Monday, August 31, 2020

State of Suspense: Clement Mohale

Clement Mohale (South Africa)
"State Of Suspense"
Mixed media on paper.

Overview: In the center foreground, a large young woman's head faces the viewer. She is flanked in the background by figures, evidently standing in line for water.  On each side, we see standing figures with heads in the shape of the coronavrius, perhaps indicating their infected status. Also on each side are visible traditional houses, suggestive of a peri-urban settlement or  rural setting. In the middle foreground, to the figure's right, a cook stove emits smoke, perhaps indicative that the wait for water is so long that the woman in line has time to prepare a meal.
Artist's Statement: The Pandemic has shown that universal access to clean water is critical for public health, sustainable development and economic growth. As the African countries has announced its lockdowns extensions until late this year, the number of those infected by the Covid-19 novel Coronavirus keeps rising. Authorities work around the clock to"flatten the curve" and prevent community wide spread of the virus,with public health messaging continues to stress the importance of hand hygiene and washing your hands frequently. But the lack of access to clean and safe water is providing to be a major problem challenge in Africa's efforts to combat the Coronavirus.
Urban populations are particularly at risk of infection due to population density and more frequent public gatherings or in crowded spaces like markets, public transport or places of worship. People living in urban poor slums which is the worst form of settlement are at risk. Also a millions of children succumb to diarrhea and cholera every year as a result of lack to access clean and safe water. Therefore access to piped water in every home is most government's pledge, but there is a long way to go before that becomes a reality. 

Pamela Allara;
In Clement Mohale’s earlier submission, “Unprecedented Times,” for the TLC Student Collection (posted on the artbeyondquarantine blog on July 11, 2020,) a young woman holds out a pill to a  personfication of the coronavirus as if to say, “Can this provide a cure?” The drawing highlights the issue of the lack of available medicines for those affected by COVID-19, with a vaccine still yet to be developed. In Mohale’s recent work, “State of Suspense,” the same young woman faces out at us, while behind her waits a group of villagers, each with various containers for storing water. Standing among them is the personification of the coronavirus seen in the previous work. As an indication of the ongoing spread of the illness, a second personification appears to be standing on the left side of the group.  The colors Mohale has used for the woman’s face seem arbitrary, although I assume the highlights of green and red meant to be symboic. Hazardng a guess, I would speculate that healthy vegetative growth (green) is being threatened by the heat of the unremiting sun (red). But whatever Mohale may have intended for the colors to mean, they function to hold our attention, so we cannot just look away.

