The artist Judith Mason (BA FA 1961) died in December 2016 in White River. She lectured at Wits in the 1960s and early 1970s, and at Michaelis and in Italy in the 90s. Mason is represented in important collections in South Africa and abroad, including the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art. Perhaps her best known work is The Man Who Sang and the Woman Who Kept Silent (also known as The Blue Dress), based on testimonies from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, displayed at the Constitutional Court. Her book, The Mind’s Eye: An Introduction to Making Images was published in 2016.
The following is an extract from a tribute to Judith Mason by Kim Berman:
Before I met Judy in person, she was like a lighthouse flashing in the distance, a beacon for young aspiring artists. When I was a student at school and then at Wits, she was a legend, a wise and compassionate guide who found a way to slice through the lies and deceit and the immorality of the abominable politics of the 70’s and 80’s through the depth and sharp wit of her paintings.
I so clearly remember Judy’s exhibition of the TRC… those countless ribbons of shredded plastic of testimonies, tirelessly written in Judy’s hand, each word with the respect that honoured those painful stories. The depth of Judy’s empathy moved me so deeply as an artist and I remember understanding profoundly the power of art to reach deeply in ones soul as well as a recognition of how one can respond so purposely to life though art.
I have in fact dedicated my life as an art teacher, to convincing many young people about this value of being an artist, which I am able to continue through the conviction and inspiration of Judy’s example as a touchstone.
Judy the wonderful, compassionate and wise friend to so many of us; proud mother and fellow-artist to Tamar and Mark and Petra; and adoring Oma and soul-mate to Simon and Maru, who kept her studio well stocked with feathers, bones, butterflies and skulls. Her capacity for empathy, deep humility and humour will leave a gaping hole and an abundant legacy in all of our lives.
And then there is Judy, the mentor, activist, teacher who profoundly impacted young peoples lives. One of countless examples was John Taous, a Rwandan refugee who walked across the killing fields of Rwanda, through Tanzania, and across Southern Africa, crossing the Kruger Park and ending up as part of a building crew. Judy befriended John after seeing him draw under a tree during his lunch breaks. She mentored him, and one day I got a call to say she wants to sponsor him to study at Artist Proof Studio. She gave him money to find a place to stay, and to support himself, and he came to work with us for four years. He was able to start a business selling food and clothes at the train stations in Pretoria. He thrived at APS and sold his artwork steadily after his third year, up until the xenophobic violence chased him out of his home and destroyed all the possessions he could now afford. John returned to stay with Judy and the White-river family to find refuge, before he reunited with his dying sister in Tanzania. I often asked John about his extraordinary resilience and he used to talk about Judy, as a person who believed in him. He overcame the impossible and became a good artist, not because he had the raw innate talent, but because Judy said he could. When Judy came to APS to give a crit, she often honed in on the weakest of the students and identified a spark that inspired them to find their confidence to be great. There are many young people who can attribute their success to Judy’s encouragement and could tell them how great they were in their ordinariness, or that Judy, this 70-something legendary artist, could say she was jealous of a drawn mark they achieved!
There are so many stories that will be shared, and its our duty to protect, honour and re-share them so her role as a beacon flashing from her lighthouse continues, as well as her extraordinary and profound humanity that shone through her humbleness continues to inspire many more artists.