Artist Hanien Conradie shares the impulse and process behind a Covid19-lockdown collaboration that brings together image and text; and how, in a period of human silence, her muse and the natural world seemed to work in similar ways.
2,170 words: estimated reading time = 8.5 minutes + gallery
What does it take for distracted creatives to surrender to the cries of their muse’s desires? For some it is simple, they hear, they listen and they translate through making. But some of us academically trained artists scold the muse for her infantile ideas, her need to play and her seemingly inconsistent barrage of desires. And then there are some of us who ignore her voice year after year…
In my practice I work in locally found natural pigments and burnt plant material as part of an expression of climate change and my concern with loss as we head toward a Sixth Mass Extinction. The global ecological anguish and my personal heartache inform the colour palette of my work: earthy ochres and monochromatic black paintings. Black, as a colour of grieving in the West, is also a colour that represents infinite creative potential and has become more and more prominent in my films, my ritual work and my paintings.
Human silence & other voices
As the severe restrictions of the Covid19 lockdown isolated South Africans in their homes, I considered what artworks I could make from a small desk in my bedroom. For quite a few years I have been an active environmental voice, calling for a change in the way we relate to the natural world. Suddenly, because of the virus, the Earth gained respite from our feverish pursuit of money; our disregard for the effect we have on the rest of the natural world. At the same time, everyone became quiet and introspective and the sounds of the natural world became more apparent than before; and people noticed. It seemed to me that the Covid19 lockdown provided the perfect opportunity for humanity to reconsider the way we live. For the moment it felt like my quest for change was interceded by an outer manifestation that was so severe that it forced us to adjust our habits naturally.
Within the human silence of the lockdown, the voice of my muse became more insistent than before. I realized that the workings of my muse and the natural world were similar somehow and that less noise and distraction increased the intensity of my creative compulsions. The very uncertain and unprecedented circumstances swept away my normal, considered academic approach to my practice. I felt like breaking free from all my self-imposed limitations, obligations and preconceptions about what my art should be. I imagined that this is how artists might feel during times of war: the focus shifts from making work for others to making work because this is what I do to keep myself sane. I thus found myself surrendering to whatever my muse wanted to make.
I had recently been gifted a set of Winsor & Newton Artists’ Watercolours with 24 colours in a beautiful transportable black box. The new paint had my muse salivating and my hunger to make small brightly coloured paintings seemed vast and insatiable. Before the lockdown, I had planned to make on-site landscape portraits with them. This idea was in keeping with my practice of visiting and relating to living natural landscapes, but traveling outside of my home was prohibited during lockdown.
In addition to the delicious paints, my partner inherited an equally delectable collection of National Geographic magazines from his father. Whenever I saw their bright yellow spines I remembered the remarkable pictures hidden inside and my childlike delight as I pored over the magnificent mysteries of our existence through their pages. Since my muse was completely uninterested in working with the only ‘living’ places I had access to — the interior of my home or my small garden — I decided to page through the magazines. I started to mark any images that thrilled me without pondering their meaning too much. I have used this technique in the past to access my subconscious feelings. It turned out that many of the images I paused on featured lone human figures in extreme natural surroundings; environments where the human body cannot survive naturally.
Surrendering to the muse: postcards from lockdown
My burning desire remained to make miniature paintings in my brand new luminous watercolours. I happened to have a few books of Fabriano Postcard watercolour paper available. There was something about the postcard format that appealed to me: the hint of possible travel and its capacity to carry messages beyond my forced incarceration. In the past, I have always used the actual place or my own photographs as references to paint from. Making use of magazine images was a departure from my usual way and alarmed me somewhat. Sailing this close to mere illustration had my academic fine-artist-self protesting: ‘I have a reputation to think of’ and ‘the Gallery will expect more consistency from you’… I ignored this voice and continued to surrender to what delighted and motivated my muse.
Thus, I commenced a ‘vigil’ dedicated to creating in isolation and produced one painting a day over many weeks. The human silence in the first three weeks of lockdown was heavenly: no traffic, no airplanes, and a communal energy of quiet withdrawal in the air. The comforting solitude punctuated by the occasional ringtone or electronic alert mingled with birdsong, a frog choir and the roaring river close by. This symphony of sound was the perfect context for delicate and detailed painting. I felt happy and at peace as my muse took me on an imaginative journey to some of the most extraordinary and far-off places on Earth.
These places, in relation to the inner places I discovered during this practice, made me consider what best-selling author and former monk, Thomas Moore, says in his book A Religion of One’s Own. Moore suggests that as human beings we know a considerable amount about our external world and that, in comparison, we know very little (maybe too little) about our internal worlds. The images from the National Geographic magazines were mostly about discovering and exploring our external world — not only the Earth and space but also the microcosm. In hindsight, I came to understand that the images I selected were not random at all. They resonated with and expressed the internal states I experienced during lockdown. I became conscious of the inherent wisdom of my muse and subconscious mind.
