Monthly Archives: August 2014

dot 18: human[ity]

Art is nothing more than the shadow of humanity.

Henry James (1861-1916)

The origin of the word human is related to the word humus or ‘earth’. Humus is decayed plant or animal matter which, in itself, signals the cycle of life. Decay inevitably indicates death. In the recent exhibition Between Subject & Object  (7-30 August 2014) held at Michaelis Galleries, UCT Hiddingh Campus in Cape Town, the depiction of human remains (death) is explored.

As a visual artist who is extremely interested in Art&Science I was both curious and excited to see this exhibition, which is the first of its nature in South Africa. Adding to this, Between Subject & Object accompanied the first-ever Medical Humanities in Africa Conference (28-29 August 2014). In my opinion, the art and science interface is long overdue in the South African arts landscape, and I feel the need to express my gratitude towards the three co-curators – Josephine Higgins, Kathryn Smith & Penny Siopis – for initiating this bold step.

My personal reaction to the exhibited work was interesting to myself. I managed to stay at the opening night for a mere five minutes, subsequently traveling home feeling very confused about my unexpected reaction. Was I feeling this way because of my general reaction to opening nights ( see vulnerability), or was the content itself the cause? I struggled to make sense of it, but deep down I sensed that the portrayal of death (or the remains thereof) excluded the most important element: humanity. I decided to re-visit the exhibition on the last day when the curators would speak about the works during the walkabout.

This morning, as I was traveling the 50 kilometers to get to Cape Town, I was mentally preparing myself to remain open-minded as I learnt from the curators themselves. Arriving somewhat too early, my mother (who had come along for the exhibition) and I ended up sitting next to a neatly dressed gentleman on a narrow bench in front of Jordan Baseman’s video projection of A Cold Hand on a Cold Day which explores embalming. The gentleman proved to be Prof Deon Knobel who would be one of the key speakers later in the day. Deon Knobel is Emeritus Professor of Forensic Pathology at the University of Cape Town.

As we spoke, it became clear that we shared the same view regarding the exhibition: here were the objects of death, but where were the subjects? Where was the ‘holding’ of the dying and those that were dead? As a previous ICU nurse myself, and as a previous state pathologist – who has performed over 20 000 autopsies in his 40-year career – both Prof Knobel and I felt a palpable absence in the visual imagery related to death. Every body (alive or dead) tells a story, has a relative, is connected and even interconnected with a network of others which is the humanitarian part thereof.

In a recent article in The Times, Aarti Narsee writes about the work done by the war photographer Mariela Furrer where she interviewed both victims and perpetrators of sexual abuse, as documented in her book My Piece of Sky. Furrer explains that:

When so many share their secrets with you, it is very sacred, you feel like you have been carrying it for them..

This is the closest to explaining what it feels like when ‘holding’ someone in death – as in nursing – or perhaps even whilst performing autopsies. It is co-sharing the humanity of the person in front of you.

Kathryn Smith & Penny Siopis
Kathryn Smith,  Penny Siopis  (and my mother)                          Photo: Sonya Rademeyer


dot 17: struggling

I’m not fluent and I have to make mistakes and I need to struggle.

(Judith Mason 1938 –

At first glance, Judith Mason’s work doesn’t leave me with a sense of struggle. In fact, Mason’s paintings, etchings and drawings generally pull me inward towards a place of rest, tranquility and wholeness. Mason’s process of struggle remains seemingly hidden from me, as does her self-assessed level of fluency. To me, there seems to be an interpretational divide between Mason’s experience of artmaking and the outcome of her process. What is notable is that Mason both recognizes and accepts this ‘inadequacy’. I admire that. Mason, in turn, says that she admires Braque who said: “I do what I can, not what I want”. 

Not being completely capable of doing what I want as an artist, has, at times, left me feeling inadequate. At worst, I have felt fake when unable to achieve what I really wanted to in an artwork. Put differently, merely doing what I can do then seems second best. But is it? If, hypothetically speaking, I could achieve what I wanted to, as I envisaged, at the time I envisaged, with the materials I planned to do it with, what would the outcome be? Probably a product, minus the process of struggle.

What would be missing I think, would be the longing to create that which is imagined. Judith Mason offers this thought:

People say that talent is the thing. I don’t believe so.         I think longing is.

The struggle, it seems, is invariably interwoven with the longing for what is to be created.

Judith Mason  A Prospect of Icons Published by Standard Bank and Sasol Art Museum / ISBN 978-0-620-41289-6

dot 16: vulnerability

 The act of making something new makes us vulnerable.

