One of the most memorable literary put downs for me is Michael Moorcock calling JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (as well as works by CS Lewis and others) ‘Epic Pooh’ in an eponymous 1978 essay. Pooh meaning AA Milne’s honey-slurping bear with little brains. The point of the criticism is that Tolkien’s world-building, for all it’s influence and intricacy is, in terms of imaginative potential and political meaning, merely a darker Hundred Acre Wood. Moorcock points out a narrative infantilism, a romanticisation of the rural, easy catharsis and a bankrupt middle-class morality. 1Anti-Tolkien in the New Yorker
Regardless of whether this is a hatchet job and a straw man argument, there is a core idea that is valuable (and possibly a truism nowadays): the worlds that fantasy authors create – no matter how imaginative – reflect the morality and political views of the author. Game of Thrones, for its complex development around wealth and political intrigue, is still mapped onto spatial ideas of the north as noble, the south as louche and the east as exotic. Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, breaks that mapping with a brown-skinned northern protagonist, and pale savages to the east. Yet her magic system strongly reflects 60s spirituality with its focus on self-knowledge as the well spring of power.
In recent years there has been plenty of interest in – and authors producing – contemporary fantasy that opens new worlds with different mappings. The annual Nommo Awards, which recognises speculative fiction by Africans, shows the breadth of this fiction, with authors like Tade Thompson and Nnedi Okorafor breaking into the mainstream of Netflix deals.
The significance of this world-building, for me, is that it counters the sticky imaginary worlds that are pasted onto the former colonies, races and places. These worlds don’t only feel fresh, but also seem to form a countervailing narrative – fully formed, coherent and imaginative.
J. R. R. Tolkien, the near-universally-hailed father of modern epic fantasy, crafted his magnum opus The Lord of the Rings to explore the forces of creation as he saw them: God and country, race and class, journeying to war and returning home. I’ve heard it said that he was trying to create some kind of original British mythology using the structure of other cultures’ myths, and maybe that was true. I don’t know. What I see, when I read his work, is a man trying desperately to dream.
Dreaming is impossible without myths. If we don’t have enough myths of our own, we’ll latch onto those of others — even if those myths make us believe terrible or false things about ourselves. Tolkien understood this, I think because it’s human nature. Call it the superego, call it common sense, call it pragmatism, call it learned helplessness, but the mind craves boundaries. Depending on the myths we believe in, those boundaries can be magnificently vast, or crushingly tight.
My mind turned to artists who work in realms of fantasy, or magical realism or even some visual version of speculative fiction (I’m not particularly interested in genre distinction, I call it all fantasy). Artists like Simphiwe Ndzube, Athi-Patra Ruga and Pamela Phatsimo Sunstrum work with world-building but are freed from the need for plot, and it’s children verisimilitude, denouement and exposition. They can jump straight out of the Moleskines.Visual art is highly invested in the significant fragment, which invites the user to complete, to correspond. The power of this is immediacy: because art can be a complete aesthetic whole, while also acting as a fragment of a larger whole, you can ‘get it’ and feel opened up to larger possibilities. It operates in the realm of epiphany.
However, without the narrative conventions, these artists need to find different ways to enter the realm of myth-making in the way Jemisin means, to move beyond flash of insight or to prevent incoherence.
The answer seems to me to be in the use of material that expands the work intertextually or that pushes into the real. In Simphiwe Ndzube’s ‘The Fantastic Ride to Gwadana’, the paintings move between acid colours, witchcraft, folklore, the Eastern Cape and an imagined utopia of Otherness. The distorted characters mixed with hints of the everyday – bricks, hats, billboards (my silent delight for his homage to king of ambiguity Santu Mofokeng) – give the whole show a Ben Okri-like dream reality. I get the sense of Ndzube trying to parse the superstitious and the irrational, how they are important in building a sense of self, but have dark implications for those outside. What interests me most though is Ndzube’s trademark use of clothes attached directly to the canvas. Knotted, draped and tacked up they complete the figures. Clean but worn, they have a strange dignity, cared for and once held close to real skin, actual bodies. But also the forlorn abandonment of second hand goods everywhere. This anchors the work into the real, and helps us plot out where Ndzube’s fantasy world is attached and where it floats free.
In ‘Battlecry’, Pamela Phatsimo Sunstrum approaches the conundrum in a painterly way. Sunstrum’s work trawls through archetypes and alter egos, landing characters that don’t quite belong to standard myths, but feel mythy. She taps on ideas of womanhood and heroes, shifting scope from the personal to the historic, linked often with her own visage. There is a sense of Sunstrum desperately trying to dream, of trying to find herself in the clutter of history and of trying to see where the boundaries lie. Sunstrum plays with transparency and washes: a landscape shines through a skirt, plants emerging through a pants leg. On occasion you glimpse the substrate itself. This seems to emphasize that the figures are ghostly, transient and imaginary. Conversely, it gives them a sense of connecting to each other, to the objects, rooms and landscapes in the paintings, and to the ground of the painting itself. This gives her figures a presence and conceptual solidity.
Athi-Patra Ruga has been creating epics, sagas and morphing characters throughout his career. The complexity of his world-building, its shifts and nuances are an essay in itself. Ruga’s work relies on the epiphanic fragment. As his work has built up in layers over time, these fragments overlap and intersect, building a density of meaning ranging from utopia, reclamation, queerness, irony, critique and joyous kink. His recent work at Norval ‘iiNyanga Zonyaka’, with its new character Nomalizo Kwezi, skitters between references to Noni Jabavu, Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo and the Eastern Cape via Azania and the church. As always with Ruga, the breadth of his imagination with the complexity of his linkages is breathtaking. His use of stained glass (vinyl at Norval, but real glass elsewhere), provides an interesting new layer. Ruga has long worked in tapestry, with its implication of luxury and mythic storytelling. The stained glass adds a religious dimension, which to my mind makes full circle with the epiphanic nature of his work. The stained glass moves his work out of the frame, the light projecting his world onto ours.
If we return to the initial idea of fantasy world-building mapping out political and cultural ideas, these artists foreground this mapping, while using material to anchor the work in lieu of narrative. Whether this builds new myths or not, the sensing of dreaming and boundary-setting seems like vital work.