Carving Lines

Carving Lines, 2021. Mixed Media, 145 x 75 x 30cm. Photograph, David Brazier

This ongoing interrogation into concepts of borders has not, so far, been straightforward. This is not surprising, like any contemplation of ideas of consequence (I don’t mean mine…), there are never simple answers, and the more you look, the more daunting it becomes. Even at a very shallow face value, answering questions such as “should national borders exist?” (yes, sometimes, no…), demands that you take some position. And it’s unlikely, that with any iota of thought, that one might land on Lennon’s Imagine stance with anything other than an immature drifting through lala-land. Maybe I’m just not “dreamer” enough. It seems reasonable, that if you have a nation-state, and that you have a functional relationship with the mechanisms and structures that maintain its workings and ideologies, then you also have something to defend, and some form of boundary in this regard is worthwhile.

It is equally obvious that achieving that relationship, for many people and many parts of the world, is just as “dreamy” as Lennon’s Imagings.

Like most artists, I provide limited explication of my work. David Hockney suggests that the artist should protect some of the mechanisms of their work leaving elements of mystery – perhaps in the manner of a magician. I don’t presume to be in Hockney’s league, mind, or even in the same game, but I do feel that over-explanation becomes limiting, rather than opening. The work Carving Lines is the first of the border works to be exhibited, currently showing at Gallery Delta. What follows is not an explication of the work, but a scant scratching around some of the ideas inherent in the piece.

As mentioned in previous posts, my thoughts emerged with the conception of the current national boundary and the manner in which it was created. We know that there were already divisions and territorial conflicts in the region prior to this point, but the 1884-85 partition resulted in divisions being codified on a map. The map stands as a move towards an “agreement”, or symbol or tool to determine and endorse who “owned” (maintained/administered) what part of the geography. The map becomes a locus for interrogation of these ideas, controversial as they are. Obviously, that it was created and imposed on the indigenous inhabitants with extraordinary disregard, should be the overriding line of enquiry through which everything else is considered – it has been my intention that the general character of the work suggests the violence of this event.

I am intrigued by the idea that these territories were conceived (carved up/allocated/grabbed?) from a remote and mediated position – whilst the means in which this was achieved has changed considerably, the manner in which we understand territories via Google Earth, or similar, echoes the process and secondary understanding (if not the motive). I have a fascination with maps, marking trails and hikes and virtually exploring various geographical locations. My experience in this regard underpinned the idea that it is possible, with limitations, to garner an experience of a place virtually. As I explored Tuli in this way, I became aware that my “gaze” in some ways related to the processes of possession, exploration and experience of that location.

The bottom layer of the work, blackened in bitumen, evolves from my own conceptions of the Tuli circle through that process (Tuli as a starting point is discussed here). It refers not only to my own experience, but refers too to that initial mediated experience of the 1880s and ’90s. The colonial gaze. The processes of virtual experience removes the human element from the imagery, and I had some concern that in a similar way to the colonial landscape paintings which often presented the landscape as uninhabited, my own work has arrived with similar lack of human representation as though they are not part of this discourse. Whilst that aspect is worth some discussion, I think that looking backwards, whilst the this is a positive aspect, as it precludes the possibility of me attempting to speak of another person’s experience or history. The mapping involved in that layer of the work established not only aesthetic elements, but provides an underpinning – perhaps a literal base layer to the ideas.

The horns were a starting point for me, and have since evolved into something different. They initially acted as a visual metaphor, deriving from the oxen at the Tuli circle, but with many possible meanings emerging from that. The actual cleaning of them needed a YouTube education (along side “how to clean the speed sensor of a Toyota Prado”, “how to re-connect the cable to the gear shifter of a Toyota Harrier”, how to self-heal an achilles tendon, how to cope with Long Covid, and why, apparently, the underlying cause of any pain is cancer…), thankfully, as always, the educators obliged. I found that I faced ethical questions with regard to working with animal products, but to some extent, the physical engagement with the horns seemed to muffle some of that nagging. Perhaps, in the manner of a meat-eater that erases from the mind the sight of cows heading to the abattoir (a personal and common experience), I just got on. As the horns were cleaned, it was fascinating to uncover the visual attributes of the objects, and I was pleased with the way the line of the tear within the wire, the central rent of that layer could be aligned with the markings – whilst the work has a more sculptural form, I felt I was painting, but in 3D.

Anyone familiar with my work will know the constant presence of the razor wire over the past couple of years. I this instance, it forms a central layer. A marking on a map is a symbol, but it is “useless” (depending on objectives) unless it corresponds with a practical or physical reality – I suppose, that is what a map is. The wire makes reference to that physical entity; the boundary, the border, the division, the carving. That which determines who is inside, and who is out. Who am I, and who is the “other”. It points to the question of who controls the opening and closing and who may proceed across this line. It asks, how are these crossings facilitated, when are they legal/illegal, what are the requirements to make a crossing – who should administer these requirements, and to what extent are these enabled. These are complex questions, they point not only to physical realities, but to ideas of rights and the relationship of the individual to the state. In this regard, they also enquire of the nature of the crosser, this is a two way experience. These are not, it seems, questions that might be dismissed with an imagining of “no countries”.

