JUDITH MASON’S OPENING SPEECH at Titia Ballot’s RETROSPECTIVE EXHIBITION, Sasol Art Museum, Stellenbosch , South Africa, 23.01.2008
Titia’s work is about inviting the separate threads of South African experience into a new social tapestry. When I met her decades ago Titia had a serenity about her which I have always envied, I realised that both she, and her work , are about respecting her own heritage, yet living life as an open-ended adventure, conducting herself with curiosity, respect, humour and fearlessness.
We have this exhibition, we have the opportunity, over the next few days, to accompany the artist on walkabouts at the gallery, and we have Dr. de Waal’s comprehensive and elegant essay in the catalogue. All I can do tonight is give you a taste of the way in which Titia’s work moves and edifies me, to urge you to scrutinise the work and make the richness therein your own.
Titia’s life is the story of the last six plus decades, and those of you who are her contemporaries will relish, as I do, the journey she makes on our behalf, free from the entrenched fear and bigotry with which we all grew up, and into the anthropological, geopolitical and national changes which made the last few decades into a whirlwind.
To comprehend this whirlwind I have been re-reading Prof. Johan Degenaar’s 1970’s papers on the roots of nationalism, a fascinating counterpoint to Titia’s work. Three decades ago he wrote that as an Afrikaner, his analysis of the South African situation should (quote) “be seen as one kind of genuine involvement in the tragedy that is South Africa and a sign that my heart is where the hurt is”. Simultaneously Titia’s hands were busy where the healing began, changing attitudes without attitudinising or doctrinaire rhetoric so beloved of many of her contemporaries, (alas, including self.)
She began to look and to connect, to make sense of the conflicting philosophies, histories and banalities of our world. As Prof. Degenaar said then (1975) “there are enough pointers to the interdependence of the human race. More people are capable of understanding it and of working towards a situation in which the ideal of humanity functions as a basic category.”
A few decades ago it was commonplace for many of us to think with Dr. D.F. Malan (quote) “that there is a contrast between two inconsolable ways of life, between barbarism and civilization, between heathenism and Christianity, between overwhelming odds and insignificant numbers.” Nowadays it seems not only incorrect, but quaint, this admixture of fear and presumption which regards faith and civilization as static ‘givens’ in a fixed universe, and that alternate ways of living can only be defined in contemptuous terms. Nowadays, when politicians talk of ‘axes of evil’ most sensible people mutter OH PHLEEZE and turn to the sport pages for a good rugby row. DNA testing shows that we are all rich physical cocktails, Mongol and Pict and San and Oceanic blood coursing through our veins, and that we all took off from that woman who trod the shores of the Cape millennia ago. When news of the discovery became public I thought of Titia — how unsurprised but pleased she must have been by that long preserved sisterly footprint. Bones, fossils, shards and hand axes, the detritus of wherever people have been, are taken up and played with in visual puns. It began early in her career, and this finely curated exhibition allows us to walk, in a counter clockwise direction, through her life’s work and its increasingly rich visual thinking.
While she and her husband, Prof. Muller Ballot, were walking the walk of interracial commonsense, creating social interaction between township and dorp in Potchefstroom,
her etching tools were prodding the surface of what divided us, and showed that our differences were there to be relished as part of life’s largesse or dismissed as defensive reflexes. Look at The Initiates for example, or the wonderfully, wacky Hugenote Gietform with its overtones of a Breughel Kermesse, the visionary pathway between locale and location on Good Friday in Graaff -Reinet and its hidden sub-text of clasped hands.
The 80’s were for many people, and for our common history, very dark days, and in the large works of this time Titia shows a rare anger. In mixed media work such as St.Bartholomew’s night and New Bethesda biblical , historical and contemporary images literally collide and migraine-like blots of black disturb as our defiled and defiling thoughts did at the time, and still stains our social fabric. These black blobs of menace gather strength from the way in which they vandalise the artists own canvasses.
