We know it: nature and us are one. The question is how does this One-ness manifest itself?
We experience the destructiveness of drought, floods and storms that wreak havoc on our farms and city structures. Buildings collapse cars are swept into the ocean. People die while our taps run dry.
Yet we marvel, awestruck at the grandeur of high cliffs, cloud – wrapped mountain tops. Our jaws drop when we admire the creative hand of Mother Nature as she shapes heaven and earth with her tools: wind, sun and water. With heat and cold she carves the folds and patterns that we try to imitate in art works on canvas, in clay and pixels on a memory card. Nature’s magnificence in the shade of the forest is where we find balm for our soles and souls. And in our drought stricken South Africa, we see and admire clouds of thunder assembling before they sweep the horizon into a storm of destruction.
Just as Nature’s artworks can be ambiguous, riddled with contradictions when they combine the sublime with the ridiculous, art works made by human hand, are infused with paradox. On close scrutiny they also reveal the gap between beauty and ugliness, between praise and criticism. Works of art, other than merely decorative doilies, allow themselves to be interpreted, ‘three dimensionally,’ metaphorically speaking. Even when presented as a two dimensional photographic image, painting or drawing, they can be ‘turned around in the mind’s eye’. Seen from different angles, literally and metaphorically speaking, they can embody contradictory meanings, open for multiple interpretations.
For example, what seems to present itself as aesthetically pleasing – bright green foliage wrapping the back of a black man, suspended in an interior of balanced shapes and angles – can also suggest the opposite. On closer scrutiny, what seems simply a pretty picture, can become more complex, allude to an underlying subtext. This happens when the viewer engages on a more intellectual level too. When the viewer considers the context (place into which the figure is placed), the position of the figure, the slouching gesture, the hidden face, the smudging of colours seemingly neatly arranged as candy to the eye.
The pair of images, African Ornament – museum piece, is a case in point. They can be seen not only as an evocation of fertility and new growth, but also as the exact opposite. For instance, they can be read as a critique of artists using the black person as representing the beautiful barbarian. The context in which figure of the black man is placed, namely the white ordered structures of an art museum, suggests a closer look.
Besides context, titles of artworks serve as clue to the intention of the artwork. They point to hidden meanings. The word “ornament” with its shadow of inferiority and superficiality attached to it, is a deliberate choice of words. Instead of reading the image as merely a metaphor or symbol of fecundity, could this image not perhaps understood as a critique of the ubiquitous use of the African motif, for commercial value? Isn’t the popular appearance of the African motif in art galleries currently, merely a continuation of the 19th century’s perception of the black man as merely an exotic object? And yet, at the same time also a critique of this practice?
These questions swirl through my head while I’m playing on the computer, testing the emotional effect triggered by the combination of different elements that represent man and nature.
10th October 2017