Friday, May 29, 2020

Lockdown Granny and Rooster: Susan Woolf

Susan Woolf
Lockdown Granny and Rooster
Susan Woolf
Lockdown Granny and Rooster
W 16cm x H 17cm
Shoe polish, glue, powdered  eye makeup, rouge, foundation, 
eyeliner and selected body oils

Overview  In front of a dark background, an elderly woman woman sits in a wooden chair, her head tilted to the side. To her left (our right) a red-combed rooster perches on the chair's top.

Artist's Statement:

“There are days when solitude is a heady wine that intoxicates you with freedom, others when it is a bitter tonic, and still others when it is a poison that makes you beat your head against the wall”

(French author Sidonie Gabriella Colette, nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948).

The cause of the lockdown originates in the human destruction of the natural world.  Yet when we are forced to be locked down many people have suddenly found a connection and interest in the natural world. The problem of climate change that was for so many people, a distant conversation, for others to solve, has suddenly been brought right to our doorstep and into our homes. Indeed the whole world.

This artwork completed during the Corvid 19 lockdown situation, deals with the extreme isolation that older people in particular must endure. Living in London, the person who purchased this artwork told me,

“I think of my Mom who does not have social media or anything like that and who is and was, very reliant on face to face social interaction”.

Many elderly people are suddenly completely alone and being forced to spend more time with themselves and their immediate world, particularly that part of it that is closest to them, like birds, chickens or squirrels. The purchaser recounted his recent call to his elderly mother living in the USA, who had been telling him about the squirrels eating her plants on her small patio!

I have always made use of areas of empty spaces in an artwork. I love the work of Spanish artist Francesco Goya (late 18th and early 19th centuries), who spoke about the power of suggestion, saying that in art it is more important to know what to leave out than what to put in. Empty spaces emphasise what is present and what is absent.

In ‘Lockdown Granny and Rooster’ completed during a period of self-isolation, which ran into lockdown, the room that the granny is sitting in is empty. There are no other objects apart from the chair. There is no limit to our imagination as to what else could be there or what could be missing. There are no children or grandchildren. Only the rooster is present to keep the granny company. That is the irony of it all. No one knows, aside from pangolins, which other creatures may now carry the virus.

The materials used in this artwork were a substituted for gouache paint of which several tubes of this paint had dried out. I had no black paint at all and only a little left of the white paint. Art materials are not on the essential survival list during lockdown! For the black background I used shoe polish. The application of the glue, is a throwback to art school days from when I was 17 years old. I still use it when appropriate! Only the rooster is painted with a paint brush. For the seated granny figure and chair I used old powdered eye makeup, rouge and foundation mixed with some body oils, all dabbed on with a little sponge brush.

.Pamela Allara (known to her three grandchildren as ‘Grandma Pam’):  Susan Woolf’s Artist’s Statement about her charming mixed media painting, “Lockdown Granny and Rooster” argues that there is at least one silver lining to our tragic global pandemic: a growing awareness of the imperative to address climate change. “The cause of the lockdown originates in the human destruction of the natural world,” she writes; as a result, climate change “has suddenly been brought right to our doorstep…Indeed [to] the whole world.” It is quite true that the pandemic has been linked to climate change, it is not true that the whole world is responding. In the United States, the President is using the economic fallout from the catastrophe to loosen the restrictions on drilling and fracking, assuring the oil industry’s backing in the upcoming election. In the March 26 issue of the Boston Globe newspaper noted that the conversion of Massachusetts’ electric grid to clean energy from wind and solar has been stopped short by the pandemic, both halting progress and costing many jobs. I live in an urban area, in a highrise condo on the Boston line, so it is disconcerting to see the surprising changes in the natural world that seem to appear daily in my neighborhood. So drastic are the changes that greeting a coyote on my way to my car in the parking lot has become a ho-hum event. Artists are responding to the upset in the natural world, and we are depending on them to keep the issue at the forefront of our collective consciousness. Susan Woolf’s recent contributions to The Lockdown Extension Collection, “The Future We Choose,” and “Pathways of Taxi Hands” exemplify the sort of creative artwork that requires the viewer to stop and to think about the ramifications of climate change.

