Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Chapter 9 Tupelo workshop

Back at Dorman street studio, I was experimenting with different mediums- oil on paper, charcoal and conte. The studio was going through some changes. Mary was battling to keep it going- the rent was high and though we shared the cost to a certain extent, she carried the main financial burden. Storage was also an issue as many of the Michaelis bursary students used it as a convenient space, though they contributed nothing to the rent.

Mary was involved with the Tupelo workshop project at the time, which was a collaborative endeavour, allowing foreign students and local artists access to the National Gallery annexe for a week, materials provided. I don't know who funded these workshops but Mary organised them. When she invited me to attend a workshop I was thrilled. I thought it was a great honour- surely I was now on the way to becoming a serious artist! I had to pay for the week of course, - perhaps that is why she asked me, but it did not matter. I felt privileged to be working with the likes of Billy Mandini, Lionel Davis, Velile Soha, Tyrone Appolis amongst others. Lionel Davis was a very interesting character. He had been on Robben Island with Nelson Mandela. A warm, loving person, I found him easy to talk to and found myself telling him of my priveleged experience with Nelson Mandela.

Back in the late 70's when I had been working as a Bacteriologist in Grootte Schuur I had been testing urine samples for bacteria. One morning there was great excitement in the Lab. A tray of urine samples had come in from Robben Island. They came in baby purity bottles. One of those samples belonged to Nelson Mandela. Ordinarily we would have sighed wearily at the workload and hoped that someone else would handle the tray. On this occasion though there was fierce competition as to who would be the fortunate one. I happened to be that lucky person who tested his bottle and found that he had a staphylococcus infection. He was having serious kidney complaints at the time and I was so glad that I had maybe had a small part to play in the correct diagnosis of his condition which would have resulted in the correct antibiotic treatment.So in my small way I liked to think I was a part of his healing.

The Tupelo experience was a turning point for me. Up till that time (October 1996 I think?) Mary had been encouraging me in the studio to try abstract work. I had no conception of what abstraction was- or at best, a very superficial understanding. In Tupelo I just went crazy throwing myself around and expressing my energy in a completely random and chaotic way. It was a kind of "breakdown' or "breakout".

I grabbed handfuls of cloth scraps from the pile on the floor , pasted them onto a large piece of cardboard, splashed paint about in a general frenzy of excitement. I had a serious Jackson Pollock obsession back then! I had no idea of what I wanted to achieve- I just played to my heart's content- no aim or objective. Velile and the other guys stuck to their comfort zones, creating township scenes- Lionel was working with paint over hessian.

At the end of the week we had an exhibition which was open to the public. I remember some fairly important collectors came to see it, amongst whom was Rose Korber, a well-known art collector in Cape Town. I remember watching her as she walked around the room. When she came to my "corner" where I was exhibiting, she walked straight past it, almost as if my work was invisible to her.  Though I did not express my feelings to anyone, I felt sad, unacknowledged, invisible. I realised that my work was simply not good enough, different enough or exciting enough to get attention from any serious artists or collectors. There is no doubt that there was a political imperative operating at the time, favouring the work of some over others. I was not deluded enough to think I was that good but I certainly felt that I was the "wrong" colour to be taken seriously. Part of my own problem though, was that I did not take myself seriously at all. I just loved to paint, be part of a group, experience, share space with other race groups- something that had been denied me during my life.
I think Rose liked some of Billy's work, or Velile's or Tyrone's- I don't really know.
My fears were consolidated when Mary invited Rose to come round to the studio one day a few weeks later when we held an impromptu "exhibition" at Dorman Street which included some of our studio work and the Tupelo pieces. Once again Rose ignored me and my work. This was the ultimate putdown. I was firmly rejected by the "establishment" - or what I perceived to be the "establishment". My reaction (it was a reaction, not a response, which would have been more positive!) was to become cynical, dismissive and resentful of the "system" If they couldn't "see" me, I would not "see" them! I would work independently, on my own in isolation.
Significantly for me, my teacher decided to stop paying rent at Dorman street and the studio was closed.
I was homeless, mentorless. I was all over the place artistically, like a bull in a china shop. I needed some serious intervention. I sought therapy, which really only helped to consolidate my feelings of alienation, "otherness" and  isolation. I was alone again, on a path to nowhere artistically I thought, although during this time, Mary, who was the Chairman of the AVA committee invited me to submit a few works for their members' exhibition.  hey accepted one,

The relentless monotony of my days, Oil/board. 500x400

This painting, incredibly enough was sold by the AVA for about R450. I felt somewhat vindicated by the Tupelo experience, but not enough to take myself any more seriously.

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