Sunday, December 7, 2008

Paul Stopforth's new Robben Island series

Many of us in the Cultural Production program have long been fascinated by the art of the South African-U.S. artist Paul Stopforth, whose works are featured on our program website and brochure. Since 2003, his series on Robben Island series (the notorious former political prison off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa) has brilliantly encapsulated so many of the problems and challenges that are key to our interdisciplinary program: the fragile and contested status of memory work, the capacity of visual practices to help excavate our “buried lives,” the relentless interrogation of the material forms through which human consciousness is constituted, and the healing power of art and aesthetics in the wake of collective tragedy and human rights atrocities.

I’ve been intrigued to see since 2005 the increasing use of vibrant color in Stopforth’s work:

As he reworks and develops motifs from his work as artist in residence on Robben Island, Stopforth seems to have moved away from the milkwash-based near monochrome palate of his early “Island” series, visible at:

Or rather he has returned to the more chromatic palette (as well as the forays into pointilism) that we associate with his earlier work.

In addition to the formal technical motivations for this post 2005 shift (the new works do look wonderful!) the deepening use of color in exploring the Robben Island imagery seems to track with Stopforth moving beyond the artifactual detritus of the island’s human-built interiors towards engaging more and more with the broader maritime ecology of the island and its environs. Perhaps this shift is correlated with a kind of cultural “settling” that has take place on and around Robben Island, as the immediate wounds of Apartheid, while not forgotten, are to some extent subsumed in subsequent histories and as some of the scars are eased (if never fully effaced) by the passage of time and the healing encroachment of nature.

This shift to more color and wider environmental imagery seems to be associated with Stopforth’s move to diptychs and the complex forms of mirroring (visual and conceptual) that this binary format permits. In the right panel “Another Country” (2007):

for instance, the stark inset of the cell block, guard tower and inner courtyard is encased within life-giving evocations of sea scape and brilliant sunset, which seem to move into the frame of the inset itself, implying perhaps that nature is beginning to reclaim the island’s human-built carcereal spaces. In turn on the work’s left panel, we glimpse in a car’s side mirror the same prison courtyard (inverted) up against a rock pile, surrounded by a comparable evocation of seascape and landscape.

In contrast to the other works in the series, the remarkable Gate diptych of mirrored trees has no immediate signs of human-made artifacts:

It would appear to frame the entire series, which is appropriate inasmuch as the long-lived tree, although battered by the maritime elements, has seen and lived through the island’s Apartheid and post-Apartheid histories. Can one read the endlessly proliferating branches of the tree as allegories for the intricate sinuous channels of memory itself, as inverted roots that link past, present and future on the island (and in South Africa more broadly) in ever-more mysterious ways?

1 comment:

Ellen Schattschneider said...

Would it be too whimsical to read the artifacts in the 2003-05 series, in their muted shades (including the extraordinary Hinge, which I adore) as excavated memory "seeds", which the artist planted and watered with milk wash? Several years on now, the object-seeds have sprouted and taken root, and come to vivify the surface of the island, as they connect somehow with the water table deep below. I read the intrusion of the seascape into the interiors of the paintings as the coming to the surface of the life-giving waters, of history and the spirit, which can sustain us even in the worst stretches of moral drought. And in that ways the flowering of the new paintings, emerging out of the earlier preliminary excavations of the buried past, enlivens us. So in this sense, Stopforth's recent work puts me in mind of the dazzling final lines of J.M. Coetze's masterwork, The Life and Times of Michael K, as the hero dreams of digging deep down into the hidden land beneath Cape Town, to the deep reservoirs of water: "And in that way, he thought, one can live."