You notice how the man who is with you, wedges his shoulders in under the rucksack of responsibility, how strong your legs are taking up position under the enlarged belly of your first pregnancy and how exposed your child’s neck-stem has become, how transparent the little scapula.
What do you care about politics, you think. Satire, corruption, censorship? You find more and more that the calibration of wood under your hands and the man and child in your arms, drive you to be a different kind of apostle, to be an anguished mapper of vulnerability in a country embedded in dehumanisations.
As you are fastening the small clips of a babygrow, I imagine that you think it will never be necessary to choose. If you are not obsessively selfish or ambitious, if you are prepared to let go and compromise, then you will be able to keep enough balance to practice your art without spawning ruins. Prepared to be “lesser” as an artist, one could perhaps give “more” as a mother. So your child becomes all children, your man all good men and you, all women.
Sometimes you hear an ambulance or gunshots down the road, or see young people with eyes bewildered by brutalisation and their black skins slaked into greyness by poverty and your hands stop working and your head turns like that of a blind person, as if you have to see with your ears. And you think: I, with all this white wood-ness, this enamel-ness, how dare it be? What do I have to say in these contested and bitter spaces? What do I do but further affirm privilege within scaffoldings of capitalism? Drenched in meagreness I see how other artists challenge authority and injustice, I hear the drone of debates while my only contribution seems to be assiduously trying to get every light white statue steadfast on its feet.
When the moment feels right, you try to say: I also take risks. See, the woman is actually myself, the man, if you look carefully, is the man who is with me. My child I still keep private, but I am fearless in my critical self-examination, in the exposure of middleclass privilege. I know there is no tragedy in middleclass., but I want to challenge: those who so fiercely clench their fists in art, when do they turn those merciless eyes onto themselves for a change?
Softly, and at times desperately, I hear you say: I am also from Africa. While artists criticize black and white, satirise, iconicise, ironise and fabricate, I find imag(in)es beyond my own culture and language, even beyond my own country, in efforts to come home in expressions of tentative tendernesses, dialoguing with the nameless woodcarvers of my continent.
At times, only at times, you see the insecurity in the child’s eyes, the aggression in the man’s jaw and the radiant uselessness of what you are doing. You remember a line you have read long ago: only the piercing yell of oranges among grief-greened leaves.
When one enters the exhibition space, you see this first: one of the best known outlines from the family heart of white South Africa – a black woman with a white child on her back. The indigenous term is “abba” from the khoi word “awa” (“pepa” in Sesotho). Few white South Africans, especially those older than forty, have not been carried once upon a time exactly in this way by a black woman. However confronting and imbalanced the power relations in this country were, the black woman with the child peacefully on her back, without a doubt portrays the most tender and most sustained meeting point ever between black and white.
Although black women carried their own children for centuries in an abba kaross as they go about their daily chores, it remains extraordinary how, as if it was self-evident, they simply began to carry white children – especially since a similar gesture of mothering from white women to black children was not forthcoming.
It could well be that, precisely because one associates words like “intimate”, “snug”, “nurtured” and “safe” with a baby carried on a black woman’s back, that many theories, sentiments and stories were woven around this image. It is soothing for a baby to be on such a moving but solid back (in contrast to the front side with its breasts, heartbeat, breastbone and intestine sounds). The baby absorbs the lulling rhythm of a working body and the tepid fragrance of rural or township life. The baby flourishes in black nearness.
It has even been suggested that it is precisely because of the carrying of so many Boer children that people are still reaching out to one another over ever widening gulfs. “Abba” prevented as it were, a bloody revolution.
The black woman in the exhibition space has an equable face. Her body gives no indication of the extra weight on her back. The two little feet pierce without blemish her arms from the body. If one peeps over her shoulder one finds oneself eye to eye with the child – big and vacuous in a tranquil way the blue eyes look up at you. Then you see the seams, as if the child is built up out of cuts, as if the child is going to fall apart into slices the moment the woman unties the blanket. The child is fragile. The child is being held together, made peaceful and trusting by the black body and blanket. On the woman’s face and neck one sees blots of colour, on her nose and check are things which look like year rings indicating the age of the darker wood. It is as if the woman refuses to give up on her being wood and stains in front of the viewer.
