CLAUDETTE SCHREUDERS AND THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF COMPLEXITY
© Rory Bester

Schreuders with the unfinished Lokke in the sculpture studio, University of Stellenbosch
Each of Claudette Schreuders’ six bodies of work to date encapsulates an autobiographical phase in the artist’s own life. Family Tree (1998), her graduate show, is preoccupied with experiences at school and university. Burnt by the Sun (2001), produced at a time when Schreuders was completing artist’s residencies in Kenya, Nigeria and the United Kingdom, explores the testing effects of travel on self-identity. With the artist emerging as a regularly exhibited and critically acclaimed artist, Crying in Public (2002) reflected on the presentation and reception of artworks in public. The works for The Long Day (2004), made at a time when the artist was living in suburban Johannesburg, is an exploded view of the constrictions of residential living. Prompted by the birth of her first child and inspired by medieval representations of the biblical Eve, The Fall (2007) is a body of work that unfolds a story of love and creation. And lastly, Close, Close (2011) is full of the overwhelming presence of small children. It is no surprise then that Schreuders finds substance and meaning in this connection between life and art: “I enjoy art in which you can see the life where it comes from. Art that is solely about art is not as attractive to me as when there is life outside the work”.

In exploring these different autobiographical phases, Schreuders finds inspiration for individual works from diary entries and sketchbook drawings. The sketchbooks are not only containers of what she sees and then draws, but also collations of photocopies and cut-outs. They look inwards as well as outwards, ranging back into history and sideways across the layers of the social fabric around her. Sometimes these references will be kept for years before using them as the basis of a sculpture. More than just a simple record of personal incidences, Schreuders’ individual sculptures and collated bodies of work present the narrative complexity of growing into a life in the world. In re-telling and repeating her stories, primarily in sculptural form, the artist navigates the narrative movements, tensions even, between private life and public perception, between what is hers and hers alone, and what is refigured to drift away in the ever widening distances of public space.

Through the restrained form of mostly single figure sculptures Schreuders’ re-tells substantial stories about different times in her life:

I think what I’m interested in is telling stories. It’s portraiture, but it’s a vehicle for telling a particular story, or the way in which society makes people who they are, or the group against the individual. As soon as you make a figure, it has an identity, and it’s immediately a white person or a black person. To me, things aren’t that simple in South Africa. Everyone has an identity. And I made three white figures at first. … And then you start thinking, “but they’re all white” (Schreuders in Williamson 2001: np).

There are pitfalls to working with the human figure, especially in the context of an oeuvre that is so intimately tied to the artist’s biography. “The human figure is quite easy to identify with and become sentimental about,” reveals Schreuders. “So I avoid images that are too comfortable or familiar”.

Across the six bodies of work, there is little variation in Schreuders’ sculptural style – stocky figures with slightly oversized heads and hands, carved in wood and rendered with enamel paint. She was inspired by the emotive use of faces and hands in German Expressionism, and made use of stocky proportions to give a sense of warmth and generosity to her figures. But this child-like emotive innocence is deceptive. While influenced by the use of scale and proportion in German Expressionism, Schreuders’ sculptures are largely without drama or emotion. They conform to the natural shape of the trunk of wood at hand, resulting in standing, sitting or lying figures with arms and legs relatively close to the body. But the still quiet and apparent passivity belies sharp insight and commentary on the private and public ordinariness of everyday life, and conjoins the personal, social and political with whispered lyricism.

Looking into the eyes of the figures shows nothing but vacant stares. Looking at the positions of the figures suggest rigidity, even paralysis of movement. The contradicting visual clues in the artist’s style importantly underscore the narrative complexity of her subject matter. Don’t judge a book by its cover. Because all is not what it seems. To this end, Schreuders takes great care in the form and finishing of her work, not to create any sense of realism, but rather to strongly evoke a sense of believability in what the figures encapsulate and represent. It is this believability that drives the meaning that can be found in the complexity of Schreuders’ work.

