Elna Venter, Madly in love.

NWU Gallery, South Africa, present ‘NEW CHAPTER: reclaiming old books’

This digital version of an exhibition of artworks was prompted by the constraints imposed on all of us by the COVID-19 pandemic that has irrevocably changed the way in which we function as human beings. Instead, then, of hosting a gallery-based show of artworks, the three women artists who participated in this exhibition compiled a selection of works, together with brief artists’ statements, for perusal on the web. Ironically, perhaps, the exhibition statement notes that physical books – much more so than digital material – trigger visual and tactile memories. Books, then, are described as symbols of knowledge, joy and experience. It is, therefore, an interesting exercise in making do in a time marked by restriction on movement, touch and gallery visits: bringing commentary on the actual book as precious artefact into a digital exhibition.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the strange time in which we live with the restrictions of lockdown that compel us to isolate ourselves, the works on show share the theme of highly personal artistic reflection, the search for meaning and existential issues that mark the life and work of an artist – not least infused by the notion that creative work is a means of working through ideas and focusing on the processual aspects of art-making. Isolation brings with it the opportunity to turn inwards and to take time to reconnect with the creative process, both conceptually and practically.

Elna Venter, Madly in love.Elna Venter, Madly in Love (Krank van Liefde). Handmade paper, dried leaves, beads, linen book cover, button.

Elna Venter’s contributions comprise a series of works with strange iconography hinging on the mystical and primeval archetypal that prompt the viewer to make intuitive associations between elements in the works. Some of the works contain parts of books saved from waste where new images are palimpsested and layered into new compositions. The results include three-dimensional effects that unfortunately are not as visible on the digital reproductions as they should be, but nonetheless communicate a multi-layered physicality that reflects many dimensions of symbolism: playful juxtapositions between textual remnants of books as well as mysterious exotic animals, medieval-like moments and bits of nostalgic presences.

Marna de Wet, White Sleeve, 2020. Pencil and oil on old book cover, 26 x 18cm.Marna de Wet, White Sleeve, 2020. Pencil and oil on old book cover, 26 x 18cm.

Marna de Wet’s works explore presence and absence in her portrayal of incomplete figures that remind of sketches of the masters, especially Toulouse-Lautrec’s famous half-completed images. Again, text (pages from salvaged old books) and image co-exist in delicate visual poetry in which no identity is actually complete, and beauty is considered as always already there in seemingly mundane flashes of human parts. Time is suspended in the works: there is a tension between the evanescent, the unfinished and the search for something permanent that can be contemplated over time. De Wet, like Venter, uses mixed media which allow her to intersperse existing decorative patterns of found bits of books with delicate painterly additions into imaginative non-wholes.

Jean Lampen, Dangerous Times. Old book with watercolours.Jean Lampen, Dangerous Times. Old book, watercolour, stitches in resin.

Jean Lampen’s small-scale works belie the fun she pokes at more serious issues. Her choice of bits of discarded books that are cut out, the openings left being adorned with windows made of resin and peopled with fragile micro-bits of narratives (some of these displaying embroidery) reveal larger thematic concerns. These concerns can be gleaned from the bits of text that are visible in the works – text that indicates fossilised dogmas (often theological in nature), just like resin is used to “fossilise”. In the works, these precious resin windows and textual elements are absurdly dominated by haunting sketches of crows that seem to make fun of, and threaten, the vestiges of metanarratives that are thus undermined in the works.

Running as a central tenet through the exhibition, then, is the use of books or parts of books as objets trouvés together with layers of well-crafted painted or drawn elements to create a sense of old and new, recycling and rethinking of the found to emerge in new guises as central to the works of art. Mixed media, as this exhibition demonstrates, allow a free play of associations of material, meaning and the like and bind the “real” with the “crafted”. Finally, the exhibition ponders our need for books and the threat posed to books by our throwaway culture. Being moved by these works that have all been inspired by engaging with actual books reminds us of the preciousness of touch and of memory.

Link to the exhibition online catalogue: https://www.flipsnack.com/nextchapterexhibition/reclaiming.html

Dr. Louisemarié Combrink is a lecturer at the North-West University.