Walking between the Worlds by Cleone Cull
The exhibition, Walking Between the Worlds, shows the body of work I produced during my sabbatical year, January to December 2010. The work consists of four interlocked series: Ancestral Voices, four works in mixed mediums on paper; The Secret Fire, six works in pastel on paper; The Goddess Returns, three works in pastel, ink and gesso on paper; and Ascension Manuals, five large scale drawings in pastel, ink and gesso on board. All of these were developed roughly in that chronological order. Three separate works: Rewind|Fast Forward in oil paint on board, Redemption Story: Tikoloshe communes with Yaweh pastel and ink on paper and He Alone Who Sees Who Sees All beings As Himself (Isha Upanishad) are individual pieces representing a breathing space outside the project.
My written contribution to this catalogue will not be an analysis, nor a reading of or commentary on the meaning of the works. That for me is not the task of the visual artist. It falls to me to produce the artwork and to present it to the viewer. The task of reading meaning into the images falls to the viewer. Indeed the multiplicity, perhaps uniqueness, of such readings is exemplified by my most generous associates in the catalogue: Basil Du Toit, a poet, Bertie Olivier, a philosopher and Greg Kerr, a visual artist. Each of these brings his own perspective to bear on my work, a perspective enriched by individual knowledges, lived experience and wisdoms. The artist and the viewer connect only through the completed work without a meeting of their minds.
There is, however, a place where I believe our minds can meet. We humans are curious beings; Homo Sapiens is not merely the one who knows but, more importantly, the one who wants to know. As young children we stick our fingers into light sockets or poke down wasps’ nests to answer those pressing questions; “ What’s this? What does it do? What’s hidden inside?”. (For artists this is daily life experience, for most others, the experience is generally unsatisfactory.) Later our educators take us off to Cadbury or Chrysler for a safer, smoother introduction to the enigma of making: design, raw materials, power and assembly line produce the modern miracle- a Mazda or a Mars Bar!
What I propose to offer you is a form of guided tour, if you will, of my process in making this work. This is unlike the process of the factory or the plant: automated, rational, goal oriented, with a prior overall design strictly pursued. Rather my walking through the worlds is filled with polarities: memory and forgetting, the rational and the irrational, discipline and transgression, the natural world and the Divine, the alchemical and the post-industrial. Even the goals with which I set out on this particular journey turned out in the end not to be the goals I was intended to pursue.
Let me begin by positioning the polarity of memory and forgetting as a critical factor in my creative process. Over the years I have fed my memory with both visual and written texts: images from museums and galleries in many countries but also heterodox images: a magnified shrimp in a National Geographic, a postcard from Bolivia and a red plastic heart in perspex from an Animal Welfare shop. Other images I hunt and gather in the veld: stones, plants, curious seeds, horns and bones – the detritus of life. Equally heterodox is the magpie collection of fragments from writings across a range of theologies, cosmologies, systems of thought and cultures. As aides-memoire I have preserved sketches and notes of both kinds of texts in my journals.
As critical as the storing of memory may be, equally critical to my process is the space of forgetting. When I begin to work in the studio I do not actively remember or even attempt to remember the material I have stored in my journals. A conceptual framework is already in place and it determines direction but the immediate drawing upon concrete memories holds a very real danger of imposing an intellectual restraint on the development of the work.
Instead, as I begin, a curious, non-directed form of memory comes into play. This remembering has nothing to do with a rational ordering; it is not logical nor sequential. More precisely, it follows the pattern of dream language where seemingly irrational juxtapositions or conjunctions are made. In this process the drawing seems to fashion itself. Out of this remembering a visual narrative is created. However, in this ostensibly irrational activity, the artist is always present and paradoxically in control; the images that arise are an expression of the conceptual framework that holds a particular idea at the centre of a work or, in this case, series of works.
Thus the polarity of discipline and transgression, together with that of the rational and irrational, can readily be illustrated in the work Full Steam Ahead (Ascension Manuals). The discipline of the conceptual framework, despite itself, develops a dream narrative that itself transgresses the strictures of the “real world”. In this case, the conceptual framework decides the square format, the square being the representation of a space within which transformations can take place. That being said, the dream narrative fills the space almost entirely with a mound or compost heap, a place of processing material as fodder for new growth (the complexity of imagery that develops within this is fully discussed later under the sub heading, Not the End).
Similarly, Full Steam Ahead contains the image of the lightning strike, ( top right hand corner) which doubles both as a record of a natural event and a symbol of divine intervention. The mound as compost heap, in dream language, is also the alchemical vessel in which base matter is transmuted while by their very nature the extruding pipes seem to draw off the polluting waste of the post – industrial age.