    Lisa Sonora Beam

I have always been acutely aware of the differences between various artists, which, in my view, can be categorized into two main groups. There are those that appear to be super-confident (Group A) and those that appear to be shy (Group B). It is fair to say that those that are shy, as I am, are more likely to feel vulnerable. But the question that I grapple with is whether the super-confident artist is also vulnerable? And, if they are, is the experience of vulnerability the same for them? Are there degrees of vulnerability? If what Lisa Sonora Beam is saying is true for all creatives because of art[making]  itself, should Group A not be exhibiting vulnerability also? This issue honestly confuses me.

The vulnerability that is associated with shyness can be debilitating. In Creative Visualization Ronald Stone dedicates an entire chapter to this disabling state, addressing ways to deal with this by way of creative visualization. Stone, drawing on work done by Philip G. Zimbardo, goes on to talk about people who are shy ‘only in very specific circumstances’ or ‘with very specific people’ which is called being specifically shy. Stone gives the example of a lecturer that is perfectly capable of lecturing in front of large audiences but may be shy to speak at a wedding. Drawing from own experience, the circumstances that trigger high levels of vulnerability for me are both opening nights and when I need to speak about my work. The people who trigger the roller-coaster are often gallery owners and/or gallery managers. I am otherwise a perfectly confident person if not engaging with galleries, opening nights or having to give personal speeches.

Needless to say, I am hampered by this problem. According to Stone, shyness is environmentally determined which means that you learn to be shy and it can therefore be unlearned. This is good news. To unlearn requires a program of change which primarily involves addressing negative thinking.

A useful trick described by Stone is playing with the idea that an ‘evil duplicate’ of yourself has somehow been created. In order that others do not confuse you with this undesirable duplicate, you need to convince them of your uniqueness.

 As a specifically shy artist (Group B) I shall be practicing for the next upcoming art event.

Anyone care to join?

  • Ronald Stone:
  • Creative Visualization (1984) The Aquarian Press / ISBN 1 85538 3276

dot 15: translation

Become like a seismograph, capturing the tone and the phrasing of each melody so that, at best, a deaf person could see what you have experienced.

Judith Mason (1938 – )

These words by the prolific South African painter capture the essence of Jenna Burchell’s exhibition Homing, currently showing at Lovell Gallery (Cape Town). The verb homing can be understood as an animal’s ‘return by instinct to its territory after leaving it’. In many ways it is the search for memories from past and present geographical places and situations, but not excluding those of dreams and other imaginary lives. What is important to Burchell is that these memories enable you to go to ‘where you know you belong, feel safe, breathe easily’.

The hand-built interactive installation primarily consists of various copper wires stretched between floor and ceiling space which have been placed in three separate groupings. Each group represents a different geographical space that holds a particular significance for Burchell (Cape Town / Pretoria / Grahamstown). The viewer is invited to participate with the artwork by touching the copper wires, where every individual touch triggers a different sound previously recorded by the artist.

The sensory experience of touching and creating sound is in many ways becoming the seismograph that Mason requests, as each tone and sound bite is captured by way of the viewer’s body. Translation of the sound cannot happen if the viewer’s body does not initiate the process through touch. Without this action there is only silence, discomfort and tension.

For me it was a very powerful experience and layered with hidden meaning. Standing amidst the crystal clear auditory vibrations, I wished that I had a blind friend to introduce to the impact of this installation.

I was grateful for my body that allowed me the sensory translation of this experience.

Homing (detail)
Homing (detail)                                                                                    image: Sonya Rademeyer


dot 14: lost

I’ve dared to think and act without the help of an ideology: I’ve nothing to help me, no idea that I adhere to and in exchange for what I’m told what to do, no rules for dictating the “how”, no belief to point the way, no vision of the future, no framework conferring a deeper meaning.

Gerhard Richter (1932 – )

Considering the five-decade oeuvre of this significantly important German painter, Richter’s words intrigue me. Finding one’s creative way with no compass, no guidelines, no referencing framework with no particular future objective to work towards, is no small feat. Yet, reflecting on the sustainability of Richter’s artwork over what most artists would consider a significant period of time, I find myself questioning how his creative navigation has remained so on track?

I recently came across the work of the choreographer Donna Sternberg, who was selected to be part of the Djerassi Residents Artists Program from 1 – 30 July 2014. In her blog on Leonardo, she writes about getting physically lost whilst taking a walk. Sternberg then relates the physical knowingness of being lost to the experience of being lost creatively:

 As an artist I am often lost, not knowing in the middle or even beginning of a piece where I’m going.  Usually I trust the process and just plug on, letting whatever comes out come.  I’ve learned to let go of trying to steer a project in the direction I think I want it to go and let it instead just go.  That’s when it works the best.  I’m not always successful, but I can see the wisdom in it and try to let it direct me.

