The bystander’s gaze
I dream of a favourite painting of mine melting into a ball of wax after it is sold to a collector. She no longer wants it, and I have to return the large sum of money deposited into my account. I enter a lift in a corporate building to deliver the money; it shoots upward, throwing me against the opposite, mirrored wall of the small space. When I finally manage to exit, I pass through an optometrist’s office, where several people are being fitted with new glasses. They have no frames, and the round lenses float effortlessly in front of their eyes.
It makes me smile.
Although the lenses in my dream were transparent, the effect was similar to this image
Someone familiar (one of my sisters?) is sitting in a dentist’s chair in the corner, her head encased in a “seeing machine” that shakes her body violently.
Norman Rockwell it is not.
I am too scared to approach the darkly vibrating machine.
For a while now I find myself pondering the deeper significance of being a bystander – whether helpless, innocent, compassionate, enabling, encouraging – and how it seems (to me) necessary to be both bystander and active participant when creating. The most telling example is a phenomena I experienced during the long writing process of both my novels – at some point I started having specific dreams for specific characters; or, put differently, I started to dream in character. It was an intense and discombobulating experience, and exhausting, as I had to scribble down the essence of each dream throughout the night.
The writer – I/eye – became an observing bystander while dreaming; my characters’ sometimes dangerous, inexplicably unwholesome and bizarre choices seemingly beyond my control. But my nighttime dreams drove the narrative, and inspired the hard slog of daytime writing, so I put up with – even welcomed – the inconvenience.
At the moment I’m experiencing a similar distancing, or separation, while working on new assemblages; as if suspended on the ceiling of my studio, I look down on my hands as they stitch, or paint, or cut through scraps of old embroideries found in junk shops. Part of the new series I’m working on is to repurpose the handiwork of other women, to pervert the ideal of the silently sewing female. I’m interested in the ‘wrong’ sides of my found stitched pieces; often more beautiful than the shiny fronts, especially when it was shoddily finished and the colourful threads spill their guts freely.
While working, it feels as if I’m being instructed by the work itself, receiving commands I simply obey to translate thought and feeling into three-dimensional objects. This not-unpleasant feeling of disconnection reminds me of how I once introduced myself as a ‘lethargist’ to a group of firecracker local feminist activists, worrying that it might sound as if I’m not affected by what happens around me. (Would they somehow think less of me?)
As a young art student at university in the late-1970s, my painting professor often cautioned me that my chosen colour palette of pinks and other pastel hues will result in “not being taken seriously as an artist”. According to him, my work was “too pretty” to carry much weight. All around me, students were cautiously making ‘serious protest art’ (although not so much at the conservative campus I attended). Abstract Expressionism was the rage, with angry, bold, red or black X-shapes almost obligatory marks on canvases. Protest art also flourished in the form of poster design, like the well-known example below. (Sadly, the words of Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr come to mind when looking at this, almost twenty years after democracy.)
Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr: “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose”
My artistic response to an awakening social and political conscience (age 18) was to paint long-necked mythical beasts with human faces – in soft pinks and lilacs and apricot hues. Although now aware of the misogynistic message hidden in my professor’s critique, remembering his response still evokes feelings of shame. And I still hesitate to use a certain shade of pink in my work.
I wonder what he would’ve made of this artist’s work?
switchgear has this to say about her work: I think that they qualify as feminist art because
1) I’m a feminist and I made them
2) I’m focussing on images of women
3) they have queer-positive and lesbian-positive messages.
Sometimes, this bystander persona spills over into real life, paralysing me. On Thursday 9 August, South Africa will celebrate Women’s Day. On Monday 6 August, Minister Lulu Xingwana – managing the portfolio of Women, Children, and People with Disabilities (the lumping together of these diverse groups is telling) – told the National Press Club in Pretoria that government was taking measures to turn the tide against women abuse. About time, I’d say. I’m tired of hearing this rhetoric, more of which will be dished up on Thursday for the adoring fans of our leader, President Zuma, when he will deliver a speech at the Union Buildings.
The Union Buildings, seat of government, South Africa
In a country where the majority of people remain uneducated – the result of the ANC government’s inability to deliver its 18-year-old promise of good education for all – leading by example is paramount. A more inappropriate champion for the rights of women than President Zuma would be hard to find – a still unresolved (in the minds of many people) rape charge continues to cloud his already tarnished reputation, he is the father of 22 children by ten different women, has four wives and two exes. An undisclosed number of fiancées waits in the wings.
Yawn. The lethargist is rearing – ever so slowly – her ugly head again. I will not listen to any speeches on Women’s Day. Instead, I’ll celebrate it by making art and enjoying the work of women artists around the world. The internet is a wonderful playground, filled with galleries and museums. I want to know more about Everlyn Nicodemus, for example, whose work and writing I only discovered recently.
Everlyn Nicodemus, Birth Mask 3, 2002, assemblage with Bedouin dress, metal netting and sisal on canvas
The violence of apartheid-era oppression never inspired me to create, nor does the current abuse of power of our present government. But I do find the aftermath of chaos and despair inspiring: the wounds, the scars, the detritus of forensic evidence. I can relate to Nicodemus (Nicodemus – The Ethics of the Wound) as she writes about the context of her art: “The ethics of the wound” is an expression borrowed from an essay by Jean Genet. Here, in the context of trauma and visual art, the title refers to art as testimony. The basis of the reflections that follow is the life experience of a diaspora artist who has survived what traumatized her and who continues to struggle with her trauma.”
I even relate to the label ‘diaspora artist’ as I find myself increasingly withdrawing from whatever being ‘South African’ once meant to me, in the glorious first glow of post-1994 South Africa. Emotionally, I’ve emigrated from my country. Maybe I’ve just finally grown up.
I also admire the work of Kristina Fiedrich. and want to share her work. She too is inspired by wounds –“The materiality of the watercolour – its unpredictability, changeability and fluidity – mimics the body in its healing process: the colours bleed into one another, spreading away from where the brush touches the watery surface, affecting the surface the way a wound alters the skin. Just as a bruise blooms or a scab forms days after the occasion of the wound, the watercolour shifts and dries with unexpected changes and results. The fluidity of watercolour also gives a sense of delicacy, an impermanent medium on a fragile surface.”
How I wish I was this eloquent when confronted by my art professor – not only does Kristina use pink!!, she has also chosen the gentle medium of watercolour to convey her powerful messages.
Wound Study 2, detail
Perhaps my country of choice is art, with its many landscapes to explore.
Frida Kahlo in a hospital bed, drawing her corset with help of a mirror, 1951
Have a creative Woman’s Day!