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Judith Mason

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Zapiro fighting fear with cold sharp truth: Some of South Africa’s best political cartoonists presented their takes on reality and cartooning history at the SA National Gallery. A newly founded Centre for Comic, Illustrative and Book Arts (CCIBA) at Stellenbosch University was launched. The programme featured Jonathan Shapiro, Brandan Reynolds, Jeremy Nell, John Curtis - managing editor of Africartoons accessible through a website currently hosting a petition signed by leading editors opposed to the threat of a media tribunal and legislation curbing press freedom in South Africa. Photo: Vanessa Smeets



New Art Times magazine format for October

Next exciting ArtLife issue in October

The SA Art Times will be reformatting from a tabloid to a magazine format essentially in order to gain more editorial space in order to cover even more art news, issues and opinion. The reformatting has been on the cards for some time now especially to further articulate each of the SA Art Times, Business Art and Art Life publications branding and contents.

Our highly sucessfull bi- monthly Art Life magazine will return in October with a photo-essay of the culturally rich and exciting False Bay Coast, that includes Muizenburg, St James, Simonstown and beyond.

We initially chose the tabloid format because of the large colour pages of the tabloid would be good for artists work. Since taking the leap of reformatting the SA Art Life from a tabloid to a magazine size we have had a hugely positive response from art lovers and subscribers for the format. Read the full article on page 3

The photo- essay will be done by Jenny Altschuler, a seasoned photographer and lecturer. Cape Town is merely a starting point in building up momentum in following the art energies of this great creative country. For your artist’s profile to be considered to be featured in the next Art Life profile section please contact the Editor of Art Life at or simply call 021 424 7733

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South African Art Times September 2010

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Mark Hipper 1960 - 2010

Photo: Kate Farrington Lloyd Pollak When the 49 year-old artist, Mark Hipper failed to turn up to deliver an evening seminar on the 12th of August, a colleague went looking for him, and found him dead in his Grahamstown home. The circumstances remain somewhat mysterious, but allegedly Hipper died of ‘a collapsed lung’. His premature demise was sudden and unexpected. In death, as in life, Hipper took everyone by surprise. An accomplished draftsman, painter, print-maker and sculptor, the artist was whole-heartedly committed to the figurative tradition and the exploration of the human body. The recipient of many prestigious awards, he exhibited regularly both nationally and internationally, and his work graces numerous collections in South Africa and Europe. Hipper, who was of German ancestry, was born on November 6, 1960 in Ghana. He was educated at the German School in Johannesburg and then graduated in Fine Art from the University of the Witwatersrand. In 1977 he went to Berlin to further his studies. He remained there for twelve years, and became deeply steeped in the country’s culture. Hipper is alleged to have had a brief marriage to a woman during this time. He returned in 1989 to lecture at the Michaelis School of Fine Art, and in 1998 he was appointed senior lecturer in the Fine Art Department of Rhodes University where he remained until his death. Hipper was admired as a teacher of brilliant intelligence by his students and colleagues, however he was a prickly and acerbic personality who described himself as “blunt and possibly arrogant, and maybe stiff and

