icon in arts
story by Bethuel Thovhala
asa is no newcomer to bronze as a sculpture medium, though she is best known for her work in wood and clay. Her largest and most courageous body of work in bronze to date is to be seen in a joint exhibition with Esther Mahlangu, Memory, innovation, tradition, now on at 34 Long in Cape Town.
Having had some of her clay sculptures exhibited in Cape Town earlier this year, Noria was keen to work in a different medium in order to present entirely new work. She suggested bronze to Andries Loots and Fred de Jager of 34 Long, and they agreed that collaborating on a series of bronze works could mean a new departure for her. Noria was greatly excited by the opportunity to carefully select works specifically to be cast in bronze. The change in final material did not mean a radical change in content though. The statuettes express, as always, Noria’s thoughtful observations on rural life, city life and shifts in cultural identity.
Perhaps the biggest difference between working in clay or wood, and working in bronze, is the fact that the artist’s personal vision and individual touch are submitted to a complex process of translation.1 Very few artists have the means and technical knowledge to cast their work personally and to finish it to the desired final patina. As with any type of translation, subtle yet deeply significant changes occur not only in terms of material, but also in concept and in nuance of meaning, enriching the content and meaning of the final work.
So, for instance, in this body of work, the impermanence of clay or wood has been exchanged for the durability of bronze. The works have been given a special patina, which resembles very closely the warm, earthy appearance of fired clay, denying the cold metal underneath. Initially Noria had considered painting the bronzes in bright enamel paints the way she often does with her clay works. But once they saw the bronzes, Noria and her gallerists at 34Long were of the same opinion that paint would be entirely superfluous.
Noria is an artist of international stature, and her work increasingly appeals to collectors all over the world. Durability is a key aspect for collectors, who, in addition to loving the art with which they live, expect the value of their investment to grow with the reputation of the artist. In the case of wood and clay, this expectation may easily be defeated, whereas bronze is virtually indestructible. On a conceptual level, the idea of metal impersonating clay adds a direct reference to the centuries-old African tradition of metal casting while at the same time indicating a thoroughly contemporary artistic attitude of experimentation and innovation.
Like Esther Mahlangu, Noria often encounters expectations and preconceptions based on rigid ideas of what ‘African art’ should be. In the minds of many ‘western’ art lovers, art from Africa is static, ‘ethnic’ and determined by a complex set of social codes, which puts the ‘western’ consumer in a position of superior sophistication to the ‘primitive’ African. African art, according to this way of thinking, should reflect a ‘tribal’ past, not a modern, knowledgeable present. Especially in terms of materials, such expectations can be very persistent. Noria, however, is a woman who has confounded preconceived ideas throughout her working live. She shrugs off charges of inauthenticity with a smile; artists are free to appropriate whatever medium they want, and to collaborate with whom they want to; this has been so throughout the centuries.
This exhibition, in which there has been a deliberate and finely executed transgression of expected boundaries, is sure to challenge, perhaps offend, the expectations of traditionalists. This does not phase Noria in the least. In fact, she is pleased to be testing new ground, to be moving into new modes of expression, and to alter perceptions of her art.
1 Latex molds are taken from the original works, which may or may not perish in the process. In these molds, wax replicas of the originals are shaped, and they in turn serve as cores around which ceramic shells, able to withstand the heat of molten bronze, are built. Once the wax is removed by being molten and poured out, the ceramic shell is ready to receive fluid bronze, which will cool down and harden in the shape of the original artwork. Highly skilled artisans in specialized foundries usually carry out this technically complicated process of transformation.