I shall conclude with the observation of the fact that the work is described with a third dimension, a 30cm measurement. It is not a map, nor a line on a map. As Francis Alÿss demonstrates in his exceptional work The Green Line , a line on a map represents a dimension – one that might take a period of time to cross. The crossing is a process, not a moment of singularity. That passage itself is a period of enquiry. Border theorist Johan Schimanski 1 observes that a border represents not only a boundary, but an opening, that it’s crossing reveals a passage. There is a transformation of the border as it is crossed, and this necessarily has a transformative affect on the crosser. Once crossed, we do not conceive of the border in the same way. Each of the layer of my work has an opening; the blackened maps and bitumen are created on bamboo mats that have a transparency, the wire is torn from top to bottom and the horns echo this opening. These ideas are begun here, within the third dimension – this is a work that incorporated levels of looking, and in doing so, one engages with that process of time, and it is hoped, with the ideas lightly scratched out above.

Greg Shaw,

20 June, 2021, Harare.

  1. Schimanski, Johan. (2011). Crossing and reading: Notes towards a theory and method. Nordlit. DOI: 10. 10.7557/13.1835. Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/33417018_Crossing_and_reading_Notes_towards_a_theory_and_method(Accessed 4 February 2021).

Horns and a Circle

Hit the road. It’ll help you work out where you’re going

Nike Advertisement

I begun thinking about boundaries with regard to our national perimeter as I wrote of in previous posts (Outlines and Outlines One and Two). As I thought about this framework, it seemed to fall into three conceptual sections, the last of which was the present condition of the nation state which I touched on previously, and within which most of my work will emerge. It relates to my own conditions and my present, and is the position where my voice is most authentic. Like any area of inquiry, as you look, it just seems to get bigger and bigger and trying to find a point of focus becomes harder the more you look at it and think about it.

I needed to find a means of accessing the concepts, a starting point somehow, a window or opening. Art making is different to speaking and writing, I think. There is less definition, thoughts and ideas hang onto the work, or can be attached to the work, or can be interpreted from the work but the work itself is less explicit, perhaps closer to poetry and certain forms of than to writing.

I began thinking about the work in relation to the initial drawing of the boundaries, proceeding from the partitioning of Southern Africa at the Berlin conference of 1893/94, and the Royal Charter of 1889. I wanted to incorporate some of the materials I had used up till now – it has never worked for me to make radical changes in direction in terms of media, a gradual and organic transition has always been the way I have worked. But I did want to be able to introduce new ideas and materials and was open to any ideas. 

The entry point into the Matabele territory at the Shashe river by the BSAC, and the establishment of Fort Tuli and the Tuli Circle provided the starting point for both the aesthetic qualities and the specific materials employed. Tuli circle is significant for two reasons; firstly, it is the point at which the pioneer column entered what is now known as Zimbabwe as they crossed the Shashe river. Secondly, as the name implies, there is a mathematically drawn semi-circle, which departs from the borderline running down the thalweg of the Shashe river, and follows an arc at a 10 mile radius from Fort Tuli, the site of the original pioneer camp. The circle demarcated an area defined in agreement between the pioneers and the local inhabitants, within which the cattle belonging to the local inhabitants would not be allowed to enter. The reason for being to protect the oxen of the column from the rinderpest disease that was inflicting the cattle and prevalent throughout southern Africa at this time. As the border became formalised, the circle became incorporated into the national boundary.

The second section has its roots in the 1964 conference of the AOU in Cairo. At this meeting, the declaration that the borders of African States on the day of their independence constituted a “tangible reality”, the participants pledged that they would respect the borders uti possedetis juris1 as determined in the declaration (UNGA 1964: 172). The acceptance of these borders may be read not as an acceptance of this aspect of colonial legacy, but as an acknowledgement of an irreversible reconfiguration of the nature of the respective territories. 

As I began to think about work relating to the above, I began to see how these two concepts might give rise to the materials I might use, and underpin ideas of form and structure. Ideas about making lines, division, violence and imposing structures on top of structures. Ideas of incongruence and immutability, of structures and boundaries. As I did so, different materials and different forms begun to emerge. The circle motif derived from Tuli was a starting point, but more importantly, the idea of cattle horns emerged as visual metaphors, or carriers of meaning within the work.

I keep the advert for Nike above stuck up in my studio, and it’s a phrase I often repeat it to my pupils. Art making is a creative process, and one more inclined toward discovery, rather than merely making solutions or representations of ideas – I am reminded of the wonderful quote of William Kentridge, “in the process of making, meaning will emerge”. Early works are in progress, whilst ideas pile up as some sort of backlog in my head – most of those are discarded along the way, but others emerge as I continue to figure out where I’m going.

Greg Shaw,

Harare, 26 April 2021

Notes

  1. uti possidetis juris (UPJ) is a principle of customary international law that serves to preserve the boundaries of colonies emerging as States.  Originally applied to establish the boundaries of decolonized territories in Latin America, UPJ has become a rule of wider application, notably in Africa.  The policy behind the principle has been explained by the International Court of Justice in the Frontier Dispute (Burkina Faso/Mali) Case

    “[UPJ is a] general principle, which is logically connected with the phenomenon of the obtaining of independence, wherever it occurs. It’s obvious purpose is to prevent the independence and stability of new States being endangered by fratricidal struggles provoked by the challenging of frontiers following the withdrawal of the administering power…Its purpose, at the time of the achievement of independence by the former Spanish colonies of America, was to scotch any designs which non-American colonizing powers might have on regions which had been assigned by the former metropolitan State to one division or another, but which were still uninhabited or unexplored.” (Cornell Law School [O], Legal Information Institute. “Uti Possidetis juris”. Available at: https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/uti_possidetis_juris).
  2. United Nations General Assembly, 1964. Resolutions Adopted by the First Ordinary Session of the Assembly of Heads of State and Government held in Cairo, UAR from 17 20 21 July 1964.