The work seems to me to be a companion piece not only to “Unprecedented Times,” but to Themba Kumalo’s “Waiting for Food Parcels,” as well, (posted on artbeyondquarantine on  May 25, 2020). There, too, we see a long line of people, in this instance faceless, waiting for the deliveries that will alleviate desperate hunger and prevent starvation As Mohale has stated, access to clean water is critical, not only for hygiene during the pandemic, but for life itself. The suspense, or anxiety referred to in the work’s title, is generated by the lack of assurance that government vehicles will arrive with the needed water (or food) supplies. The life-threatening need for water is indicated by the dessicated landscape; clearly there are no local sources available. Our young woman, whose cropped short hair may be an indication of malnutrition, stares at the viewer as if to ask, “What will you do to help?” “State of Suspense” is thus a call to action.
Mark Auslander: As Pam notes, in our recent commentaries on Clement Mohale's Unprecedented Times, she and I read the large standing figure with a virus-shaped head as the essence or personification of  COVID-19 itself, to which the young female figure was apparently making a kind of offering.  Now, in "State of Suspense," we see at least three figures bearing the coronavirus head.  Perhaps, gazing into the young woman's eyes, we are invited to enter her own mind, in which she apprehends her infected neighbors as bearing the spiked head of the virus. The unusual nature of the Covid-19 disease, of course, means that it is often impossible to tell who is infected, so the net effect of the image is to suggest the faceless anonymity of the infected, who could be anyone.  (As it happens, this is the classic scenario of witchcraft in many African cultural fields: no one knows where witchcraft lurks, and anyone could turn out to harbor its lurking, nearly irresistible dangers.)
Perhaps the central figure's anxiety over the dangers of infection is so great that her hair itself begins, again within her own mind, to agitate in a way that seems to be forming spikes, externalizing her own fear of catching the virus, and taking on the virus-headed appearance of her neighbors.  
The symmetry of the figures on each side of the central figure's head further suggests that we may be gazing into the young woman's own anxious mind, seeing through her two eyes what she sees with her mind's eye.  On each side we see at least one traditional dwelling in the distant background, and at least one figure bearing the ominous head of the Virus.  The relative sparseness of the landscape conveys a sense of dessication, as those assembled wait not only for physical water but the flowing blessings of Spirit that might quench their deepest longings during this long dry season of the body and the soul.
I am again struck by Mohale's skill at conveying the quiet dignity and resilience of township life, even in the midst of a prolonged crisis.  In contrast to the  fear and perhaps perspiration roiling the face of the foregrounded young woman, the background women and men are composed in a lighter wash with an economy of line that suggest patience and fortitude as they wait their turn for water, from a tap, pump, or well that is invisible to us.  
Although the dominant mood of the work seems bleak, I find myself wondering, in a very speculative mode, if there just might a beacon of hope before us. The artist's name suggests his roots in the Mohale clan, descendants of the founding sovereign of the Lovedu polity (in the northern Transvaal).  The Lovedu Modjadji, or Rain Queen, is famously gifted with the capacity as "Transformer of the Clouds" to call rain, especially at times of collective crisis, for her own people and others, near and far. As of this writing, the position of the Modjadji is currently vacant, as the nation awaits the coming of age of an appropriate princess. My understanding is that it is far from clear the succession will take place; in that sense, the entire nation is a "state of suspense" over its future.  Is it just possible that the central young woman in this image might be associated with a successful candidate Rain Queen, and that the hoped-for blessings of bountiful water from on high might yet be realized?
For further reading:

Dr. E. Jensen Krige and J. D. Krige. 1943.  The Realm of a Rain Queen. A Study of the Pattern of Lovedu Society. (Published for the International Institute of African Languages and Cultures. London, New York and Toronto: Oxford University Press.)


Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Screen Drawings: August Ventimiglia

August Ventimiglia
Screen Drawings
Graphite pencil on paper
11 x 11 inches

Overview:  Vertical and horizontal lines of varied intensity criss-cross the surface in a series of images.

Artist's Statement: I’ve had a hard time connecting with my studio practice since the pandemic started, working in short sporadic drawing sessions with the materials I have at hand. 

As in previous bodies of work, I have found continued inspiration by playing with the rigid order of the grid. In a recent series, I draw lines with a graphite pencil and straight edge while varying the pressure on the paper. Unlike the repetitive nature of a pattern, however, my mark-making remains unmeasured and intuitive, with the straight edge as the only guiding constraint. This unconscious rhythm of pressure creates a network of lines that weave in and out of each other resulting in a flat surface that seems to vibrate, similar to a moiré effect.

Judith Hoos Fox: If one knows August Ventimiglia’s architecturally-scaled, athletic drawings on walls and floors—he has executed them on the broad entry wall of the DeCordova Sculpture Park & Museum, on seemingly endless wall of Fidelity Investment World Headquarter’s lobby space in Boston, Massachusetts, near South Station, and in the gallery of Montserrat College of Art, and on the floor at Tufts University Art Gallery—in this suite of Screen Drawings, measuring a modest 11 x 11 inches, one will sense pent-up, intense nervous energy, a result of the artist being confined to his studio. The sweep of his extended arm, the expanse of pulled chalked lines, the path of running shoes, their treads loaded with chalk, have been translated to the staccato of the graphite line, repeated and repeated, lines that both challenge the grid and are confined by it. We feel this tension.

