Saturday, July 25, 2020

Tracking Series: Heidi Whitman

Hedi Whitman, Tracking (6)
Heidi Whitman
Tracking Series
Paper, drawing, T pins

Overview: Complex paper assemblages with collage elements, attached to a surface by T pins, casting shadows.

Artist’s Statement:  My work centers on mental mapping, memory, and cities.  American hubris and empire are underlying concerns. My constructions are built from street grids, skylines, and differing perspectives.  Urban architecture, both contemporary and ancient, as well as a network of shadows are part of this uncharted territory.  There is more information and many images on my website.

When the lockdown began in March I left my Boston studio for home. I started doing very small work in my dining room. At some point I remembered Dr. John Snow’s cholera map of 1854. London street maps are some of my favorites. I had used this map in my work many times for its graphic appeal. Our current pandemic reminded me of the story behind this very important map.

In 1854 during a cholera outbreak in London Dr. John Snow mapped a neighborhood with many cholera deaths. He soon realized that the dwellings with deaths were clustered around one water pump. He took the handle off the pump, and the deaths stopped. Before1854 people believed that cholera came from the air, a “miasma”. Then they understood that infected water causes cholera. Modern epidemiology began with Dr. Snow’s map. It’s a very hopeful and positive story. Unfortunately Covid-19 is much more difficult to map, track, and trace.

I started redrawing this 1854 map and incorporating it, along with other maps and data found online or in newspapers, into my paper and string constructions. The Tracking series refers to both that cholera epidemic and our current pandemic.

Hedi Whitman, Tracking (11)
The Tracking pieces are mostly paper constructions mounted on pins to create shadows. I often also use string and canvas as well as the paper.  Drawing is at the core of my work. Past drawings done are reworked with new material.  This series is new, and I’m just beginning. In each construction I’m thinking of some aspects of disorientation, destabilization, and destruction.

Judith Hoos Fox:  What began, in my estimation, as landscape-based paintings and works on paper where color surpassed space as a primary subject, where boundaries were respectful of the traditions of these media, has, over the years, leapt into challenging new territories. The exhibition of her work in 2004, State of Mind, at Harvard’s Mather House, is where I saw that her interest had shifted entirely from the exterior terrain into a concern with the mapping of thoughts, where investigations of brain activity found their way onto paper in the form of map-like markings.

In the 2015 exhibition Heidi Whitman: Lost Cities, at Montserrat College of Art Gallery, which included, in a sense, a chronicle of Whitman’s work giving context to the new work on view, her trajectory could be seen as both seamless and characterized by exciting strides. The journey from her early interests in physical terrain connected with investigations of interior, mental landscapes. Introduced was an additional layer that referred to the structures of cities, where physical form is the evidence of cultural and social activity constructed by humans. The work leapt from the walls, literally, extending into the gallery space. The depth of these bas reliefs echoed. A fresh and rich palette had emerged; color had moved from the Bauhausian black/white/red of earlier works to nuanced and unexpected hues that referred back to her earliest landscapes of the Southwest, but now with a bold introduction of occasional acid greens and sharp turquoises. Whitman explored space, depicted and actual, where paper is not bounded to the wall, where the gallery is brought into the image, and the artist partnered with shadow. Lines were both drawn and cast. Landscape had become city grid; mental and physical mapping had melded.

Heidi Whitman, Tracking (4)

For Whitman, a voracious reader and frequent researcher at the Norman B. Leventhal Map and Education Center at the Boston Public Library, history is often a catalyst. The suite of works that she has created while locked down, working at her dining table, or in her studio in an all but vacated building, is spurred on by the game-changing maps made by Dr. John Snow in 1854 which led him to discover the source of cholera, one contaminated well in the Soho section of London. This was the birth of the field of epidemiology and, I suspect, of public health as well. Particularly in Tracking 4, the Dr. Snow’s diagonally canted irregular grid, its thin black hesitant lines, can be identified, in positive and negative, drawn and cut out of black paper. These intersecting lines that led to modern health studies can also be read as cages that keep us from life as we have known it, locking us inside. The somber palette of blacks and grays of the artist’s early work has returned, with occasional bits of menacing red. Whitman’s constructions tell the same story that the line and bar graphs we see on the news daily report, charting the spread and control of the Covid—19 virus—a story that haunts and menaces, with no end in sight. While the published graphs spur speculation, Heidi Whitman’s Covid series elicits dark thoughts.

Pamela Allara: The works in Heidi Whitman’s Tracking Series (2020) are maps that undercut (literally) what we expect maps to be. Their grids are not regular and do not allow us to mentally trace movement through urban space in a systematic way. The shadows the paper constructions cast when mounted at a distance from the wall confuse matters further. The mixed media constructions promise rational and coherent information, and although that promise appears broken initially, in the end a coherence born of matter and mind does emerge.

The series began as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and this contemporary plague, like those in previous centuries, is especially acute in cities, where people live in close quarters. Most of the artwork responding to the pandemic to date has been representational, often portraiture of the frontline health workers. This emphasis on the heroic efforts of medical professionals is true as well of the masterpieces of the genre, such as Albert Camus’ The Plague, in which Dr. Rieux, a medical doctor attending to the stricken determines to write a chronicle that “should bear witness in favor of those plague-stricken people; so that some memorial of the injustice and outrage done them might endure; and to state quite simply what we learn in times of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in men than to despise.” Unfortunately, given the lack of leadership that has to unnecessary deaths in this country, we look to our President and see more to despise than to admire, despite the enormous efforts of the medical community. One wonders if a suitable memorial to the human cost of the pandemic in the U.S. can ever be created.

Whitman’s work does not attempt to deal with the magnitude of the loss of life due to the pandemic, but relates more directly to the experience of those who have avoided illness, and who daily try to mentally map whether its threat is approaching or receding, a challenge when accurate tracking information is lacking. In The Plague, Dr. Rieux goes from house to house in Paris, and so the novel maps his physical travels in terms of how successful he able to be in combatting the disease. Instead, the broken, fragile grids in Whitman’s Tracking Series speak to a communal system that is breaking down, a once-vibrant urban space that is now a shadow of its former self. Even the blocks of colored rectangles suggestive of urban architecture seem haphazardly joined, as in Tracking (11).  It is hardly surprising that she has based the works on older as well as contemporary maps, as the sense of destruction casts these constructions into the past tense.

But as she makes clear, these are also mental maps. As communal life recedes and we are confined to our homes—and her grids are also cages-- the ability to think coherently also recedes. When we articulate our thoughts to someone else, their response leads to affirmation or qualification. Without such acknowledgement, private thoughts just wander. In Tracking (4), a flag-like shape flutters from a grid affixed to a map of the world, its red, circular patterning suggesting both the encroaching virus and spinning thoughts. In this work, Antarctica is painted red; the virus has infected even this frozen, barren section of the earth, something almost unthinkable.

And yet these constructions, with all of their intimations of death and destruction, remain lively and energetic. The complex shapes seem to dance across the walls. Much may be lost but a new coherence of both mind and matter promises to emerge.

Mark Auslander:   Epidemics and pandemics occasion remarkable experiences of time travel, opening up slipstreams in the experiences of history and memory. Nearly forgotten stories and texts of plague years suddenly become deeply relevant and infinitely absorbing. States of anxiety and dread, which had been largely banished from our clean, well lighted spaces, are once again strangely familiar. Each step we take and breath we draw is now guarded: is this moment when contagion will strike? When do I reach out to help, when do I avert my eyes?