Outlines and Outlines (2)

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.

Robert Frost, Mending Wall

This follows the last post, Outlines and Outlines, the meandering pre-thoughts of some of the ideas underpinning my work. As mentioned previously, I am playing catch-up here for a while, the work being made now has moved on and has different and deeper concepts as I will write about in time.

From early consciousness the idea of boundaries and territories has intrigued me. I have a fascination with maps and their virtual and digital iterations, and the actual land and geography is intriguing. As mentioned previously, the manner in which it has been carved up and demarcated occupies my mind. As I turn my focus to the national boundary, I think back to my indignation as a child (that persists) at the notion that I might be granted or denied access to another place on the globe by virtue of where I happened to have been born. With maturity came the cognisance of the actual significance of this situation and the realisation of the implications of a random birthplace in the world (speaking from the point of view of a particular consciousness inserted into a body somewhere, haha, not a generational selection of where one, or one’s children may happen to inhabit). The significance of this situation is well described below in the words of Adekunle Ajala1:

… the location of one boundary may determine for millions of people the language and the ideas which their children would be taught at school, the books and newspapers they would be able to buy, and the kind of money they would use, the markets in which they would buy and sell and even sometimes the kinds of food they might be permitted to eat. Besides, it determines their national culture with which they shall be identified, the army in which they might serve and also the soil which they might be called upon to defend with their lives, whether or not they choose to defend it.

Within the boundaries, the socio-economic/political aspects have been part of my work for a while, but so too the other aspect that Ajala points to, the actual relationship of an individual with the land – or, as he describes, the soil. It seems that when the first goes rotten, there is less possibility for the latter to emerge, or perhaps that is a myopic view. It may be that when the structures crumble, there is only the relationship between the individual and their land, but that is subject to the prevailing conditions. Or maybe I am just radically over-simplifying the whole scenario, which is more likely. It is worth noting that Ajala’s text above is dated 1983, at which point the globalisation we currently experience was unlikely to have been conceived of – the manner in which the boundaries in question have changed has been radical in this regard and informs later work.

Little expresses the impact of these forces on both individual and groups of people more clearly than the global migration crisis we have witnessed over the past few years. For millions of people, not only “a better life”, but simple survival has meant a move (or attempted move) from one bordered territory to another, sometimes with costs so extreme they can barely be comprehended. Closer to home is our own migration and diaspora story, which whilst does not seem to embody the level of desperation seen elsewhere, undoubtedly includes stories which would fill one with horror or heartbreak. My own deliberations regarding where and how I should live and the extent to which these affect me seem considerably trite in relation, and it is with caution and sensitivity that I approach these ideas. Where to position my viewpoint, and how to interrogate things in a personal and informed manner, I think is one of my biggest challenges as I go forwards. 

It was against this broad backdrop that I turned my consciousness to the boundaries of Zimbabwe. Like most people have done, I have often looked at the nature of the shape and wondered how it came to be, why there are straight lines, who decided it should follow the river or the mountains in some parts, and why there is that curious semi-circle shape in the southern boundary. Judy Best and Lovemore Zinyama2 have written about the drawing and evolution of the boundary in considerable detail and I have loved reading their work. They note that by the end of 1891, the broad conception of the modern boundary was drawn, though it is clear that as the BSAC unrolled their occupation under the 1889 Royal Charter, the limits of their claim was at best vague. The Charter authorised the company to operate in “the region of South Africa lying immediately to the north of British Bechuanaland, and to the north and west of the South African Republic, and to the west of the Portuguese Dominions” (Best and Zinyama 1985:1).  The northern limits were initially left deliberately vague, but over the following years were established. The boundary emerged as a line demarcating a claim on a land by people who did not belong there, who had no right to the wealth of those territories. 

They took no notice of how, what or who this line divided, they made a line to safeguard their loot from their accomplices. They paid little heed to the fact that the drawing of this line was a violence imparted on the land and its inhabitants. Their ignorance and callousness is clearly expressed by the well known quote of Lord Salisbury in 1906: “We have been engaged in drawing lines upon maps where no white man’s foot ever trod; we have been giving away mountains and rivers and lakes to each other, only hindered by the small impediment that we never knew exactly where the mountains and rivers were”. One of the works made to date deals with the idea of the line as violence, it will be exhibited within the coming weeks and I will write about it then. Here is a detail in the meantime.

If I possessed a sense of indignation about my conditions, it is of absolutely zero significance when compared to what must have been the outrage and disbelief of the inhabitants of the southern African territories that were to become demarcated, stolen and claimed through combinations of force and deceit in the years that followed. It is only with bewilderment that I think of this from my 2021 perspective – no words that come to mind can possibly come close to describing what transpired. More importantly, whilst I am part of this ongoing story, to speak on behalf of others in this regard would constitute not only more arrogance, but another theft; it is not my intention to speak where my voice does not belong.