sort of reserved.” His blazing honesty and directness certainly reflected Teutonic roots. In 2009 his exhibition ‘Viscera’ created a furore at the Grahamstown National Arts Festival much to the surprise of the artist who exhibited similar work in Berlin without exciting any hostile comment. The ensuing shenanigans exposed the parochialism, provincialism and Puritanism of the immature South African art world and ANC government. Hipper claimed the show depicted children “discovering their sexuality and coming to terms with it.” However his drawings of a nude boy with an erection, and a girl touching her vagina, caused the current deputy minister of Home Affairs, Lindiwe Sisulu, to lambast the drawings as child pornography and threaten to ban the exhibition. The organization, Women against Child Abuse, alleged the work promoted paedophilia, and laid criminal charges against Hipper, and the National Council for Child and Family Welfare too was stern in its condemnation. This precipitated a vigorous national debate about pornography, censorship and artistic freedom. Although the Film and Publications Board approved the exhibition, and the Director of Public Prosecutions declined to prosecute, the damage was done. The artist’s good name was irremediably besmirched, and for the rest of his life he had to contend with malicious supposition and conjecture. Obviously the ANC learned nothing from the incident. In August, 2009, Lulu Xingwana, yet another philistine Minister of Arts and Culture, stormed out of a Johannesburg exhibition after seeing Zanele Muholi’s photographs of Lesbian couples. Xingwana, who was to deliver the opening address, told her aides the work was “pornographic” and she excoriated Muholi’s work as ‘immoral’, ‘offensive’ and contrary to the spirit of nation-building in an official statement. The Sunday Times reported how the minister allegedly consulted lawyers in an attempt to ban the work. In the light of the ANC’s current attempt to muzzle press freedom, this appears a particularly ominous development. Hipper was an altruist who championed the work of the local Grahamstown painter, Zola Toyi, finding him studio space and purchasing him artist’s materials. His appreciation of Zola’s art will appear in the September issue of ‘Art in South Africa’. At the time of his death Hipper was practicing art therapy amongst the patients at the Tower Psychological Hospital in Fort Beaufort. Additionally he hoped to raise funds and enhance public understanding of mental illness through his work. Hipper’s death occurred while he was on sabbatical preparing for an exhibition entitled ‘Doppelgänger/Double’ at the Heidi Erdmann Contemporary Gallery in Cape Town. Heidi assured me that the show will still go ahead on the 2nd of September as originally planned. The artist never courted sensation for sensation’s sake, but he reconnoitered morally treacherous badlands. His passion for psychoanalytic theory impelled him to explore the ambiguities of infantile and adolescent sexuality, and this brought him notoriety locally, though not overseas. When I interviewed Hipper at his memorable show, ‘Bad’ in 1999, he stated “Society defines child abuse in a manner that permits no recognition of the fact that there might be some form of sexual experience that a child has, that is not abusive. There is a possibility that the child responded positively to something that he found perfectly enjoyable and welcomed.”Hipper was always the laureate of the uncomfortable truth, the distasteful verity. Vale, brave soul. May you rest in peace.



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South African Art Times

September 2010

The SA Art Times reformats in October THE SOUTH AFRICAN


This is a sample cover The SA Art Times will be reformatting from a tabloid to a magazine format essentially in order to gain more editorial space in order to cover even more art news, issues and opinion. The reformatting has been on the cards for some time now especially to further articulate each of the SA Art Times, Business Art and Art Life publications branding and contents. From its inception as a newspaper five years ago there has always been a “six of one and half a dozen of the other” type of debate in the office between tabloid vs. magazine format. We initially chose the format because of the large colour pages of the tabloid would be good for artists work. Since taking the leap of reformatting the SA Art Life from a tabloid to a magazine size we have had a hugely positive response from art lovers and subscribers for the format. The proposed magazine format has its advantages in the form that 16 pages of tabloid translates to 32 magazine pages thereby creating extra pages for content – that is needed to cover an increasingly interesting and fast moving SA art world. Practically another regards the gloss tabloid would not always roll well for postage needs as a the gloss paper would crumple a little and was sometimes not match our quality expectations when received. With a magazine format the magazine would roll better and keep its shape, as well as, most importantly keep better on the shelves as it is easier to store magazines vertically than tabloid horizontally. To this extent people would be inclined it was felt, to collect the magazine, as it was more easier to store away in a bookshelf, than having to find a large bookshelf in order to lay the tabloid size flat. We are excited about the change in format as we can get the listings back from the Business Art Newspaper into a gallery guide section for the Art Times. In having additional pages we would like to make the magazine more encompassing to include local and International news and opinions.

Re-branding of The SA Art Times The SA Art Times would pursue more of a Times magazine type feel with more in-depth stories on SA art community activities, news, a comprehensive monthly gallery guide, profiles an artists feature and international news. The SA Business Art The newspaper format would stay the same tabloid format and be printed in newsprint. BA would loose some of the gallery listings to Art Times, but gain more international business news from around the globe. The popular Art Leader would continue, while new markets such as SA art auctions, and possibly blue chip SA artists share index would come into play. SA Art Life Because the re-branding of this magazine has started nothing such would change except that there would be a how to do exercise pages, more arts products and photographic “how to do demonstrations”, artists profiles, as well as a photo essay of a arts rich suburb in South Africa. The SA Art Times is a South African art success story, from its start of printing 2 000 copies of 8 pages five years ago, from October 2010 there will be three titles making up a total of 19 500 magazine circulation, comprising of a total of an overall 80 art related pages printed per month. In addition the SA Art Times produces daily online news and sends out news and gallery listings twice a week. In total the SA Art Times reaches a modest readership of between 43 000 – 60 000 per month.

