Johno Mellish, A family of strangers, 2018. Chromogenic print on Fuji Crystal Archive Paper, 100 x 125cm. Edition 1/6

Emphatic whispers in art

Sharing vulnerabilities is a means to help break down barriers between disparate groups of people

SMITH presents ‘Emphatic Whispers’, a group exhibition that investigates the potential for art to make us more empathetic beings, and transform the way we relate to other people. Empathy extends beyond sympathy and compassion; it is the ability to relate to other humans on a plane where you imagine and understand their lived experience as if was your own. Humans are always in the process of “becoming” by learning new skills and fostering relationships, however, this exhibition considers whether exposure to certain artmaking practices can make us better, more caring people and aid us in relating to people outside of our immediate experience. This exhibition features the works of Stephen Allwright, Katherine Bull, Alka Dass, Jess Holdengarde, Claire Johnson, Strauss Louw, Sepideh Mehraban, Johno Mellish, Garth Meyer, Elsabé Milandri, Thandiwe Msebenzi, Gabrielle Raaff, Talia Ramkilawan, Amy Rusch, Shakil Solanki, Brett Charles Seiler and Marsi van de Heuvel.

Brett Charles Seiler, Closet Case, 2019. Acrylic, canvas, MDF and chalk, 52 x 93 x 57cm. All images courtesy of SMITH.Brett Charles Seiler, Closet Case, 2019. Acrylic, canvas, MDF and chalk, 52 x 93 x 57cm. All images courtesy of SMITH.

‘Emphatic Whispers’ nurtures a space for artmaking to create a shared experience. The works presented here, in their own ways, incite affective responses which can be considered empathetic. For an experience to be transformative, there needs to be a moment of magic. Of alchemy. This is what empathy is. Through the artistic process, audience imagination, and human connection, art can have transformative powers. Artists connect people and ideas across time and space and can be architects of change.

In Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag’s seminal 2001 essay, Sontag argues that shock value and vivid imagery of war is not enough to make people connect and breed empathy. War turns people into things, “photographs objectify: they turn an event or a person into something that can be possessed.” Artmaking that steps away from the potentially futile act of trying to document atrocities comes closer to filling in the gaps in our understanding of each other’s pain.

Talia Ramkilawan, Untitled IV, 2019. Wool, cloth and Hessian, 91 x 68cm.Talia Ramkilawan, Untitled IV, 2019. Wool, cloth and Hessian, 91 x 68cm.

Empathy can be enacted by giving a voice to marginalised communities. Talia Ramkilawan’s richly woven tapestries celebrate the complexity of South Asian identities. Within a South African context, these identities have been disparaged and erroneously made to appear homogeneous. Visibility is a compelling way of usurping existing power structures. To this end, visibility through the arts is a radical act of resistance. Brett Charles Seiler uses catchy prose and recognizable symbols associated with the gay experience, seen in Calvin Kleins and Plague, to speak to his experience as a queer man navigating the modern romantic landscape. The subtext here is we are not so different from each other; we can all experience trauma in love. His radical honestly demands radical empathy. Radical empathy is the idea that empathy is not just a feeling or an emotional encounter, but rather a call to action and a catalyst for change.

Stephen Allwright, Tending to a field of murmurs,2019. Ink, watercolour and graphite on Fabriano, 70 x 50cm.Stephen Allwright, Tending to a field of murmurs, 2019. Ink, watercolour and graphite on Fabriano, 70 x 50cm.

Sharing vulnerabilities is a means to help break down barriers between disparate groups of people. Shakil Solanki’s two ghostly figures inverted over each other
in Suspirium de Profundis II (sighs from the depths) speak to the vulnerabilities associated with acts of intimacy. Stephen Allwright shares something from the recess of his mind each time he puts ink to paper. In Tending to a field of murmurs, his head is replaced with sensual lips and in the background, a sea of lips looms. Stephen Allwright’s drawings reveal inner vulnerability and fragility. Vulnerability is the key to interpersonal connection, and connection, in turn, can lead to transformative action.

Strauss Louw, Embodied Landscape, 2019. Woven strips of silver gelatin prints, 95 x 75cm.Strauss Louw, Embodied Landscape, 2019. Woven strips of silver gelatin prints, 95 x 75cm.

Alka Dass, Strauss Louw and Claire Johnson draw from their personal archives to create new realities. Dass uses old family photographs and personal effects such as handkerchiefs combined with excerpts from her diary to unpack intergenerational trauma. One handkerchief reads, “This is about something that happened a long time ago but continues to affect me today”. These frank confessions create a space for us to reconsider the after-effects of history. In Embodied Landscape, Louw weaves together strips from excess silver gelatin prints to create an intricate textile with subtle details of male limbs weaving in and out of a lush landscape. The work looks delicate; vulnerable to human touch. Fragments of sliced up images are connected to create a whole that fuses the human body and the natural landscape.

Gabrielle Raaff, Love me, 2019. Water-based oil on cotton, 28 x 39cm.Gabrielle Raaff, Love me, 2019. Water-based oil on cotton, 28 x 39cm.

In her recent practice, Johnson has been drawn to the presence of absence and has started collecting discarded materials, or remnants. She presents them detached from their original body. Ceremonial Leftovers is made from offcuts of a wedding coat, the disregarded pieces taking centre stage in a reimagining of what is important. Gabrielle Raaff considers the act of painting to be transformative and allows instinctual choices in the making process to produce the final outcome. Raaff says, “Sometimes you have to give up somethings and let the work lead you”. In Raaff’s Love Me we make out two figures; their relationship is not immediately clear. Through ambiguity and imaginative thought, Raaff’s work rethinks the reasons for physical bodies to interact in con ned spaces. Marsi van de Heuvel also considers her process to be integral to the understanding of the work. She spends an abundance of time in nature and has found those experiences healing. She hopes to share the healing power of the natural world through her painstakingly crafted fineliner on Fabriano works. I’m listening and Quiet are black and white still lifes in Van de Heuvel’s signature meditative style. We give owers to others as an expression of gratitude, celebration and consolation. It’s a very simple, human way for us to show empathy and the quietness of these works captures that.