The colonial enterprise in all its vileness is well documented and we are all part of an ongoing process of facing its consequences. Whilst I hope that my work contributes in some way to this process, it is not my primary intention. My main interest lies with the boundaries themselves, their nature as obstacles, markers and indeed passages. A few sketchbook pages are included below as conclusion.

Greg Shaw,

14 April, 2021

  1. Ajala, A. 1983. Africa Spectrum: “The Nature of African Boundaries”. Africa Spectrum , 1983, Vol. 18, No. 2 (1983), pp. 177-189. Sage Publications, Ltd. [O]: Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/40174114 (Accessed 10 February 2021). 
  2. Best, J. and L.M. Zinyama, 1985. Journal of Historical Geography: “The Evolution of the National Boundary of Zimbabwe” (p419-432) [O].  Available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0305748885801018 (Accessed 2 February 2021).

Outlines and Outlines

“Just as none of us is outside or beyond geography, none of us is completely free from the struggle over geography. That struggle is complex and interesting because it is not only about soldiers and cannons but also about ideas, about forms, about images and imaginings.” 

Edward W. Said, Culture and Imperialism

I am not sure exactly where this line of posts will lead. It is my intention over the next few uploads, to discuss the beginnings of the work that has occupied me so far this year, and the some of the ideas and concepts underpinning these. I am looking backwards as I write, because already my ideas and work are some distance from these beginnings and the initial thoughts that will follow. It is my hope to write a series of shorter posts over the next months as I work through my ideas and the way they manifest themselves within the work.

Within recent works, there is the carrying forward of the materials that have occupied me for a few years, such as mud, wood, wire, aluminium, paper and nails (see Legacy: The Red Fence, (2017)), references to territory, land, power and conflict, but also the introduction of new media derived from the concepts. I am continuing to interrogate aspects of territory, boundaries and structures, but turning my focus to the perimeter of Zimbabwe. The manner in which these boundaries were drawn, have come to be accepted and have agency on the present nation-state is a vast, complex and multi-layered field of enquiry, and there is a need to treat it with sensitivity.

The initial works in progress are labour intensive, but I am happy with the results so far. For now, a few sketchbook pages.

Greg Shaw,

6 April, 2021

Rembrandt @ 350

350 years after Rembrandt’s death, the forces of light and dark that he seemed to wrestle with in so much of his work (both literally and metaphorically) seem to be overtly present in our current context. It was with this in mind that I approached the work I produced for the exhibition Rembrandt @ 350, at the National Gallery of Zimbabwe, in conjunction with the Netherlands Embassy. Artists were invited to respond to specific work of the Dutch Master and submit for selection. Of the two works I created, one was selected for the exhibition (in my view, the stronger more challenging of the two was omitted). This is the second time I have worked in response to Rembrandt, and it was interesting to me that the work was considerably further removed from the originals in comparison, this time conceptually heavier, driven by the nature of our current context. The exhibition first appeared at National Gallery of Zimbabwe in Harare, and has now travelled to the National Gallery at Bulawayo where it hangs until 20th December. Below are the two works created and the texts that accompanied them.

Greg Shaw,

3rd December 2019

Wrestling with the Darkness

Wrestling with the Darkness, 2019. Oil, Tissue, Bitumen, Wood and Wire. 200 x 150cm

This work considers the small but intense painting, The Raising of the Cross. Rembrandt paints himself participating in one of the most prominent moments of Western texts, an event that simultaneously embodies the inter-related, extreme poles of evil and righteousness. He seems to be wrestling with these forces and it is written into every aspect of the work. He paints an alter-ego, staring out of the space at his actual self – the painter, staring out at the viewer. An acknowledgement of a shared presence, a shared participation, a shared culpability. You, as much as I, have within you the potential for immeasurable harm and immeasurable good. These are our actions, this is our world, this is our darkness, you, and I are part of this great evil, this great sacrifice – you, as much as I, are the reason for this necessity.

The Raising of the Cross, 1633.

Of Rembrandt’s paintings, this composition is perhaps the most striking for its discomfort and unease. It is startling in its tension and its ability to disturb: The weights are not balanced, the diagonals not resolved, the colours disquieting. The figure of Christ appears more human than deity; diminished, undignified. He stares to the void on the left: The past; histories of darkness. This moment is prior to the call to His Father, prior to the Centurion’s piercing, prior to the final tearing of the temple veil. This moment is the embodiment of chaos – the collision of light and dark. 

I have chosen to respond significantly larger than the original work, endeavouring to evoke a similar sense of unrest and distress, I hope to have achieved a sense of the immense struggle of Rembrandt. There is little reference to the figurative details of the composition, rather, a consideration of the structure in an attempt to retain the sense of chaos. The materials I employ are those I have been using in recent months. They speak to the matrix that surrounds us; that of control and fragility. This work aims to reflect the great forces at play in our own context. Those forces aiming to wrestle the chaos, the darkness, the despair, into some state of order.