For at least 5,000 years, the history of cities and epidemics have been deeply intertwined. Population density, plentiful livestock in close proximity to people, reliance on limited water sources, challenges of sanitation, the frequent arrival of outsiders, and many other factors have long intensified risk factors in urban areas. Cities are often shaped by plagues; civil lines and elite quarters were often built on higher ground, away it was thought from noxious miasmas in low lying areas. Wide boulevards and open squares were imposed to break up dense quarters that were thought to breed disease, as well as revolution.  Cities are places of magnificent individual and collective dreams, of joy and wonder, as well as lurking danger, and moment of crisis, especially pathogenic, may open up unexpected channels between moments of time.  

This general tendency is brilliantly explored in Vincent Ward’s 1988 film, The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey.  Seeking relief from the Black Death of mid 14th century Cumbria, a group of villagers dig through the earth and emerge in Christ Church, New Zealand, hoping to erect a cross upon the famous cathedral spire. They find themselves surrounded by shadowy hints of the HIV/AIDS plague, one plague opening up a tunnel, in effect, to another.

Heidi Whitman’s Tracking Series plays with this partial interchangeability (or perhaps transposability) of cities in crisis. Her various intricate assemblages of urban maps, casting evocative shadows on the surface below, could in principle be lifted up and set down elsewhere, their rather chaotic overlaps equally attuned to multiple urban spaces. Aspects of cholera-plagued London of 1854 could be extracted and slotted into any world city of 2020. The specific contours of each city at each moment of history are of course different, but the general apprehension of a shadowy underworld, that there is something lurking underneath any great city, incipient danger that cannot be fully named or contained, endures. This shared uncanny experience of lurking darkness, whether it is understood as miasma or rogue RNA,endures across the centuries, and is called back into being with each mass disease flare up.

In N.K. Jemisin’s fantastical short story  “The City Born Great” ( in her new collection, How Long ’Til Black Future Month) we meet avatars of the world’s great cities, who defend each metropolis against the lurking darkness that threatens it, a condensation were given to understand of the collective intolerance that writhes in rage against the cosmopolitan energy and diversity of the urban.  Each city sends forth an emissary to find a street waif in an endangered city, fostering in her or him the passionate artistry and intensity that the city needs to do battle with the forces of darkness. 

I read Whitman’s paper assemblages as something comparable. They are distillations of a specific city at a specifiable moment (such as London in 1854) yet they can be  slotted into other cities, now and in the future, as they dance their eternal dance, of creativity, death, and rebirth.  The spirit of John Snow’s scientific mapping of contagion emanating from single water pump must travel to other times and places, especially to our current moment, when science and rationality are so deeply under siege.  So too must the spirit of endless creativity and recombination, the soul of any great city, be summoned up and spread, as a kind of vaccinating anti-virus, from city to city across the great arc of time.

Monday, July 13, 2020

Ex Unitate Vires: Paul Emmanuel

Paul Emmanuel
Ex Unitate Vires
Original drawing, hand incised, perforated carbon paper, carbon residue
63 x 73cm

Overview;  An image of the artist’s body, from neck to lower abdomen, is inscribed on black carbon paper. Over the figure’s center chest is inscribed the old seal of the Union of South Africa (and later the Republic of South Africa) with its Latin motto: “Ex Unitate Vires”  (Union is Strength).  Heraldic floral components from the old seal are reproduced across the figure, which is primarily rendered in a light shade, with the exception of the figure’s left arm and flank, which are much darker, close to the pigment of the original carbon paper. The field surrounding the body is nearly white, punctuated  or perforated by tiny dots of black.

Artist’s Statement:  Carbon paper is obsolete. As a material, it speaks to me. Like making carbon copies by using carbon paper, the older generation is perceived to have little remaining validity in our present digital age.

In 2015, I found the last roll of black carbon paper ever produced in this country, as a limited demand for this product remains. I experimented on the carbon paper by scratching an image onto it to see if the technique worked, practically, creatively and conceptually. The carbon paper was left unrecognisable, looking like a delicate piece of fabric.

I began to experiment with creating images of my own body emblazoned with 'shadows' – both in the form of an imposed inherited system of uniform (eg. a school blazer) and contemporary consumer brands influenced by consumer marketing. I became aware of how many of the brands people choose to wear, for added perceived value and status, are based on the plant and animal motifs of the heraldry that was used to decorate the victorious, eg. the laurel leaves of the Olympic Games and throughout history in war.

Ex Unitate Vires (literally "from Unity, Strength") is a Latin phrase formerly used as the national motto of the coat of arms granted to the Union of South Africa by King George V. Ex Unitate Vires was originally translated as "Union is Strength" but was later revised in 1961 to mean "Unity is Strength".

This artwork will be featured in the solo exhibition Paul Emmanuel: Substance of Shadows at The University of Johannesburg Art Gallery in 2021.

Coat of Arts of South Africa, 1932-2000

Pamela Allara: We depend on artists to make us examine what we routinely overlook, and Paul Emmanuel’s “Ex Unitate Vires” asks us to ponder the former seal of the Union of South Africa, an emblem in use from 1910-2000.I think one can assume that among the general populace of any country, interest in and knowledge of its official seals is relatively low. However, when Emmanuel emblazons the seal on his naked torso in an image painstakingly scratched from carbon paper, attention is demanded. The seal’s imagery does feel relatively straightforward: after all, one would anticipate the use of South African wildlife: in this instance, a springbok and an antelope hold up the escutcheon, above which is perched a lion holding four bars representing the four original provinces of South Africa. But Emmanuel has chosen the ‘embellished’ 1932 version, with flowering plants sprouting on either side of the lion. And these flowering forms in turn, appear to have blown across the rest of the artist’s body, like scattered flowers on a gravesite. Both the seal and the flowers become memorials to a past, that as we know, is never past.

Motivated by Emmanuel’s art, I took the trouble to look up the seal of the United States. It was designed and adopted 128 years before South Africa’s: in 1782. But its motto is much the same: “E Pluribus Unum” and of course it bears our national animal: the eagle. Boring so far, but what is truly interesting that our seal is officially called “The Great Seal of the United States.” The seal was meant to indicate the nation’s greatness from its founding. That insistence on inflating the name of the seal may be the unfortunate historical precedent for the use of “Great’ at present to refer to a mythological past an ignorant leader vows to restore.

Mark Auslander:  In two previous major works created through carbon paper, Veil 1954 and carbon dad 2017, Paul Emmanuel deployed this archaic technology of replication to explore the mysteries of biological and psychological reproduction, especially in reference to deceased parents: what traces do children bear of  their mothers and father, and how do we attach and detach ourselves from their continuous absence presences?  What in turn is being reproduced in Ex Unitate Vires, probing the enduring legacies of a largely forgotten defunct national seal and motto, and what weight does that shadowy reproduction have upon the national psyche left in its wake?

One point of departure is Franz Kafka’s 1919 short story "In the Penal Colony" ("In der Strafkolonie”). The tale centers on a horrific apparatus of execution which inscribes onto the body of the condemned the words of the commandment he has violated (which the prisoner may not even be conscious of violating). In principle, close to his death, the condemned man comes to “read” his crime through pain inflicted on his own skin, and thus dies having attained, in his final moment, the knowledge of his transgression impressed violently into his own flesh.

It is possible to read Paul Emmanuel’s assemblage Ex Unitate Vires in precisely these terms.  The previous South African regime continuously violated its own motto, "From Unity, Strength.”   As George VI is said to have remarked during his 1947 tour, shocked at indignities of racial segregation, upon seeing the coat of arms on a train table cloth, “Huh, not much bloody Unitate.”   

Following the South African War, the ostensible “Union” of South Africa in 1910, referenced the formal integration of the English-speaking and Africaans-speaking polities of the region. But this “Unitate” masked a fundamental disunion, as the black majority was disenfranchised and saw more and more of their own land subject to white control. In that sense, the coloration of Emmanuel’s torso, figured as a rather archaic map, is  historically salient : the shoulders, chest, right arm and right side of the torso are covered in white, and a lesser  portion, primarily the left arm and left midriff, remain black.

