Glen Carlou Gallery, Cape Town
03.11.2019 – 12.01.2020
For those of us in the creative fields who believe in the transformative power of art, speaking to issues of gender based violence and femicide through art practice seems like a necessary and urgent step. Yet, for many I have spoken with, the sense of an overwhelming frustration and despair at the enormity of the problem is such that we find ourselves both angry and almost paralyzed by our frustration, gasping for breath, finding it hard to see beyond the darkness. The ongoing rape and murder crisis is not loosening its asphyxiating grip on our public spaces, our communities, our families. Streams of revelations about the past traumas that are never fully in the past seem relentless. It keeps coming at us from media and from survivors whose bravery is beyond measure. It is hard to escape a deep sense of loss because of how irreparable those pasts are, how un-reclaimable those destroyed childhoods, how unrecoverable those other stories that could have been.
It is this sense of loss but, more importantly, an urgency to reclaim the agency for those who survived – and for those who have not – that has been driving Cathy Abraham’s most recent project Memorial, which is currently on exhibition at the Glen Carlou Gallery in Klapmuts. Abraham’s exhibition titled ‘A Deeper Kind of Nothing’ encompasses three major installations, video and sculptural work. Drawing Breath, which opens the show, is a stand-alone wall piece with a multitude of suspended off white balloons, each holding a single exhalation by the artist. The fragile, feeble presence of their imperfect sagging forms is interspersed with a few blackened bronze casts of the same. The casts are heavy, their lead-like crushing weight may seem to give presence to something that is made of nothing, after all, (the exhaled air) but it leaves little space for breathing at the same time. Abraham is interested in the exploration of the discarded and the insignificant aspects of the everyday, likening them to the psychological and emotional impact of silencing on victims of gender based violence and normalization of violence in society more broadly; the normalization that becomes internalized, making it invisible to all but those who struggle for breath in its stifling grip.
The installation Memorial is central to Abraham’s exhibition, a large low sitting galvanized steel platform with 9000 broken eggshells painted black filling most of its expanse. Each shell, unique in its brokenness, painfully fragile, almost trembling with lightest of touches and immensely tactile holds a reminder and a memory of a life lost in the ongoing war on women’s lives and bodies. Abraham has been collecting her material from family, friends and local small businesses and has been painting them black inside and out for the past four months, often inviting others to join her in this act of sharing, grieving, collaborating and honoring those who have fallen and those who have survived. The painting and performance is ongoing and the audience is invited to join the artist every Sunday in her small residency space at the gallery. Once painted and dry, the eggshells are moved to the exhibition space by the collaborators or the artist herself and placed onto the memorial: tray by tray they fill the floor forming an ever growing line waiting for their resting place, or perhaps a living place, on the platform where they catch the candle light that reflects off their beautiful and broken shapes. Their ominous and mundane presence is a painful reminder that there is and the will be more broken lives to be commemorated.
Monuments, especially the imposing, larger than life sculptural renditions of mostly male historical figurers still dotting many public spaces, do not have the best reputation. A number of them still glorify those who have been implicated in the destruction of the social and spatial fabric of Southern Africa. The gender–based violence crisis is but one of the consequences of their actions. Abraham’s choice of broken eggshells speaks to our sense of brokenness as a society, the everydayness of the violence that so many have to live with. Her process of manipulation of that brokenness, the application of the layers of black paint that carries with it both tender holding and almost unavoidable breaking and discarding of the pieces evokes the sense of deep sorrow and unrecoverable loss while offering some respite, if not refuge, in its meditative repetitive actions.
The candle light flickers in the small residence space, the conversation around the table, where hundreds of broken eggshells wait to receive their black veil of paint, flows on in waves, receding into introspection or resurfacing into an affirmative supportive exchange. Following the recent events that shook the UCT community, when yet another one of its female students, Uyinene Mrwetyana, was raped and murdered, the artist decided to start adding names of the victims to some of the painted eggshells. Almost lost in the black multitude the named ones serve to both remember those we know and to underscore the vast numbers of those we don’t.
I joined Abraham for one of her painting sessions in the residency space. As I sat there taking away the white and layering on the black, the fragile eggshells occasionally giving in and crumbling under my fingers, a mother with two young daughters aged about seven and ten came in to have a look. The mother thanked the artist and proceeded to tell the girls what the Memorial was about. She explained to them that although it never happened to them or in their house, it did happen to people like them in their houses and in many other places. So she also took that moment to teach them how to say no. As they left I struggled to breathe. It was devastating and it was powerful.
The final day to take part in the artist’s performance is Sunday 12 January, between 11 am and 1 pm at Glen Carlou Art Gallery, Klapmuts.