those in  the middle class who are in a high risk slipping into poverty. Due to the pandemic we are seeing growing numbers of desperately hungry people amid the covid-19 national lockdown. This image shows the extent of need that South African economic lockdown has generated among many, who, even before the pandemic were living a hand to mouth existence.

Pamela Allara:   A graduate of Artist Proof Studio in Johannesburg, Themba Khumalo often uses coffee as a medium to create dark, desolate landscapes with glowering skies that create the emotional equivalent of often desperate lives of those living in rural areas or dispossessed from their homes. In this drawing, it is difficult at first to see what we are looking at. The long, narrow, horizontal format of the work can make it hard to discern the subject. We are outdoors, in the middle of nowhere, and there are vertical rows of what? people? plants? The distance from the scene and the lack of definition in the figures do not help us to identify what we see; we are dependent on the print’s literal title: “Waiting for Food Parcels” to direct our attention. The poignance of this work on paper stems from just this lack of definition. There are no individual faces, no sense that these are humans at all; they may as well be lambs on their way to the slaughter. What we have here is not only the enormous number of people who are in dire need, but the point of view of the South African government: they are anonymous, distant problems, numbers to be put into a report that may or may not be acted upon. If we could see just one of them as human, everything could change. But Khumalo will not grant us that hope. The line will be endless because meaningful, timely support is lacking.

David Bunn:  Like those on the West Bank and in Gaza, the poor in South Africa have always been subject to differential authority from on high, whether it be apartheid’s high-gaited riot vehicles, the elevated freeways passing over rows of flimsy informal shelters, or the ubiquitous high mast surveillance lighting towers, with their unforgiving, unreachable nighttime glare, that still dot the landscape of townships.
 
Themba Khumalo’s Waiting for Food Parcels is reminiscent of the slow parades of the peasantry, or dispossessed, in early William Kentridge landscapes such as Zeno at 4am. Unlike the ghosting and palimpsests we see in Kentridge, however, Khumalo’s charcoal scene uses an entirely different figuring of affect: the world around the deathly parade of figures seems to be melting, or distorted, like the view through a lens covered in Vaseline. Sky and pylon bend sympathetically to the weight of the human figures themselves, in this endless round.

Mark Auslander: In addition to the marching figures of William Kentridge’s 1999 Shadow Procession (see Auslander 2003)  and the work mentioned by David, Khumalo’s image calls mind Kim Berman's series of Mid-Rand prints from the early 2000's, depicting power lines across a fire-swept highveld landscape (Allara 2010). These panoramic works by Berman, with whom the artist studied at Artists Proof Studio, were largely devoid of human presence, but now the pylons preside over desperately hungry people, seeking food relief under the precarious conditions of the national Lockdown.

David reads the high vertical lines as township lighting masts; I wonder if they might be lightning strikes or even evocative of the piercing spikes of the coronavirus, which have so terrorized our world. Whatever they are, each vertical formation in the drawing, including the food-seekers and the electrical towers,  is gaunt and drawn. The power or telephone lines along the horizon seem thin and storm tossed.

During the anti-Apartheid military struggle, power pylons were targeted by Umkhonto we Sizwe, the military wing of the African National Congress, as (largely symbolic) military targets, potent signs of the Apartheid superstate. Now, the pylons themselves look skeletal and decrepit, echoing the conditions of the starving men and women trudging below.  Perhaps even the teetering pylons, which ought to feed the national grid and economy with pulsations of energy, are themselves waiting patiently for nourishment during these lean times.

References

Pamela Allara, Dislocation and Collaboration: Recent Prints by Kim Berman. 
African Arts Vol. 43, No. 4 (WINTER 2010), pp. 20-29

Mark Auslander 2003. Review of "Coexistence Contemporary Cultural Production in South Africa" American Anthropologist 103 (3); 621-23.

Relwa ntwa ya kokwana took ya Corona: Ramarutha Makoba

Ramarutha Makoba
Relwa ntwa ya kokwana took ya Corona
(From sePedi: "Together We are fighting the sickness of Coronavirus")
2020
Charcoal, acrylic and pastels on fabiano paper.
140x80 cm

The Lockdown Collection (TLC): Extension Collection (South Africa). May 2020.