The Redeemer Unseen

The Redeemer Unseen (Studio photograph), 2019. Tissue, Bitumen, Wire and Steel. 148 x 200cm

This work considers Rembrandt’s Christ on the Cross (1631), a small, very powerful work in which Christ hangs illuminated in the visual and metaphorical darkness. I am captivated by the manner in which Rembrandt strips every extraneous consideration apart from the figure of Christ who seems to have lost connection with the terrestrial context and by virtue of the carefully balanced composition is suspended timelessly, endlessly. His isolation seems absolute, His illumination other-worldly. Unlike The Raising of the Cross, this Christ is deified; transcendent. We do not look from below, as may be expected, but at eye-level with Christ. We are drawn to consider the righteousness of the sacrifice.  We are called to confront ourselves and consider, what is the nature of the redeemer. How does this figure confront/transcend the darkness that surrounds him.

Christ on the Cross, 1631

I have worked considerably larger than the Rembrandt painting with the intention to draw the spectator into the work – rather than contemplating the sacrifice from afar. The Christ figure is unseen, and a view of the structures underpinning the darkness is visible. The viewer is challenged to consider the nature of these structures and the nature of the darkness itself and how they may respond in their own context. I have employed the materials that have intrigued me in recent months – those that suggest violence, demarcation, protection, division and control, as well as those that evoke aspects of fragility and temporality. 

 

 

The Fireman’s Knife

A Tribute to My Father

I have a specialist knife that belonged to my father. It is a sort of flattened “S” shape, with a handle at one end and the blade on the inside curve of the other, like a sickle. It has no sharp point, just a rounded, curved, protected end. It is held by a broad, curved sheath with no clips, so that it can be quickly and easily used.

It is a Fireman’s knife, and its job is clear. You can imagine it being used to cut a person’s belt, for example, but without inflicting any other damage to any part. It is a sharp, indispensable tool, there when you need it the most, and it does no harm. In my mind, it is symbolic of my dad.

He was there when you needed him, he was sharp, quick witted, reliable, protective, and he did no harm. It seems to me that if you can go through your life doing no harm, that is a very good place to begin. He was kind, generous with what he had, considerate of people and always willing to give his time to assist wherever there was a need. He was without malice, patient, slow to anger and above all, a man who loved and strived for peace around him.

As you might have guessed, he was at one point in his life, a Fireman. Perhaps one of the most noble of professions, with the potential for the literal sacrifice of the self, for the sake of others. I think it was a principle that guided my father in relation to his family. He did not pursue his own interests at the cost of us, indeed, he went through his life with the good of his family motivating his actions, with mum at the pinnacle.

He was a man of gentle, albeit slightly off-kilter humour and unusual skills. He could blow pipe-smoke into ant holes and make it appear elsewhere in the garden. He could solve complex puzzles, both physical and cerebral and could balance a teacup and saucer onto the firm mound of his belly. In later years he became a skilful photographer and somehow, from a very non-alcoholic background, he learnt enough about whisky to run the “tastings”, convincingly, and with great mirth.

He was a master driver, demonstrating this through avoiding collisions on more than one occasion (a necessary skill for this part of the world). The pinnacle of this talent was perhaps the fleeing from a herd of very-angry elephants. The blinding display of expertise saw my father reverse a Zebra Van down a windy, tree-lined dirt road at considerable speed until, to the relief of the panicked family we had successfully fled from the wall of charging beasts. It remains an act of heroism that has imprinted my mind, forever.

As much as he loved his family, mum was the centre of his world. His loyalty to her was beyond description, we all knew that. He would have followed her to the end of the world, but it was to Scotland that they travelled where they rebuilt their life. As long as he was with mum, he had the world.

The man I found conducting whisky tastings at the lodge (with maximal enjoyment by myself, the patrons and seemingly my father) was not the same man I remembered leaving Zimbabwe. He had been renewed by Scotland and her people and I am forever grateful to that country and community for this. But I do not forget that it was this brutal and beautiful country Zimbabwe that forged the man that he was and know that these are two sides of the same coin. The qualities so  prominent in dad, honesty, integrity, peacefulness and intolerance of wrong, are those I will search for in myself, and hope to have inherited. 

I will be forever proud of you, and proud to be your son.

Gregory

 

Of Vagrants and Horses: Musings about the Departed

I’d rather have a goddam horse.  A horse is at least human, for God’s sake.  ~J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye

The Vagrants on a drawing (Coffee and Rusks) trip to Domboshava one January, long ago..

I needed to note the story of the horse. And the Vagrants.

It behoves me to commit it to pixels before the various elements of data are lost in the inevitable journey toward entropy, as some have done already.

The Vagrants were a wonderful group of young women and man who deserved a mention. They were kind, caring (except for not making Leah tea), generous and funny – all admirable qualities, it must be said, and they will always remain as such in my mind. This then, is a post remembering them and their idiosyncrasies, and a chance to elucidate the tail of the horse:

Here:

Tail of a Horse

Ultimately, it’s a shot into the wilderness of their existence to see how their future predictions are panning out according to their own schedule, created some time back, which I have furnished them with below for their convenience.