Emmanuel’s body standing at attention can be seen as embodying generations of South African soldiers, of different races, sent into battle in Europe, southwest Africa, and in the townships on behalf of the national project.  The work could equally be read as rendering visible systematic violence perpetrated by Apartheid-era security forces on actual bodies (primarily, but not only, black)l in the name of the principles of Unity and (masculine) Strength, through which thousands of persons were quite literally consigned to the shadows. (Although this may not be an explicit reference to Emmanuel’s carbon paper-based work, I am  reminded of Paul Stopforth’s stunning Steve Biko series, especially his 1980 “Elegy,  in which a finely worked graphite surface renders hauntingly beautiful the circulated autopsy images of the martyred Black Consciousness leader.)

In  Ex Unitate Vires, the artist can be seen as intentionally subjecting himself to a latter-day version of Kafka’s penal apparatus of needle sharp writing, in an act that may hover somewhere between atonement and acknowledgement. Inscribed on his torso is precisely the commandment that the nation violated, both in the time of the Union and under the Republic prior to 1994. “Unity” was more observed in the breach for at least eight decades, and, one might argue, has been more of an aspiration than an achievement in the nation during the quarter century since the first democratic elections of 1994.

As the current Covid-19 pandemic and the associated Lockdown makes abundantly and painfully clear, the great majority of the nation’s populace, nearly all low-income people of color, continue to endure conditions of enormous privation and vulnerability. In contrast to the relative islands of (primarily white) class privilege, inhabited by those who are able to work remotely and limit their exposure to the novel coronavirus, those in the townships, temporary locations, and isolated rural areas by and large have little freedom to observe social distancing protocols, and have highly limited access to the soap, running water, and personal protective equipment mandated by public safety campaigns.  The national community may confront a common enemy in SARS-CoV-2, but there remains preciously little “unitate” in how these dangers are experienced on the ground.

(Although Emmanuel began work on this complex, painstaking work well before the current pandemic, the proliferating heraldic devices scattered across the mapped body through our current eyes may take on the spectral apparition of the virus itself, endlessly proliferating and spreading through the landscape.)

As in The Lost Men, Paul Emmanuel lends his own body as a dynamic canvas onto which are impressed the inescapable lessons of the past. Here, like the Officer in Kafka’s horrific tale of bureaucratic discipline, the artist intentionally enters into the apparatus of History, onto which the violated commandment of unity is inscribed directly over the heart of the body politic.

Having said that, the work could also be read as evoking subtly, the post 2000 national motto "ǃke e꞉ ǀxarra ǁke" (ǀXam: Unity Through Diversity”.  There are many ironies to the new postcolonial motto, not least that given the extinct status of this specific Khoisan language, it is unclear if this phrase would have been considered idiomatic or grammatically correct by the language’s vanished indigenous speakers.  The phrase, as noble as it is, remains in a sense unknowably embedded in an ancient landscape that long proceeded the imposition of European rule and demarcations. Radiating out from the formally designed Coat of Arms over the torso’s heart, the constituent floral elements of the seal gradually dissolve, like blossoms blowing across the landscape, growing ever fainter as they reach the most blackened (indigenous?) expanses of the body’s extremities.  It may be that the  springbok, gemsbok, and lion, confined for nearly a century within the baroque confines of the Coat of Arms’ heraldic conventions, are themselves breaking free and leaping across an unconstrained landscape.

Perhaps that is what is being recovered through Emmanual’s nearly magical form of automatic writing, reproducing that which we have so long been unable to see. We glimpse a return of that which was long effaced by colonial schemas of representation and signification, apprehending the resurgence of other ways of knowing, which the land, and the body, still retain sensible access to, against all odds, across the layered sheafs of time.

Ellen Schastschneider: In this work, Paul Emmanuel continues his nuanced exploration of the contradictions and vulnerabilities of masculinity. The headless torso has phallic attributes, a logic reinforced by the male lion and the upstanding springbok and gemsbok antelopes, consistent with the emphasis in classical heraldry on masculine prowess.  Yet the absence of a head at the top and the cut-off of the figure just above the groin might suggest the risk of castration or of diminished virility and strength (the "Vires" of the title.) It may be that the absent head is refracted in the abdominal region of the torso as a miniature face: the navel or belly button could be read as an eye, embedded in a face in profile facing to the right.  If so, it may be significant that this solitary "eye" is formed by the enduring trace of the umbilical cord that bound this male being to his mother: the seat of knowledge of the world is inextricably bound up with the feminine principle.

As it happens, the oldest device in the upper left quadrant of the shield or escutcheon, held aloft by the standing horned antelopes, is the Maiden or Lady of Hope grasping an anchor, a symbol of the Cape Colony dating back to 1715. (The older term, the Cape of Storms, had been replaced with the more attractive phrase, "Cape of Good Hope," with the expectation of drawing more settlers to the region.) The anchor is an ancient Christian symbol of hope, dating  back to the Roman era of persecution and hidden worship; it evokes both the crucifix, and, it is sometimes said, the female-coded crescent moon, implying the sanctuary of a nurturing safe harbor in a storm-tossed world.  Emmanuel may well find it appropriate that at the heart of this hyper-masculine device, long associated with martial violence, conquest, and domination, are found evocations of the divine feminine.

Indeed, the overall composition of the work shares some features with the Chinese taijitu or "yin-yang' symbol, the two interlocking spirals that evoke the dynamic, unified duality of existence, including the interdependent and interpenetrating aspects of maleness and femaleness, each opposite force present in the heart of the other.

At the conclusion of The Great War and Modern Memory (1975), Paul Fussell characterizes his work of literary and cultural criticism as excavating "our buried lives." Paul Emmanuel, in his own registers, is committed to comparable works of excavation, in which his own body, or the bodies of those he loves, figure as canvas, multilayered landscape, and even, as Pam suggests, a kind of living graveyard.  In The Lost Men France,  as noted above, Emmanuel physically pressed the rediscovered written names of soldiers of the Great War into his flesh, embodying their distant absent presence as a way of honoring and recovering their enduring, dimly apprehended legacies in our present world.  In Ex Unitate Vires, he carefully excavates his own bodily image, refracted on the delicate shroud-like surface of carbon paper.  In so doing he reveals, tattooed over the body's heart, the now defunct national signifier of state-sponsored masculinity, the Coat of Arms.  Digging deeper, he takes us traveling into a realm where the old certainties, predicated on the triumph of patriarchal, heteronormative whiteness over its antitheses,  dissolve and fluidly recombine. Out of a mythic "unity" that long denied sexual, gender and racial diversities, a newer and deeper unity is being unearthed from our buried lives, and, at long last, is ready to be born on the turbulent surface of the national body.


Paul Fussell, 1975.  The Great War and Modern Memory. Oxford University Press. 

Sunday, July 12, 2020

Ghosts of the ordinary: Kerry-Leigh Cawrse

Kerry-Leigh Cawrse
Ghosts of the ordinary
Black and White photography
TLC Student Collection
(South Africa, 2020)

Overview: A triptych of three black and white photographs of abandoned building in Johannesburg, South Africa, Left and middle images both show interiors wall meeting; right image shows a tower jutting up in the sky. (There are other images in the series, not shown here).

Artist's Statement: “Ghost of the ordinary” I feel as if this series resonates with the notions of isolation and the tribulations we as a society face today. Each photograph depicts the ghost of the people who previously lived there, their particular taste and lifestyle. As we move out of lockdown, I notice a society craving human interaction. We have adapted to a new normal. Touching, embracing
and gathering is a thing of the past, a mere ghost of the pasts ordinary. I feel as if these
images provide a new outlook on isolation and of what once was. 