Ramarutha Makoba
Relwa ntwa ya kokwana took ya Corona
Together We fighting the sickness of Coronavirus
2020
Overview: The image is dominated by a large, front- facing  male figure, a miner, clad in a protective mask,  mining ear protection, glovs, boots, and work uniform. In the left  background, we see a large mining shaft, its wheels in red. Behind the figure we see houses and several smaller figures, one with his back turned to us, pushing a wheelbarrow To the right, roughly balanced with the mine shaft we see the outlines of a lone tree in full foliage, as well as a streetlight, and a distant cityscape. Above the horizon, flanking the figure, we see drawn lines in red and black, perhaps evocative of energy or even of angels' wings.

Artist's Statement: My statement for covid19 art work was constructed from my new concept which is mining. Named it "Relwa ntwa ya kokwana took ya Corona"  meaning (Together We are fighting the sickness of Coronavirus). I used the man who works in the mines as the metaphor because of the protection gear they wear when going underground. It is as similar with the scientist and doctors how they dress up to protect them when going to discover and fight the virus. The country has to work together during this covid19 as the mining plays a big role. How? The mining needs save lives by making sure it produces its main functioning. The doctor and scientist needs the power of electricity in order to perform their duties to save lives of those who are infected by the virus. The patrol stations needs to be filled with oil to fill the transportation in order to reach to the patients and hospitals at any time of state of the emergency. We as the country we fighting the sickness that is invisible. As the world we need to work hand in hand to fight the covid-19 and help our presidency by respecting and complying with the regulations. My inspired art work I look at it and see the man who's ready go in a war to fight and who has a belief that through God we will overcome the covid 19 pandemic. It is a prayer again that through God we will win the coronavirus.



Pamela Allara: In Makoba’s composition, the miner’s body fills the space vertically from top to bottom. It is evident from his firm, rooted stance that he is resolute, determined and immovable. Behind him on the left is the rigging for a gold mine, which is the historic source of Johannesburg’s wealth, but also of the creation of a severely exploited labor force. Unlike the miners in Kentridge’s film “Mine” (1991), however, this miner’s body is not broken, far from it. Behind him in the lower register are township houses that frequently appear in Makoba’s artwork. In front of the house on the right is a boy, partially obscured by the miner’s arm, playing with a wire toy car. A woman carrying a bag has her back to us, as if she is about to enter the house. Beyond and above the domestic scene is a tree and an electric light fixture; this township has grown up around the mine itself, so that families do not have to be separated, as they were in the past when miners left their families in remote rural villages. Our fearless miner is ‘keeping the lights on’ and the family together in a time of crisis.

David Coplan:  I appreciate the artist’s use of red accents, especially the mining head-gear, and the lone tree, that like the miner stands unbowed amid the industrial wreckage. These accents enliven the image and draw attention to key elements just enough, producing a nice compositional balance. The central figure is outsized, not only proportionately but also because he is not posed in front of the mine or its structures but rather before a low, rambling set of humble structures off-mine that represent where camp followers and even some miners and families live. There is a woman in the background to indicate a domestic setting. The mask is for Covid-19, but the side pieces appear more like the ear protection pads miners wear underground. His stance, as Mark notes below, is that of a gunslinger but steadfast rather than aggressive. A bit of a hero out of Soviet socialist realism but of course not formulaic. His boots do have an incredible shine, though, especially as in life they are always dirty after a shift underground.  The miner’s gaze is powerful, but to me has a bit of the “what’s it to you” seen in many photographs of miners.There is an element of challenge to it.

Mark Auslander: The miner here is likened to a physician or health worker, who heroically descends into the internal depths and mysteries of the human body, returning to the surface with the treasure of health.  The miner's ventilation mask is rendered akin to the personal protective gear worn by frontline health workers. As suggested in the artist's statement, the towering miner  stands in for the national body politic, whose collective energies must be directed to the struggle against the coronavirus. Lines of energy seem to circulate around the upper body of the miner, some suggesting (as in many depictions of frontline medical workers around the world) that he is angel-like.
American viewers are likely to see in the miner's stance an echo of the classic sheriff or gunslinger in an American Western, his hands held loosely at his side ready to fire in an instant.

