Acrylic and Charcoal
TLC Extension Collection (South Africa, May 2020)
Overview: Against a green background, a black person of indeterminate gender in a green face mask wears a white nurse's uniform with stars on their shoulders and other epaulets above their breast pocket. The person has an Afro hair style, with a nurse's cap. The nose and forehead are illuminated, as if from the flash of a camera or the bright lights of a hospital ward.
Pamela Allara: Although the word ‘nurse’ is likely to bring up in one’s mind an image of a woman in a white cap and gown, that image is an anachronism, as nurses today are frequently male. Senzo Shabangu’s “The Nurse” could be identified as either male or female, and that ambiguity is important, as the figure’s gender not at issue. What matters is that s/he is a caregiver. The person’s halo of hair is so large that the nurse’s cap cannot be tied in back, but it rather floats in front, looking almost llike a billboard announcing his/her profession. The white uniform is topped by blue epaulets, lending a military look. Even though South African nurses uniforms often have epaulets, the military appearance is also symbolic of the nurse’s resolve and dedication to service.
Simmel's insights have been developed in Hans Belting's book, "Face and Mask: A Double History (2017) which explores the history of distortions of the face in the history of art, notably arguing that the portrait painting is a kind of "mask", which paradoxically reveals the subject's inner life in a manner than cannot be normally apprehended. (As Oscar Wilde famously remarks in The Critic as Artist, "Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.") In the Shabangu painting, the nurse's face is partially obscured by the required protective face mask, yet this act of concealment has the curious effect of overemphasizing her or his eyes, as a "mirror of the soul," granting us a deeper appreciation of subject's care and compassion for the nurse's charges.
The net effect, even though (or precisely because) we are deprived of direct perception of the nurse's mouth, incapable of seeing her or his smile, we are granted intensified access to their eyes and to all that which binds us to another in our darkest hour.
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