Until recently, Schreuders has mostly produced each of her sculptures from a single block of wood: “When I started working in wood, I loved the limitation of the size of the piece of wood,” she says. “And because of the nature of taking back, the figures are quite tube-like”. This tube-like figurative quality, subtracted using a chain saw and carving tools, that implies an important reference: the colon figure. Found throughout West Africa, colon figures are depictions of Europeans or Africans in western dress (Steiner 1991: 42). While colon figures have always referenced European clothing and poses, during the colonial era they were largely produced for use in indigenous rituals (Steiner 1991: 42). However, as decolonisation gained momentum in the late 1950s, Europeans serving in African colonies “began commissioning portraits of themselves as souvenirs to take back home” (Steiner 1991: 42), resulting in a new commercial trade in colon figures that became increasingly aimed at the tourist market. From originally being representations of the owner’s status in society, the meaning and significance of the statues came to increasingly reflect the politics of European colonial history in Africa. According to Christopher Steiner:

Unlike most African art that is brought to the West and made to stand for the exotic nature of a romanticized Other, colonial figures stand for the Other’s relationship to the West. Instead of achieving their value by an emphatic denial of foreign contact, these figures are interpreted by the buyers as a celebration of modern Western expansionism. … In its new context the colonial statue is still a symbol of social status, not, however, because it represents the appropriation of the West by Africa, but rather because its very ownership by a Westerner signifies the re-appropriation of Africa and is thus prized as an image that pays homage to the conquest of the continent (1991: 43).

Schreuders’ original reference to colon figures is still strong. “They were crucial to me in how I wanted my sculptures to look,” she reveals. “And today I am still where I started.” Despite their figurative distortions the colon figures have a ‘living’ quality that appeals to Schreuders desire to create believability in her work. She also remains interested in the historical and representational complexity of the colon figures in a postcolonial context. The colon provides an important clue to the artist’s overriding concerns with the spaces and moments between private and public, inside(r) and outside(r), ritual and self-imaging.

In the colon figures there is a sense of the translation of different perceptions into a range of meanings, and that the wooden statues themselves are part of a translation across multiple histories rather than the focus of the translation in one particular moment in time. Schreuders too implicates her sculptures in forms of translation that has her three-dimensional work mediating the two-dimensional references and iterations on either side of it. In this translation between two- and three-dimensional forms the artist’s sculptures are reproduced as lithographs, creating a form chronology in which the sculptures filter the accumulations of her sketchbook, and in turn become the basis for the sculptural distillation of her original thoughts and ideas back onto a paper surface.

The artist’s method starts with rudimentary thumbnail sketches of prospective sculptures – sometimes in colour pencil, sometimes in ballpoint pen – to remember an idea more than anything else. “They aren’t very detailed,” she says. “Otherwise they’d take away from the pleasure of carving.” Drawings were initially also kept as a record of work done, but buyer demand made Schreuders release them for sale. Still wanting a form of record, and having experienced the creative possibilities of lithography with the comic strips she produced in 2001, Schreuders began producing lithographs of her sculptures. While Schreuders repeats her sculptures in lithographic form, it is not necessarily in the chronological sequence of their three-dimensional renditions. Taken from photographs of the sculptures, the lithographs offer a particular version and view of the sculpted works that is documentary in its recording. Schreuders’ sculptures and lithographs both involve acts of carving on natural materials (wood and stone), which appeals to the artist, but there is little or no sense of the original sculptural scale in her lithographs. This is especially acute in the difference between the larger-than-life sculpture and the comparatively small lithograph of The Boyfriend (2003).

Schreuders has established a style whose formal elements reiterate a sense of ambiguity and anxiety: small solitary figures with the aura of invisible or indeterminable narrative silences, the generally expressionless faces that mask any overt or strong feelings, the use of Jacaranda wood that implies at once a regard and disregard for skin tone, and the hushed enamel shades with which she dresses most of her wooden figures. This ambiguity and anxiety reiterate the extent to which the artist’s exploration of belonging is filtered through feelings of dislocation. The FAMILY TREE (1998), which loosely constitutes the artist’s first body of work, already manifests this experience of ambiguity and anxiety. It includes Lokke, a portrait of a school friend whose nickname was ‘Lokke’ (locks). This student work, made in 1994, is often cited as the one bookend of her current style, and depicts a schoolgirl stands on top of a government-issue flip-top school desk. Her oversized hands slightly upturned. One senses her palms – and her entire being – are about to be exposed to further humiliation. She is an anxious and vulnerable memory of a classmate ridiculed for being too different for belonging.