The artist’s repetitive motion could be read as an analog to our current experience, confined to our homes where routines rule and adventures are out of reach. Like caged animals we do the same things again and again. The unintended images resulting from Ventimiglia’s repeated actions, fields of short lines at 90 degrees to each other, conjure their eponymous title with it defining conundrum: the screen both hems us in and is our portal to the world beyond. [Not so long ago Sarah Montross explored this topic in her exhibition Screens: Virtual Material at the DeCordova Sculpture Park & Museum.]  The screens of doors and windows confine us; apps and the web hold us captive to their ubiquitous screens as they transport us to far-away places and spaces. Tedium and engagement, confinement and expansion—these are dueling pairs. August Ventimiglia’s images oscillate between flatness and depicted three-dimensional space as the dimensions of virtual and the real worlds wobble.  


Pamela Allara: August Ventimiglia’s Screen Drawings appear to be abstract but I see them as quite literal representations of the anxiety that has settled into our collective psyche in the months since the arrival of COVID-19. What was initially seen as the opening up of available time for pursuing postponed projects became instead a period of suspended animation during which nothing was initiated or completed. The books we would finally get to read remain stacked by the bed or on shelves. Ventimiglia’s “Borrowed Line Series,” (2013-14), book pages with underlining that rather than highlighting significant passages serves as meaningless mark making, is apposite here. Pamela Allara: August Ventimiglia’s Screen Drawings appear to be abstract but I see them as quite literal representations of the anxiety that has settled into our collective psyche in the months since the arrival of COVID-19. What was initially seen as the opening up of available time for pursuing postponed projects became instead a period of suspended animation during which nothing was initiated or completed. The books we would finally get to read remain stacked by the bed or on shelves. Ventimiglia’s “Borrowed Line Series,” (2013-14), book pages with underlining that rather than highlighting significant passages serves as meaningless mark making, is apposite here.

The recent Screen Drawings also appear initially to be the sort of mindless doodles one makes when one is listening to a boring talk. But it quickly becomes evident that the repeated vertical and horizontal marks are far from random; rather, the marks trace actions: abrupt, sharp bursts born of compulsion. We are aware as well of the time required for these repeated marks to fill the page, and in that respect the marks become a record of the ongoing experience of anxiety created by an experience of time that has become synonymous with stasis.

Mark Auslander: In his classic essay, "The Age of the World Picture" (1938), Martin Heidegger famously ponders the overwhelming modern tendency to experience the world visually through the mediating form of fixed and restricted shapes--through windows, the painted canvas, the telescope and microscope, the cinema screen or, more recently, the television screen, the computer screen, smart phone screen, the Facebook page and the Twitter and Instagram feed.  It is almost impossible for us,  he argues, not to conceptualize the world as picture, as a representation of itself that is at heart framed, constrained, regulated  and highly mediated organized information, information that is seemingly infinitely available and yet achingly distant from primary sensory and embodied experience.  

During the Covid-19 pandemic and associated lockdowns, our world often seems to be increasingly mediated by screens, including the endless routine of Zoom meetings and binged reruns of old TV series. It is far from clear that our online meetings, our obligatory encounters with others across constrained screens, necessarily lead to greater understanding or deeper reflection about our world and our ultimate purposes and goals within that world. As communications theorists might put it, the signal to noise ratio across our linked screens may be particularly high, a state of being intensified by the current US administration, given to staggering degrees of deception, disavowal, and distraction as Rome burns around us. 

August Ventimiglia reflects back to us the screen views, and perhaps the screen memories, of our current crisis. As Judy Fox notes, confined within these squares, again and again and again, the artist plunges into obsessive repetition compulsion of our historical juncture, in which we gaze into the screen, waiting to connect to a profound way, but anxiously uncertain just what might await us on the other side of the looking glass. 