Then came Pres. de Klerk’s announcement in parliament, codesa, the bombings and killings at the Heidelberg tavern and in Germiston, the hope and fear of those times. Titia’s cool appraisal of reality stood us in good stead here. The monument and the brazier, the wind in the vineyard, the vision at Uitkyk encrusted with both aggression and hope detail our experience of this time. In work form 1985-2000 I am looking at a diary of South Africa as I experienced it. I know many of you will identify as closely. It was a chastening experience for me to see this work in context yesterday. Like most of us I get angry and frustrated by what I see as incompetence and wobbly ethics in the halls of power. (I don’t mean Escom!) Titia’s work reminds me that our great social ‘miracle’ was just the start. We need ever urgently to make connections, the hurt where the heart is needs healing way into the future. Titia’s imagery reminds us to embrace her sense of responsibility so that ‘inconsolable’ becomes, not consolation but the energy of affirmation.
We need to take up her challenge of making these connections otherwise we have missed the point and she has laboured in vain. I’ve started, under her tutelage to look for such connection, where people regard the abyss that divides us, as what it is, an illusion. She doesn’t reach across that illusionary abyss with patronising sympathy. She walks across it as if it isn’t there. As in this little poem by R. Mathews Phosa whose chosen language for his poetry is Afrikaans.
Here is a poem, by a struggle icon, in Afrikaans, called Ellende vir Oom Jan:
ELLENDE VIR OOM JAN
Kaal kop onderstebo
sit oom Jan diep ingedagte.
Sy dogter verwag –
Ons moes hom hospital toe neem.
Oom Jan rol in ellende.
Die lewe skop hom rond.
Human being talking to human being about a human being. No baggage. The grinding of axes is silent.
My license queue—-a Titia epiphany.
‘Ubuntu’, often noted more in its absence than its presence implies that we understand our personhood through other people. Titia’s work validates the activity of the artist.
Her work allows us to grasp anew the richness of our personhood through her art.
The hovering presence of ancestors, respected in the black community but largely ignored by white people, materialise like the gothic figure in Winter. A nod to memory as essence, as essential, not nostalgia.
Titia’s ancestors are many and like a good African she honours them, from her beloved Dutwa to the San who once inhabited her birthplace to Jan van Eyck and other masters of the northern tradition. (Look how she masses Moria)
So much for turbulence. After Pres. Mandela’s inauguration Judge Albie Sachs said that S.A. could now get on with the business of being its normal flawed self, and that the arts could get on with being interesting in a variety of ways, free from of the struggle straitjacket . Titia, instinctively moved on to new metaphysical adventures and open-ended philosophical speculation. The moving series of life in its four phases, and the work refiguring the four elements pondered by Dürer and his ilk are both the end of this retrospective, and the first works of Titia’s next retrospective.
The freshness, the uncluttered imagery in Transcendent Fire etc. seems to be heralds of work to come. The individual rather that the community now takes centre stage. The work of ‘individuation’ which Carl Jung regarded as the necessary task of our mature years has begun in earnest. The baggage of beloved objects which provided the text for early decades has been stored away. Age, decrepitude and the thickening body are acknowledged and understood with rare poetry. Take the grace, tenderness and acceptance in Herfs ‘with my body I thee worship’ across the divide of time and its vicissitudes and perhaps race? For me this is an existentially colossal piece of work. People of our age, the elderly, are seldom given the opportunity to acknowledge the dignity of our sensuality. This image of inclusive ripeness and affection gives to the solitary figure in Winter an added poignancy.
Finally we have Titia’s pencil portrait, a homage to Dürer, her space filled as his great etching was with the detritus of her studio, her beloved hound and the visions which rejoice both herself and Dürer.( Note the little fly-past of angels and their S.A. flags.!)
Titia, a touch melancholy, gazes out at the work of her youth from the entrance to her exhibition.
Take the hint of her gaze and start looking at this exhibition all over again. Titia is a priestess of harmony, making the discordant concordant. We must allow her to full-fill her pastoral duties by accepting the gifts she offers us. To do so we need to look, and look again.
At the end of the Divine Comedy Dante says ‘and in that abyss I saw how love held bound all the pages of the universe.’ Some of those pages, crafted with skill and bound by love are in this room.
23 January 2008