According to Schreuders: “(The) sense of (my) dislocation was not only the result of a European heritage within an African context, but also the marginalisation that formed part of a restrictive society that set limits and threatened to reject those who did not conform” (1999: 00). Her ambivalence about South Africa at the time co-existed with the contradiction of clearly missing the places that she had lived in and left during her life. It is the tear and tears of here and there. When she was making the sculptures for the BURNT BY THE SUN (2001) series, Schreuders had a strong sense of both not belonging to and not wanting to be in South Africa. This series was inspired largely by her experience during a residency in Kenya – and more especially her pale skin’s reaction to the sun, as well as her fellow artists’ reaction to her sunburn. It’s various works collectively meditation on fragile identities. Two Swimsuits, Sun Stroke and Burnt by the Sun are at once ambiguous meditations on whiteness, and anxious examinations of changing identities, especially in the last-mentioned work’s figuration of a woman in a white dress bringing her hands closer to her face to examine the effect of sunburn. Her face isn’t written with pain or irritation, but rather still with a slow curiosity, as though the burning had never happened before, or thought possible. Melancholy Boy, a redheaded boy in Y-fronts, has a Swahili inscription just his waistline. The boy, pointing the reader to what is written on his body, is lost without the translation of this wisdom of belonging: The one who wants you to leave will not tell you so.

Working alongside Kenyan sculptor Jackson Wanjou - Lake Naivasha residency, Kenya, 1998
In the languages and translations of belonging, ambiguity triggers anxiety. And anxiety in turn reinforces ambiguity. Together they agitate the emotive swellings and contractions in our senses of belonging. The CRYING IN PUBLIC (2002) series is a curious combination ambiguity and anxiety because the artist seems largely at ease with the strongly autobiographical content of her work. Each work explores those often-awkward (and even embarrassing) moments of love and family that commence as a series of fantasies of an emerging adulthood and later become the cumulative realities of growing older. The titles of all of Schreuders’ exhibitions are drawn from a single work on show. Crying in Public is replica of tension and anxiety, from the woman’s clenched brow and few glistening tears, to the roughly hewn but clearly tight fists.

Similarly in Show and Tell a woman opens her white shirt and partially reveals her chest to the viewer. There is nothing erotic about the gesture. It seems matter-of-fact, a necessary part of everyday life. Schreuders reveals intimate stories about herself, making public what for most of use remains private. While the artist is sometimes anxious about telling more than she should to people she doesn’t know, it seems easier for her to make art when she isn’t pressured to think outside of her world: “It’s important for me to use my reality – rather than leaving it – when making art”.

Without a referencing sociability, the isolation that is induced by fear inevitably turns to loneliness. And loneliness is a fertile hunting ground for dreams of fantasy. The Narrow Bed is a suffocating study in such loneliness. A woman lies face down on a bed, covered by a lightly patterned red blanket. Lying with her back to the world, her half open eyes mark a chafing between sleep and wakefulness, between the reality of loneliness and the fantasy of something else. The bed, barely the width of her body, reinforces the solitariness of her sleep. There is a tension between the quietude of the resting body and the confining size of a bed without shared possibilities. But in marking loneliness, Schreuders – importantly – leaves it without judgement or fear.

The Third Person and Love Story are two works from the CRYING IN PUBLIC series that capture this sense of growing up and growing older. The former consists of two female figures uncomfortably close to one another. The closeness is as much the mental as physical presence of another person who hovers at the sideline of an already existing relationship. The latter is of a small sculpture of a mermaid, her face stiff in disbelief as she stares at the tiny man she holds in her left hand. Love Story introduces a further reference to African ritual and tradition: Mami Wata (and even the more erotic La Sirene), that dual world figure of especially financial prosperity.

Schreuders’ autobiography references other forms of belonging. She is undoubtedly interested in things that are difficult to say. Sometimes an upsetting or traumatic experience can prompt Schreuders to make a sculpture, but the anxiety of the moment is often rendered into her biography through the use of humour. According to David Frankel, Schreuders work reflects a sensitivity to inequalities of power and to the politics of belonging, or not, and though she always addresses these problems symbolically and personally – her concerns appear more in relationships between individuals than in social analysis – it is easy to pick up her objects’ responsiveness to vibrations in the larger nation. At the same time, exactly because they are personal, they may resonate with the feelings of viewers who need not know that Schreuders is South African (Frankel 2007: xx).

Studio in Linden, Johannesburg, 2003
THE LONG DAY (2004) is a record of when the artist lived in Linden, a suburb of Johannesburg. As a body of work it is preoccupied with the conditions and limitations of Schreuders’ own circle of family, friends and neighbourhood, and encompasses actually encountered people within this small suburban space. For those who never leave a suburb the familiarity is enormously comforting. For those who leave and never come back the familiarity is uneasy and discomforting. Those who stay are often nervous of those who leave, and the latter are generally dismissive of those who linger. Schreuders is somewhere in between. She went to Linden High School, left the suburb for the better part of a decade, and, much to her surprise, returned as a practicing artist.