Significantly, the artist's linguistic and ethnic heritage is grounded in the Bapedi community.  Trees are of great medicinal and spiritual importance for BaPedi healers and ritual specialists, and are at times intimately associated with the protective embrace of the ancestral shades. It would appear that the great tree that touches the miner's left arm helps infuse him with the strength needed to wage the coming struggle.

Makoba implies an analogy between this tree to the miner's left and the mine shaft  to this right. The artist has written that the most meaningful people in one's life are those who are like the roots of a tree, and here one senses that the miner in front of us, like the mine and the tree themselves, has foundations and roots that sink deep underground.  (Like Pam, I'm reminded of William Kentridge's 1991 film "Mine," in which we descend  from the minelord Soko Eckstein's desk through the shaft into the mysteries of the underworld and psychic underground of the protagonist.)

Among the Bapedi people, there is a long history of miners being engaged in the defense of the community, In the 1800s, young men who had undergone initiation together and formed age regiments (mephato) traveled together to the mines around Kimberly; the resources they remitted home, including firearms, allowed the Pedi sovereigns Sekwati and Sekhukhune I for a time to defend the realm against the Transvaal Republic and the South African Republic (Delius 1984: Paulin 2002).  More recently, Bapedi migrant miners have provided vital financial and logistical support to the revivatilziation of the institution of BaPedi chieftancy (Oomen 2016).

The analogy between going to work in the mines and heading out to battle is well developed in South African popular culture, especially in the word music or difela of the Basotho people, most famously analyzed in David Coplan's 1994 monograph and in the 1988 film by Gei Zantzinger "Songs of the Adventurers," based on Coplan's research.  (Basotho men, Coplan notes, were the fabled "shaft sinkers" on the Rand, who justly boast to this day that "we dug the mines.")

In the complex poetic imagery of difela, a reworking of the classical poetics of precolonial war songs and male ritual initiation language, the miner enters into a highly transformative field of conflict underground, which is mirrored in the poetic duels undertaken among male miners within mining compounds. Danger lurks in the mines, but so does a chance for glory and mastery, in an assertive masculine idiom.  It would appear that such is also the case for the national struggle against Covid-19: for all the terrible dangers that confront the nation, the collectivity just might emerge from the battle transformed and re-empowered.


References

David B. Coplan, 1994.  In the Time of Cannibals. The Word Music of South Africa's Basotho Migrants. Chicago Studies in Ethnomusicology. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Peter Delius. 1984.  The Land Belongs to Us: The Pedi Polity, the Boers and the British in the Nineteenth-Century Transvaal. Heinemann

Barbara Oomen, 2016. McTradition in the New South Africa: Commodified Custom and Rights Talk with the Bafokeng and the BaPedi, in  Mobile People, Mobile Law: Expanding Legal Relations in a Contracting World. Franz von Benda-Beckmann, Keebet von Benda,eds.  Routledge.

Christopher Paulin. 2002 White Men's Dreams, Black Men's Blood: African Labor and British Expansionism in Southern Africa, 1877-1895. Africa World Press.




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And yet I smile: Lebohang Motaung


 Lebohang Motaung
"And yet I smile" (2020)
Lebohang Motaung
"And yet I smile"
Acrylic painting on paper
100 x 70 cm
TLC Extension Collection (May 2020, South Africa)

Overview: A large portrait of a smiling girl, in a black and white striped tank top, her hair tied back in several places with white bows.  Wisps of hair extend outwards from the topnotes, almsot as if they are flying off. Around her smile is painted the outline in white of a protective face mask, allowing us still to see her entire face, including her smiling mouth.

Artist's Statement:  This pandemic has affected us all negatively, we found ourselves having to reimagine our livelihood. With all the hardships and new challenges this  pandemic brings, we continue to display resilience and a will to survive. There was a time when I used a mask to cover my sad face,  but now I’m hopeful and I can gladly say, behind that mask is a smile because I know things will get better.

In my work I used an outline of the mask instead of it covering the mouth, Because I did not want to hide the smile. Even  though I wear a mask, underneath that mask I still smile because I know this too shall pass.