Pam Allara: The life cycle of a building has parallels with the human life cycle. When it is being constructed, it is exciting to see not only its form but also its function take shape. Of course, the final product, just like that of offspring, does not always meet expectations, and can be disappointing. Nonetheless, any  new addition to the cultural landscape finds is uses over time, and by association these functions can also elicit fondness for the structure. However, the building will inevitably grow old, outliving its function and likely losing its structural stability in the process. At that point, it will be dismantled, and its ‘body parts’ trucked off to a  landfill.

The black and white photographs in Kerry-Leigh Cawrse’s “Ghost of the Ordinary” series captures buildings around Johannesburg in the last stage of the process: the dismantling. It is unclear whether this is purposeful, or if the buildings have simply been abandoned and are crumbling on their own. As abstract compositions, they are handsome. We look up from ‘street level’ at an interesting interplay of vertical and horizontal lines and rectangles. Her care with the composition honors what once was: that they were once well-designed and functioning edifices. Cawrse’s choice of black and white rather than color photography is further indication that we are looking at the building’s past life.

The enjoyment of these well-made images is soon replaced by the recognition that the structures themselves are in poor condition. Clearly abandoned, they will not be renovated or rebuilt; their future is to collapse, either intentionally or through neglect. In this suspended state between ‘life and death’ it is inevitable to look at the architectural elements and wonder about their previous functions. A kitchen in one, a tall tower in another provide  hints of  former functions. For the artist, they evoke “the ghosts of people who previously lived there.” Isolated and derelict, the vulnerable buildings are thus a metaphor for the deaths caused by the coronavirus pandemic, which has certainly led in some cases to former homes being abandoned. Structures don’t immediately return to some neutral state once their occupants have left. There is an aura that remains, even though we have no way of knowing “what once was.” These images speak to loss and death, and so become monuments to mourning.

 Mark Auslander:In an intriguing corrective to Pierre Bourdieu's  characterizations of body-house-cultue formal homologies, anthropologist Thomas Beidelman observed that it is through our houses and our bodies that we come to know, or at least glimpse, the most elusive aspects of our social and cultural world. As our world moves into a a puzzling successor state, still in the midst of becoming something beyond the pandemic, abandoned homes may be the fitting 'royal road' into glimpsing our elusive present and almost future moment.

In the initial triptych of the series, the artist photographs abandoned houses in stark black and white, spaces haunted by those who once dwelled within them, silent monuments to a lost world of social proximity that has not quite yet been replaced by a new order of things. Each of the three images is centered on prominent diagonal forms, a shadow in the left, and jutting beams in the center and right frames. One senses the distant traces of an arm held out, seeking another, alas without any hope of a reciprocated gesture of acknowledgement. Cowrie’s ghosts, one suspects, are not only the former inhabitants of these decaying structures, but the specters of our recent selves, who hold the body memories of touch and closeness which now must discipline ourselves every day to avoid. It is up to all of us to rebuild a new social world on the ruins of the old, balancing the need for health with the imperatives of retaining and refashioning that which makes us human.

Re-form XI: Lehlogonolo Mashaba

Lehlogonolo Mashaba
Re-form XI
Video: time lapse recording the creation by the arist of a drawing, with choral music

See video here (1:18)

Overview: Part of the University of Johannesburg's interdisciplinary Pandemic Project. A short time lapse video of artist  Lehlogonolo Mashaba creating a drawing of a semi transparent multi colored figure, accompanied by the UJ Choir's arrangement of the traditional song Kgore in seTswana, a song of greeting to a king.  The realized image is a human figure, probably male, facing front, with arms held  loosely to side, visible from thighs to head.

Geometric shapes are visible within the figure, and are lightly repeated in the surrounding field.  The face is slightly distorted, with cubist elements, and the upper reaches of the head have crystalline qualities pointed up, culminating in an upper spike. Bristling lines emenate from the figure's shoulders and other appendages.

Artist's Statement:  Re-form XI, looks at the mysteries and complexities surrounding the origins, and ultimately the meaning, of life.

Mashaba takes a closer look at the cycle of life during the pandemic, at the uncertainties of things beyond our understanding, and experiences an appreciation of the essence of life itself. His work addresses the idea of duality and the need for polarities to coexist simultaneously. At a time when we will be tested the most, Mashaba sees this idea of end and beginning, of push and pull, to be a highly potent topic.

Re-form XI consists of a lone figure that fades and distorts itself over a period of time, taking the shape of a translucent human form. Mashaba’s work takes inspiration from nature, geography and biology as well as giving the human figure an element of technological augmentation. The mark making depicts traces of mystical energies, of fragmented bodies in a state of integration or disintegration in non-objective form.

Kgore is a Setswana greeting song to a king. The villagers are looking forward to sunrise to go greet the king, so they call on the morning bird to summon the morning in order for them to go greet the king. Kgore mpuelele ho ye, ke bitsa phakela Ke fithle ke re Kgosi dumela ihele! Ah hele! Utlwang kwa lesunyaneng Trasnlation: Morning bird, speak on my behalf, I call morning! So I can go and greet the king! Listen and hear the birds call from the mountains!

Pamela Allara:  Like many of  Lehogonolo Mashaba’s works, the drawing Re-form XI presents us with a solitary standing figure, recognizably human but at the same time alien. At first it may seem like a creature from another planet, but upon inspection it appears to be instead a depiction not of a physical body, but rather of the external and internal forces that constantly form and re-form it. So numerous are these sharp angular elements that invade and explode from the figure, that the body and especially the head seem to be rapidly transforming into a robot controlled by electronic impulses, its warm red flesh tones yielding to the metallic blue of a manufactured object. However, for Mashaba, the active marks are indicative of not just of technological but of mystical energies. This isolated figure ironically is evidence that we are not separate individuals, but are the products of biological and cultural processes that constantly re-shape and re-form how we perceive ourselves over time. The diagrammatic shapes spinning off from the figure suggest that Mashaba considers digital technologies to be the most powerful forces reconfiguring our concept of the human at present, but the beautiful Tswana song that plays in the video of Mashaba creating the drawing leaves room for the spiritual. In the time of pandemic, we all feel threatened by forces beyond our control, which will have lingering effects on our personal and collective identities once it passes. Mashaba confronts us with these unknown, inevitable and uncontrollable changes and asks them to face them now.

Mark Auslander:  "Re-form XI" may be approached both as a still image, or as the time lapse video work of the same title, showing Mashaba creating the drawing on paper, as the recorded UJ Choir performance of the Tswana traditional song "Kgore" plays in the background.  Like many of Mashaba's work, this figure is semi transparent, partly dissolving or extending into the background, a visual manifestation of the artist's commitment to principles of deep interconnectedness, sometimes termed "Ubuntu," in which persons exist not as discrete, individuated islands, but in dynamic sociala and spiritual reciprocal connections to other persons.

The image would seem to be inspired  in part by the fantasy figure of Groot, a sentient tree-like superhero creature,  celebrated in the Guardians of the Galaxy film. (The figure in comic book form dates back to 1960).  The arboreal imagery may be significant in light of the profound importance of trees in the cosmology of both Sotho-Tswana and Nguni peoples in southern Africa, as active intermediaries with the life-giving ancestral shades. Trees, sources of healing medicines, are understood at times to be dwelling spaces of the shades, or as dynamic switchpoints between the linked domains of the Living and the Dead.  As Jean Comaroff notes in Body of Power (1985:89), wild trees in Tswana ritual sensibility concentrate the diffuse powers of the bush, on  overlapping frontiers between human settlements and distant spiritual realms, and medicines created from trea barks and roots direct these potent invisible forces into proximate human bodies and mortal projects, especially at times of existential crisis.   At our moment of viral plague, the artist may find it especially appropriate to invoke a tree like guardian figure to help heal imperiled humanity.

