Burnt by the Sun
Jack Shainman New York
"The installation is stunning and the body of work includes eight major wood carvings and four charcoal drawings. The objects greet and welcome you into Schreuders' world of intimate memories, personal introspection, African and Western icons and referents. All are embodied in ambiguously charming pieces and are presented in an intellectually savvy manner.
Entering the exhibition space, one finds a pair of figures entitled Conversation (2000), a self-portrait of the artist and a colonial officer. She wears a short red skirt and white long-sleeved shirt decorated with blue flowers, and her hands are held behind her back. The artist's effigy stands innocently looking at the police officer. The officer's hands are tucked into his khaki pants, suggesting a sense of ease as these figures engage in a friendly exchange. Directly following the conversing pair are a series of four charcoal drawings that depict different wooden colonial figures. The colonial figure, or "colon", is a widely recognizable icon of African art produced for both tourist and indigenous markets in Africa. Perhaps the most well-known colon figures are those by the Baule people of Cote d'Ivoire. Such figures wear European pith helmets and usually have accoutrements which recall the presence of Europeans in Africa. However, according to the late Philip Ravenhill, the term "colon" is also a signifier for traditional African wooden carvings to which industrial paint has been applied. In one drawing, Untitled (2000), the colon figure has a series of vertical cracks running throughout his body, emulating those found in wooden sculptures, and is animated through the suggestion of hand and foot movement. The figure wears his military hat, short-sleeved shirt, and shorts that reveal a muscular physique.
Moving further into the exhibition, Twins represents another figurative pairing. This time two girls sit beside each other wearing identical green dresses with plain white buttons. Schreuders states that these figures were inspired by a photograph of her sister seated beside a servant's child. Another level of interpretation can be found in Schreuders' reference to Nigerian "ibeji" figures. "Ibeji" are carved wooden twin figures that represent surrogates for deceased twins. This work shares a formal and thematic relationship to the Twins (1997) piece that she created as a memorial for the servants' children from her past. Charming pieces like these complicate notions of complacency embedded in the innocence of white South African childhood during the apartheid era. Schreuders' use of intimate moments from her past and people that touched her personally provides a potent forum for personal reflections on reconciling one's childhood with issues of socialization and survival.
The next two works, Owner of Two Swimsuits (2000) and Burnt by the Sun (2000), illustrate stories of "excess that involves taking more than you should, or being exposed to more than you can cope with" (Schreuders, press release). Burnt by the Sun, the largest figure on exhibition, portrays a white South African woman. Initially, the woman appears to be wearing pink evening gloves, yet on closer examination one discovers that the pink is the result of serious sun overexposure.
Another highlight of this exhibition is Lost Girl (2000). As a mermaid figurine with her tail flipping up behind her, a yellow snake encircling the base, and her hands held out suggesting an expression of martyrdom, one cannot help but interpret this piece as a cocktail of various references. One that readily comes to mind is Mammy Wata, or Mother of Water, a charismatic water-spirit introduced to West Africa from Europe around 1900. Usually depicted as a beautiful woman with flowing black hair who controls snakes, Schreuders' Lost Girl represents a composite of African and European influences.
Sunstroke (2000) is the largest assemblage of pieces in the exhibition. A man, apparently experiencing the intoxicating effects of sun sickness, reclines on a bed with his feet propped up against a nail fetish (or power figure). The power figure, also called "nkisi", is zoomorphically represented as a dog that has been activated (or called into action) numerous times by the insertion of wooden and iron nails. Power figures are found in many Central African cultures where potent medicines and materials are packed into a sculpted form (in this case a wooden dog) which acts as a receptacle. These figures are ritually called into action by driving sharp objects into their surface. An additional layer of interpretation to this piece is given by the presence of a crucified Christ figure (with four rather than three nails impaling the hands and feet, suggesting a Romanesque or medieval antecedent) that hangs on the wall above the bed. The death of Christ on the cross is the central image in Christian art and a visual focus of religious contemplation. Numerous sources have been assimilated into this wooden realm of figures that function as metaphors, or responses to life and religion in Africa.
This show offers numerous points of engagement. The sculptures inhabit individualized spaces and yet cohesively come together as a strong body of work. Additionally, as Jack Shainman states, Schreuders' work is paradoxical in that it appears simplistic at first, yet, on closer examination, the conceptually based and psychologically challenging elements emerge. Schreuders' work fuses elements of medieval sculpture, Catholic imagery and traditional African art with an emotional awareness, intimacy and immediacy that rarely come together so effectively in art.
Laurie Farrell is an Associate Curator at the Museum for African Art, New York