Possible Futures

It is the case that in all classes, certain trends and fashions come and go, and Vagrants were no exception. Not in order, and for varying periods of time, we had:

The Astronomical, Astrological and Lunar (Loony) Obsession (quite persistent):

Food (very persistent):

Flapjack-not-art making

Travel (as opportunities presented):

Batman and Hats (extremely persistent):

Health (occasional):

And Horses (all-consuming):

The idea of the (a particular, or any) horse arose and persisted. And persisted. And persisted some more. Retrospectively, I believe it started with Leah’s IG coursework, based on said beast (specifically), and my continual imploring her to bring the animal to school, to “draw from first-hand s(h)ources”. It became an endless trope, unpacked often, whenever, wherever. Images pounded our phones, littered the studio (still do) and were etched into almost every lesson. Equestrian activity, apparently, is ubiquitous. Once consciousness has been raised in this regard, it is possible to note said interest in galleries, adverts, music videos, public art, private art, memes and media. Literally everywhere.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

It seemed inevitable that we would one day incorporate the animal into the class, and we held on to that possibility indefinitely. Until this day:

List of Things Not to Say to a Horse-Lover and Owner:

  1. “I bought online, a keyring with a tiny live horse in it”.

Mentally, having reminded myself once again to think before unpacking bad-taste jokes, I moved on (in fact, I did what damage control I could, found some pertinent texts from The Prophet which I sent through to minimise the harm; forsooth, it was a terrible thing and I was feeling v. bad about it – the keyring and my joke). The horse-owner, Leah was herself lucky to remain in the group – we tried to delete her (not out of shame – that was later), I wrote her a poem, in time described as a “paucity attempt”. Christiaan did leave, I wrote him a poem too, which was received with greater enthusiasm.

Life moved on: Lisa and Natalie went to Bulawayo, pulled their tongues. Sophie created the first never-to-dry ink painting. Elsabe, Isobel and Betta went to Kariba, mixed it up with Lundun. Betta did better, went to London, found a horse. Leah covered her friend in flour. Ashleigh jumped in on the horse story with the Lundun crew (in collared shirt). Chloe tied up her boyfriend for an exam for a few days. Andrea went to Mauritius and took a picture of a snake:

Which leads me to the horse. There are some phrases which ring alarm bells; evoke a premonition of dark times ahead. “Sir, you’d better come see this…” is one, and it was with significant trepidation at the end of a very stressful year that I heard those words. There is, it seems, an inexhaustible list of possibilities one would rather not encounter on a school morning. What follows is a pictorial account of one of the most surprising and finest moments in any school, one on which my initials found themselves a real horses arse:

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I told you that they were a caring bunch. Indeed when I was discharged from the oncology ward forever, they were wonderfully happy on my behalf, tapped into their previous astrological obsession to create a groovy card that remains treasured in my collection.

 

We furnished Esther with a heart

Esther pretends to be the Tin Man

And then they departed, leaving me with  a magnificent chair, another wonderful card and a photograph of them (Long ago, it must be…).

Although they have now moved on, and artistic endeavour only touches a few of them, it is well worth showing you some of their exceptional work – the Final Outcomes of their A2 Coursework.

I trust, wherever they are, irrespective of whether they have checked off any of their possible futures, they’re galloping around, “neighing and shit”.

Observations

  1. When descending a hill such as Domboshava on a narrow trail and are yourself ahead of the pack, the act turning around and running back up the hill whilst screaming can create a general state of panic.

Studio One

Sunday will bring to a close about thirty-five hours of exams and give way to about an equal number of marking (for each of us) over the next two weeks. Challenging drawing topics for the Ones were met with some positive responses. The Threes were well prepared for their first long exam, but the verdict is still out for the Fours. The Whey and Barbarians Unleashed enjoyed Fifteen hour exams. Stress, tiredness and an absence of music characterised the occasion. Good work was evident.

Greg Shaw

4th July 2019

 

 

“There’s Room for You”, Or An Extraordinary Student Work (III)

“The absurd, with its rupture of rationality-of conventional ways of seeing the world-is in fact an accurate and a productive way of understanding the world.”

William Kentridge

There’s Room for You is the A2 Coursework submission of Isabella Ross, a pupil I have admired from across my studio for six years – I have never taught her, she has tracked a course through our department under the tutelage of my esteemed colleagues). One of her great strengths as an art pupil was the ability to make powerful, expressive marks in a variety of media. Because these were never pulled from the air, but generally referents to objects and physical anchors of her experience in her world, they have carried significant power into which she has invested her concepts and elements of her humanity with sincere conviction. This post is not really an analysis of her coursework, rather an overview of her extraordinary work, for it deserves to be acknowledged.

The following text is the starting point to her submission:

“There’s Room For You – Enlist Today” developed and encapsulates the main them and direction of my coursework. It was a poster produced by the Parliamentary Recruiting Committee with the aim of recruiting men to the British Military during World War One. This is an unusually decorative poster, most produced before were text based, and of limited colour… . I found the slogan disturbing, especially considering the massive loss of life in those years. I became interested in continuing this idea, questioning it in both a historic and current context. As I began to think about this, the fact that there really was in the end only room for men in the ground, I was shocked to realise how indifferent I had become to the [announcement?] of death tolls from disaster and human conflict, that those that had died were people with lives and feeling. The constant bombardment of these “numbers” seems have made the modern audience immune to its distasteful and catastrophic nature. A distance has been created that I wished to cross back over and reconnect, the break back through the anonymity of mass loss of life.” (IR, Coursework Supporting Work Page 4).

