OVER AND AGAIN: SITTERS, SKULLS AND BELLIES … POTS AND BEADS TOO
In my life, all of the things that hold my attention involve repetitive processes. As an artist, I worked with one model, Wilson Mootane, for almost twenty years. He, and the skull I work from were just about my only subjects during these years. I made paintings and sculptures of Wilson over and over and over again, each time as if for the first time, and as if for the last time. I only dropped my gaze to his torso in the last nine months of his life, before then I focused only on his head. After almost twenty years, I was only just beginning. I don’t like it when things end. I like it when they keep on going.
The skull I work from has also been observed and painted in oil and in watercolour over and again, on an intimate and imposing scale. Shallow relief plaster panels have also been made, along with clay and bronze sculptures, the latter on a large outdoor scale. Making is a complex encounter with subject, self and materials; no two works are the same; no two sessions feel the same. There is always something new. I grow more familiar with my subjects but I never feel that I get any closer to really knowing them.
Kopano Ratele (2011) observed that the obsessive working and reworking of the same material points to a deep sense of not knowing, of uncertainty, of incompleteness, of somehow understanding knowledge [or relationships] to be elusive, ambiguous, fractal, never settled (69). It may be so that in respect of my own psyche such uncertainty reflects an aversion to being pinned down, and uncertainty may also produce tightly controlled behavior, but artistically, this open-ended ambiguity is crucial to keeping an image alive. Here, the obsessive repetition is precisely to keep on going, to keep moving forwards, to become attuned to the subtlest shifts that give rise to growth and thus to continuity.
To be sure, repetition is not the same as replication, something that I recognise — and bring to my role in the Marigold collaboration — and something that I also observe month on month in South African potter Digby Hoets’ work, whose pottery
I attend weekly for classes in wheel work — eight years on and I am still only making pasta bowls, trying to get the shape and weight right, trying to get two that could pass as a pair. Digby fires a dozen mesmerizing large-scale pots each month in the large walk-in kiln; his pots are thrown on the wheel, where each day a new section is added until they reach their full, intended, shape and size; his is a rhythmic masterful practice that has continued largely uninterrupted for over forty years — a living example of Douglas Hofstadter’s concept of creativity as variation on a theme; the pots are familial, differentiated one from another, they are distinctive but they are unmistakably related. 'In each firing', he told me, ‘there is always one pot that is better than the others, and I look for that to know how to take my practice forward’.
It is so obvious that it almost doesn’t warrant saying that my work in the collaboration with Marigold, in the co-production of these particular necklaces, draws directly on all of these other repeat-action processes that are central to my creative health.
In many ways the beaders and I work in the same way, with different, but nonetheless specific, materials and constraints. In all ways we meet as artists, with a full, becoming fuller, knowledge of a creative practice and a way of nurturing a kernel into an uncertain robustness.
Sometimes an uncertain future is a burden, and weighs heavily, but it might also be the impetus to keep on going. Looking now at work I have made, there is no way I could have predicted it, work emerges one step at a time, as a result of persistence in making, and in attentiveness to what has been made. It’s the same with the beads.
Ratele, K. 2011. Part of the story. In: J. Brenner, E. Burroughs & K. Nel (eds) Life of bone. Johannesburg: Wits University Press, pp. 67-85.