This symbolism may resonate with the artist's choice to have the Tswana traditional song Kgore, through which community members greet their sovereign, play in the background as this image is created before us in the video. Historically, the Batswana Kgosi (chief or king) is the prime mediator with the invisible realm of ancestors, bringing life giving rain and reproducing and disseminating the equilibrium of varied potent forces into the human-made realm.

The beautiful song, appealing to the morning bird for aid in bringing the dawn that will allow the royal subjects to awaken and greet their guardian sovereign, is thus a most fitting musical frame for the artist's calling into being of this striking figure, as if a guardian tree is growing in front of our eyes. The people, through singing, merge with the bird that heralds the  coming of light, calling into being each morning the intervening presence of the sovereign, who like this translucent, enigmatic figure helps bring light and hope into our troubled human world.

Saturday, July 11, 2020

TLC Student Collection Essays

Essays on the TLC Student Collection, by Pamela Allara and Mark Auslander

I. The TLC Student Collection: Overview

Pamela Allara

10 July 2020

Keneiloe-Mpho Mazibuko
“Comfort in Poverty, A Cinderella Story”

The Lockdown Collection’s third group, the Student Collection, was launched on June 23. Like its two predecessors, The Lockdown Collection and the Extension Collection, it consisted of 21 works of art that were posted consecutively. Unlike the previous unique works, however, the student works will be reproduced in a series of 10 limited edition prints each, which will be sold for modest prices. They will be reinterpreted as fine art prints later in the year. Proceeds from the sales will go to the Vulnerable Visual Artists Fund as well as to the student artist themselves, most of whom are studying either at Artist Proof Studio or at the University of Johannesburg.

The twenty-one artworks are evidence once again that South Africa is blessed with tremendous reserves of creative talent. “Student work” usually implies work that is hesitant, awkward, or not fully mature. The work here is assured, highly-competent, and moreover manages to avoid clichés. In addressing the pandemic, the themes of isolation and anxiety persist, as does that of courage and persistence. The motifs used to express those themes include, appropriately enough, single, isolated figures, often women. Keneiloe-Mpho Mazibuko’s mixed-media “Comfort in Poverty, A Cinderella Story” with an isolated mother lovingly binding her child to her, is a moving depiction of resilience.

 Somewhat unexpectedly, two works in the collection express the theme of isolation and loss through architecture. In “Ghost of the Ordinary,” by Kerry-Leigh Cawrse (BFA candidate, University of Johannesburg), abandoned, crumbling structures loom over the viewer: veritable towers of absence. On the other hand, in “Thresholds,” by Shalom Mushwana (BVA candidate, University of Johannesburg), the two-dimensional abstracted architectural shapes visually prevent our entrance, as we may not visit friends’ spaces during the lockdown.

Monwabisi Boyi
Claws of Contagious

Surprisingly, the coronavirus itself appears in relatively few works, but it makes a frightening appearance in Monwabisi  Boyi’s mixed-media “Claw of Contagious,” where multiple viruses surround an uprais\ed hand covered in a less-than-protective mask, a reminder that the virus can be spread through touch as well as breath. Our inability to touch each other, to comfort each other as Mazibuko’s mother does her child, is one of the most emotionally painful results of the pandemic.

The likely source of the pandemic, the pangolin mammal, surfaces in the Student collection for the first time since its appearance in Thabiso Mohlakoana’s “Ardmore Pangolin Ceramic bowl” and Diane Victor’s smoke drawing “Eating One’s Own Tail--Pangolin” in the initial TLC. The clay and wax ‘vase,’ “Pandora’s Pandemic,,” by Jackie Naidoo (visual art student, University of Johannesburg) has a torso-like shape that is surrounded by pangolins, as well as the gruesome visages of the pandemic’s victims. The infected mammal has unleashed a Pandora’s box of life-threatening illness.

Another motif we might expect to see is that of the essential front-line worker. Thabo Skhosana (a graduate of Artist Proof Studio) avoids the single, heroic portrait that can be found in the initial TLC collection, and instead reminds us that addressing the pandemic requires the efforts of people from all walks of life. His watercolor, “The War Against the Invisible Enemy” includes a member of the military and the police in addition to a nurse, all of whom charge downhill together to battle the pandemic, each person a warrior in a collective army.

One would think that given the breadth of the first two collections, there would be little new left for young artists to say. But the artworks in the Student collection are truly individual interpretations of and imaginative responses to the coronavirus pandemic.  They should provide inspiration to the artists who will submit work to the following Open Call.

II. “The Thing with Feathers:”  Across Shadows and Light in The TLC Student Collection
Mark Auslander

10 July 2020

While grappling with themes brought to the fore by over forty established artists showcased in the initial run of The Lockdown Collection (TLC) and the TLC Extension Collection, the twenty-one younger artists of the Student Collection strike out, in important ways, into new, unexplored territories.

Interior Landscapes: Locked within One’s Mind

Shalom Mushwana
The challenges of social isolation, giving birth to endless rounds of disquieting internal dialogue, are prominent in many of these works. Shalom Mushwana's Thresholds interrogates the wall and door of the artist’s room, to which he has been largely confined for much of the Lockdown. He plays a kind of game with himself,  writing the word “value,” repetitively across the wall. His mind explores the play on words; where precisely rests economic value in our current moment of crisis, when we can buy and sell so little, and what values guide us as we pursue our lives under these radically constrained circumstances?  The chamber becomes a metaphor for the artist’s own interior mental state under Lockdown, as his thoughts return again and again to the same basic puzzle, from which there seems to be no obvious exit.

Cinthia Sifa Binene
Être Femme (To be a Woman)
A rather different room is envisioned in Cinthia Sifa Binene’s “Etre Femme” (To be a Woman).  Her mind returns to the small dwelling space she and her family occupied when she first arrived as a child in South Africa for DRC, where she began to decode gender and sexuality through images glimpsed on television. Two women gaze into mirrors, pondering the nature of beauty, desire, race, and self-worth under conditions of racial and gendered hierarchy. A lighter skinned woman, in a 19th century Belle Epoque bustle dress, contemplates her visage (reflected back with what seem to be more African features)  in a dresser under the watchful eye of a male portrait bust, perhaps evocative of the ever present patriarchal gaze  A much darker skinned woman contemplates herself in a hand mirror; she may be more comfortable in her own blackness, but the imposed image of a cow on her midriff perhaps signals that as a woman she remains confined by a system that still often reckons female worth in terms of lobola marriage payments. Whatever the precise meanings at play, the work highlights the internal psychic drama and self questioning that unfold under Lockdown conditions, as we go traveling within the palace of our memories.

Lungile Mbelle
Conversations with Myself
Lungile Mbelle’s Conversations with Myself
, in turn, highlights the painful, even anguished interior mindscapes of the crisis. Two disembodied self-portrait heads of the artist face one another. The left head has eyes blinded by newspaper reports and seems to scream; the right one has open eyes but refrains from speech. All of us long for the life-affirming joys of exchange and reciprocity with others, which are so highly restricted under Lockdown, but the loss of such mutuality is especially painful for young adults, who largely come to figure out in their teens and twenties who they are  through the constant traffic of social interaction with peers. Pictographs of sun and moon, which under other circumstances would evoke complementary interdependence, hover around Mbelle’s two heads, as if to remind us how difficult psychic integration is to achieve under conditions of confinement, when we can give and receive so little to and from other persons.