Sternberg makes the wise decision to allow the creative process to direct her. This skill – or decision if you like – reminds me of what it’s like being pulled out to sea by a strong current. It is almost natural instinct to fight back by doing something / anything, but the wisest decision at that point is simply to let go.The only option that exists in such a situation is the belief that the tide will bring you back. In a conversation that took place between Gerhard Richter and Nicholas Serota in 2011, Serota pertinently asks about Richter’s belief system, to which Richter answers:

I believe that you always have to believe. It’s the only way …

For me, these few words are simply monumental. Ultimately, it is the belief in belief itself that allows creativity to unfold, perhaps more so when being lost.

Gerhard Richter:

Donna Sternberg:

dot 13: mind[ing]

‘Not everything is possible at all times, and certain thoughts can only be thought at certain stages of development’

Heinrich Wölfflin (1864-1945)

Heinrich Wölfflin’s work on aesthetics appeals to me because of his psychological interpretation of the creative process. It speaks of an open and flux-like state which defies that ideas, interpretation and thought processes be cast in stone. According to Wölfflin, development of thought processes happen at certain stages of development. This idea is of great comfort to me as it reminds me that creative growth is a process based in time-space. I am also reminded of the adolescent brain which research shows ‘is very much a work in progress’. The idea that thought development is a bit like climbing Mt. Everest appeals to me. It just depends where you are right now.

My struggle is not about not thinking though. I often think too much (see dot 9: thinking). Most of my adult creative life has been an internal thought-battle as I fight off – what seems to me at times – like a never-ending infiltration of negative thought-patterns.  Eric Maisel (PhD) is at the forefront of addressing hurdles that potentially hinder your creative achievements. In Making your creative mark: nine keys to achieving your creative goals Maisel clearly states that ‘If you do not continually monitor the quality and kindness of your thoughts, you can’t possibly lead your best life in the arts’. To do this, Maisel says:

Your first task as a creative person is to “mind your mind”and to think thoughts that serve you

Although mind[ing] sounds simple to execute, it is not. Initially it is utterly exhausting to be attentive to one’s thought processes: listening and questioning whether a particular thought is beneficial to one’s greater creative good. However, acquiring the mind[ing] skill is perfectly possible. It just takes time and practice. In my own studio I have dedicated a certain shelf to authors that remind me to cherish and nurture my most important asset, my mind.


Further reading:

dot 12: flaws are the key

I like flaws,

I think

they make



– Sarah Dessen –

I once bought an old pianola from a church in the Netherlands, later transporting it with me back to South Africa. This pianola has been at the centre of many a dispute between my father and myself, simply because he struggles to understand how I can find dissonance bearable. What he does not fully grasp, however, is that dissonance is much more interesting than perfect pitch. Sonified tension is created because of the flaw in pitch, and this excites me. However, the question I often find myself asking is why I struggle to accept flaws within my own self? If acceptance is so fluid when considering off-key pianolas, why am I not accepting nor excited by my own flawed and dissonant creative-self?

If, for any reason, I may have considered that acceptance would occur over time and with the wisdom of age, I have just been proven wrong. After listening to Tavi Gevinson on a TEDxTeen talk, this 15-year-old has pointed towards the key of self-acceptance. In a teen just trying to figure it out Gevinson explores the absence and presence of strong female characters in Popular Culture. Although most women are portrayed in a flat, two-dimensional way in the media, Gevinson says that the truer portrayal of women would be that they are complex, multifaceted and contradictory by nature. Their flaws are the key to their strengths:

What makes a strong female character, is a character who has weaknesses, who has flaws.

You don’t have to be only female to have these flaws. Traits such as complexity, multifacetedness and contradictory behaviour would describe many an artist. In the arts, I consider my sole mentor to be Ari de Groot. This Dutch artist, who was my drawing lecturer at what is now known as the Willem de Kooning Akademie in Rotterdam, has worked and interwoven his flaws into his art[making]. For me, Ari is the shining example of how to make the fragility of flaws create artistic strength. Ari’s work is centered around the idea of a roof or dome. Here there is no real difference in what is covered. Both dungeon and universe is dome-covered. Regardless of whether we have cognisance of it or not, the dome is ever-present in life. The dome celebrates a not-knowing.

I interpret this as the acceptance of not-knowing, the acceptance of fragility, the acceptance of flaws. It is ever-present anyhow.


Ari de Groot   Verre Geluiden (1994)   pastel, pencil, acrylic / paper.  41 x 51 cm. Collection: Veldkamp, Berkel & Rodenrijs