Artworks can generate an emotional and visceral response from those that encounter them. In Pictures and Tears: A History of People Who Have Cried In Front of Paintings James Elkin writes, “People cry because pictures seem unbearably full, complex, daunting, or somehow too close to be properly seen” or “because pictures seem unbearably empty, dark, painfully vast, cold, and somehow too far away to be understood.” He argues that the more you look at artworks, the more you begin to feel.

Johno Mellish, A family of strangers, 2018. Chromogenic print on Fuji Crystal Archive Paper, 100 x 125cm. Edition 1/6Johno Mellish, A family of strangers, 2018. Chromogenic print on Fuji Crystal Archive Paper, 100 x 125cm. Edition 1/6.

The work of Thandiwe Msebenzi, Johno Mellish and Jess Holdengarde hope to generate intuitive responses. Msebenzi’s Imbewu (Seeds) transmits internalised anguish; the earth is besmirched and the body curled up in a protective position. Being shown human bodies makes us more aware of our own. The figures in Mellish’s A family of strangers are lit up as if on stage. With this heightened drama comes an increased awareness of the disconnection between the characters, a mundane familial moment becomes a moment of discomfort for those privy to it. Collage making is a space where pieces of past traumas can be reworked to create present realities. Holdengarde’s photo collage Collecting their silent tears is made from found photographs taken in South Africa before liberation. She uses these sources to speak to collective trauma. Holdengarde says, “This work aims to re-imagine the narrative of the colonial photographs of a landscape that has been home to so much turmoil and trauma. Cutting and ripping at the past is a cathartic process that creates space for the future.”

Elsabe Milandri Session-Study, 2019. Oil and chalk on canvas, 600 x 670mm.Elsabé Milandri, Session-Study, 2019. Oil and chalk on canvas, 600 x 670mm.

Non-representational art objects can arouse empathy as humans respond to the violence enacted on an inanimate object; we are able to transfer our care and fear of mortality onto these lifeless bodies. Elsabé Milandri’s sprightly oil and chalk on canvas work Session/Study contains violent and hurried mark marking with traces of more considered marks underneath. The frantic energy present here embodies the empathetic response of the artist in studio, and prompts an effective response from those bearing witness to the aftermath of this private performance.

Garth Meyer uses his practice to draw attention to our collective social responsibility. For the last decade, Meyer has been documenting the natural environment, and in some cases destruction of forests along the imaginary equator line. 1.2274°S, 59.4580°.W is a double exposure of the Amazonian forest; the unsaid tension hanging in the air is that the future of this habitat is volatile and uncertain due to the rapid shrinking of forests to compensate for the rising population. This work urges the viewer to imagine themselves in this otherworldly environment, that is almost ungraspable to those who have not experienced it first-hand. It is through this process of imagining and projecting oneself onto that environment that a sense of collective responsibility emerges.

Amy Rusch, A homage to the first mark making I, 2019. Plastic bags and thread, 85 x 48cm.

Amy Rusch, A homage to the first mark making I, 2019. Plastic bags and thread, 85 x 48cm.

Artists use storytelling to connect peoples and ideas across space and time. Over the past 2 years, Amy Rusch has spent time at archaeological excavation sites. She was tasked with making replicas of artefacts for the ‘Origins of Early Sapiens Behaviour’ exhibition that is on permanent display at Iziko South African Museum. This includes a replica of the oldest symbolic engraving that dates back 75 000 years. For ‘Emphatic Whispers’, Rusch presents two works namely A homage to the first mark making I & II, that was inspired by her time working with these artefacts. This tribute connects modern humans to these early Homo Sapiens. Rusch says, “I have been transformed by the time that I was able to spend with the oldest documented abstract artworks made. I pay homage to our collective ancestors through the symbolic gesture of making a piece.” Storytelling expands our scope of the world, and helps us understand each other better. Sepideh Mehraban is an Iranian-born artist who uses layering and veiling to create to create palimpsests inspired by newspaper grids which speak to issues of censorship. Through Mehraban’s layered oil paintings, forgotten histories begin to unfurl. Mehbaran’s practice is an example of utilising the power of the narrative to foster empathetic responses.

Katherine Bull, Bull Fighter, 2019. Oil on board, 31 x 31cm.Katherine Bull, Bull Fighter, 2019. Oil on board, 31 x 31cm.

Katherine Bull explores the possibility for conscience to be transferred through technology in her painting BigGan. Here she has projected a YouTube video showing image categories for BigGAN morphing. This is the technology that generates believable and uncanny AI images. As technology becomes better at replicating physical experience, we begin to ask ourselves; can technology replicate empathy?

Artists should not bear the burden of making society better, but artistic imagination can foster human relations and help in forging empathetic connections which engenders transformative action. Art making creates a space to champion the multiplicity of stories, voices, and narratives. As much as artists connect us they also show us our differences and the challenges we face in connecting. ‘Emphatic Whispers’ encourages viewers to confront their indifference and feel interconnected to beings outside of themselves. Through actively looking, there is a moment where you can transcend who you are in order to feel other people’s pain.

Alka Dass, Drawing all breaths together, 2018. Found object, thread, drawing and vinyl, 42 x 42cm.Alka Dass, Drawing all breaths together, 2018. Found object, thread, drawing and vinyl, 42 x 42cm.

‘Emphatic Whispers’ will be on view at SMITH till the 27 July 2019.