South African Cultural Observatory

A day at sea

BY Dr Danny Shorkend 07.07.17

HIGHLY relevant, this exhibition focuses on the plight of refugees, particularly from Africa who against terrible odds try to cross the Mediterranean and enter Europe. The treacherous waters combined with some harsh policies of the EU, notwithstanding Germany’s more open policy, has often lead to countless deaths, including children. The works by photographer Martina Gruber and paintings/mixed media work by the more well-known Zimbabwean artist Gillian Rosselli speak to these sensitive issues.

The irony or blatant contradiction is the fact that these paintings, collages and installations as well as photographs are on one level quite beautiful. Indeed, such is the coast line of much of Europe. Yet at the same time, beneath these waters are the remains of thousands who have not survived the journey. A dangerous journey that could only have been made if the conditions in those countries were not themselves that harrowing. And indeed, they are. In conversation with Gruber, she points out that the EU could help alleviate the problems in these countries instead of spending countless amounts to barricade the borders.

The chilling reality is that so many have been lost to the sea, where the sea itself can also be applied as a wider reference point referring to the drowning of, for example children in the illicit crimes of those who have exploited these refugees. Yet at the same time, the blues and greens are not simply cool, chilling colours but exude a warmth, even a kind of spirituality. Thus, the associations are multidimensional: the sea that wipes away all memory of the past; the sea that appears to eternally ebb and flow; the sea that is the pathway toward great discovery – the so-called new world that beckons.

Rosselli’s paintings often invoke a deep pain tempered with a calming, almost harmonious compositional unity. Her explorations of blue – a colour that often symbolises communications as the nexus between mind and heart – are evocative. They remind one of the sea that is tempestuous – potentially calm, potentially exhilarating, but also violent, terrifying and terribly dangerous. This is echoed in Gruber’s work where one finds the alternative use of colour and black/white. In this sense, there is a loud aspect to the sea as it were and a softer, almost silent, sinister set of meanings.

Both artists’ do not just deal with the theme conceptually or abstractly. They incorporate actual renderings of missing children, actual writings of narratives and in that story-telling bring the idea into concrete reality and emotional tension. For this is not a “refugee crisis” or point on immigration law, but a humanitarian disaster, a human saga kept at bay with political jousting and economic coldness.

I particularly enjoyed Rosselli’s mixed media works. Creative and emotively worked, one begins to feel the ineffable – the emotions – through the materiality and physicality that she has chosen to work with. This then parallels or converges with Gruber’s ability to capture birds in and around the waters, as if they “chirp” a death-knoll or that a new peaceful world – and land – has been reached.

The photographic work together with the paintings complement one another well. One gets the sense that the various media express a clear message. It is firstly there to raise awareness. Then it is emotionally charged. Is it then a call to action? Is art, as Nietzsche would have it not aesthetics for its own sake, not a Kantian “disinterestedness”, but there to add to life, that aesthetics is there so that one can even change one’s life-world. In that sense, one can only hope through a kind of ripple-like effect or the famous “butterfly effect” that such consciousness and conscience makes its way into the palaces, court houses and parliamentary houses of those whose signing power apparently or rather inexplicably is said to mean so much. Perhaps more importantly, surely everyone – the king and queen of his/her world as such – is not at the mercy of the system. The artists concerned have surely taken a bold step in trying to eradicate a lack of awareness. And maybe, just maybe, things will get better and the waters will meet the shoreline carrying their human cargo safely ashore.     


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