Ralarno Coutts
Ralarno Coutts’ Untitled,
in turn, shows a youthful figure pursuing the solitary pleasures of drinking and smoking, now largely prohibited to the great majority under governmental restrictions. A 4th year student at UJ, much of his work engages with issues of “invisible identity” in reference to his own mixed race or “Coloured community.”  As in this work, he tends to blur or obscure the faces of those who act in a stereotyped manner.  During the pandemic and Lockdown, so much energy and thought must be directed in low income households, to attaining the material essentials of survival that even zoning out has become a scarce resource. 

The travels of the confined mind are chronicled in quite different register in Jesse Shepstone’s artist’s book “As many as cars.” While stuck at home, the artist photographs 500 cars speeding by (ostensibly on essential errands, although one suspects this is often not the case!)  Automobiles are endlessly evocative“vehicles” of memory, summoning up reminiscences of times past and paths not taken. This collection of cars whizzing by. taken from the vantage point of confinement, thus takes us on a kind of journey through the artist’s own mind, darting hither and fro, highlighting the contrast between the physical reality of stasis and the mind’s endless capacity to heed the siren song of the open road.

Kerry-Leigh Cawrse
Ghost of the Ordinary
This dialectic between the internal and external landscapes of isolation and desire is further explored in Kerry-Leigh Cawrse’s “Ghost of the Ordinary;” The artist photographs abandoned houses in stark black and white, spaces haunted by those who once dwelled in them, silent monuments to a lost world of social proximity. Each of the three images is centered on prominent diagonal forms, a shadow in the left, and jutting beams in the center and right frames. One senses the distant traces of an arm held out, seeking another, alas without any hope of a reciprocated gesture of acknowledgement. Cowrie’s ghosts, one suspects, are not only the former inhabitants of these decaying structures, but the specters of our recent selves, who hold the body memories of touch and closeness which now must discipline ourselves every day to avoid. It is up to all of us to rebuild a new social world on the ruins of the old, balancing the need for health with the imperatives of retaining and refashioning that which makes us human.

Michael Vickers
Internalized: Wilderness Series
In a comparable vein, Michael Vickers’s “internalized: Wilderness Series, presents the Lockdown period as a liminal space, betwixt and between conventional times and places. Like the Israelites wandering in the desert for 40 years, we are being remade through this passage, in ways we cannot yet fully imagine or understand, Vickers’ landscape may evoke the No Man’s Lands of World War One, muddied fields of death and desperation between trenches. Yet from this darkened wild land, an evident projection of the artist’s own mind, emerge outlined self-portraits of the artist, one gazing skyward. We do not quite know what awaits, but we have seen, or are just about to see, the Promised Land.

A different internal mental journey through our strange time is presented in Thulani Gancka’s Dark or Blue. A pensive woman makes her way through a cityscape that seems to be the projection of her own interior thoughts. We see the in the middle foreground foliage and a township and the background the skyline of central Johannesburg, a site of dreams for so many millions. Here an interesting parallel to Vickers: the Hillbrow Tower, symbol of the city, which seems to touch the sky. Like Vicker’s upturned head etched in the sky the spire evokes the subject’s longing for the Infinite, unconstrained by current circumstances here on the ground we trod.

Gancka’s dignified woman may be pregnant, mindful of the challenges faced by the life yet to come during this time of unparalleled biological and medical crisis. To her left we see a strange floating shape perhaps evocative of dividing cells within the womb, or the replicating spread of the viral pathogen.  Our overall impression is of quiet determination, as she makes her way within the looming metropolis, ready to face whatever dangers lie ahed.

Keneiloe-Mpho Mazibuko’s “Comfort in Poverty: A Cinderella Story,” also presents a woman of color, now tenderly holding her infant child, with whom she exchanges a loving glance. There may be traces of the classic motif of Madonna and Child, for this is certainly a time when millions are being told there is no room at the inn. Under Lockdown, for some unfathomable reason, children are prohibited from being brought into township stories, posing impossible burdens on impoverished parents and caregivers. Even a few precious moments outdoors, which every parent and child should be allowed to cherish, is forbidden. Mother and child are bound together by bright cloth and their shared gaze, but even those bonds might be sundered at any moment: they are in that sense evocative of the entire predicament of the South African poor, whose basic connections with one another tremble on the brink.

An alternate, rather comic view of the isolation of our moment is presented in  Rhengu Keith Maluleke’s “On It,” A young masked woman, clothed only in the papers of a school science and technology textbook, sits demurely on a toilet. Her hair is wrapped in curlers made of toilet tissue rolls, a scarce commodity under the present supply chain blockages. Presumably, the textbook pages provides alternate means of self cleaning under these difficult circumstances.  (The title might playfully suggest as well the improvisational ingenuity called for at the current challenging moment: “I’m on it.” ) The image can certainly be read as voyeuristic, which may be precisely the point: during Lockdown, when social interaction is so limited, one’s primary companions may well be those fantasized about in private (especially, it would appear, when on the privy!)

Frans Thoka
Malapa Ga A Lekane

Toilet paper also features in a more desperate vision of the current situation, in Frans Thoka’s “Malapa Ga A Lekane” (sePedi: Families are not of equal status). On a prison blanket, redolent of the precarious conditions of confinement during Lockdown, the title phase is written on a chalkboard, in front of a toilet paper roll mounted like a trophy, a critique of those who selfishly hoard such an essential commodity during hard times.

Another folded-in vision of separation and anxiety confronts us in Monwabisi Boyi’s The Claw of Contagious. A large hand, which we are so often admonished is a dangerous vector of contagion, is wearing a mask, which in principle should offer protection, although the dangers of the lurking virus fill the entire visual field. Our own hand,  which ought to be our instrument of joyous, productive self-extension into the world, is now turned against us during the crisis, becoming a claw that confronts us. We see no trace of a face, no promise of kindness, only signs of prohibition: no drinking, no smoking.  Our own hand is masked, but how can we protect ourselves from our own limb? We are truly on our own.

Angelique Bougaard
 Covid Warrior.
A rather different, solitary hand is explored in Angelique Bougaard’s graceful Covid Warrior.  A sculpted left hand, made of soap and blood, lightly touches the handle of a metal pail, filled with water. We are reminded of the millions who lack indoor plumbing and access to soap and clean water, the frontline defenses against the novel coronavirus. The work celebrates the uncompensated labor of millions of African women, who carry water and perform so many other vital households for the domestic tasks, often under conditions of great risk and isolation, all of which have been exponentially increased by the pandemic. Bougaard beautifully evokes the aesthetics of everyday life in townships and rural areas, in which even the basic tasks of lifting or setting down a bucket of life-giving water are infused with a deep sense of restrained balance and the cultural principles of respect, caring, and dignity.  Her ethereal hand arcs over the precious pail of life-sustaining water, almost as if blessing it, or distilling its liquid essence into translucent form. In a land of great suffering, nobility of spirit endures, and unsung women laborers and worshipers continue to quench the parched bodies and souls of those in need.

Clement Mohale
Unprecedented Times

Perhaps the collection’s most heart-wrenching image of isolation is Clement Mohale’s Unprecedented Times. An emaciated young woman offers a capsule or pill to a man whose swollen spiked green head is that of the feared coronavirus. She may be proposing a cure or seeking to propitiate the faceless monster who does not return her gaze. Behind her looks on another male figure, whose head is a locked safe, a reminder of the implacable Lockdown. In the distance, we see the back of men, whose path is blocked by a sign warning of Covid-19.  Once again, the most basic foundations of social life, the exchange of looks and of kindness, are closed off to the subject, who bravely puts out a hand to an alien being, knowing that her gesture may never be reciprocated.