South African Art Times

September 2010

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Everard Read, Cape Town, and Rose Korber Art, in association with the dreyer foundation, present an exhibition of bronze sculptures by noted artist and sangoma Percy Konqobe.

16 September to 14 October 2010

Cartoonist Chip Snaddon nails his colours to the mast of a hard fought for press freedom in South Africa. Photo: Veronica Wilkinson

Having the last laugh – Cartooning in SA today V.C.Wilkinson. Incisive wit combined with skilled technique - a lethal combination and essential prerequisite for successful political cartooning. Some of South Africa’s best political cartoonists presented their takes on reality and cartooning history at the Iziko South African National Gallery Annexe in July and August. Head of the newly founded Centre for Comic, Illustrative and Book Arts (CCIBA) at Stellenbosch University; cartoonist and historian Andy Mason with Iziko’s Kathy Coates facilitated a political cartooning Master Class and Kids Toonlab. The programme featured Jonathan Shapiro, Brandan Reynolds, Jeremy Nell, John Curtis - managing editor of Africartoons accessible through a website currently hosting a petition signed by leading editors opposed to the threat of a media tribunal and legislation curbing press freedom in South Africa. Respected cartoonist Stacey Stent believes that this challenge will encourage cartoonists to inform the public in alternative ways through the comic medium. As a veteran of the former Weekly Mail’s ‘Who’s Left’ and currently Noseweek cartoonist her sensitive intellectual interpretations deal with issues like education, politics and the double standard. Informal discussion with Argus cartoonist Chip Snaddon provided insight into working methods and sensitivities employed when creating cartoons that link to news on a daily basis. Networking and professional proactivity among these hypertalented and well informed artists is paramount to the success of their comic humour. Cartoon genres targeting different sectors of the community were discussed by the Treknet partnership of Gavin Thomson and Dave Gomersdal who publish internationally and have developed characters based on their neighbourhood in Fish Hoek and Kalk Bay. These have stereotypical qualities that reflect the human condition in a multitude of guises that are widely recognizable. Thomson and Gomersdal provided insight into the freelance position where so much depends on perseverance, courtesy and the willingness to negotiate in order to

make a living. The Master Class was the first to be held in Cape Town. Mason is very pleased with results having just completed 3 consecutive weekend Master Classes/ Toonlabs in Stellenbosch, Johannesburg and the mother city. His purpose is to identify and select cartoon artists in SA to work with and mentor. Pointing out that the discipline is regarded as formal in the fine art field, Mason emphasized the importance of drawing skills for some types of comic rendition. The internationally successful Supa Strikas soccer themed comic and TV series which is distributed locally and internationally and supported by corporate sponsorship is produced by the Woodstock based Strika Entertainment team. Here 45 to 50 people work in a ‘bull-pen’ environment like DC and Marvel comics in the USA, a stimulating environment where ideas are shared. This practice became less common in the early nineties when technology made it easier for artists and writers to work alone from home. For the Supa Strika soccer series accurate rendition of figurative models is integral to the quality of the cartoons. Painstaking attention to detail and production of other cartoons for the masses including the popular animé/Disney hybrid Arcadia, which appears in Huisgenoot, give examples of Alex Kramer’s success since the inception of Strika Entertainment in 2000. In April this year they launched ‘Unleashed’ for National Geographic cartoon fans. The value of historical models was illustrated by power point presentations that introduced visual examples in text and image since the 16th century. These days in Europe the production of contemporary dialoguefree cartoons rely on a cultural commonality of experience and history much as religious narratives painted on walls and ceilings in churches and temples do. The communicative power of cartoon images to convey information in symbols and signs requires less reading time. This can be a valuable source of humour and insight into prevailing sentiment and prejudice. For more information visit and www.

