AVA, 30 April 2015
The other day Jill and I reminisced about when we first met, in 1986 – at the Thupelo workshop in Broederstroom outside Johannesburg. She went on to become an active participant and leader in the Thupelo workshops, the driving force behind Greatmore Studios in Cape Town and the Fordsburg Artists’ Studios (the Bag Factory) in Johannesburg. And she played a significant role in the formation and development of the AVA at a crucial time in its history. I have followed her career and wrote about her work over many years.
Back to Broederstroom – from its inception, the Thupelo workshops came in for a great deal of criticism from mostly white academics. I started speaking and writing about abstraction in general and abstract art by black artists in particular, in 1990. I was concerned about the emergence of a kind of cultural apartheid and the erosion of the freedom of artists to express themselves in the manner and medium of their choice; content, political involvement, “authentic” African imagery and figuration were demanded at the time. The purpose of my engagement was to suggest an open field for discourse and to challenge prevailing attitudes.
William Kentridge expressed similar concerns in 1990 when he opened Jill’s exhibition here at what was then the S A Association of Arts, Western Cape:
I think that there has been a tendency in South Africa of recent to pay particular attention to certain forms of image making over others and that there has been a predilection for work which is allegorical … there is a sort of tyranny of allegories which exists at the moment or which has existed recently in South Africa which certainly needs to be reconsidered.
Fashion in the world of art comes and goes – we call it the swings of the pendulum; one of those swings was towards the figuration that William mentioned; recently, it started swinging back to abstraction. Some artists work according to their own vision and volition; others follow international trends. One is not better than the other, it ultimately depends on the power and meaning of the work; Picasso was the greatest eclectic of the 20th century, yet his work can never be confused with that of another.
A number of South African artists, who started painting abstract works in the context of modernism, have continued to do so in a post-modern world and have carried the banner for abstraction, as it were: Nel Erasmus, Hannatjie van der Wat, Trevor Coleman; they were followed by the late Bill Ainslie and Kevin Atkinson; Louis Maqhubela, David Koloane, Ricky Burnett, Tony Nkotsi and Jenny Stadler, to mention a few. Sticking to their abstract guns then and now has sometimes been to their disadvantage in an art world hungry for the new and what is perceived to be contemporary. Galleries and museums have of course also played a role, with SMAC in Stellenbosch mounting a number of exhibitions, looking back to the past in the context of the present.
Jill has consistently practised painterly abstraction and her oeuvre reveals the astonishing variety and quality which can be achieved. Abstraction does not exclude reference to things that exist in the real world, but Jill has always insisted that she does not “abstract” from anything. She calls her work non-figurative, which is entirely appropriate; when I speak in general terms, I use “abstract” because it is most widely used and understood and in line with titles of major exhibitions, conferences and publications, of which there have been many recently.
Jill writes about this exhibition:
Employing several different techniques and media: printmaking, weaving, beadwork, painting, collage, this new body of work provides a vehicle that takes us into memory, stories, myths and innate places.
We are fortunate to experience her many expressive vehicles, as well as her intentions, in this exhibition – they take different forms but integral to her creative processes are the primacy of surface and physicality of material; they are the carriers and stimulators of meaning and emotion and they affirm the reality and independent existence of the artwork.
The varied surfaces and multitude of marks are deeply felt and experienced and they contribute to the very metamorphosis of material – paint that looks like fabric, fabric that resembles paint; Jill draws with paint, but also with thread and beads and strips of coloured material. Sometimes the choices appear to be contradictory as she moves seamlessly from form to form, from medium to medium – rough Hessian that supports delicate crochet work, all around an ethereal, sensuous centre. Delicate, real lace in one work finds and echo in another, strong and dark. The works become objects of ritual and magic, palpable yet mysterious. She explains: As a weaver by trade I know the significance of wearing colour, pattern and texture and the way they interact with ones sense of being.
Through an unusual mix of media Jill encourages us to think about the binaries of reality and artifice, and spiritual darkness and light. Some works are exquisitely delicate, others immensely powerful, but we should not be threatened or overwhelmed, for she writes:
The interwoven rock faces of the mountain enfold me, hold me as I wander and then return to work with a small surface in an attempt to describe, to give rise to, the Great Mother and unfold my spirit from her embrace. These journeys continue as the ancestor’s surface and the stars deliver their messages…
Her video work of images, sound and words take us into another dimension, another kind of experience. It gives expression to the notion of unfolding, with layers and veils of colour drawn back, opening and closing.
The reconsideration of what Kentridge called “a sort of tyranny of allegories” 25 years ago has been a long time in coming, but it is with us and it requires our engagement. Rethinking abstraction in South Africa is timely. The exhibition I curated recently at The New Church Museum – Thinking, Feeling, Head, Heart – reinforced the importance of abstraction in South African art history, as well as contemporary production; it also raised a number of questions. What might the current swing of the pendulum mean in and for art in the country? Painting in general and abstraction in particular are being reconsidered and re-interpreted by longstanding practitioners, as well as a post-apartheid generation, and in the wake of this resurgence follow exhibitions and articles.
However, the danger of many jumping on the bandwagon – artists, curators, collectors – in an unthinking and opportunistic way already lurks in this moment of excitement and promise. Will South African artists continue to expand the parameters of the genre and show that there are many and exciting ways of arriving at abstraction in the twenty-first century, or will a veneer of abstraction settle in, again? Are we witnessing radical transformation or a rehearsal and a retread of art history that will serve to feed personal ambition and a voracious art market? Time will tell.
As for Jill, she has never had the need to be fashionable as a painter, and I imagine that she will always remain faithful to abstraction – to her particular kinds of non-figuration in the face of shifts and changes in the world of art. This exhibition is also timely, for it offers us an opportunity of looking at her work, enjoying it and assessing her place and role in South African art. But above all, Jill invites us to explore with her the notion of “foreverness” and to join her in the world of the imagination and of mindfulness.