Pamela Allara;  When she was a student at Vaal University of Technology, Lebohang Motaung would braid fellow students’ hair to earn money. She had always had a talent for braiding hair, and like the many women who braid hair for a living on the streets of Johannesburg, turned that talent into a means of earning income. In South Africa, as in many countries on the African continent, the styles of a black woman’s braids are a statement of identity, either of one’s heritage or one’s personal creativity. In 2018, after completing her certificate at Artist Proof Studio, Lebohang was granted a residency at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston; currently, she has a residency at the Project Space as well as a studio in the Victoria Yards Artists Studio complex in Johannesburg. Although her professional success means that she no longer needs to braid hair for a living, braided hair has remained the subject of her art. Often, she combines drawings or prints depicting a woman’s hair with real hair, which she gathers from contiguous neighbors who cut and braid hair informally. The resulting installations transform the braids into sculptural artworks, permitting the viewer to recognize braiding as an art form. She as given a name to this body of work, Moriri, meaning hair in SeSotho.

“And yet I smile,” an acrylic painting on paper created for The Lockdown Collection Extension, depicts a smiling young woman whose hair, surprisingly, is not in braids, but in topknots secured with ribbons in tied in bows. These sprouts have so much energy that small knots are bursting from them: an indication the tremendous vitality of the young woman herself. This portrait is the embodiment of optimism and joie de vivre, and as such is a quite unexpected response to the pandemic. The outline of a mask is superimposed on her face, but it will not suppress her smile. As such, she is the personification of the resilience of the people of South Africa, or perhaps more specifically, of a younger generation who will survive and find a way to move past the pandemic’s hardship and loss. 

Mark Auslander:  Pam emphasizes the wonderful imagery of hair in this painting;  I find myself struck by Lebohang Motaung's evocation of the rich Basotho cultural aesthetics of the face, anchored in the female initiation process. Basotho female initiates at times cover their faces with woven reed masks, signifying their rebirth and intimate connection with the watery, reed-covered space of Creation  (Riep 2011). Young women emerging from initiation may adorn their faces and bodies with painted substances, known as letsoku, manifesting their transitional status as they move towards adulthood (Klopper & Nel 2002). White clays covering the face and body are at times associated with values of purity and rebirth, and the blessings of ancestral shades. The face, the outward expression of individual distinction and difference, thus becomes the appropriate medium through which the emerging young person is integrated into the continuity of the collective--which spans the interwoven community of the Living and the Dead.

Later during the life cycle, adult Basotho women engage in house painting, at times incorporating white clay pigments and imagery signaled in initiation, related to their roles as guardians of the domestic realm and bringers of life.   In other African rural communities, white lines and dots are used to beautify the face and signal new stages in social development and openness to the community.

Perhaps, in addition to referencing the now ubiquitous protective face masks worn during the Lockdown, the artist, recalling her own childhood and youth, may be reflecting on earlier, community-based processes of psychosocial transformation and symbolic rebirth.  The Lockdown here occasions a subtle kind of time travel, as the artist reflects on the various transitions and transformations that made her who she is and whom she might become: it is deeply moving to learn that at the foundation, she experiences this continuing process of concealment and revelation as one of joy.

References

Klopper, Sandra and Karel Nel. The Art of Southeast Africa from the Conru Collection. Milan: 5 Continents Editions srl., 2002.

Riep, David. 2011.  House of the Crocodile: south Sotho art and history in southern Africa. University of Iowa (Dissertation)



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Victory: Sue Martin

Sue Martin
“Victory”
mixed media on Chinese rice paper
68cm x 48cm

TLC Extension Collection (May 2020, South Africa)

Sue Marin, Victory, 2020
Overview: Over a scene of tree branches and leaves a semi-transparent letter "V" has been been superimposed, the "V" recalling
the font used in World War II era "V for Victory" campaigns.

Artist's Statement:  “What does the artist do? She draws connections. She ties the invisible threads between things.” I see my creative process as a response to this. I selected what I had at hand. I frequently incorporate found objects into my work, such as photographs and historical maps, thereby creating a multitude of layers revealing and obscuring images and ideas. I encourage the viewer to look beneath the veneer of the artworks, hence the incorporation of the V which represents our triumph over this adversity. It is through this process of disentangling and extracting meaning, that the viewer becomes an active participant in translating the image and threading their own connections and narratives, into the artworks.

Addendum to Artist's Statement: Maps and naturalist paintings were employed by early explorers as a means of making sense of the unfamiliar territories they encountered on their travels. I utilised my photographs of the Acacia trees (indigenous) to map out my own journey. To assist me in making sense of the virus. This is my way of triumphing over the virus. It is apparent but it does not overwhelm.