At Everard Read, Cape Town 3 Portswood Road, V&A Waterfront +27 (0)21 418 4527


The Great South African Art Masters Series

Judith Mason I paint in order to make sense of my life: to manipulate various chaotic fragments of information and impulse into some sort of order, through which I can glimpse a hint of meaning. Researched and written by Merle Huntley For more images and information go to: in addition see for more of Judith’s Prints Judith Mason is a self-confessed “outsider” artist who lives rather reclusively in White River and is not “owned” by any gallery – a decided liability in the fickle rough & tumble of the art world - Mason, has for fifty years been a vivid presence on the South African art scene, and in her reclusive periods between exhibitions, a formidable and revered absence. Though she has long shunned art competitions, it seems appropriate that the competition which effectively launched Mason’s career was titled “Arbeid-Work”. “I’m driven to work”, she says – and it shows. Judith Mason’s talent – despite her protestation that she “is not naturally gifted ” - was both precocious and prodigious, and her work ethic exceptional; “obsessive”, to quote the artist. By the age of 27, she was already represented in all of South Africa’s major galleries, had held two successful solo exhibitions, had taught Drawing at the Wits Technical Art School, and was lecturing in both Drawing and History of Art at the University of the Witwatersrand, where she had studied Fine Art. And she had represented South Africa at the Venice Biennale.

Art as visual aspirin? Despite being brought up in a home “where innovative art, art as anything but visual aspirin, was misunderstood”, Mason says she had the good fortune to be “too bad at maths not to choose art as an option to get through matric”. With an intellect like hers, this is patently untrue, but this is a typically self-effacing remark. Schooled in Pretoria, the “absolutely wonderful, intense, very driven art teacher” she had in her last two years at Pretoria Girls’ High School “made one passionately love art works. She was a difficult German woman who gave the impression of being extraordinarily frustrated intellectually, and she tended to whip us into an anxiety to learn”. “These were the most intensely vibrant intellectual years of my life simply because we had very good teachers who cared about learning and who were capable of making us learn.” Would that today’s teachers were as inspired and as inspiring.

Judith Mason reading, 1968, Petra, Jordan, Photo: Revil Mason

Judith Mason Painting 1980

Early influences & artefacts That intense, eloquent intellectual engagement still swirls, like Jupiter’s moons, around Mason’s head. She devours literature, she challenges ideas, and in much the same way as she collects feathers, skulls, bones – and keeps them – so, too, does she store ideas, images, intellectual arguments. “Bones, waiting to be re-informed with life, were a vivid part of my childhood in the Lowveld, as were those dusty warehouses of cluttered relics called provincial museums”. The inside of Mason’s head must resemble the overcrowded store-rooms of a multitude of museums – but with not a cobweb or a spec of dust in sight! Depictions of heads, interestingly, are a recurrent theme in her works. So, too, are the primates which so fascinate her. Apes feature prominently in works throughout Mason’s oeuvre. Although her parents were “austerely atheist”, Mason “fell in love with Catholicism and was a devout Catholic for about ten years. It provided me with a moral and aesthetic education,” she says. “I loved the rules, but came to feel that so much of it was too exclusive, and I found myself walking away from it. I have always been grateful for the intervention of Catholicism in my life.”

(Top) Wild dog, Oil on canvas, 1962, Pretoria Art Museum. (Below) Man under a Bridge, 2002. Oil on board. Private collection. (Right) Shiva slowing down, Oil on canvas 1983, Private collection.

Leitmotifs Esmé Berman, in her ground-breaking work, Art and Artists of South Africa, refers to Judith Mason’s second exhibition, at the age of 26, where the ten drawings and six oil paintings interpret the Passion of Christ and certain pas sages from Dante. “Such profound themes might have appeared pretentious were it not for the mature intellect and insight and the obvious technical and stylistic strength brought to bear by the young artist”.

These two themes – the Passion of Christ, and Dante’s La Divina Commedia - were to weave a thread through Mason’s works from those early days, through her middle period, where the animals which make up her Dante Bestiary have imprinted themselves on the retina of anyone who has followed her career. From those iconic early works like Wild Dog (1962) and Leopard’s Breath (1970), to Resurrection at the Taxidermy (1999), Mason’s leitmotifs have remained resolute.


