At Home with the Sacred: Claudette Schreuders’ Sculptures and Prints
Faye Hirsch

Left: Dominee, 1994, ceramic; Right: Claudette's grandfather, Willem van Bergen, 1941
Entering an installation by Claudette Schreuders can be an uncanny experience. All around, on white pedestals, are small wooden figures. Most stand alone, some in groups of two or three, in quiet poses, their gestures subdued; unsmiling, they stare straight ahead or slightly downward, and their gazes seem to be directed as much inward as outward. Flat, colorful enamel paint is applied selectively to hair and eyes, clothing and shoes, and to occasional props, furniture and attributes. Otherwise, where their “skin” is exposed, the Jacaranda wood of which they are carved is mostly left bare, smoothed and gently striated with its natural grain. Costumes are generically contemporary: casual sundresses for the women, button-down shirts and slacks or shorts for the men. Occasionally, more flamboyant patterns or elaborate shoes signal a poignant vanity in their wearers. We have entered a world of personages much like ourselves. Vulnerable and accessible because of their smallish scale, they are remote in their demeanor and in the bond that links them—a narrative to which we will only ever have limited access, no matter how well informed we are about the story behind a particular tableau, no matter how informative the gallery notes or accommodating the artist herself. The figures are guarded, private, and their mysterious self-sufficiency is one of their greatest appeals.

Over the past eight years, at installations of each of her four major sculptural groups—“Burnt by the Sun,” “Crying in Public,” “The Long Day” and “The Fall”—Schreuders has included, framed on the wall, series of prints associated with them. These are lithographs she has been producing at Artists’ Press in Mpumalanga since 2002, working with Mark Attwood, founder and proprietor of the collaborative workshop, and staff (most consistently Leshoka Legate who, like Attwood, was trained as a master printer at the U.S. studio Tamarind Press in New Mexico). She considers her lithos “records” of the sculptures, which, after all, are “something that leaves me,” as she has said. In their looseness of execution, they are akin to numerous sketches she makes for the sculptures, but they retain the formal reserve of the statues. In addition, each figure or group is placed at the center of a blank sheet (actually a tissue-like chine collé adhered to the backing sheet during the printing process) as if surrounded by empty space, like the sculpture on which it is based. Curiously, the application of tusche (a lithographic wash) creates a feeling of light and shadow falling on enlivened surfaces, although the illumination appears to come from multiple directions, perhaps an index of the many ways a single statue might be lit over the course of a day. On the one hand, the gestural, painterly treatment of the figures gives them a feeling of life; on the other, their clear ties to statuary seem to arrest them in space and time. In this, they resemble the printed mementoes of cult statuary that pilgrims take away with them to remember a shrine: “These lesser reproductions,” wrote David Freedberg in his 1989 book, The Power of Images, “may be the small mementos of our great journeys, but we also expect them to bring into our lives something of the grace of the larger images they reproduce … . They are protectors of our homes and tokens of the presence of the holy.”

Freedberg’s book has been an important influence on Schreuders, a fact that she often mentions in interviews when discussing her preoccupation with the sacred sources for her images. One of her earliest carved wooden sculptures, Dominee (1994), which she made while still a student, was based on a photo of her grandfather, who was for a time a preacher. It depicts a man in an black robe standing with an African mud sculpture resting against his legs. “I was about 21 when I made that,” she writes. “We had philosophy as a subject and this all contributed to the religious themes. But also, the old religious sculptures seemed so powerful and meaningful to me. I was trying to find a way of making that my own.” Dominee also signals Schreuders’ early interest in the clash of cultures that has marked her homeland’s history, and one of her successes has been, as a contemporary artist alert to the mixture of influences that marks global artmaking today, to bring together sources from a wide variety of societies and eras. With some important exceptions, however, Schreuders’ figures bear no explicit traces of otherworldly ties, but seem resolutely quotidian. Indeed, her first “saint,” as she characterizes it, another early sculpture, Lokke (1994), is a pigtailed schoolgirl:

One of the main inspirations for her was the horror movie Santa Sangre by Alejandro Jodorowsky [1989] … about a son who believes his dead mother is alive. She tells him to murder young women; she controls him. There are sculptures of the mother everywhere in the son’s house, to him she is a religious figure… . She is like his invented religion. I liked the idea of inventing my own saint (a way of making what appealed to me most, religious sculptures) and I remembered a girl nicknamed “Lokke,” a kind of black sheep or scapegoat in my school, very unpopular because of her hairstyle and her stubborn way of standing out. She eventually left our school after being continuously humiliated, even pushed over.