“Lockdown Granny and Rooster,” on the other hand, is initially about the isolation we must all endure during the lockdown, although climate change is certainly referenced. An elderly woman is seated with both arms and legs folded in a wooden armchair that, lacking pillows, looks uncomfortable. (Grannies require pillows…) Although she is clearly relaxed, her soft smile perhaps an indication that she is enjoying some happy memory, she is sitting completely in the dark. There is a slight indication of a wall and a floor but no other furniture is in evidence, not even a lamp to help dispel the dark. There is nothing to indicate that she is situated in a domestic space that could provide stability and comfort; even the chair she sits in is unmoored. The pandemic has taken an especially hard toll on the elderly who live alone; floating in the endless gloom, Granny is the very embodiment of the psychic toll of isolation.

But she is not entirely alone: a rooster has flown in from who knows where and is perched on the back of the chair, looking down at her and thrusting out his breast assertively. This is not a mere pet, nor the everyday resident of a barnyard. I see this impressive fowl as a guardian figure who has arrived to provide comfort and perhaps even protection. But he, too, is out of place, with nowhere to roost, a victim of climate change which has caused animals to migrate and to adapt to new spaces. Whatever his potential as a spiritual guide, in the end, the only thing bird and human share is their isolation.

Lockdown Granny is initially charming, drawing us in with our own happy memories of our grandmothers; however, the charm evaporates quickly. Everything, from the space to the ‘pet,’ is off, disrupted. Even the medium is disconcerting. Access to artists materials is difficult now, and artists are having to use materials at hand, but shoe polish? Powdered eye makeup? Body oils? Surely there were some sharpies around, but Woolf has chosen intimate items that could be used to make up her face with which to paint Granny. Perhaps Granny might be seen as the personification of the isolation and dislocation Woolf has experienced herself during the lockdown. The world is off-base, out of joint, and Granny/mother nature is vulnerable.

Mark Auslander:  The artist in her statement alludes to Goya. Gazing at this captivating image, I find myself thinking of Goya's "The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters," in which the sleeping subject, also in a chair, conjures up all manner of nefarious creatures.  The rooster here is much less ominous than Goya's phantasms, but it is possible that the animal is similarly a visage dreamed by the nodding grandmother, and might even, as Pam suggests, serve as an animal spirit guide.  Locked down together, in isolation from the rest of the world, the two may be have a nice little chat with one another.

As all of us have become uncannily aware in recent weeks, the experience of shelter-in-place does very strange things to our perception of time, now that we lack the external social interactions that form what Maurice Halbwachs a century ago termed 'the social frameworks of memory." One day bleeds into another,  we are often much less conscious of dates or times of day, and time itself seems often oddly elongated,  compressed, and convoluted as we are subjected to internal dialogues with figures of our near and distant past. We are not always quite sure where or when we are, especially as we awaken or hover between sleep and full consciousness.  How appropriate, then, that Granny's companion (whether physically present or not ) is a rooster, a natural arbiter of time, who can be relied on when technology fails and when other people are absent, unfailingly to alert us to the dawn of a new day.  I love that he is perched near the top corner of the chair, guarding Granny from the surrounding obscurity, standing at the ready to divide the darkness from the light, and herald a sunrise that will share his own bold coloration.

Our present crisis, as Susan Woolf notes, is born in part from our alienation from nature; so what better companion at this strange moment than the domesticated rooster,  a little fierce and intensely proud, who occupies the threshold between culture and nature, between the domestic and something beyond?  The rooster may, like its mistress, need to shelter in place for the duration,  but its red comb, the only vibrant color in the composition, is irrepressible and holds the promise that we will, in time, awaken from this long, confined state of suspended animation, when expansiveness and the full spectrum of color will finally return to our world.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Cecilia Alvarez: Chicana Warrior Artist

Cecilia Concepcion Alvarez
Con Las Esperanzas de Vida
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 below).*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.