(Top left) Woman artists need wives, 1988, Oil on canvas mixed media. Private collection (Below left) Dragonflight on a Goldern Bowl. Oil on board. Private Collection (Middle) Tombs of the Pharaohs of Johannesburg (triptych) 1987, mixed media, Tatham Art Gallery, Pietermaritzburg (Right) Gold leaf applied to toes of Unshackled print at The Artist’s Press

The Man who Sang and the Woman who kept Silent (Triptych). 1998 (Left) Oil on board (Middle) Sculpture (Right) Oil on canvas. Constitutional Court Art Collection, Johannesburg

Stoicism & Heroism – Mason at the Constitutional Court “I have a problem with political art”, she says; “but I’ve always had a great regard for heroic art that commemorates grand gestures”. Picasso’s great Guernica and the Black Paintings of Goya’s late years, spring to mind. And the heroic stoicism of the women and children in the sombre monochrome works of Käthe Kollwitz. Mason’s response to a heroic gesture, a work which Justice Albie Sachs considers to be “one of the great pieces of art in the world of the late 20th Century”, was inspired by two stories she heard on the radio during the hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1998. Two liberation movement cadres, executed ignominiously by the Security

Police, displayed such heroic dignity in their deaths that they commanded the unlikely respect of their executioners. Harold Sefola “asked permission to sing Nkosi Sikelel’ ‘iAfrika” before being electrocuted; and Phila Ndwandwe, “who was tortured and kept naked for ten days, and then assassinated in a kneeling position, fashioned a pair of panties for herself out of a scrap of blue plastic”. These searing images inspired the work, The Man who Sang and the Woman who kept Silent, which was purchased for the Constitutional Court in Johannesburg by Justice Albie Sachs. “It was an almost unbearable honour”, says Mason.

Seminal Timelines “The really significant thing in my lifetime was the end of Apartheid. I was a sort of minor activist all my life, and never thought I’d live long enough to see its end. To have lived in the time of Mandela is something precious.” A strong ethical and moral imperative underpins Mason’s oeuvre. Reared by reclusive parents “in as absurd a society as South Africa was”, she describes herself as “an intimidated child living in an intimidating time”. I liked making pictures from when I was very small”, she says. “It’s one of the things solitary children are drawn to – you work in code”. She still works in code – but because of her enviable ability to articulate that code, and despite her protestations that “one paints because words can’t do the work” – words are an enormous weapon in Mason’s rich arsenal. Words inspire much, if not most, of Mason’s oeuvre.

(Top) Waiting room, pencil on paper 2005, Private Collection (Below) Acquisitive muse, 2004 Pencil on paper

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Walking with and away from Dante: Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso Dante’s La Divina Commedia – or Divine Comedy – is an epic allegorical poem written by Dante Alighieri in the early 14th Century. The Roman poet, Virgil, guides Dante through Hell, then Purgatory, and is replaced for the journey through Heaven by Beatrice, Dante’s ideal woman. Mason draws a distinction between her “extremely disintegrated world view” and Dante’s “extremely intact” one. “It’s as if we start off together like Dante and Virgil, and then I go off into a twenty-first century lack of faith”. Even

now, there’s that self-deprecating tendency. Take yourself apart before your audience does? Few ordinary mortals would attempt to plumb the depths of Dante’s La Commedia Divina”, yet Mason concedes only that it “seemed very offputting when I first glanced at it” and that she had had to trick herself into reading it. “Even now, forty years later, my Sayers translation of the text brings to mind the sand drifts and the arid slopes of the Richtersveld where I first read the text.” Walking with and away from Dante

Judith Mason installing her Walking with and away from Dante, show at Sasol Art Museum, Stellenbosch 2009


Forty-six years after Esmé Berman had recognised the “mature intellect and insight” of the young Mason, those two leitmotifs – Dante, and the Passion of Christ - coalesce, like nuclear fisson, in her magnum opus, Walking with and away from Dante. They intertwine, unravel, and intertwine again – literally and metaphorically – in the four-part Installation, first shown at the Standard Bank in Johannesburg, and then at the Sasol Art Museum in Stellenbosch, on the major Retrospective, Mason: a prospect of icons, held in 2009.

and his menagerie of beasts, both animal and allegorical, is a work of orchestral dimensions.

