A Portrait of Museum Africa
By Nantie Steyn
Reshada Crouse leans closer to a charcoal drawing of Paul Kruger. I really like this one. I shuffle back, past the self-portrait by Alexis Preller of him working in his studio (one of my favourites, I think, because you only see him from behind). Why?
She thinks. It is as if he is THERE. In the picture he looks like a crazy, passionate man, a rough character... and you can see that. There is so much suffering and survival in his eyes. I look more closely. I dont see what she sees. The work was done from a photograph taken in 1902, a few years before the old President of the Transvaals death. To me he looks younger than he does in the big oil, a few spaces up, done by Enrico Rinaldi. In Rinalidis three-quarter portrait Oom Paul really does look like he has one foot in the grave, deathly, worn out, sad. The accompanying notice tells us that Paul Kruger claimed only to have read only one book in his life, the Bible, and that he believed that the world was flat. Figures, I think, before moving on, pleased with the stuff one can learn in unlikely places.
We are taking a tour around the exhibition Reshada curated for Museum Africa in Newtown, History recorded through portraiture past and present - public and personal. The exhibition is divided into three parts: portraits from the museums permanent collection, Reshadas own work and a selection of work done by her students. The intention is both to rekindle an awareness of the importance of portraiture as a means of recording history and, from her personal viewpoint, to show how the art form expresses a European form of ancestor worship. Africa has a different aesthetic, she would say later.
Museum Africa has a wonderful collection of portraits, some by prominent South African artists. Other than the Preller, there are works by Maud Sumner, Thomas Baines, WH Coetzer and Hugo Naude. Reshada feels that combining her own work with the museums permanent collection gives some insight into South Africa and its history: the work on display represents about a hundred years from the early 20th century until the present.
We stop in front of Reshadas portrait of FW and Marike de Klerk against the orange and blue background of a scene borrowed from Pierneef. It was done in the 1980s as part of her famous people series after she got back from art school in London. Pierneef, I say, wondering if everybody had a fake one somewhere in their lives: my sole inheritance from my grandfather were two copies he painted himself, in wooden frames. I know people said he was a fascist, but I used it because of the orange and blue, she says, and I am not sure if she is talking about Pierneef or FW, but I dont think it matters, and we move on.
There are photo-likenesses of Marianne Fassler, Richard Goldstone, Desmond Tutu and a fascinating nude of Anneline Kriel. Tutu is the only one smiling. It occurs to me that the capturing of an image, even in cultures where such an intimate act is not an obscene one, seems to be a serious business. I glance around the room. No, indeed. Very serious expressions all round.
I love the painting of Constant Viljoen. It is about different times in his life. There are two versions of him in the work: one in uniform and one in civilian clothing. In the foreground floats a machine gun, in the back, a couple of cattle. For me, the picture is about change, and political history.
Hyper-realism takes many hours to paint, I discover. I lean forward, and look closely. Within millimetres, the paint reveals a completely different consistency. What is smooth and fluent from a distance becomes amazingly textured up close. The photo-realism takes three to four hundred hours to do, she says. Reshada points to the Marianne Fassler. That one took about seven hundred hours. I wonder how one can put a price on that. It cannot possibly pay to be painter. Reshada admits to owning a lot of her own work, including the portraits of Marianne and Anneline. She seems to think that it is an indulgence. I consider the hours spent in their making, and get back to how can one put a price on that?
We go for coffee across the road at Kaldis which, according to Reshada, is cosier than Capellos next door. The day is cold and the door of the shop is broken, which means that is stands ajar for most of the time. First I, then Reshada gets up to close it, and finally we ask the waiter if he would, and he does. We talk about her students.
She started teaching her buddies, as an experiment, about nine years ago. I cant draw, she says (which seems absurd) I have never been taught... In spite of this she thought that she could teach others, and judging by the works in the exhibition, has succeeded.
She explains why she teaches. It is a big thing for me, I always try to demystify the painting process. I want to show people that with a little time and effort, they can make art. Once students start painting, it opens up a whole new world for them. I dont think that every Tom, Dick and Harry can paint; you cannot teach genius, but you dont have to be a genius to be creative.
We talk about her, beyond the exhibition that we just saw. Reshada does not see herself as a portrait painter. Frida Kahlo did only self-portraits, she points out, but nobody calls her a self-portrait painter. You dont talk about portrait painters, not when the artists are great. You use that packaging when you dont respect people enough. No-one talks of Cezanne as a still-life or landscape painter.
She organises her classes so that they dont interfere with her own painting time. She paints from Monday to Friday when the sun is up, for 6 7 hours at a stretch, without breaking. She is against sitting around and waiting for inspiration it comes to you while you are doing it, she feels.
She has never taken a holiday, except once when her son insisted and she could not worm her way out of it. She does not even go overseas without painting that is when she does more experimental stuff. Holidays irritate me immensely they feel so generous it is a huge sacrifice for me. She feels as if she is constantly racing against time, that I might not have time to do all the painting I want to do.
Lastly, she talks of what Ivor Powell apparently called her perversely interesting family portraits. Reshada has been working on her Icons series for some years now, painting Pietàs with her children as models. She grew up with the Christian myth, she explains. When my son Gabriel was born, my daughter was 14, about the same age as Mary was when she gave birth to Jesus. So these are religious icons, and I think it will turn out to be my most important body of work... I will have to carry on until Gabriel reaches the age of Jesus crucifixion.
She orders a toasted chicken mayonnaise sandwich. When it comes, she points out to the waiter that the quantity of actual chicken between the slices of bread is sparse. As a concession, he scrapes the door shut again.
We get back on the subject of the Madonna and Child. I have not done any for a while, she muses. I must do more of them. She looks at me. You see? There is never enough time.
We leave in peak hour traffic, easing out of Mary Fitzgerald square and into Bree Street. After the Market Theatre I turn left towards the Bridge and, eventually, Killarney, and Reshada carries on straight to the Standard Bank Gallery, on her way to an exhibition opening. The city buzzes and toots, squirming with commuters. Its busy, its Africa, and I wonder as I race, slightly exhilarated, why the hell one just doesnt make it to town more often.
The exhibition runs until the end of June.
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