Here, I would like briefly to introduce the overarching idea fuelling Walking Between the Worlds. For some time I had been asking the question, ‘‘Where is the feminine deity in the cosmology of the Judeo- Christian world?’’ In my readings I have found multiple references in polytheistic belief systems to female deities. What happened to the sacred feminine with the advent of Judeo- Christian monotheism? Early in 2010, reading a series of articles by a Christian theologian, Margaret Barker, opened an intriguing potentiality.
Ms Barker, in a text entitled Where Shall Wisdom be Found (Job 28.12) , speaks of the Queen of Heaven, also named Asherah or Wisdom, as being exiled from the Holy of Holies in King Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem in the time of Josiah’s reform (622 B.C.E.) (The Queen of Heaven appears to have been embodied there in a carved wooden pillar or pole.)
From the Temple of Yahweh he [the high priest] removed the sacred pole right out of Jerusalem and to the wadi Kidron and in the wadi Kidron he burnt it; he reduced it to ashes and threw its ashes on the common burial ground
All her symbols were then purged from the temple. In this context the word `exile’ becomes a polite substitute for annihilation.
Reading this, I instantly visualised a space in which only the male principle held ground; next to him was a gap which resonated with loss. As an artist, a gaping hole in an image immediately impels me to want to fill the space and recreate the whole. Clearly there was only one option – to re-place the feminine. Thus balance would be re-established and order would prevail. This essentially is at the heart of my project. I posed myself two questions. What journey would such a scorned deity undertake to be reinstated in all her glory? What visual narrative could embody a story that resonates in both ancient and contemporary worlds? This constitutes the conceptual framework of the series.
The Beginning of the Beginning.
The first two series present a crossover between my previous works and endeavours to find a new direction. My decision was to continue working in series as it allows me to develop a range of ideas around a central concept. I persisted with the metaphor of alchemical transformation and its symbology. Also retained were a strong colour palette, intricate layers of detail and experimenting with material and surfaces. Looking back, it is clear to me that these two series were embryonic in the sense that many elements present in an inchoate form find resolution in the later series.
For example, in the earlier Ancestral Voices: Travellers in Time and Space a system of pipes runs left to right (top half) seemingly without purpose; the upper pipe ends in a figure eight that seems ambiguous in intent. Is it an hourglass? Is it a key? In the later series, Ascension Manuals, Sipping at the Tree of Fire, the system of piping has become more baroque yet paradoxically its purpose is now clear. This Heath Robinson contraption, animated by an unambiguous windup key (extreme right hand, lower half), now feeds a figure.
The third series, The Return of The Goddess, is a significant development. Although the three Queens are static, they are nevertheless a movement forward. I could not start on her journey until I knew something of her through her iconography and some of her external guises.
Exiled, the Goddess returns Fully armed, the first in the series, responds directly to the history and presents both her annihilation at the hands of Josiah ( lower half) and the hope in the return of her glory ( top centre). (This work holds the naivety of my thinking that this task would be easy!) Queen of Heaven, Five Branched on Fire derives from the universal mother and fertility goddess. In this guise the Queen has a powerful and commanding presence. The final drawing, Goddess does the Hoochie Coochie, exposes a seemingly lighter, wilder aspect of the Goddess – a surprise to me, the maker. Looking back, I see the internal logic of this series, presenting as it does disembodied spirit, grounded generative power and the flagrantly sensual.
Figure1: Shrimp, Great Barrier Reef Figure 2: Postcard from Bolivia Figure 3: Journal drawing – Cuzco 2007 Figure 4: Journal draft of Queen of Heaven, Five Branched on Fire
In terms of process, the development of the drawing Queen of Heaven, Five Branched on Fire ( Fig 4) can be followed in Figures 1-3. Here extracts from my journals situate some of the key resources supporting the layering of meaning in the drawing. Clearly visible is the conflation of the shape of the shrimp tail with the head of the Goddess. As the drawing developed the tail mutated into a bowl shape that makes reference to a menorah or spiritual fire. The overall form of the Queen derives from a visit to the Museo de Arte Religioso in Cuzco in 2007. A photograph of a post card and a journal entry made in the museum point to the resemblance between the configuration of the Virgin’s body and the shape of a hill or mountain. A Catholic icon is overlaid with an Andean concept of mother earth or mother universe. In this as in most traditions she presides over fertility, planting and harvesting. This idea is deepened by the journal entry (see Figure 7) a drawing made in Cuzco Cathedral of a monumental stone venerated by many as representing Pachamama or Mother Earth.
Not the end
The final series on exhibition, Ascension Manuals, is not a step but a leap forward; radical changes occur both in technique and direction. I recalled viewing an exhibition of the works of Samuel Palmer at the British Museum in 2005. I was intrigued by his admixture of gum arabic and ink which raised the surface of his line and created a quasi-sculptural effect. I began to experiment with fist- sized pastel sticks on gesso prepared hardboard (6 layers of gesso) using a gum arabic and water mixture to fix the pastel and raise surface. I also abandoned the colour palette and restricted myself initially to black and white. I then experimented with adding colour to the gesso mix and later by drawing with stronger colour: muted reds, gold and browns. This is most significant in the final two drawings. In reviewing my use of a restricted palette, I realise that the stark rigour resonates both with the ashes of immolation and Blake’s dark satanic mills .