In Afrikaans racists have coined the term “houtkop” (woodhead) as synonym for the word “kaffer”. I feel thus immediately challenged by the fact that the bounded baby visually forms part of the black body which demands, through the pertinent wood-ness of her face and simple hair cut, acknowledgement of her past of gender and race humiliation.
The white child on her back is however not without consequence for her. Bolt upright she stands, as if at attention, her legs and feet planted like those of the whites around her – battling to find her balance within the context of so many efforts of white balance.
The second sculpture, right opposite her, also has a child. This time it is with a white man, probably the father. But as reassured as one feels about the child with the black woman, as disconcerted one feels about the man. The child, clothed in a cheerful summer babygrow, is standing on the dense sturdy shoed feet of the father. He clamps his little arms with all his might around the too broad legs and thrusts his head into the crotch as if he wants to force himself into the impenetrable body of the father. His face is faceless against the thighs. The child on the black back looks fragile but dreamlessly anchored. The child against the legs hurls itself with something like despondency, as if searching refuge.
It is painful to look at the father’s body. It seems as if it is wanting to bend to pick up the child, as if it is wanting to concede awareness of the desperate desire of the child to be touched, but it is trapped in arms that are too short, a body that is too stiff, an inability of exactly that which seems so possible with the black woman – a strainless and flowing togetherness. The sculpture is gripping in its tension between the father’s laceration as he wants to touch the child and his complete awareness of his own paucity in the face of the intense need of the child. The small piece of the iris that is visible in profile renders the down turned gaze of the father devastatingly impassive.
The dialogue between the sculpture of the woman-with-child and the man-with-child forms the overpowering axis of the exhibition and it took a long time before I could untangle myself from its resonance. In an effort to rest I stared for several minutes at the beautifully unobtrusive and repetitive patterns on the women’s clothes.
My God! Look at this woman holding the twins – a child in each hand. They are identical, yes? No … they differ just enough so that one’s eyes constantly move from the one to the other, one to the other. Relieved, one’s eyes confirm: they are identical but not copies of each other. Is that easier or more difficult to make out of wood, is the absurd question flashing through my mind. The same and yet not the same, forcing you to move constantly and restlessly from one to the other … but then you are already in the spell of three pairs of eyes. Beyond the twins, burn the eyes of the mother. Although her face is ostensibly undemonstrative, a strange mixture of resolution, tenacity and concern washes through the wood.
Or am I imagining things? Am I not merely affected by the paralysis that I know should be in her arms as she holds these children aloft for ever – not as trophies, nor as shields or indulgent gesture, but as onerous, somewhat overwhelming fact: these are the two children for whom I am responsible. She holds them like two unscrewed wings.
This I see on her face, in her eyes. How does this come into/onto the wood? How does one carve wood so that reluctant emotion flashes in it for a moment? How does one arrange colour and expression so that one face drives you towards another?
Opposite this woman and children, a woman and man lie spooning. They are the only figures not standing. They are naked. Their hands flow out into strained cuspated fingertips and the man has lain his neatly onto the woman’s. Their identity-less feet rest untouched next to each other. The woman’s eyes are closed, the man buries his face in her hair. The man without face. The man who’s woman is his face. The man who has given his back to cover his wife’s.
You come closer and your breath sucks in your throat. The cuts. Oh God the seamed-up cuts cutting through their bodies. She sleeps. She only wears a vest. Her pubis is visible. Open. Dauntless. They lie intimately. They have been intimate, been one, but the seams betray the story of their making: constructed from shards and cuttings. An installation. No organic unit. No inevitable belonging. No painless togetherness. As a consequence one cannot endure her closed eyes on the white pillow nor his absent face. This dying off makes them seem already dead. One wants to wake them up and say: be two. It will be fine. The pain of One cuts too deep.
It is then that one steps back to look at the four sculptures as a group. The first thought is that they all behave as if they have been suddenly caught out, red handed, trapped when they were busy with an ordinary but intimate moment.
