Partial Figures and Psychic Unease: an Artist’s Perspective
I have used the partial figure consistently throughout my oeuvre as a cipher for unease/(dis)ease. However, here, I reserve my focus for two bodies of work, made nearly a decade apart – the cycle, Nicholas – October 1990 (1991-3), and the Claybody series (2002-3). These two bodies of work interrogate the experience of trauma, that which lies beyond the reach of words to encapsulate or describe.
Theoretically I have aligned myself with the approach of the French literary theorist Hélène Cixous. Cixous asserts a
She speaks of an oppositional language, écriture feminine, that nevertheless, ‘is impossible [to define] except through subjects that break automatic functions, border runners never subjugated by any authority’.2 The body as text functions in the area of the subliminal and the subconscious, resisting order and structure. It is this approach that I find empathetic to my work – one in which the reach for meaning lies beyond the rational means to apprehend.
Via the Nicholas and Claybody sculptures and their accompanying writings, I offer the proposition that (logocentric) language fails to capture realities that function beneath the surface of conscious apprehension. Through the partial and incomplete bodies of the figures in these two cycles I attempt to access the unconscious and the psychical, that reality which lies beyond language. In addition I show that the public writings and the news reports that surrounded the events that prompted the two bodies of work fail to capture the nature of private reality.
Nicholas – October 1990
Statement from notebook 1993:
The exhibition was held at a particularly sensitive time in the history of South Africa. Chris Hani, the ANC leader, had been assassinated. His funeral was held on the day that the exhibition opened. Johannesburg was under siege and emotions were running high. If violent revolution was going to happen, it was now. The day before the opening and Hani’s funeral (Friday 16 April) The Star newspaper implicated the Orde Boerevolk in the Hani murder.3 Those who braved the police cordons and attended the exhibition were highly emotional – a mood picked up by the press. ‘A mother’s shout against the silence’ was one such headline.4 M. Witthaus, assuming I was Nicholas’s mother, wrote, ‘As I walked into Wilma Cruise’s exhibition . . . I felt an overwhelming urge to weep.’ 5 Johannes Bruwer thought that Nicholas was my husband and wrote about ‘the widow next to the broken body of her man’.6 Anthea Bristowe in turn wrote: ‘This body of work seeks to . . . deal with the anger, grief and guilt ’ (my italics).7
Nicholas had in fact been murdered three years before the exhibition and two years before the first works in the cycle made their appearance. Further I did not know him well; he was the son of my husband’s brother. Nicholas’s murder interested me inasmuch as it posed a moral dilemma. If I felt anger, it was abstracted towards all the senseless killings typified by Nicholas’s murder; grief was not of the wild sort that tears and rips at the soul. Of guilt I felt none. One critic was able to pick up on the difference. In a small review Michael Coulson commented on ‘a key statement’ in my annotated sketches, ‘Art has nothing to do with reality. It is . . . only is.’ 8
This statement encapsulates the necessary disengagement between the observer and the experiencing subject. The journalists had committed an affective fallacy – confusion between the emotions evoked by the artwork with the emotion felt by the creator of the work. I, on the other hand, was dispassionate and, like Simone de Beauvoir, I felt that ‘The I that speaks stands at a distance from the I that has experienced.’ 9
This is not to say that I did not want to evoke emotion on the part of the viewers. I did. It was important for me to ring a true emotional note free of easy sensationalism and overstatement. In a critique of my 1990 exhibition, ‘Untitled (Everlasting Nothingness Made Visible)’, Kendell Geers had noted the ‘cliché’ of the ‘silent gaping mouth’.10 I negated the scream (and the possibility of further criticism) by constructing the figures for the 1993 exhibition without mouths. In an age bombarded by violent images whose shock value has numbed sensibilities I felt that the only resort was silence.
The central work in the cycle of eleven life-size figures is Three Shades (the Bully Boys I, II and III) (1992-3) (fig. 1). The figures are incomplete and naked with only their organs ‘sheathed in cast metal, turning their maleness into a weapon’.11
Three Shades (the Bully Boys I, II and III) represent the collective shadow that hangs over nations when inexplicable murders and disappearances are committed. In both the metaphysical sense and in actuality the bully boys are seldom seen. They are the malevolent shades that hover just off the edge of consciousness. They are featureless and armless. The erasure of their primary means of expression, face, arms, and hands, renders them mute. They are helpless, caught up by the web of their own violence. Only their darkness, their massiveness, and their sheathed organs reveal their power.
The tragic event in 1990 brought vividly to the fore the moral paradox that revolved around the existence of God as the fount of good. I had perceived Nicholas’s murder in terms of a war between good and evil, where evil triumphs. In evoking these absolutist concepts, I was adopting a fixed ethical position, albeit from an ironic and a rhetorical position.12 I saw tragic irony in the failure of Nicholas’s God to save him or to intervene in any way to validate his death. Working notes for the exhibition explored this theme.
Nicholas Cruise was a concerned Christian. His right-wing murderers claimed the same position. Yet it was evil and the forces of darkness that had prevailed. Thus, while Durban Pieta (1991-3) (fig. 2) suggests the grieving mother of Christ, it offers no possibility of redemption. The madonna is hidden beneath and blinded by a cloth; bands of steel bind the figure of Christ/Nicholas. Both are armless and faceless; rendered mute and powerless.
Yellow Christ (1992-3) (fig. 3) is the last work in the cycle. In the face of the unremitting darkness of the other figures, I had felt the need to use colour. Yellow is the colour of affirmation and of rebirth both in a biblical and natural sense.13 But while Yellow Christ (1992-3) was the natural end point and may have signalled personal closure, it should not (necessarily) be read as an affirmation of Christian redemption. A note made at the time of the construction of the work acts as a reminder of my position of atheistic disillusionment:14 ‘christ has a cock /why then is he impotent?’