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. (Susan read the figures' gazes as look past the viewer; I am inclined to apprehend them look both at us, and through us.) 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
Stompie Selibe
The Old Births and the New (Shangaan Dress)
Acrylic on canvas

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 Vatsonga 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 Vatsonga peoples, of the South African-Mozambican borderlands. The new title, "The Old Births and 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 Vatsonga 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.

Speculatively, the artist's imagery may evoke the generative spark of the Vatsonga fire drill, made from the wood of the bulolo (hibiscus). As chronicled nearly a century ago by Henry Junod (1927, vol I, 21), the two pieces of the drill are respectively termed 'wife' and 'husband' and their conjugal rubbing together brings forth life-sustaining fire, evocative of the marital conjoining that culminates in birth and the continuation of the lineage.

Our bodies, and our own lineages. are now 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."  Junod reports that the Vastonga funerary process centers on a special fire, that is kept burning day and night through successive mortuary dances , to help guide the deceased towards ancestorhood, so that he or she may safeguard future generations.  Might we be beholding in Selibe's vibrant painting, similarly,  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?"


Henri A. Junod, The Life of a South African Tribe. 1927.

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
TLC Extension Collection (South Africa)

Overview: In a style that curator Gordon Froud compares to street art graffiti, the words "WE ARE HAPPY" are scrawled across the image, atop four grimacing figures.  ("WE ARE" is easy to read, while "HAPPY" is much more difficult to make out.) 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.

Artist's Statement:   Humor is an important ingredient and in plays, comic book genre, paintings and prints the artist does not attempt only to lampoon local personages, but seeks simultaneously to depict their stereotyping by the media.

The dual vision of looking at events borth from the ‘inside’ and the ‘ouside’ ref;cts the way in which perception  is shaped by the media and subsequently becomes reality, and affords the viewer a glimpse of contemporary local politics as well as lived experience in the urban jungle.

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 declaring 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.  Today, 31 May 2020, as this painting is released, the world views televised images of mass violence in American cities,  in the context of enormous public protests of police brutality. Much of this violence may be instigated by rightist white supremacist provocateurs, who seek to promote precisely the stereotypes of black people that Vusi's work caricatures.

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 been 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.

It is perhaps worthy of note that the first two words of the painting's title,  "WE ARE" are spray painted prominently above the heads of the figures, each letter written in outline in a light pigment to ensure legibility. The final word, "HAPPY," is much more difficult to discern, written in a darker hue and covering over the three figures to the left.  Why should this be the case? 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 happiness itself is rather elusive, and easily obscured. The artist may be leaving us with a final question: is it our own happiness that is being gradually effaced by the invading virus, or by pervasive media representations,  or might the joy experienced by these avatars of death itself be fleeing, as humanity unites, admittedly in fits and starts and amidst many failures, in common cause to confront the twin scourges of racism and the pandemic?

Monday, May 25, 2020

Waiting for Food Parcels: Themba Khumalo

Themba Khumalo.
Waiting for Food Parcels. 2020
Charcoal, coffee stains on paper
TLC Extension Collection (May 2020, South Africa)

Commentaries by Pamela Allara, David Bunn, David Coplan, and Mark Auslander

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 Coplan: The lowering rain clouds, covering the entire horizon, provide a dark and menacing presence for the entire scene. They are set off in superb contrast to the light blue segment of sky shining thinly just below, a seemingly odd but in reality common feature of gathering storm skies on the South African highveld.   Punctuating this lighter layer are decrepit power pylons and solitary wind-worn trees that resemble malevolent guardians out of some “War of the Worlds”. Below them is the sharp hairpin of human figures in a packed queue, lined up over a rough, uneven patch of earth, bowed down as if by the press of Nature’s power.  Will they reach their goal before the heavens descend upon them? No they will not. 

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.


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.