A long day is usually too long. It’s also hard. In The Long Day (2004), the title sculpture of this series, a woman lies on her back, dressed casually in a white vest and underwear. At first glance it implies an easy domesticity, just beyond the view of public scrutiny. But the woman’s head is raised ever so slightly. Frozen at that moment, it suggests significant effort. The day is long in advance of itself. And it proposes a distinct relationship between inside and outside, not only in the sense of belonging to the social structures of personal relationships, families and communities, but also in the sense of what is welcome in the inner sanctum of the home and what remains (we think) distinctly outside of it in a greater unknown.

Unlike some of the installation-like combinations of sculptures in earlier bodies of work, THE LONG DAY is made up entirely of solitary figures, stressing the isolation that has preoccupied much of her exploration of suburban proximity, but also disjoining the narrative that forms the basis of individual works. In carefully mapping the titles of her sculptures, Schreuders set up her figures in expectation of the suffocating unknowingness of narrative context. “While I was living in Linden I was often stuck in one place,” recalls Schreuders. “I never had to move, other than between the house and my studio in the garden. I felt very isolated, but it was also very difficult to get up and go out at the end of a long day in the studio”.

As a series includes The Quiet Brother (2004), The Three Sisters (2004) and Ben (2004), a life-size sculpture of her Siamese cat. In bringing together the characters of the long day in a sort of family tree, Schreuders brings a familiarity to this interior world, and also a sense that identity is formed by interpersonal relationships. At the same time the collective effect of these works is a lamentation of a world that seems so far away. There is a suggestion that being in suburbia feels like there is little or nothing out there. The Neighbour (2004), based on an actual incident in which burglars assaulted a neighbour across the road from her house, shows only the elderly, slouched man, neatly dressed in a short-sleeve shirt and shorts in shades of brown, with a small trickle of blood dripping down the side of his head. He is a single figure of loneliness, paralyzed with an expression of emptiness.

In being isolated from those around you by the security of enclosure, neighbours are part of one’s world, but also always just outside it. In consciousness, they seem quite far away. In a series of sculptures about the long day, about the people who enter and leave the artist’s home, The Neighbour is an outsider, a momentary guest in a family album. He signifies a release from the isolation of an enclave. It marks a point of contact with surrounding suburbia in which with other neighbours also came out into the street to witness the effects of crime in their suburb. Associated with The Neighbour is Officer Molefe, who investigated the burglary, and more generally (in his isolation), figures the marginal place of working black people in white suburban life. The threat of violence keeps people apart and isolated, but the realisation of that threat brings together as strangers in the street. Crime and violence beget strangeness as much as familiarity.

In what is probably Schreuders’ most overt statement of love, not only in THE LONG DAY series but in her oeuvre as a whole, The Boyfriend is a monumental head of her partner, Anton Kannemeyer. Its sheer size, and lack of painterly effect, has the effect of creating the dominant marker of relief in a long day. It makes the rest of the artist’s world (and those who inhabit it) seem, quite literally, small by comparison.

We all shed identities when they lose their fit. Missing Person is a single figure of a girl in a green school uniform, not unlike the one Schreuders wore at Linden High School. It is one of those few occasions in which Schreuders mimics a self-portrait. While the title is ambiguous enough to suggest a more sinister narrative, it lingers more in the memory of loss, of growing up and forgetting what you once were. It is a reminder that is often jogged when returning to a suburb – as an adult – that you once grew up in as a child. Old familiar routes become partial reminders of what once was, and new routes become ways of comfortably remembering what was missing. This latter work captures the tension of wanting to move and make changes.

One of the senses of belonging that has shadowed Schreuders, especially at the onset of her artistic production, is the biographical matter of her being a white Afrikaner woman who grew up in apartheid South Africa. It is the gauze through which her work is repeatedly viewed, but one that the artist does not over-emphasize:

In 1996 I heard Marlene Dumas speak at the Tate Gallery, which was exhibiting a selection of her works on paper at the time. It was clear that she grew up in South Africa, that this experience brought certain characteristics to the fore, but it didn’t define her as an artist. And I don’t necessarily need this identity for my work to make sense either.