Just what do we glimpse in Ventimiglia's criss-crossed pencil markings?  At a time when so many of our fellow humans beings have been confined to the ICU,  linked electronically and digitally to medical monitors at terrifying moments during this prolonged pandemic, I find myself sensing traces of anxious signals. Might we discern the rhythmic shape of the EKG and related life signs,  rising and falling in the fragile markers of life, and death, in our technologically-mediated age?  These screen drawings call to my mind the print outs of electrocardiograms, perhaps not of our physical hearts but of our anguished souls.  The artist tells us these forms are products of his own anxiety and disequilibrium at this time of strange confinement. Yet in these dimly hinted forms moving across the pages, rising and falling, again and again, I sense something, beyond words, of great words, perhaps even a shadow moving across the waters. 

In other words, I sense that there is more here than just the static glimpsed on screen as we switch channels or the freeze frame as we momentarily lose internet connectivity. Paradoxically the screens that in Heidegger's sense stand between our gaze and the fully embodied experience of being human in the deepest sense, may be evocative of a kind of return to immediacy of bodily presence.  We see the immediate traces of the artist's hand, grasping the pencil and pressing it in against the straight edge, again and again. And at least in my eyes, we apprehend across the screens undeniable signs of life, that a heart still beats, in a corporeal body and in the body politic--endangered to be sure, yet still irreducibly present. 


Heidegger, Martin. 1938. “The Age of the World Picture”   in The Question of Technology and. Other Essays, New York, Harper & Row 1977,



Saturday, August 8, 2020

Pandemic Elegy: Basia Irland

Basia Irland

Pandemic Elegy

(Digitally enlarged painted images, wheat passted on truck)


Overview:  A panel truck is covered on its sides with digitally-enlarged painted images of ocean, above which are seen canoes or boats sprouting wings flying through the sky. Small white shapes are visible in the background. The truck's rear has many images of blue elongated shapes, inspired by the bamboo leaves on which the flying boat motifs were originally painted.  Below the driver's window is written the caption, "To honor those who have died from COVID 19."
From Axle Contemporary Gallery site:    Basia Irland, professor emerita at University of New Mexico’s department of art and art history, has been engaged in an ongoing artistic exploration of our relationship to water for more than four decades. An activist, installation artist, sculptor, poet, and author, she uses creative mediums to call attention to issues such as water’s ecological importance, water rights, and the well-being of communities. In Pandemic Elegy, a series of paintings on the exterior of Axle’s mobile art van, water and winged boats are prominent motifs. The work was created to honor those who died from the coronavirus. Pandemic Elegy is round one of Broadsides, a series of coronavirus-safe exhibitions on the outside of the mobile art space that can be seen while walking, driving, or viewed on Axle’s website. 

Irland works with communities to explore imaginative ways to increase our understanding of water as the crucial resource on the planet. Her poetic writing conveys political awareness and pointed information about our human impact on water. 

Pamela Allara: As Susan Platt notes, Irland’s work addresses issues of water, the element crucial to life that is threatened by climate change and pollution. The painting she has created on the Axle van is initially a pleasant one: a pedestrian seeing it pass by would notice a body of water surmounted by winged boats: an altogether lyrical image. In the prologue to Irland’s book Water Library, she notes that “The bibliography inflates to form a kayak, drifting on an unnamed river at dusk, accompanied by a constellation of fireflies.”  [1] Without too much thought, said pedestrian might simply conclude that nature breezes along with us, a source of beauty and pleasure.

But those winged kayaks, surrounded by stars/fireflies, could also be understood as fleeing or escaping something. Their sprouted wings indicate a hybrid growth born of desperation, creating the irreconcilable contradiction of a boat that is flying in mid-air. Having left their watery domain for an unknown habitat, they have attached themselves to a motorized vehicle spouting pollution out of its exhaust. They may hope to flee, but there is no escape.

While this lyrical image honors those who have died of Covid-19, it also is a reminder of unavoidable ecological disaster.

Footnote 1: Basia Irland, Water Library 2007. University of New Mexico Press, Quoted in Susan Noyes Platt, Art and Politics Now: Cultural Activism in a Time of Crisis 2010. New York: Midmarch Arts Press, 289.