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Relwa ntwa ya kokwana took ya Corona: Ramarutha Makoba

Ramarutha Makoba
Relwa ntwa ya kokwana took ya Corona
Together We fighting the sickness of Coronavirus

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

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

Commentaries by Pamela Allara, David Coplan, and Mark Auslander

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.


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.


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 Marin, Victory, 2020

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

TLC Extension Collection (May 2020, South Africa)

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, 2020 (detail)
In this connection, it is noteworthy that the artist identifies the tree seen here as a member of the Acacia family.  Tradition has it that the ancient Israelites constructed the Ark of the Covenant out of acacia wood, and these tree species have profound resonances in many different world cultures. Acacia 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, Meena 2010).  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.


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
Volume 10, Issue 4, April 2017, Pages 351-360

Meena, A.K, et al.  2010  A Review on Acacia nilotica Linn. and It’s Ethnobotany, Phytochemical and Pharmacological Profile. Research J. Science and Tech. 2010; 2(4): 67-71

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Pathways of Taxi Hand Signs: Susan Woolf

Susan Woolf, Pathways of Taxi Hand Signs,

Susan Woolf, Pathways of Taxi Hand Signs, ink, glue, pencil and water-color on handmade Rooibos teabag paper, 2019
         The Future We Choose, glue, pastel, and ink on water-color paper, 2020.

TLC Extension  Collection (May 2020, South Africa)

Overview:  "Pathways of Taxi Hand Sign" presents intricate drawings of South African mini-bus/taxi hands signs, suspended over three background fields of black, white and orange.  In the more monochromatic " The Future We Choose", a water faucet, with a jury rigged nailed employed as a handle, is located above another amalgamation of hands forming deaf hand signs.

Susan Woolf. The Future We Choose,
Artist's Statement:  Lockdown has provided a lens and an opportunity to change and take action to address climate issues urgently.

Through her artwork Susan Woolf expresses aspects of the lockdown with regards to water scarcity. The focus is on desperately poor communities in South Africa and the frenzy around shared access to water and where social distancing is difficult. The artwork shows a recreated broken tap with a nail and wire replacing the missing tap handle. It symbolises both the inventiveness and desperation to access water.

Selected taxi hand signs - an innovation that grew also out of a desperate need, in this case for transport - are included amongst the other hand gestures. These gestures draw attention to relevant social situations, which align to lockdown. Problems with social distancing echo the situation of gathering around a communal tap to access water. This extends to the taxi industry which exacerbates the problem of infecting others.

A bat semi hidden, in the artwork, is shaped by gestures. The spread of diseases like Covid 19 are almost always because people have encroached into the territory of animals. Out of 1400 species of bats, it is believed that one bat may pass Covid 19 to humans through an ‘intermediate’ host known as the Pangolin.

Pamela Allara:  In 2004, artist Susan Woolf, who was intrigued by the hand-gestures she saw commuters using to signal to the independent mini-bus ‘taxi’ drivers that they wanted a ride to a given location, began to catalogue them. This process involved her going to the numerous taxi ranks around Johannesburg and surrounding cities and townships, and questioning the commuters and drivers, not only about the sign itself, but what other meanings it may have beyond simply indicating location. As Dr. Molefe Tsele wrote in the forward to Woolf’s “Taxi Hand Signs” booklet (2007): “South Africa has eleven official languages, but in reality, there are twelve. The twelfth is a sign language … the language of commuters.” Woolf’s painstaking research resulted in her 2014 doctoral dissertation, “Taxi hand signs: Symbolic landscapes of public culture,” (Wits University), in which the signs were catalogued and interpreted. She has also created an extensive body of taxi hand sign-related artwork that has been exhibited at the South African Jewish Museum in Cape Town (2016) and elsewhere.

Susan Woolf, Pathways of Taxi Hand Signs (detail)

The two artworks Woolf has donated to The Lockdown Collection’s second phase continue her exploration of the expressive potential of hand gestures. Hand gestures are used ubiquitously in daily communication, but the same gestures can have very different meanings in different cultures, potentially resulting in miscommunication. We may want to attach significance to the many gestures found in these two beautiful works, but have to concede that we may well misinterpret what we see. Fortunately, the artist has provided a list explaining the gestures, which is appended to this post.