The historical identity politics that has underpinned the relationship between the Dutch and Afrikaans languages – the latter largely derived and developed in colonial South Africa from the colonizing presence of the former – has been twisted with the emergence of a post-apartheid Afrikaner community in the Netherlands. This social translation from Afrikaans back to Dutch is re-visitation of a long history of forgotten colonial ties. As the child of first- and second-generation Dutch immigrants to South Africa, Schreuders is something of the opposite. Having grown up with Dutch traditions, she’s more an Afrikaans speaker than an Afrikaner. And it is here that the ripple between the language of belonging and the rituals of identity come together in Schreuders’ The Writer, a memorial to lost belonging, and more specifically the way in which Olive Schreiner wrote herself out of English society but was never accepted in the Afrikaner society she so passionately defended during the Anglo-Boer War in South Africa.

One of Schreuders’ struggles is to be free of the work she is expected to make, both as an artist living here and as an artist who has produced particular work before. She shies away from the inevitable constraint of what people think you should be making. “It’s a constant struggle to define myself as an artist, and then still be free within that definition,” laments the artist. “Which is why I hate reading about my work, hate being positioned in particular ways”.

At the same time, the artist is cognisant that things become more and less important as you grow older, and that some of the most important decisions that come to form a biography are not actually decisions but rather impulses. “When I was young I felt so different from everyone else, but as I got older, I realised I have always been quite similar to everyone else. When you’re a student you’re like all students, when you’re a mother you’re like all mothers. With THE FALL (2007), as a body of work, this overriding sense of similarity between biographies is reiterated through a sense of the apparent repetition of one couple in different figurations.

Continuing her themes of isolation, dislocation and alienation, THE FALL references the Biblical story of the fall from the Garden of Eden, but without any direct or overt references to religious meanings. The Biblical story is emblematic of a relationship between two people, including the intimate intensity of the beginning, the serpent-like trespassing outsider whose shadow comes over the relationship, and the departure that comes from expulsion. Here and elsewhere the titles of her works, and especially their simplicity, bring an archetypal quality to both the personalities being represented and their actions in time and space: trespasser, virgin, arrival, departure, beginning, fall. Driven to produce work as much by preconceived titles as by reference images, Schreuders is cognisant that as much as there is meaning in her titles, their simplicity is also meant to open up the meaning derived from her work.

CLOSE, CLOSE (2011) is the artist’s latest body of work. It is preoccupied with small children, and responds to the single-figure solitariness and isolation of the works in THE LONG DAY by offering works of two or more figures carved out of a single piece of wood. The title of the exhibition and the corresponding work is taken from a poem by Elizabeth Bishop entitled Close close all night:

Close close all night
the lovers keep.
They turn together
in their sleep,
close as two papers
in a book
that read each other
in the dark.
Each knows all
the other knows
learnt by heart
from head to toes.

As a description of a sleeping couple, the poem precisely describes a closeness that is at once comfortingly familiar and stiflingly over-familiar. And it is this contradiction that Schreuders renders in the spooning composition of the title work, Close, Close. In this series, the ‘insider’, as both an experience of belonging and the title of one of the works, is marked by the experience of pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood. It is reinforced by closely related themes in the other works: a mother holds up a child in Eclipse, a caregiver has a baby on her back in Abba, a mother holding a baby in each arm in Two Hands, and a father standing with a child on his feet in One. There is little respite from the involving presence of children, but at the same time this new stage has created a newfound critical distance from her work. “When I made THE LONG DAY, the work was all I thought about,” recalls Schreuders. “But when you have small children your gaze shifts. It becomes a different kind of enclosed world. This is what occupies me for now, so that is what I’m making work about”.

REFERENCES

Frankel, David. 2007. ‘Claudette Schreuders: Jack Shainman Gallery’. In ArtForum, May.
Gable, Eric. 1998. ‘Appropriate Bodies: Self Through the Other in Manjaco and Portuguese Representation, 1946-1973’. In Visual Anthropology Review 14(1), Spring-Summer, pp.3-18.
O’Toole, Sean. 2004. ‘Cruel and Tender’. In Arthtrob, April. Source: http://www.artthrob.co.za/04apr/reviews/schreuders.html. Accessed 5 January 2011.
Schreuders, Claudette. 1999. ‘Artist’s Statement’. In Frank Herreman (ed). Liberated Voices: Contemporary Art from South Africa. New York: Museum for African Art, pp. 00-00.
Steiner, Christopher B. 1991. ‘The Trade in West African Art’. In African Arts 24(1), January, pp. 38-43, 100-101.
Williamson, Sue. ‘Claudette Schreuders’. In Artthrob, September. Source: http://www.artthrob.co.za/00sept/artbio.html. Accessed on 5 January 2011.