Atheists, paradoxically, are more concerned with the existence of God than those who accept his being unquestionably. It is a position marked by the ‘wild grief that God is dead’.15 Woman and man are alone in a world that is mute as to its meaning. Reality is permanently in question.
The penultimate sculpture is Self-portrait (1992) (fig. 4). Self-portrait stands in relation to Yellow Christ as marking the end of the cycle. But while Yellow Christ is rendered impotent by his armlessness and silenced by his mask, Self-portrait is whole, indicating the power of the artist to make sense of her world.
By investigating Nicholas’s choice of a fixed moral order and how it failed him I was exploring the nature of moral choice. My freedom from God and the implied ethical order lay in contrast to his. In taking responsibility for my own values I have adopted what A. G. Rooks has called an ‘anguished position’.17 It is this anguish that motivated the cycle of works and the physical and moral silence they provoked. This was drowned by the more literal interpretation of the sculptures by the press who chose to confront the actual event rather than the metaphysical questions provoked by it.
The Claybody series
While the relationship between the artwork and reportage in Nicholas – October 1990 revolved around intentional and affective errors, the Claybody series explored the slippage of language in another sense altogether. The series takes as its topic initiation and circumcision practices in South Africa.
Circumcision is practised by certain tribal groups in South Africa, notably by the Xhosa and Sotho. In the ritual, which lasts weeks or months, boys make the transition from boyhood to manhood. A part of the ritual involves circumcision, which is done by a traditional surgeon, the incibi, usually without anaesthetic or sterilization.18 Circumcision is frequently done with a spear, and the same blade is used from one initiate to the next. In addition, during the weeks of secret initiation, the young men19 suffer extreme physical privation. They are removed from their homes and villages, live in rudimentary shelters, wear only a blanket against the winter cold, and are given little nutrition. As one reporter put it, initiates ‘are not supposed to drink any liquids for a week after the procedure’.20 The abakhweta, as they are known, are seldom seen. They are identified by their reclusiveness, their blankets, and the white clay with which they are daubed as a sign of purity.
The title of the series, Claybodies, refers to the practice of covering the body with clay as well as an ironic reference to the substance from which the figures are made. By drawing attention to the clayness of the sculptures I am insisting on an axiomatic truth-to-material position, even though I consistently defy this dictum by using non-ceramic materials and techniques in my ceramic sculptures.
During every circumcision season, usually in the winter months of June and July, many initiates become ill, suffer penile amputations, and, in some cases, die. These events become the topic of numerous press reports.
For white South Africans the subject of circumcision and initiation is generally remote. In the comfort of our couches we can shake our heads at the barbaric practice and once the topic has slipped from the news, as it inevitably does, we can forget about circumcision, penile amputation, and death altogether. The situation was the same in 2002. ‘Five teenage boys have died and 51 others have been injured during initiation rituals in South Africa’, read one report.23
However, in that winter I was confronted with the question of circumcision in a personal way. My ward, Themba Mahlangu, a young man of Zulu descent, said that his grandmother wanted him to undergo initiation.24 Themba, then eighteen, was ambivalent, swinging between a desire to follow in his elder brother’s footsteps and achieve a ritual recognition of his manhood, and a fear of it. A war, perhaps also, between his Westernized upbringing and his heritage. During the family debates that followed, I came to understand that my attitude to circumcision could not be a simple condemnation of the practice, however desirable such an absolutist position would be. My personal confrontation of the process of initiation forced me to a relativist position. The information that filled the papers for a short while entertained and titillated the readers who could feel shock and outrage. I, on the other hand, experienced reality in a way that was at odds with the reportage. The word had failed and emotional knowledge had seeped away between the interstices of word and image. I wrote,
‘In-between-ness’ is the place in which I found myself – one of a moral unease. I felt I had to respect a cultural practice, for which I simultaneously felt abhorrence. Nevertheless a simple condemnation of a cultural practice from my Western perspective would not suffice. The territory had to be negotiated with care. The Claybodies became a vehicle for this state of unease. Yet to discount other readings would be unnecessarily reductive. As Brenda Schmahmann has pointed out, ‘in-between-ness’ is an intermediary zone between one paradigm and another. It refers to the transition from boyhood to manhood, a place between Western and traditional modes of being, and perhaps Themba’s emergence from the care of his mother to independence in the world.25
The five bodies in the Claybody series adopt postures of vulnerability:
The fragmented figure and the partial figure
Schmahmann argues that the suspended torsos in Hysteria Suspended are abject not only in the conventional sense of being debased, but also in the Kristevean sense of resisting the imposition of systems of order.27
She is led to this interpretation by the scored and disrupted skin of the figures, which interrupt and break a look that, following Bryson, she has termed the glance. The glance is itself episodic and fragmented. The suspended torsos in Hysteria Suspended speak of fragmentation and disintegration that emanates from a state of hysteria. Yet they are not only about fragmentation – they are made from fragments and are read in fragmented form.
The surface of the figures in Nicholas – October 1990 and the Claybody series, like those in Hysteria Suspended, are also scored and disrupted, and in this sense Schmahmann’s interpretation of fragmentation holds true. However, there is one difference. The works in Nicholas – October 1990 and the Claybody series were never whole in the first place. Their incompleteness speaks of impotence and helplessness signalled by the lack of arms and faces – the means of expression. It is also an impotence experienced by the artist in the failure of language in word and image to convey the true nature of experience.
Cixous sees the role of text and the act of writing as transformative. In much the same way the sculpture in these two cycles of work have, in their act of becoming, functioned as sites of meaning. They reflect, as she would put it, ‘a question of writing today’s pain and making it heard without betraying it’.28
|Partial Figures and Psychic Unease Issue 8|