Page 4 – Detail of Supporting Work

As expressed previously, the interaction with our pupils crosses studio boundaries. Crits, assessments and exam marking are done with three teachers for a number of reasons. This process allows us good knowledge of all of the pupils in the department, especially at the senior level. I followed Isabella’s decision (under the guidance of Mary-Ann) to confine her outstandingly expressive, tactile qualities within traditional media to the sterility of the digital arena with, I must confess, a modicum of apprehension.

However, within her preparation work, she describes how she came to conceive of her Final Outcome as a “moving painting”. Whilst technically, this could be any video work or animated piece, it transpired that within her specific conception, she was able to retain her expressive strengths, indeed, the work is just as her conception; a moving painting / drawing which retains the vitality of her mark and various media. In fact, it is this characteristic which gives it its unusual and individual strength.

The images immediately below are details from her sketchbook, they reveal the depth of her research and careful analysis of ideas, as well as the hand of a pupil highly proficient and confident in visual exploration (each image can be expanded from the slide show for closer viewing).

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The manner in which she combines various themes, and ideas into a coherent work is commendable. The vast array of references, from arcade games to Kentridge and Lieros are absorbing and require a few readings of the work to digest. Her work touches on archetypical themes, such as sacrifice and humanity at the mercy of forces beyond its control. Authority figures take on both religious and quasi-religious forms which combine to suggest elements of control beyond the  protagonist, and by inference, the spectator. Her use of masks find elements of both individuality and universality, which she suggests “display concerns of anonymity and human collective, becoming the dissolution of people from the meaning of life”.

The depth of her research is clear within the supporting work presented immediately below. These are A1 sheets of work onto which the wide variety of imagery and research have been presented (each image can be expanded for closer analysis).

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The work is presented as an arcade game in which the player becomes just another number as he  journeys through the trauma and violence of a world beyond his control. He is fully at the mercy of numerous forces with little, indeed zero independent agency within his life, or the period encapsulated in this work. Isabella presents a wealth of thought provoking imagery, carefully combined into a highly unusual work, and a submission that I am proud to have associated with the department!

Studio One

The Ones continue with their trees, now investigating them within digital media – age appropriate catastrophes apply. The Threes progress with exam prep, extensive giggling and a failure for most to submit their work characterised the week. Pretty pleased with the Fours IGCSE prep this week – I think it behoves me to name them. Cake Wars subsided in The Whey this week – there was a temporary, non-forceful incarceration which resolved somewhat amicably. Barbarians Unleashed seem to have been a little sensitive – I don’t really think it’s me – must be the proximity of Exams on the horizon.

Greg Shaw,

9th June 2019

 

Homelessness, (dis)Connection and Loss. Or, An Extraordinary Student Work (II)

In places like universities, where everyone talks too rationally, it is necessary for a kind of enchanter to appear. 

Joseph Beuys

IWe

I had the pleasure of working with Luc at IGCSE Level (I wrote about his work previously). He is creative, sensitive and of gentle wit, overwhelmingly evident in the work below, and, as I have become accustomed to, a creator of tragicomic forms which reveal deep and penetrating  reflections, overlaid with a darkish tint. I lost him to Studio Three for his Advanced Level work through the actions of The Great Timetable Machine, where he worked with my colleague Mary-Ann. Our “crits”, exam and assessment marking are shared, and our Upper VI pupils are required to present their work to us half way through the year. When we met at that mid-point, his presentation which took the form of  hundreds of thoughts, sketches, digital explorations, drawings and paintings was startling. Out of that seeming chaos, a tremendous digital work emerged. It may also valid to say that because of that seeming chaos, and the overwhelming outpouring of creativity, this work has emerged.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

IWe (even the title is exceptional), a 240 second work plays out over three sections. It is, I suggest, a journey with isolation, homelessness, alienation, disconnection and loss at its core (happy thoughts indeed). The following are my own thoughts about the work, not necessarily those presented by Luc.

The work opens with a genesis, in which an embryonic form of both natural and unnatural nature, a pronounced spine along its length, pulsates in a deep space. In binary, object and void hang together whilst the spectator awaits the establishment of context, achieved through the assault of kaleidoscopic imagery in a harsh rendering of a possible world. Elements of humanoid matter collide with disturbed natural imagery and techno graphics in sync with random noises, gradually speeding up until the seeming chaos takes on a regular, patterned musical form. It is not comfortable, indeed, it heightens to an almost intolerable form until the viewer is abruptly relieved of their distress.

I found this section of the work harder to respond to, yet I admire its value. I find the visual elements disparate, unaesthetic – harsh, even and random. There seems to be little narrative and I find little in which to attach meaning, apart from the fact, of course, that meaning resides in each of the statements I just made. Which is clearly the point.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The second section of the work is the core in which the primary meaning resides, and it is achieved through a subtle and mesmerising manner. Two beings similar in nature inhabit a vast, cosmically inspired space. Their textures are fleshy, palpable, tactile. Though they are faceless, their attitude is one of a tender, mutual apprehension. The drawing is so crafted that they seem to respond to each other in harmony and even desire. Lit by a strong central source, deep shadows accentuate sinewy necks which support their “heads” but which fails to cast shadows and adds to the tension within the sequence. The absence of cast shadows is curious, rendering the figures somewhat isolated from the backdrop, contained in the mutual dance. 