Mark Auslander; An elegy is a rhythmic poem to the Dead, which in classical times was sometimes thought to help move the soul of the deceased through spiritual trajectories from this world into the afterlife.  Here, the winged canoes flying over a turbulent sea may be reminiscent of Charon's boat, ferrying the souls of the newly dead to the underworld domain of Hades in ancient Greek mythology. The artist may also allude to the practice of burying the dead in aerial canoes, atop special elevated mounts, by many native peoples of the Pacific Northwest. Similarly, in other cultures around the world mortal remains or their symbolic equivalents are set afloat on water as the deceaed embark on the ultimate journey.

Whatever the precise referents, we almost hear the beating sound of the wings, rising and falling, akin to the repeated couplets of a poetic elegy. How appropriate that this poignant image of traveling vehicles is wrapped around a mobile vehicle itself, a truck that makes repeated stops as it moves from place to place on its sad pilgrimage.  We may read the wraparound painting as a kind of winged prayer; like a recited classical elegy, may this journeying image help guide our lost souls, so many of them victims to ignorance and greed at the highest governmental levels, to a place of rest, above a great sea,  imbued with the Oceanic feeling of primal unity that bridges the Alpha and the Omega. 

Viewed from a distance, the small white shapes floating in the background might be read as seagulls or stars rising above the ocean's horizon line at dusk. Upon closer examination, they appear to share the ominous spiked shape of the novel coronavirus itself. The ubiquitous presence of SARS-Cov-2 is thus quietly affirmed, in the face of the orchestrated wave of anti science rhetoric that plunges us each day ever deeper into the abyss. The viruses, for better or worse, form the constellations arcing over our present sea of sorrows, across which the living and the dead now set sail.

As I write these words, so many Americans have taken to the roads again, many in wholesale denial of the vastness of the continuing, deepening pandemic. 250,000 unmasked  motorcycle riders are expected to descend shortly on Sturgis, S.D., in a likely super-spreader event of unfathomable proportions, as if the noise and exuberance of a high octane rally can drown out the insidious power of the virus.  At such a benighted moment in our history, Irland's poignant small truck, making its determined, quiet way along the roads and highways, from one safe viewing spot to another, is a necessary antidote, a painfully honest occasion of sorrow and honest recognition of the unfolding reality around us.  Step by step, walking pensively around the truck's circumference, imaginatively entering into its solemn seascape and its rhythmic waves and beating wings, we each take on the heavy burden of memorializing the Dead, beneath a vast sky of uncertain portents. 


Ellen Schattschneider: Contemplating Basia Irland’s “Pandemic Elegy,” I find myself thinking of a very different water-based process of memorialization.  In my book Immortal Wishes (2003) I describe the Dragon Princess Ceremony conducted each winter at Akakura Mountain Shrine near Hirosaki,  in northeastern Japan’s Tsugaru region.  (Basia has undertake public art projects related to Kyoto’s central river, so perhaps the following Japanese comparison is not entirely off base).

Akakura Yama Jinja (Akakura Mountain Shrine) is a hybrid Shinto-Buddhist institution founded by a charismatic woman spirit medium in the 1920s; for decades, women have been the principal ascetics based at the shrine, climbing the rugged mountainscape to perform austerities dedicated to the mountain’s divinities (kami) and associated Buddhist bodhisattvas, oriented to a sacred waterfall and other special features on the mountain, shaped by flows of lava, wind and water across the eons.

Each February, in the depth of winter, worshipers trudge up the snow-covered lower slopes to  the shrine to help transact sacred water that has flowed from the sacred mountain’s peaks down to a special shrine outbuilding dedicated to the foundress. They form a human chain from an icy stream, transferring buckets of water to the ‘bathtub’ (ofuro) in the building, in front of a statue of the late foundress Kudо̄ Mura. The accumulated water throughout the coming year will serve as medicine to ascetics, spirit mediums, and lay members who undertake in subsequent ceremonies to conduct kuyо̄ (Buddhist memorialization), on behalf of their deceased relations, helping to guide them towards Buddhahood and ancestral status.