Mason’s representation of Satan in Inferno is an androgenous being, half man, half woman - and also only half a body. The work reads from left to right, with the text of Dante’s Inferno finely painted onto the scroll, which spans the full width of the three canvases in this complex, dense introduction to the Commedia Divina. Mason has structured this work to be read frontally, like a Mediaeval altarpiece - with which Dante would have been familiar. With few exceptions, the figures interface directly with the viewer. The ghoulish heads, which float like malign ghosts around Satan, are reminiscent of the choirs of angels and saints which were grouped in flat, two-dimensional poses around the Madonna and Child. The scrolls which span the full width of the Inferno are like all-encompassing wings, which converge above Satan, interlock, and are sucked into the vortex, where they metamorphose into a gilded drill which presses ever downwards. The corkscrew form recurs in Reaching for Paradise, the final piece in this massive installation, but here the spiral loosens as it rises from the base of the panel, where it begins to metamorphose. The shackles and chains of Purgatorio have been shed. This climax of Mason’s lifelong engagement with Dante’s Divine Comedy Walking with and away from Dante. Triptych (Part 1: Inferno) 2007. Oil on canvas, Private Collection

Purgatorio Purgatorio, structured in the same triptych format, is the third “movement”. Here, Dante gives the reader – and the viewer – hope. But not without an effort. Mason has drawn on some of recent history’s most cataclysmic events as points of departure. A great mushroom cloud explodes and radiates out from the centre of the triptych – nuclear fission again! - and in the foreground, the allusion is to the debris and detritus of 9/11. A tiny figure of Christ taking himself down from the Cross, in the centre foreground of the painting, is an image the artist has repeated on its own in a recent painting, Descent from the Cross. “His work done”, Mason says, prosaically, “he deposes himself from the Cross.” The chain ladder to Paradise, hanging tantalisingly above a surging wave of blue, “offers a possible escape” from Purgatory towards Paradise. The hand of the artist “wipes away mistakes, in the same way as the people in purgatory live away their mistakes by undergoing some sort of penitence and suffering.” A small paper boat floats into the sea of blue – a little boat made by Mason’s grandson from paper on which she had typed the Italian text of the first stanza of Purgatory – a small glimmer of hope in an otherwise bleak landscape.

Paradiso And then one visualises the conductor signalling the choir to stand. They rise as one, and with orchestra and choir in full, resounding voice, the final movement in this great Masonic work erupts. And this is why Judith Mason still has so much to give the world of art: just when you think you have the answer, she slips in another virtuosic curved ball. Reaching for Paradise, for all its sublime elevation, is the most restrained of the works in this epic. A single panel, 230 x 80 cm, hangs from the ceiling; painted on both sides. No carving, no duplicitous imagery, there is a subtly burnished quality wrought with silver leaf on one side, and copper leaf on the other. A quiet serenity and stillness brings the journey through Dante’s and Mason’s La Divina Commedia to a close.

Walking With and Away from Dante (Triptych). 2007. Part 1: Purgatorio. Oil on canvas, 200 x 600 cm. Private Collection is also a lighter side to her – a great sense of humour, and a wonderful ironic touch. But much of her inspiration – and solace – is drawn from the literature and music. “I’d die if I couldn’t read, “she said to Alex Dodd in an interview. “I’d die if I couldn’t watch a movie. I really would die. I would die without music.” Music and musicians feature in many of her gentler works, none more sublimely gentle and harmonious than Jazz Singer and Listening to Mozart. The same delicacy one sees in the gently wafting feathers in Jazz Singer is repeated in Dragonflight in a Golden Bowl a work of exquisite fragility.

An aspiration towards Paradise rather than Paradise itself, is what Mason strove to depict in this work. “I’ve got no concept of Paradise”, she says. “I do, however, have a very clear idea of why people aspire to it”. Walking with and away from Dante is a tour de force, and without a doubt, the artist concedes, the most demanding work she has ever done. For two years, Judith Mason lived and breathed Dante. Where to now?

And then, just when you think she’ll start walking away from Dante, there’s Descent from the Cross all over again!

Walking away from Dante? Mason has often been compared with Francis Bacon, although this could be said more of her earlier works than the later ones. While Mason could probably match Bacon for drama and angst in many of her works, there

Reaching for Paradise,Oil on board, 230 x 80 cm, Private Collection

The new work echoes and amplifies the tiny figure of Christ deposing himself from the Cross in Purgatorio – one work providing fuel for the next, and the next, like bouncing a ball from one hand to the other - and you realise that Judith Mason is not going to press “delete” any time soon on the files called “Dante” and “Passion of Christ” on her cerebral hard drive.