It is clear from the work that considerable thought has gone in to the nature of these beings. Luc’s description of the concept is extensive: “I tried to give [the sequence] a distinct look that felt both familiar and alien. I wanted to mimc the appearance of the systems in the body; something that feels alive although it serves a function…” Within the preparatory work, a clear effort is visible to render the figures human-like yet abstract. It is this deliberate search for “familiar yet alien” that makes the objects relatable, their substance, movement and demeanour seems our own make-up.

This is a story about, desire, the need for connection and ultimately, the understanding that this is not achievable. Through the zooming-in sequence, the spectator is drawn ever closer to the macro level of the beings as they reach out for contact with each other. They become aware that not only are these beings fleshy organic, relatable, but more significantly, that no-matter how close they become, no-matter the detail, depth and texture of the very tissue of these beings, a membrane remains. There is contact, but there will be no ultimate connection, no understanding. They are seemingly determined to remains separate, isolated in a desperate state of disconnection.

And there is one final blow; ultimately, there is a break-down at cellular level – it seems that this meeting point is indeed a possibility – there can be union. But is is abruptly shattered and in a sharp, short withdrawing, each figure is reduced to its relative isolation. Possibility is rendered as tragedy.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The final  final section brings little relief; the work resolves in a manner that not only underlines the alienation of the individual, but also reveals significant trauma. It is then, not a work that leaves one full of overwhelming joy, rather one that posits a notion of human existence as one of lonely, deep suffering – an idea suggested for millennia. Through the colour and nature of the image, there is a reference to the genesis scene and the potential that was suggested at that point. Separation is quickly reintroduced through the reintroduction of the techno style imagery, this time with figurative elements. The hands that scratch at the now humanoid form have no means of interaction with the figure. The world is removed, alien separated both visually and metaphorically.

We are taken within the figure where recognisable forms, a spine, a blood cell seem to collide with interference from the outside, but somehow to not reconcile with the separation portrayed thus far. The soundtrack, carefully planned offers some relief and there is a tranquility about the ending, despite the traumatic journey that has taken place. Amidst this relative calm, I have thought hard about the expression on the now disembodied figure’s face. Resignation, peace, tolerance are all readable in this moment. 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I find this work somewhat extraordinary. There are multiple influences and referents ranging from a wide variety of sources, which is perhaps what adds to the richness. It is at once retro and contemporary, and a credit to its maker.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it comes with a

SEIZURE WARNING

Studio One

Form Ones are working through Allied Arts topics, much time has been spent outside drawing trees with pencil, and next week we will be exploring iPad drawing. The Threes press on with exam prep but their week has been alarmingly bereft of homework. The Fours build their IG Coursework, music has been amicably shared between the table factions. Cake remains a contentious issue within The Whey, with things reaching a frightening peak this afternoon. I believe that the volumes of work required are beginning to sink in to Barbarians Unleashed, hopefully spurring them on to great things. 

Greg Shaw,

30th May 2019

 

 

 

 

Variations

“A true creator knows that you follow the thing to where it’s going, not to where you think it ought to go.”

— Adam Savagevia Tim Ferris Podcast
Photograph of Jessica’s Final Outcome to the Coursework, “Hive of Activity”

As our annual exhibition draws to a close, I have taken a moment to acknowledge the many pupils of our department and applaud the effort they have made at every level and their many achievements of varying magnitude. I also shout out to my colleagues, Lisa and Mary-Ann who travel this road with me, share the rewards, frustration and exhaustion but ultimately, the inspiration of this endeavour! The pride we have in our department is considerable.

The exhibition is mounted in the three studios, with Forms 1 & 2 (13  & 14 yrs) in the first, Form 2 & 3 (15&16yrs) in the second, and the Upper and Lower 6 (17 & 18yrs) in the third. Our spaces are beautiful, light and interesting, but are hard to describe through photographs. Hopefully, the following slides give some idea of each of the rooms.

Studio Three, below: Forms 1 & 2

Studio Two, below: Forms 3 & 4


Studio Three, below: Forms Lower and Upper VI

Below: Moments, all ages.

We were delighted that two of our pupils were the recipients of Cambridge Outstanding Learner Awards, with Michaela being awarded “Best AS pupil in Zimbabwe”, and Isla being awarded “Top in the World”, for her Advanced Level submission. These require their own posts, which hopefully will happen in time (they are queued – there are a number of previous winners who deserve acknowledgement!).

Michaela’s AS submission below: (top left, Coursework Final Outcome; top right and bottom, Controlled Test Final Outcome and Supporting Work detail)

Video of Isla’s Final Outcome Installation and details of supporting work with Personal Study below:

It is a privilege to work with our pupils and to see, once again, their accomplishments on display. 

Studio One

A good crop of Form Threes begin their explorations into coursework, whilst the Form Fours edge closer to their IGCSE submissions. The Whey eat cake, plan bake offs, crush each other to hear their “real” laughter and contemplate their AS Coursework. Barbarians Unleashed remain somewhat savage as the pressure of A Level begins to mount.

Observations

  1. The department currently has 352 pupils. Every effort was made to include at least one piece of every pupil on the exhibition.
  2. It is estimated that over 11,000 pieces of work (some small, some artist studies, others large paintings, sculptures and installations) were made in the past twelve months. Each of these has had some engagement with one of the three teachers, which is staggering.

Greg Shaw,

16 May, 2019. Harare.