I have since come to an understanding that periods of isolation are essential for humans in order to cultivate inner stillness. It is important to make time to listen deeply to one’s inner reality and to know its terrain well. In my experience this practice also sensitizes us to be more receptive to the ‘voice’ of the natural world.
When lockdown was finally over, I walked down to the river and it was as if I saw an old and dear friend again after a long time of absence. This little ecosystem on my doorstep was so much more magnificent than ever before. And I delighted in noticing that so much had healed and grown since I had last visited: in the vegetation and birdlife but also within me. This enchanting encounter resulted in another postcard series of 21 portraits of the river, titled ‘My Sanctuary’ (2020), which I made for a South African friend living in the UK.
40 nights / 40 DAYS
Allowing my muse to direct my creative process opened up a more spacious attitude to the flow of life in general and, more concretely, helped me to manifest my desires; in this case 40 small bright coloured paintings. I am now able to ‘hear’ and act on subtle prompts from my creative spirit. One of these ‘nudges’ that came to me was a dissatisfaction with the blankness of the backs of the postcards; where greetings and messages should be. Without text the 40 postcards from lockdown did not seem complete.
I recalled fashion-predictor Li Edelkoort’s podcast about the future of fashion design after Covid19. It was a brilliant talk containing some strange capitalistic approaches to the crisis that I found intriguing. I sent this off to friends and one of them, John Higgins, responded with a voice poem.
As a writer and academic, John has long been interested in the question of montage — in film, visual media and in writing. As lockdown took hold, John says he found himself, “like many people in the first phase of Covid19 and the ensuing lockdown … overwhelmed by the tsunami of media coverage … [and] at the same time, reading it obsessively as some form of comfort or distraction.” As something of an active response to the increasingly eerie situation, he began to assemble a number of montage texts from the various books, podcasts, news bulletins and online media available within his lockdown environment.
From the talk by Edelkoort, John selected key sentences and put them together in a montage that revealed the underlying philosophical questions in a very humorous way. I sent him a picture of one of my postcard paintings in response. The combination of the text and the picture revealed a fascinating new meaning, which was a delight to both of us. And, unashamedly, I found my muse asking John to join the project.
Thus two parallel projects commenced, each serving as an antidote to calm our anxiety during uncertain times. John created 40 texts and I painted 40 images, independently from each other. Each project maintains a distinct identity when seen in isolation. In my process I selected images from National Geographic magazines, painted them, and — together as a montage — they revealed something about my inner world during this time. One could say that the 40 paintings are reliant on each other to create the meaning (or full picture) of my exploration. John in turn brought together, and set against each other, fragments of national and international news coverage and commentary with other varied readings from his day; also illuminating his questions and thoughts in relation to the pandemic. The 40 texts John crafted can be read separately but are more potent as one long text that leaves one with a sense of the strangeness of the lockdown experience.
Once we completed our separate projects we carefully paired the texts with the paintings. This process took some time, but eventually we settled on some intriguing combinations: some that were easy to understand, and others that created discomfort and ambiguity.
Since the images were painted on blank postcards, we decided to incorporate the text as part of each piece. On the reverse of the cards (where address and message are normally written), I give thanks to my inspiration by referencing the National Geographic ‘address’ of the image: the article title, edition, page number and the photographer. In the ‘message’ section of the postcard I ‘performed’ John’s text by transcribing them by hand. The final artwork is thus double-sided and consists of 40 painted images each with its own message on the back.
Because of the double-sided nature of the final work, it was difficult to display the text and painting simultaneously. To solve this, John and I created a printed book titled 40 nights/40 DAYS: from the lockdown. Here we present the text and image together at a glance. This is when what we describe as a ‘third work’ emerges through the viewer, who makes associations and assumptions based on the information gathered from both sources. One could say that the viewer becomes the creator in this ‘third work’.
Our short film presented here, is another attempt to bring this third meaning to life.
40 nights/40 DAYS is a playful project about serious things. We hope it will both delight and provide some solace in these extraordinary times.
Find out more
You can see a different selection from Hanien’s postcard collaboration with John in her contribution to our Quarantine Connection series from April-June 2020. Hanien Conradie: 40 nights / 40 DAYS appeared on Day 36. All 40 images that Hanien used for the series are displayed at her website, and the original paintings are available from the Everard Read Gallery in Cape Town, South Africa. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for a portfolio.
Also available for purchase is the hardcover book, 40 nights/40 DAYS: from the lockdown. This can be ordered from Hanien at email@example.com.
You can listen to the Business of Fashion podcast (27/3/20) featuring futurist Li Edelkoort, which triggered Hanien’s collaboration with John Higgins. The sources from which John took the textual fragments included media coverage from radio, television, and online sources such as Daily Maverick, The Guardian, the Washington Post and the New York Times; Li Edelkoort’s Business of Fashion podcast; and (dusted off and taken down from the bookshelves) Sir Edmund Burke’s Philosophical Inquiry into the Origins of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (T. Noble: London 1845); Plato’s Protagoras and Meno (Penguin: Harmondsworth 1956); John Ruskin’s Modern Painters Volume 1 (Dent: London 1935); John Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice (George Allen: London 1906).