The line of worshipers recalls  foundress Kudо̄ Mura's’ revelatory dream-vision of a great dragon flying from the mountain’s summit to her farm house, summoning her to climb the mountain and serve its resident divinities.  In the dream, the dragon pierced the dreamer’s farmhouse roof and landed on her pillow, moving rapidly from macrocosmic to microcosmic scales. The founding dream is concretized in a beautiful votive painting installed in the inner shrine, showing the dragon’s nocturnal flight in front of a full moon, above the sacred mountain (a detail of the painting is reproduced on my book's cover, seen above).

The mountain itself functions as a cosmic womb, binding together members of the congregation and rebirthing them, in renewed alignment with their beloved deceased relatives, in a collective burst of healing energy that unites the Living and the Dead, the visible and the invisible. Each human being dies alone, but this complex process of kuyo memorialization depends on the united hearts and minds of all the living congregants, guiding the dead through the cycles of creation that lead to full awareness and Buddhahood. This process is aided by the practice of votive painting by persons who have undertaken ascetic discipline (shugyо̄) on the rugged mountainscape and been granted revelatory dream-visions of the mountain divinities and the honored dead: gazing at these painted images helps in turn to guide subsequent generations of worshipers in their efforts to move their deceased relations and themselves towards Buddhist salvation.  These paintings are, significantly, referred to as “offerings,” special gifts into which the painter has projected a part of herself, establishing a kind of tangible bridge between the visible world and the invisible domain of the divinities and the dead.

I wonder if something comparable might be going on in Irland’s haunting work, which can also be read as a kind of revelatory dreamscape traversing the domains of the Living and the Dead.  The Covid-19 pandemic has certainly had peculiarly individuating aspects; so many of those lost to the disease, one might argue, especially in minority and Native communities, have been betrayed by the national government and the current administration, which failed to mount an effective response to the crisis.  The administration has of course been in active denial about the true toll of the pandemic and there has been nothing approaching collective processes of grief and mourning. Instead it has fallen to individual families to mourn, often in isolation from loved ones, given social distancing restrictions. Or, it falls to artists, such as Basia Irland, to offer their own loving acts of vision and mourning.

Might this truck and the great ocean it depicts, I wonder, be a bit akin to the cosmic womb of the sacred mountain of Akakura? Arising from the waves are the winged canoes, rather like flying fish, each presumably honoring a lost soul.  Each person may have died alone, ultimately abandoned by the national leadership, but in this poignant image they are restored to some sort of collectivity, condensing as it were the essence of the ocean that has rebirthed them. In such a way, perhaps, the many thousands souls lost to Covid-19 are moved in concert from isolation and neglect towards a kind of unity with one another and with other souls of the universe. 

Perhaps in time, the dead even reappear as the twinkling stars above the sea, beacons of the eternal. Each act of viewing the wraparound painting, as it speeds by on the highway or is parked in an outdoor lot, may be conceived of as an act witnessing and solidarity, that helps to move the lost ones along a pathway beyond our ken.  In this sense, Irland’s mobile painted elegy may function as a kind of votive painting, a concretized dreamscape,  transitioning those who may have died alone under tragic circumstances into a great collective reservoir of spirit, spanning the gulf between the encircling world ocean and the vault of the star-filled sky.


Ellen Schattschneider. 2003. Immortal Wishes: Labor and Transcendence on a Japanese Sacred Mountain. Duke University Press. 


For Further Reading about Basia Irland:

2018 “Reading the River.” By Richard Bright. Interalia Magazine, September.

 2017 Reading the River: The Ecological Activist Art of Basia Irland. Edited by Museum
De Domijnen and Basia Irland. Sittard, the Netherlands: Museum De
Domijnen. 230 pages, full color, ISBN 978-9075883558.

2007 Water Library. Albuquerque, New Mexico: University of New Mexico Press. 234
pages, full color, ISBN 978-0826336750.