In Pathways of Taxi Hand Signs, the hands are randomly but tightly clustered around a central area, in light orange, while above and to the left, black and white areas are left blank.  This might suggest the frantic nature of rush hour, when taxis are headed in numerous different directions, as well as the crowding in the taxis themselves (the more people the driver jams into his vehicle, the more money he earns.) This clustering of hands suggests stress, (despite what the individual gestures may mean), and further may allude to the inability of the hands/bodies to distance safely. Despite the fact that reduced taxi commutes have resulted in fewer accidents and lower pollution, the forced proximity inside the vehicles continues to risk the spreading of disease. The city of Boston, from where I am writing, has begun discussing plans for increasing pedestrian and bicycle lanes and reducing automobile lanes on streets after the lockdown ends.  The crowding of public transport remains an intractable problem, however.

The title of the second work, The Future We Choose, is taken from the book by Christina Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac that traces the fatal impact of the use of fossil fuels not only in pollution and natural disasters, but the spread of disease. With the outbreak of the global pandemic, the connection between climate change and disease has become clear. Central to human health is access to clean water, but in South Africa still today, it is often a scarce commodity in townships and rural areas. The improvised repair to the small water tap is indicative of the daily challenge of finding sufficient water to drink, cook and clean endured by the poor, and a metaphor for the fragility of the water transmission system in the country. The hands floating on the dark ground below the tap appear reduced to futile gestures. But are they also forming a community that can potentially work for change? For example, the hand next to the tap with pinky and index finger extended is making the well-known ‘clever’ sign, but it also refers to horns, which as Woolf comments represents for her human interference in nature causing disease and climate change. The gesture in the lower center of a left hand grasping the wrist of a right hand closed in a fist is the sign to Pollsmoor Prison, where COVID-19 has spread rapidly. But the hands directly beneath the top on the far right form a protective gesture, as individuals come together to help each other. In the end, hidden in this bleak image may be hope for positive change in a time when the pandemic exacerbates the access to life-sustaining water. Such change will clearly require all hands on deck.

From Susan Woolf: Meanings of gesture and taxi hand signs in The Future We Choose:

  1.  Hands cupped to drink water or ask for food.
  2. In this taxi hand sign (THS) the bottom hand moves back and forth to indicate going to a place underground. Under a bridge, for example.
  3. Having little money or resources, it’s called ‘Petrol Money’ by taxi drivers. The commuter needs a lift but has little money.
  4. Represents the plight of animals (To Grahamstown, horns in taxi lingo). Refers in the artwork to human interference with animals/nature causing diseases like corona virus and resulting in climate change worldwide. Also known as The Clever Sign silent language in Soweto that has 149 meanings.
  5. Many taps in townships are broken or have parts stolen. Innovative residents desperate for water, reinvent found objects to   make taps/toilets/objects functional.
  6. Protective hands. Individuals take extraordinary measures to help others. Close to me are two determined initiatives. Artists Proof has already raised and distributed 2 million Rands and All About Food, through the Angel Network have personally delivered close to 700000 meals to Orange Farm residents.
  7. Hands cupped to catch desperately needed water.
  8. Gestures combine to create a bat. One (out of 1400) species of bats are known to spread the virus to humans probably through an intermediary. Human interference is a problem.
  9. The cupped fingers sign to Orange Farm (palm up), form an absent’ Orange (or food and water). The same sign (palm down) is   used to hail a taxi to the Mall (Fingers being the various shops). Most shops are still banned during Lockdown Extension 4 in SA.                        
  10. This THS is to Pollsmoor Prison. Corvid 19’s rapid spread in S.A prisons resulted in riots and the release of 19000 prisoners.
  11. The taxi sign to Kliptown says ‘slow down it stinks’ referring to the social situation whereby massive amounts of garbage has not been removed. In SA during lockdown some townships have not had a garbage removal service.
  12. Begging hands.
  13.  13 and 14. Number 13 Taxi hand sign points backwards (Bree Metro Mall to Meodowlands). The ‘Short Left’ taxi sign points forward (This THS shows where the commuter wants to alight).    Will isolation during Lockdown encourage people to think of others and make changes needed for the future. Which way will we choose?
  14. This taxi hand sign is ‘Short Left’ where the passenger indicates where he wants to get off. Taxi sign (number 13 and 14 together beg this question - Will isolation during Lockdown encourage people to rethink the future and make changes needed going forward? Will we slip backwards into the same way of behaviour before Covid 19? What future will we choose?
  15. This Taxi hand sign is to Marabastad. A respected taxi operator was murdered there. The bottom hand moves back and forward and shows a life cut short. Covid 19 continues to ‘cut short’ many lives. It has also affacted many livelihoods and the subsequent dearth of economies in countries worldwide.
  16. This is a gesture where two hands overlap and are held against the chest. They express deeply felt emotions on the crisis and consequences of Covid and Lockdown.