There is nothing obviously saintly about Lokke, an awkward figure who stands on a desk with her hands open by her side, as if in submission. Often the saintly quality in Schreuders’ figures is conveyed by very subtle cues: this pose, for example, which is like that of a martyr accepting her fate. There is a stoical quality to many of Schreuders’ sculptures, and often an awkwardness. They quietly suffer: from sunburn, insomnia, childbirth or a wound, the last inflicted on The Neighbor, the murder victim in “The Long Day,” who stands open-eyed and serene as his head bleeds, like a retablo martyr. Others seem simply to endure—eternally waiting and watching patiently—as in The Bystander (2004), a young woman in a white dress and red shoes, standing modestly with her hands behind her back.

But one might also argue that the sense that they are packed with meaning despite their ostensible simplicity and diminutiveness, their function of embodying multiple identities and multiple levels of meaning, holds them, like sacred sculptures, slightly aloof from the world, even as they refer to it more or less directly. All of the figures in “The Long Day” refer to actual people who were part of Shreuders’ life at the time—but they are also abstracted, ineffably embodying the violence, loneliness and mordant humor in her narrative. As the content has grown more complex over the years, the sculptures have become ever more still and dispassionate. Indeed, their very form—big heads and hands, drapery falling in flat planes over generalized bodies—and their ordinariness seem to add to their power, “the felt relationship between the simple and rudimentary form on the one hand and divine interference on the other,” as Freedberg characterizes archaic-looking sacred statuary across civilizations. Still, in the second version of The Three Sisters (2003-04), in which the artist and her sisters, solemn in demeanor, clutch three attributes in oversize hands—one sister holds a baby, the artist a miniature of her brother, and the other sister her own head—we sense as much an amusing barb about family personalities as lofty allusions to European hagiography.

Throughout Shreuders’ sketchbooks, one finds much visual evidence of her preoccupation with sacred statuary from around the world: Madonnas of all types; Egyptian pharaohs, who were considered gods and treated as such in representations; and, perhaps most important, African wooden sculptures such as colon (painted figures in Western garb intended for the tourist trade) and the Baule Blolo sculptures of the Ivory Coast, on which the colon are based. The Blolo figures, representing a couple’s second set of mates in the spirit realm, were carved in accordance with descriptions transmitted through dreams; placed in the home or carried around for special occasions, they exist as a route of appeasement for various real-life dramas in a couple’s life together. Like the secular colon, they are painted in colorful costumes that often indicate social status—including fancy shoes, a detail that Schreuders adopted with relish—but their effect is magical, allowing contact between worlds. Seeing photographs of Schreuders at work on her figures is a little spooky: the rough, rudimentary statues look almost like fetishes, or golems. She will eventually smooth them out, take away traces of primitive emotion: not for her are the rough surfaces of sculptures by the German artist Stephan Balkenhol, who like Schreuders creates small wooden figures of ordinary people, but whose statuary combines the surreal and expressionistic. Nor are they as eerie as Karin Sanders’s tiny figures created from body scans of real people, shrunk to a scale of 1:10 and displayed on pillars under glass, like specimens (Personen 1:10, 1998-2001). Schreuders’ figures resemble the real people on whom they are based, but they are hardly realistic.

One senses the weight of complex mixtures of time and place in Shreuders’ figures, and that sense of holding such abundant meaning, of being packed with content, contributes to a quality of the sacred. Some medieval shrine sculptures were fitted with compartments containing actual relics of the saints, explaining their veneration, but many were not—and these might be held equally in awe. The source of their holiness, of the devotion with which they were treated, lay somewhere in the past. The story of their origins mutated as time passed, fueled by rumor and miracles, and it was finally the continued veneration itself that fueled the statue’s sacredness. And such venerated art need not present verismilitude at all—it can be quite crude or purely abstract, or highly stylized, like the solemn seated virgin and child figures of Romanesque Europe which Schreuders’ figures somewhat resemble. Of course, Schreuders’ sculpture is not sacred sculpture; there are no religious themes as such and no demands for devotion. The faces of many of the female figures represent her own—not quite self-portraits—and in interviews she takes a bemused view of herself, commenting as often upon the grotesque and cruel aspects of her work as on anything having to do with saints. “The Fall,” which sprang, in part, from Western representations of the Genesis narrative of Adam and Eve (for Departure, a naked woman covering her face as she stumbles along borrows the pose of Adam from Masaccio’s Expulsion in the Brancacci Chapel), is told by way of Shreuders’ domestic world. The story is not meant to be an account to the faithful of this foundational myth. Having been struck by medieval representations of Eve awkwardly pulled from the trunk of Adam, Schreuders adapted the action, transforming the woman into a figure of agency, even dominance, as she emerges from the sleeping man’s belly, and she added an erotic dimension, although the figures’ eyes are closed as if both are dreaming, and the man’s penis is flaccid. Often representing herself, her friends and family, her figures share with the public an intimate view of daily life, albeit one in which remarkable interventions of dreams and creativity can produce magical effects.