Moving Up, Moving On

None of these 21 artists entirely give into despair. Many exhibit a quiet optimism, even a sense of humor, infused with a sober awareness of the stony road ahead. Jason Langa’s Umbila, like  Thulani Gancka’s Dark or Blue, shows a solitary woman, albeit one who is broadly smiling, refusing to be beaten down by the crisis. Although the title evokes the produce (“mealies” or maize) which she ordinarily hawks in the Central Business District or the township, the metal bowl on her head is now filled with the essential commodities of our viral era, disinfectants, gloves, masks,and toilet paper. The resilience shown by African women on the Rand for well over a century, make their improvisatory way through the city, is proudly celebrated.

Khosi Kunene’s “19” directly confronts the current landscape of mass loss, referenced by an enormous skull emerging out of winding tree, free of foliage, with branches figured as outstretched arms. The uncanny shapes evokes the early modern Danse Macabre, reminder of the omnipresence of Death at times of plague. Yet, in the sprit of William Kentridge’s Shadow Procession and More Sweetly Plays the Dance, this is not a choreography only of suffering, but one filled with joy and energy, moving forward against all odds. The capacious skull is open at the back, showing a vibrant, active brain.  Here we see a young mind at play, waiting, as the artist writes in her accompanying poem, to help fill in the empty spaces of present time with the flowers of our imagination.

Samukelo Gqola
Culture Respecting President
Another  forward-facing procession is presented powerfully in Samukelo Gqola’s
Culture Respecting President. The struggle against Covid-19 is cast in terms of a Xhosa male initiation camp. Elders wearing masks escort two initiates, who are depicted as potent birds of prey, who brandish fighting sticks adorned with face masks. Perhaps the birds are far-seeing bateleur eagles (isiXhosa:  ingqanga), which can at time prophesies disaster and calamity, and which are famously celebrated as the stone birds of Great Zimbabwe.  “Culture” in this vision, encapsulated by initiation, becomes a vital partner in the national effort against the pandemic. As in Michael Vickers’ Wilderness Series, the current crisis is presented as a liminal zone, a place out of normal space and time, through which the initiates, like all of us, will emerge transformed, returning to the regular world, where everything is the same, and yet where everything is somehow different.

Optimism and wordplay also informs Tebogo Stephen Langa’s “We Went Viral”. A young man wearing a mask is seen in profile. Under the masked mouth we read a handwritten message, “We went viral around the world.”   South African artists, through the TLC and other projects, have spread their message internationally, going ‘viral’ in the positive sense.  The artist’s mouth may be obscured by the mask, but his words are still widely broadcast.

Tusevo Landu
Covid-19 Olympics
Tusevo Landu’s Covid-19 Olympics
, in turn, wryly portrays the global struggle against Covid-19 , including the rivalrous struggle for a vaccine, as an Olympic competition. Within the familiar five rings of the Olympic banner, we hold various scenes from the global crisis, including lists of dreadful statistics, injunctions to behave safely, and a young person’s body being wrapped in a body bag.  A snarling hyena seems to be a stand in for the disease, into which a syringe, perhaps containing the hoped for vaccine, is being injected. Presiding over the scene is a Kongo nkisi nkondi, a nail-studded power figure use in Central Africa ritual systems to enforce oath and promote righteous behavior, backed by the power of the ancestors themselves. The nkisi declares, both humorously and seriously (perhaps channeling Mr. T from the A Team) “Wear your mask, fool!”

Thabo Skhosana
War against the invisible enemy
A less jaundiced view of collective unity is presented in Thabo Skhosana’s “War against the invisible enemy". Drawing on the aesthetics of manga and anime, the artist presents the entire nation in a united front,  an army led by a young woman medical workers, flanked by an armored South African Police officer, a machine gun toting infantryman, and others, bravely traversing the fog of battle. As in the Avengers and other superhero dramas, the protagonists are melded in a virtual family, bound indissolubly to one another.

Cynics might note that the image is rather a fantasy. The actual experience of the pandemic and of the Lockdown, as so many of these artists have noted, is hardly co-equal for the great majority of South African impoverished communities of color, whose already marginal life struggles are rendered even more precarious by disease, hunger, and legal restrictions.  The police are more often experienced by the urban and rural power as agents of oppression, capriciously imposing Lockdown regulations on the less privileged. Yet this is nonetheless a delightful, exuberant fantasy that should be valued on its own terms: as for so many of the young artists, the Lockdown has given Skhosana’s mind a chance to revel in imagination, summoning up not simply the world as it is, but, through art, a world as it ought to be.

Jackie Naidoo
Pandora's Pandemic
Finally, I am captivated by Jackie Naidoo’s Pandora’s Pandemic, a modern rendition of the classical legend of Pandora’s Box. The structure is surrounded by pangolins, anomalous scaled mammals that are honored as vessels of divinity in many indigenous African societies.  As has been widely reported, pangolins may have served as transitional repositories for the SARS-CoV-2 virus, as it jumped. probably from bats, to its human hosts, picking up sequences of RNA that now help hijack human cells as the virus proliferates. The most trafficked mammals on the planet, pangolins are poignant reminders of the long legacy of environmental abuse, including deforestation and human intrusion into previously wild reserves, that may have released waves of viral contagion across species.

Pandora’s all too human curiousity, the legend remind us, launched all manner of horrors and plagues upon humankind. But one most important element remained within the box, hope itself, that which sustains us in our darkest hour. Naidoo’s compelling ceramic work glows from within, redolent both of the terrifying forge of the pandemic, but also of the inextinguishable flame of hope in our time of trial.  Gazing into her enigmatic column of energy, I find myself thinking of Emily Dickinson’s beloved lines,

“Hope” is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops - at all -

The TLC project was initiated on the evening the Lockdown began with William Kentridge’s founding gift, a flowering tree that posed the vital question of our era, “Where shall we place our hope?” This is perhaps the oldest of human interrogatives, hearkening back to the 121st psalm, “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.”  Our eyes lift up, but will succor ever come?  Where shall we place our hope? Now, through the pens, brushes, hands, camera lenses, and digital magic of these 21 remarkable young artists, we have a answer to Kentridge’s challenge. We do indeed have somewhere to place our hope: in the young artists of this new generation, who, amidst great suffering and loss, sing an incessant tune of creativity and courage—calling, against the odds, a new and better world into being.

Thursday, July 9, 2020

Covid Warrior: Angelique Bougaard

Angelique Bougaard
Covid warrior
Medium: Mixed Media Sculpture (Soap and blood) 9. 5cm x 9. 5cm x 14.5mm
(encased in glass box)
TLC Student Collection (South Africa, 2020)

Overview: Attached to the handle of a metal pail is a sculpture of a left hand, composed of soap and blood

Artist's Statement: During this time of struggle each person is a warrior in their own capacity, in remote villages and townships access to water and sanitation is limited and scarce. My artwork attempts to highlight this battle to attain water which assists to combat the virus and support basic needs. The hand is made from soap and blood which symbolically addresses the fight for survival and access to sanitation while recognising the power and strength of the people affected.

Mark Auslander: The complex symbolism of water has been a long-running fascination for social anthropologists of southern Africa, dating back at least to Mrs. Hoernlé's classic 1923 essay on the social value of water.  In Body of Power, Spirit of Resistance, Jean Comaroff unpacks the remarkable ritual capacities of water as a "universal solvent," in precolonial Tswana cosmology and in the religious practice of modern independent Zionism; water breaks down categorical oppositions embedded in all manner of elements (flesh/spirit, male/female, living/dead, past/future) and allows in ritual contexts for their creative recombination and integration at higher levels of experience.  In Revelation and Revolution, in turn,  Jean and John Comaroff explore early material and semiotic struggles over wells, irrigation, and rain calling rites in 19th century social fields, as Tswana leaders and British non conformist missionaries contested and negotiated power and agency on the rapidly changing South African frontier.  Water is life and water is spirit, but who controls the flows of water, and of spirit. is invariably a matter of the greatest political import.