The presence of the observer is being acknowledged in the intense attempts of the shoed feet to continue, dour but solid, to find some kind of equilibrium in order for you to be able to look and see them. But one does not relax for a moment in front of this precarious searching for a sustainable foothold in a country hostile towards whites and those associated with them. They seem to stand steadfastly – for now – but those old-fashioned, slightly unimaginative clumsy shoes can lose their balance any minute through even the slightest disturbance and dwaff! the body will tumble and crash.
One senses with a sickening feeling: the vulnerability embedded within their white redundancy; the desperation embedded within their momentary white balance and their incapacity to imaginatively negotiate a future for themselves within a black context.
It feels as if every figure holds his or her inside back, reserves it. As if they want to prevent the viewer’s apparent access in order to claim back a kind of autonomy: I don’t want you to read my body; to look at me does not mean that you have access to that which has chafed me into this space.
The sculptures are all caught within the duality of a conflicting moment. The sleeping couple, the father and black woman are captured within a moment that is too soon. They display this premature moment as well as, simultaneously, the subsequent and preferable one they were aiming towards. The father would have preferred the next moment when he was bending and picking up the child. The black woman would have preferred to be in a moment of discomfort with this burden of a white child on her back. The couple is absorbed in their intimate sleeping. At the same time they are sleeping for ever. In truth they have died in order to preserve the intimacy for the viewer, but they would have preferred the next moment after they have drowsily pulled up a light crumpled sheet over their lower bodies.
The woman with the two children is the only sculpture that is directly busy with the viewer. On the one hand she is absorbed in the stress of taking responsibility of the two children, while at the same time deliberately thrusting the cause of this desperation into the face of the viewer. She is both absorption and presentation. She is absorbed in intimacy on the one hand, while urgently arresting or handicapping this very intimacy in order to present a spectacle for the viewer.
I visited all the art exhibitions in the vicinity before I walked into the space of your four sculptures in the Michael Stevenson gallery. It was striking how strongly the work I have seen of other artists up until that moment were being driven by politics, by forcefully satirizing and criticizing the South African government. The tone throughout was that of a piercing fury and the focus of the anger was corrupt black power.
Walking into the space of your sculptures was initially unsettling – a world of whites busy with insignificant actions and presented without caricaturist distortion. At the same time it felt as if two important points were being made through this little troupe from the white world on their white pedestals: in the heart of what was going so wrong now in the country, corruption and discrimination fuelled by greed, were we, us white people – still.
Somewhat gnarled, anxious, obsessively trying to ride out the storm, weather the winds of change by keeping “both feet on the ground” we stand irrefutable and un-disposable like white stubble under corrugated iron. People think we have disappeared, left, changed, but we simply went underground and hung in, hung on, clinging, clawing, holding on – vulnerable yet indestructible.
The second point was that the sculptures were caught in these ordinary everyday activities. And precisely because of their simple human there-ness, you were humanizing them. Those accused and regarded as nothing but callous, inhumane oppressors, you have rendered human in their small tentative concerns.
And that, dear Claudette, to speak from the mouth of Desmond Tutu, is the most important political deed that one can commit: to insist that the possibility for humane-ness exists in every one of us. That people were “made for goodness”.
To compel the viewer to react: to these figures in terms of our apart-ness from each other, to our incapacity to care for one another and our craving for stereotype to make it easy for us to blame others as we deny our own culpability – that is ultimately the most difficult of all.
I think that is where you are, dear Claudette, but remembering where I was at your age, I know I have missed the point. At your age one simply loves and does.
Jansen, Ena: “Thandi, Katrina, Meisie, Maria, ou Johanna, Christina, ou-Lina, Jane en Cecilia Magadlela” in Van Volksmoeder tot Fokofpolisiekar. Kritiese opstelle oor Afrikaanse herinneringsplekke Albert M Grundlingh and Siegfried Huigen (editors.) Stellenbosch: Sun Press, 2008.
Tutu, Desmond and Mpho: Made for Goodness - and why this makes all the difference London, Sydney, Auckland and Johannesburg: Rider Books, 2010.
I am indebted to prof Michael Fried for the notion of the existence of simultaneous “awarenesses” within a single artwork. I heard a lecture by him on Caravaggio at the Wissenschaftskolleg in Berlin and have subsequently read his books, especially:
*Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980.
* The Moment of Caravaggio Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2010.