And that subliminal quest for meaning re-surfaces. Like ancient palimpsests, one work is written over another, one work informs another. And the back and forth play of idea, image, myth, reality creates a constantly changing and constantly flowing stream of creative output. And the duality, the contradiction, the paradox that is Judith Mason: “I am an agnostic humanist” she says “possessed of religious curiosity, who regards making artworks as akin to alchemy”.

Pietà, 2003. Oil. Private Collection

Petra (Judith’s daughter) and Judith Mason at the opening of her Retrospective show at The Sasol Art Museum, Stellenbosch 2009

Allusions & Illusions


Hanging from the great central chandelier in the museum in Stellenbosch, as if it had levitated there, was Reaching for Paradise, the apotheosis of Walking with and away from Dante. The final movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony – the Choral – springs to mind. The first “movement”, Inferno, is a triptych, each canvas measuring two metres square. A six metre wide spread of pulsating energy and emotion, profanity and profundity. Mason’s allusions are not just literary: echoes of Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People advance relentlessly, bayonets drawn from the dark background. Leering faces, dismembered, in limbo, are reminiscent of Goya’s late, dark works. The dogs of war yelp, tails ablaze, across the canvas; a plucked chicken – like an innocent infant rape victim – rips the canvas with its claw, metaphorically tearing the fabric of society. Blobs of burning coal rain on the vaporising figure of the Aids activist, Gugu Dlamini, stoned to death in this complicated, savage, desperate country. There is no shelter for her behind the shrouds of Aids victims lying in the foreground of picture space – an image repeated in a singular, searing 2003 work, HIV Pieta, a counterpoint to Michelangelo’s serenely beatific marble Pieta in St Peter’s in Rome.

You write your life across my face, 1993, Oil on board. Spier Collection

Writing her life “I’ve always had a greater respect in a funny sort of way for writing”, Mason says. “But I tend to be verbose and writing is not my first language… when I paint I’m trying to articulate in a more primitive sense.” This duality typifies the paradox that is Judith Mason. The cover image on the catalogue which accompanied her Retrospective, Judith Mason: a prospect of Icons, is a self-portrait, You write your life across my face. The words of the title are, literally, written across her face, in repeated, unpunctuated, rhythmic lines like those of a musical score.

Totems The second “movement”, which would mirror the scherzo in Beethoven’s score, is a dynamic, moveable collection of free-standing panels, or “totems”. Fragments of the scenes in the triptych are echoed and amplified in these wooden panels which transform the work into a dramatic threedimensional dialogue, and connect and integrate the three disparate segments of the work. Commissioned by a private collector, the work was designed for installation in separate rooms; but the drama is so compelling, and the continuum of the voyage of Dante and Virgil so seductive, that they are as cohesive a whole as the Bayeux Tapestry.

Current Not being able to Paint (detail), 1992. Oil on canvas. Private collection, Self Portrait as my own Ventriloquist, 1996. Oil on board. Private collection Mason’s self-portraits are revealing; yet they divulge little, cloaked as they are in her personal, childhood code. There is agonising inertia in Not being able to Paint; bravado in Self-portrait age 90, 1985; dignity, but somehow a sadness and a vulnerability, dignity, innocence in Self-portrait, 1984 – it’s a difficult work to read, but a beautiful, serene one. The frustration, anger, humour, in Self-portrait as my own Ventriloquist, 1996 is less subtle, but despite the many images representing different times in her life, different states, that she has painted as self-portraits, Mason gives little away. Ironically, it is in her writing that she is more accessible. While a work like Self-portrait as my own Ventriloquist may look cathartic, the discipline and control required to produce paintings and drawings of the quality Mason does, belie any quick cathartic download.