In Angelique Bougaard's assemblage, an ethereal hand arcs over the precious pail of life-sustaining water, almost as if blessing it, or distilling its liquid essence into translucent form. In a land of great suffering, nobility of spirit endures, and unsung women laborers and worshipers continue to quench the parched bodies and souls of those in need.

Several other TLC featured artists have concentrated on the image of the hand, either gloved or ungloved, as an instrument of compassion and care or harbinger of encroaching infection, Bougaard's solitary left hand, gently grasping a water pail handle, evokes the labor of millions of people, primarily women, who carry water, often at great risk to themselves, daily in townships and rural communities that lack indoor plumbing. They are themselves essential workers, warriors in the artist's terms, even if they are rarely spoken of as such. Uncompensated or under-compensated women's labor remains at the foundation of African economies (and arguably all economies everywhere), and this vast reservoir of vital, yet undervalued, work is honored though the light-bathed hand, just about to lift up the burden of the life-giving liquid.

The deep inequality of the modern experience of Lockdown is emphasized by the carving of a hand out of soap and blood. Soap, necessary for the hand-washing that is the first line of defense against the virus. Blood, coughed out of the lungs by this dreaded pulmonary disease, which disproportionately impacts low income people of color.

Yet Bougaard does not confine herself to denouncing injustice. The floating hand, almost spectral, is oddly beautiful, an occasion of grace, as it hovers radiantly above the reflective surface of water. And this is entirely appropriate, for a remarkable feature of township worlds, in Zolani Ngwane's terms, is that everyday life is realized as an aesthetic project. There is a complex, elegant choreography to the basic labor processes on which life depends, the hauling of water and produce and charcoal, the preparation of food,  and the bathing in water of newborn infants and of the dead.

This hand is frozen in time, but it is not static; it is poised in a moment to resume its daily rounds, bringing water and all of the other necessities of life, spirit, and  love--even, especially, in our dessicated era.

Comaroff, Jean. 1985 Body of Power, Spirit of Resistance: The Culture and History of a South African People. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Comaroff, Jean and John. 1991. Of Revelation and Revolution. Volume 1. Christianity, Colonialism, and Consciousness in South Africa.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Hoernlé, Mrs. R.F.A. (July 1923). "The Expression of the Social Value of Water among the Naman of South-West Africa". South African Journal of Science. 20: 514–526

Covid-19 Olympics: Tusevo Landu

Tusevo Landu
Covid-19 Olympics
Charcoal mixed media on fabriano
TLC Student Collection (South Africa, 2020)

Overview: The five multi-colored  rings of the International Olympic Movement are arrayed over a grayish background filled with images of the novel coronavirus. Each ring contains figures or images evocative of the pandemic and lockdown, including a pointed hand ""Stay Home") a monstrous snarling beast being injected, huddled figures reading various pronouncements, and a figure clad in running shoes perhaps being wrapped in a body bag, The top center ring show Kongo power figurine or nkisi nkondi, into which nails have been ritually pounded. surrounded by statistics on worldwide cases and deaths from the pandemic. The figurine asks, "Where is your mask, fool?"

Artist's Statement: In this work, I express the impact of the Corona Virus in our lives, across the world, how the outbreak has become a global competition where nations are in search of the cure
or vaccine. I have used the Olympics symbol to globalise these concepts, to be more satirical about the year 2020. This year was supposed to be the year where the Olympics would take place, but we are witnessing the opposite. To me this seems so hilarious and pathetic because there are
people going through tremendous breakdowns during this lockdown; retrenchments are happening, mental illness playing a role as well, people have lost their loved ones and families are torn apart. What will happen post-pandemic?

Mark Auslander:  As John Macaloon (1984) notes in his study of the invention of the modern Olympic moment,  Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics, sought to distinguish between "patriotism", love of one's country, and "nationalism,"  that is to say adversarial opposition, including viole ce, aimed at other nations and peoples. The Olympics would celebrate the former, through flags and anthems and uniforms, and defuse and defang the latter. The past century has hardly demonstrated the triumph of love over hatred in the international arena,  but de Coubertin's dream still exercises a powerful shared vision for those who believe in the possibility of a common human and humane world, as powerfully imaged in the famous logo of the interlocking rings of humanity.

The Covid-19 crisis has united humanity in the sense of facing a common danger, although it has hardly led to the levels of international cooperation and humanitarian solidarity De Coubertin and his fellow Durkheimians might have hoped for. In many societies, the pandemic has elicited xenophobic responses; this week, the current US administration, seeking to detract for its staggering public health failures, has taken the previously unthinkable step towards withdrawing the US from the World Health Organization. Landus's image of the delayed 2020 Olympics calls into sharp relief both the promise and the failures of the long-cherished dream of global solidarity, as we all wonder if there will be a coordinated response in the search for a vaccine, or if we are facing a biomedical war of all against all.

Allen Roberts suggests that the snarling beast in the lower right circle is a hyena, a widely apprehended witchcraft familiar in the region. Allen further notes that HIV/AIDS in East Africa was at times referred to as "hyena," Perhaps Landu similarly uses this feared creature as a stand in for Covid-19, which at the moment seems entirely untamable. Hence, the hand that advances with syringe towards the animal, holding one presumes the long wished-for vaccine, which would guarantee victory in this global competition.

I am especially intrigued by the nail-studded Kongo nkisi nkondi that presides over the work in the top center ring. Landu moved to South Africa in 2006 from the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the nkisi presumably references his own national cultural heritage. Nails pounded into nkisi famously help to enforce oaths and underlying social values, so it is entirely appropriate that the figurine hear admonishes viewers to wear their masks and keep others safe. It is worth noting that nkisi are activated by medicinal substances, including grave soil, and in that sense may be conceived of as powerful mobile graves through which the powers of the Dead watch over and safeguard the living (MacGaffey. 1993). At this time of mass death and loss, we might read the nkisi as speaking on behalf of the Dead, to all of living humanity, exhorting us through the intertwined rings of the  International Olympic movement to heed, at long last, our better angels.

In a recent essay, Allen Roberts (2019) introduces the neologism "interformance" to characterize the performative labor established by and through the nailed nkisi nkondi figurines, which render "extravagantly visible" the vast matrix of invisible spiritual and social relations that converge within and radiate from these power objects,  binding all associated with this form to honor a common pledge. The irresistible spectacle of the nail power figure (an exemplary "technology of enchantment" in Alfred Gell's terms)  takes us into the "inter-", the very heart of things, even as they intensify the "-formance,"the coming into being of a network of previously diffuse intersubjective intentionalities. These objects and their ritual deployment are extreme examples of what Godfrey Lienhardt (1961) long ago termed "symbolic action," the externalization of interior emotional states that take on objective, binding reality in the external world.  Such would such seem to be the case with Landu's forceful nkisi, presiding over the Olympic banner, projecting out the plea to wear our masks to all of humanity, lest we lose all we hold dear.


Godfrey Lienhardt. 1961. The Control of Experience: Symbolic Action. Chapter 7 in Divinity and Experience : The Religion of the Dinka. Oxford University Press.

John J. MacAloon,  1984. This Great Symbol: Pierre de Coubertin and the Origins of the Modern Olympic Games. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Wyatt MacGaffey. 1993  "The Eyes of Understanding," in Astonishment and Power: The Eyes of Understanding: Kongo Minkisi and The Art of Renee Stout. (Wyatt MacGaffey and Michael D. Harris Smithsonian. 

Roberts, Allen F. 2019. Interformances of a Kongo Nail Figure, in Striking Iron; The Art of African  Blacksmiths. University of Washington Press.