Thus Schreuders’ fascination with such protean characters as mermaids, which she drew as a child and then took delight in inserting into her narratives; or Mami Wata, a snake-accompanied water spirit popular in Nigeria, which she first saw in the art of Cheri Samba, the Congo artist (b. 1956), whom she depicted in a portrait bust in 2001. “I was fascinated,” she writes. “It was like a new religion made up out of so many different stories, African and Western.” Schreuders fuses Mami Wata with another sirenlike water spirit, the South African cult figure, the Watermeisie, and even with versions of the Madonna: The Free Girl, for example, a nearly full-size figure that was carved to stand in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Manhattan for a 2004 South African survey in New York entitled “Personal Affects.” Having lost her fish’s tail, and wearing a modest blue-gray dress, she bears a snake around her neck, referring to Mami Wata, and treads on another, like the Madonna triumphing over sin. Yet what was striking about this figure when she was installed in the church was the way in which she resisted sacredness. Amid paintings and sculptures with downright religious content, The Free Girl looked both primal—she is a snake handler, after all—and extremely plain, a housewife come to worship. When she was surrounded, as intended, by lit candles, one became very aware that simple domesticity may be invested with transcendence, a belief that Pier Paolo Pasolini, for example, conveyed in his films.

With her Mami Wata/Watermeisie figure, Schreuders brings into the midst of her family spirits that are regarded as bestowing prosperity and good fortune. Among her first lithographs at Artists’ Press is a comic-book-like, nine-frame storyboard, Love Story, telling the tale of a mermaid who fell in love with a sailor; though this print is not a “record” as are her later lithos, it relates to a sculpture of the same title in which a mermaid cups a little man in her hand, gazing at the doll-like figure longingly. Made in 2002, the same year as her busts of D.H. Lawrence and Olive Schreiner (titled The Writer, the Schreiner portrayal, elegant despite its simplicity, recalls the ancient bust of Nefertiti) Love Story is more fairy tale than sacred text, representing the fiction and fantasy that can transform mundane life.

With some notable exceptions, Schreuders keeps her figures at miniature scale—not tiny, but rarely more than three feet tall. “The fact that they’re small makes them more attractive,” Schreuders has said. “If they’re bigger, they get more repulsive, in that they get too life-like.” There is something amusing about the tiny figure cupped in the mermaid’s hand in Love Story, and her rapt attention, for we as viewers are similarly enchanted by Shreuders’ miniaturist world. Smallness plays a role in the feeling of suspended time and otherness that we experience as we contemplate these figures. “The metaphoric world of the miniature,” writes Susan Stewart, “makes everyday life absolutely anterior and exterior to itself. The reduction in scale … skews the time and space relations of the everyday lifeworld, and as an object consumed, the miniature finds its ‘use value’ transformed into an infinite time of reverie.” The figures are not invariably small scale, but when they are not we notice. There is, for example, The Boyfriend, the 3-1/2-foot tall head that presided over “The Long Day.” Though physically no larger than the other sculptures on view, it loomed large in relative scale; though not so gigantic as the Colossal Head of Constantine, that famous ancient fragment on the Capitoline, it was no less imposing, in the company of its small companions. As Schreuders explained, “It was part of the concept, that if [“The Long Day”] were a world, he would be the president, the big person.” His scale was important in the tableau; its content concerned her loneliness when her boyfriend and she lived apart, and a violent incident that took place in her neighborhood during his absence. The boyfriend loomed large in the artist’s life, and so he does in her sculptural rendition of events.

Like her statue The Critic, which Schreuders placed in her installation “Crying in Public” gazing, hands behind her back, at a wall of framed drawings, we viewers regard Schreuders’ world with fascination, drawn in by its various seductions but kept apart from its secrets. In her figures, Schreuders adopts elements of populist worship—talismans, santos, and spirit doubles—and translates them into avatars of domesticity. We are encouraged to recognize the ways in which the otherwordly, through dreams and fantasy, even common violence, inserts itself in our daily existence. Familiarity is the site of sacredness in Schreuders’ installations, and she has discovered in the iconography of cultures worldwide the vocabulary with which to transmit it to a visitor who, perhaps herself arriving in a simple dress and sensible shoes, separate from but not unlike the figures who inhabit the room, regards its many possibilities.