The change in direction was even more radical. Having in the last series concerned myself with the external manifestations of the Goddess, I now took on a far more daunting challenge: to enter her inner world. In a word, I asked myself the question – what is hidden inside? The choice of the square format was directly related to the story of exile. The Holy of Holies was constructed as a square, this is the very place from which the Goddess is expelled and to which she must return. But ironically, in this series, return is deferred. It is supplanted by repressed emotions powerfully expressed: the raw language of the unconscious.
Seeds and Other Creation Stories, somewhat ironically titled, exhibits the greatest degree of repression. It still retains some qualities of the external but the central panel shows signs of a transformative agent stirring into motion. In the second image, Full Steam ahead, the square is the space within which transformation takes place. Within it the mound pullulates with activity and referential layers (this is referred to in the discussion of the drawn process of the work). In this work the centrifuges (centre) as transformative agents initiate dynamic action. The third image, Fiery Eyed I Come to you, explodes beyond the restrictions of the square. A dissonance is set up between the violent release of energy, upwards through the centre of the drawing and the elements of equilibrium found in the placement of the towers. In contrast, in Combination of Elixirs the content is contained. The kinetic action now works inward from the sides fuelling an upward movement in the central panel. A translucent being rises towards a delicate crown motif surrounded by multiple pairs of eyes demanding the gaze of the viewer. In the previous four drawings the central axis is dominant. In the final drawing, Sipping at the Tree of Life, the focus shifts from the central figure to an Other (Far left). The shift of the composition mirrors the shift in focus in the internal world. For the first time the complex principal action extends outward in a nurturing gesture.
Elements in the composition of Full Steam Ahead have been mentioned earlier in the document. I now turn to the initial stages of the drawing process. I began by sketching the infinity symbol ∞ over and over again. I then used an admixture of water and gum arabic to disturb the coherence of the marks. In order not to privilege a single view of the marks I kept rotating the board until ideas began to assert themselves. Finally shapes began to emerge and continued to materialise over a period of months (Figures 5 and 6, which show a shape emerging from the marks and Figure 8 which shows the transferring of the horizontal axis to the vertical).
Figure 5: Journal draft – Full Steam Ahead Figure 6: Journal draft- Full Steam Ahead
Figure 7: Journal drawing- Cuzco Cathedral 2007 Figure 8: Journal draft – Full Steam Ahead Figure 9: Journal – idea sketches
Figure 7, an entry from my journal, shows the most potent element in both composition and content. The drawing is of the monumental stone embodying Pachamama or Mother earth (Cuzco Cathedral in 2007) It is to be found, half hidden in an obscure corner of the building where despite its placement indigenous people continue to lay offerings around the stone (see base of sketch). Local people also lay their hands on the stone in the belief that its magical power will bless them. I related specifically to this form because of its link to female generative power in Andean belief as well as to the power of the Virgin Mary (see Figure 2). I found the stone, in its elemental force, more potent than the image of the Virgin. At the top left of Figure 8 is a reference to Thierry le Cordier’s work Sermon on the Mound published in an article in ArtForum which I read in 1999. The mental shift from mountain to mound produced the metaphor of the compost heap with all it’s potentiality as transformation agent. I then made a lateral leap to a closed volcano, Lanin, in Patagonia(Figure 9) that I visited and sketched in 2010, which amplified the idea of transformative action. At the bottom of the drawing in Figure 8 four wheels appear. Figure 9 sketches the next development, the substitution of four faces as vessels; these finally arrived in their place from brief sketches done in Lima in 2007 of ceramic vessels from the Moche period (100 – 750 CE).
A part of the creative process not yet discussed is the role played by remembering and reworking fragments of text. The extract from my journal illustrated in Figure 10 shows the accretion of ideas, drawn from an eclectic mix of sources: Old and New Testaments, Andean beliefs and Middle Eastern artefacts. It also demonstrates the method of self-questioning which I use to focus more finely on potential problems.
Figure 10: Journal draft – Full Steam Ahead
It is clear that this final series represents a movement away from imaging the representations of the Goddess in this world to a more complex entering of her own inner world. In other words, a process of knowing the Goddess but knowing her differently. Have I succeeded in answering my two questions which initiated the project? ‘‘What journey would such a scorned deity undertake to be reinstated in all her glory? What visual narrative could embody a story that resonates in both ancient and contemporary worlds?” In terms of the second question an embodiment of the story in visual narrative has begun to take form. Whether this present form will be retained I cannot predict. With regard to the first question my answer must be no. The journey of the Goddess towards reinstatement has barely begun and I am left still wanting to know.