Mark Auslander:   As emphasized by other artists in the TLC project, including Walter Oltmann and Michael Meyersfeld, hands, always meaningful in all human societies, have taken on a powerful new range of connotations during the pandemic crisis. Our hands are potential sites of contagion and infection, and we are enjoined to scrutinize our own hand movements (avoiding, above all, touching the face and shaking hands), washing our hands with soap and water, when available, and sanitizing and wearing gloves when possible.  At the same time, hands remain ever more precious instruments of care and compassion, offering succor to the ill and dying.

Hands signify our common humanity, but also, in Susan Woolf's renditions, function as a poignant reminder of all that divides us. The luxury enjoyed by elite and middle class persons, who can afford to cloiser themselves away in relative isolation during Lockdown, simply is not available to lower income communities, especially in the townships. Social distance is impossible, and access to clean water is highly restricted. Woolf's hands are in intimate proximity to another,  They are, especially in The Future we Choose, intensely beautiful, redolent of the marvelous cultural improvisational creativity of township life, in which a complex semiosis has been experimentally generated across the years.

Although this intricate system of taxi hand gestures emerged long before the Lockdown of early 2020, it is worth bearing in mind that they were developed under a long history of Apartheid, a vast system of formal and informal lockdowns, in which the mobility of persons of color was highly restricted through pass systems, arbitrary arrests and detentions, and labor preference areas that tore millions apart from their loved ones. Operating across more than a dozen languages, with only a few moments to communicate a desired destination, this ingenious gestural system evolved to evade an intricate and often violent system of state control. In this respect, it bears some resemblance to the gestural system created by political prisoners under Apartheid, celebrated in Jeremy Cronin's poem, "Motho Ke Motho Ka Batho Babang (A Person is a Person Because of Other People)":  "Two fingers are extended in a vee/ And wiggle like two antennae./(He's being watched). " Under the most brutal conditions of confinement, Cronin long ago reminded us, extraordinary moments of solidarity were possible, against all odds, without spoken language.  So too for the taxi hand semiotic system Woolf has documented and explored in academic and artistic registers-- a system which, under the current Lockdown, remains only a body memory, a cultural matrix in suspended animation.

There are so many ways, Woolf's work reminds us, in which everyday life among the South African poor remains a dynamic collective aesthetic project that is worthy of celebration. Yet at the same time, these hands, forced so closely together, are shown as painfully vulnerable, potential agents of contagion and infection, deprived even of the access to clean water that should be a universal human right. The hidden image of the bat, formed by the hands, reminds of of the environmental costs of unregulated human expansion into natural regions, costs disproportionately born by the world's poor.

As Pam notes, in the midst of all this terror and tragedy, the hand signs for friendship and love endure. As we ponder the next steps in human history, love may not be all we need, but love is surely foundational to whatever comes next, if we are to forge a better world, near and far.

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