For this reason I also worked on imported Chinese rice paper. It is exotic but it also has a fragility. It possesses a translucent quality that allows one to peer through and possibly find meaning by allowing the 'hidden' to be revealed. Ultimately, I would want my work to be viewed as a Victory, where life and nature triumph over this adversity.

Mark Auslander:  Sue Martin's beautiful, translucent thicket invites us into the "forĂȘts de symboles" celebrated by Baudelaire, famously referenced by Victor Turner, in his own book, The Forest of Symbols, a preeminent study of African indigenous cosmology and symbolic meaning, set among the Ndembu peoples of central Africa. Martin densely weaves together a range of environmental and historical associations in seeking to make sense of our current global moment of crisis.

A number of artists have responded to the Covid-19 crisis by evoking the iconography of World War II, arguably the last time humanity faced a crisis of such common magnitude (See, for example, Sylvia Bueltel's re-appropriation of the homefront propaganda posters of the war periodAndrea Robinson's similar WWII-themed public health posters and even the use of mannequins in World War II era attire to populate the famous Inn at Little Washington in Virginia during the Lockdown period.  Sue Martin continues this strategy by inserting over her forest thicket a  "V" iconic of the Allied "V is for Victory" campaign during the Second World War.

Although Martin emphasizes the theme of Victory, her "V" more ominously puts me in mind of the Virus itself, which has terrorized humanity in recent months.  I find myself thinking of the earlier Latin term "virus," the flowing poisonous sap of plants, from which the modern word virus is derived. In Martin's image, the proliferation of vegetative growth could be read as potentially dangerous, exuding a viscous venom or poison that seeps through this densely tangled scene; in this sense, the golden leaves might be evocative of the novel coronavirus itself, or the body's hidden channels through which the pathogen travels, replicating itself and seeking, ultimately, new hosts to infect. 

Alternately, the intricate pathways described by the branches and foliage could be read as a kind of map for us to follow as we search for a cure or a sustainable way to live, long term, with this pathogen.  The V, in turn,  may be  resonant with the aspiration that the world will in time triumph over the pandemic. Thus the victorious "V" seems to parallel the crooks in the background tree branches, which might provide a natural model for future hope.

Sue Martin, Victory (detail)
In this connection, it is noteworthy that the artist identifies the tree seen here as a member of the Acacia family. Acacia, as it happens, are known to have complex phytochemical properties that naturally repel pathogens and pests,  and thus their barks and roots have been extensively incorporated into indigenous Southern African pharmaecopia for generations (Maroyi 2017; Ali 2011).  These natural medicinal attributes may be important models for us in our current predicament. In my own research as a social anthropologist in rural eastern and southern African communities, I've often been impressed by the intricate byres and enclosures created out of thorny acacia branches to protect livestock against wild predators. In the 19th century, these branches were also used to create stockades, protecting communities against slave raiders. there is thus a long history of understanding acacia as defenders against all manner of threats, visible and invisible.

In many indigenous African societies, trees are intimately associated with ancestral shades. In my own research in eastern Zambian Ngoni communities, I've often seen livestock wander into thick, shaded groves of trees, including acacia, which is invariably regarded as a blessing. No human herder may enter the grove to retrieve the stock: cattle are allowed to seek shelter there, and return out into the open on their own schedule, having entered into communion, as it were, with benevolent spiritual presences.

In the Western tradition, since classical times, wandering alone in a forest grove has signaled moral confusion and spiritual peril, and that emerging from the thick wood has been understood as heralding spiritual growth and triumph.  In that sense, the artist may be initially inviting us into a dense thicket of confinement, uncertainty and anxiety, redolent of the Lockdown and quarantine, with the ultimate promise, of light in the distance, framed by the ephemeral "V", over  which a better dawn might someday rise.


References

Atif Ali, et al. Acacia nilotica: A plant of multipurpose medicinal uses Journal of medicinal plant research 6(9) · March 2011

Maroyi, Alfred.  Acacia karroo Hayne: Ethnomedicinal uses, phytochemistry and pharmacology of an important medicinal plant in southern Africa,  Asian Pacific Journal of Tropical Medicine


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