Boundless discourse

Charioteer. (detail) 1994. Oil on board. Private Collection

1938 Born in Pretoria 1957- 60 Studied Fine Art at the University of the Witwatersrand 1961 Taught at the Wits Technical Art School, Johannesburg 1963 One of the winners of Gallery 101’s art competition: ‘Arbeid-Work’ 1964 First solo exhibition at Gallery 101 1962-67 Lectures in History of Art at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) 1966 Represents South Africa at the Venice Biennale, Italy 1969-73 Part-time lecturer at Wits 1971 Represents South Africa at the Sao Paulo Biennale, Brazil 1977 Became a full-time artist 1976 First major commission: tapestry for the Royal Hotel, Durban 1980 Participated in the Houston Art Festival after the South African entry to the 1979 Sao Paulo Biennale – which was cancelled for political reasons 1980 Visited India and Nepal for the first time 1986 Visiting lecturer at University of Pretoria. 1989 - 91 Taught at the Scoula Lorenzo de Medici, Florence, Italy 1990 Published the artist’s book, A Dante’s Bestiary 1989 - 1991 Lived in Italy 1991 – 2000 Lived in Cape Town 1993 Part-time lecturer at Michaelis at UCT 2006-2008 Major installation: Walking with and away from Dante 1993 – 1997 External examiner at Potchefstroom, PTA, CT, and Stellenbosch for Undergrad and Masters Degrees October 2008 – March 2009: Major retrospective Prospect of Icons at Standard Bank Gallery, Johannesburg, and Sasol Museum, Stellenbosch, Cape Town December 2009 Exibits at Art Basel, Miami Beach, Florida, USA

It is Mason’s intellectual curiosity that drives her incessantly onwards, keeps her at the top of her game, and as productive, prodigious and relevant today as she was in the ‘sixties, More so, in fact. The constant dialogue in her head between finished works and unfinished ideas leads to works like Unshackled, which derives from the image the artist used for the limbs of the skeletal figure “ascending” in Dante’s Reaching for Paradise. Typically down-to-earth, even in a work as sublime as this, Mason reveals the prosaic origins of the piece: the chain-ladder, she says, was found on a Cape farm, and the feet were derived from an X-ray plate and her memory of the gold-plated toes of the Pharaoh in Tutankhamen’s tomb. “I wanted to incorporate several ideas about shuffling off one’s mortal coil, not just a Christian concept of the soul’s liberation.”

• Aside from the Dante “double-bill” (the Retrospective, Judith Mason: a prospect of icons) held in Johannesburg and in Stellenbosch in 2009: • Mason exhibited at Art Basel in Miami, Florida, USA • In September, Art on Paper Gallery in Johannesburg will be showcasing a new Judith Mason Artist’s Book, Skoelapperheuwel, Skoelappervrou. The proofs of the book, with a previously unpublished poem by Wilma Stockenström, were lost for twenty two years, and were recently re-discovered in a the basement of a Johannebsurg book binder. These thirty books, each with additional original artwork by Judith Mason, comprise the full edition. • Mark Attwood of the Artists’ Press has just published a limited edition of recent prints by the artist: the Pomegranate series; and the Goya series.


- Alexander, Lucy and Evelyn Cohen: 150 South African Paintings, Past and Present. Peter Struik; 1979. - Berman, Esmé: Art and Artists of South Africa. Balkema: Cape Town and Amsterdam; 1983. - Bezuidenhout, Zandra: in Eikestadnuus, 20 March, 2009. - Chaskalson, Lorraine: in Judith Mason: a prospect of icons. Standard Bank, Johannesburg & Stellenbosch; 2009 - Corrigall, Mary: in The Sunday Independent, October 19, 2008. - Dodd, Alex: in Art Times, October 1, 2008. - Fransen, Hans: Three Centuries of South African Art. Ad Donker (Pty) Ltd., Johannesburg & Cape Town; 1982. - Hughes, Robert: in Time, March 17, 1986. - Mason, Judith: Talking Pictures: Scrapbook with Notes and Comments. Broederstroom Press; 1989 - Mason, Judith: in Judith Mason: a prospect of icons: Standard Bank and Sasol Art Museum, Johannesburg & Stellenbosch; 2009 - Skawran, Karin: in Judith Mason: a prospect of icons: Standard Bank and Sasol Art Museum, Johannesburg & Stellenbosch; 2009 - Toerien, Heine and Georges Duby: (Ed.) Our Art 3. Lantern, Pretoria; Undated. - Van Rensberg, Wilhelm: in Judith Mason: a prospect of icons: Standard Bank and Sasol Art Museum, Johannesburg & Stellenbosch; 2009

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