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Maverick Life


Elizabeth Vels’s retrospective, ‘A Life in Making’, served as an antidote to all that ails the world

Genesis. Mixed media artwork by Elizabeth Vels. Image: Artvark / Supplied

The retrospective exhibition (1965-2022) by octogenarian South African artist Elizabeth Vels is on at the Spin Street Gallery (6 Spin Street) until 30 July 2022.

Artist Elizabeth Vels’s retrospective exhibition, A Life in Making, is a taste of prophets and parables and “pitching one’s tent in the land of hope” paraphrased from the Book of Psalms

It’s an exhibition served as an antidote to all that ails the world. One in which the spiral of the historical is unpacked and revisited – from the biblical to the present. It marks the events leading up to our country’s liberation, the uncertain Nineties when the long shadow of civil war loomed, the losses created by Covid-19, to the current war in Ukraine and our ecological apocalypse, which are all gathered under the umbrella of Jeremiah, also known as the “weeping prophet” for his tender heart, and the story of his people’s return from exile. 

And most importantly it is a celebration of both 55 years of daily practice and “85 years of memory made visible”. The fruit of which evidences a combination of dogged conviction and belief coupled with the open-endedness of process and a deep engagement.

Art by Elizabeth Vels.
Art by Elizabeth Vels. Image: Lucinda Jolly

It took a great deal of cajoling, much pushing and shoving by close friends and Vels’s daughter, artist Cathy Stanley, to birth this visceral retrospective which is in wonderful contrast to the cool neoclassical accents of the many Herbert Baker rooms which it occupies.

The retrospective is a mammoth body of work and a massive undertaking. It is structured in three distinct phases, each lasting a week and exhibiting (completely) some relevant, different works. Each phase contains many sections. Each week has a different theme – “Return”, “Replant” and “Restore” – which references the cycle in the Book of Jeremiah from destruction to recovery. And each week is accompanied by an artist walkabout.

The exhibition kicks off with “Return” comprising three large paintings, the first titled The Book of Jeremiah. The painting itself uses the archaeological process of digging through the Tel or midden. Starting at the top with The Book, episodes occur in relief paperworks digging down towards the floor. There are vitrines or glass display cases containing fragments, work books and small, sealed secret bundles – thoughts made corporeal under glass. Beauty for Ashes is a table installation referring to the prophet Isaiah and commemorates the death of Vels’s husband and comprises a handmade, folded book featuring beautiful line drawings of a hardy dune plant and ceramic pieces. Joy comprises painted canvases complete with pieces of stitched leather and fabric. Mamre references both a biblical place and a place where Vels and her family holidayed. There’s a Last Supper installation and lots of relics. 

Desert Rose artist book by Elizabeth Vels.
Desert Rose artist book by Elizabeth Vels. Image: Artvark

Don’t be put off by the religious over- and undertones of A Life in Making. There is no proselytising to be had here. And bear in mind, whatever your religious stance, much of the great Western visual art, poetry, theatre, literature and music was made in response to religion. 

While belief may be the driver it is not the exhibition’s immediate feel. Belief can involve the desire to transcend mundane matter for a more rarefied atmosphere of spirituality – one associated with the masculine and the addict. However, Vels’s work suggests a far more grounded, earthed relationship, one more closely associated with the feminine. 

Vels’s artworks push back against the immediate gratification and addiction to perfection fostered by technology. Instead, their process is like a slow-cooking movement of the psyche which cannot and will not be rushed. All hand in the slowness of real time. While Vels has a master’s in the arts, her work is wrought from the place of intuition, giving it a wonderful feel of unschooled and unbounded. Unsullied by the dictates and expectations of institutions, Vels goes wherever the spirit takes her.

The overarching palette of the retrospective is one of heat, vivid reds, a range of yellow ochres, kaolin whites and sooty blacks associated with the pigments found in humankind’s prehistory and the fruit-cake richness of Baroque painting – and the occasional inclusion of indigo shades. 

Painting surfaces are sticky and tarry, clotted and crusty, often embedded with semi-masticated cloth and objects excavated from some internal archaeological dig. There’s the sense that just below their nubby keloid skins are embers that lie waiting for just the right volume of breath to suddenly burst into flame. 

Small ceramic jugs by Elizabeth Vels.
Small ceramic jugs by Elizabeth Vels. Image: Artvark

There is a prolific scattering of curious ceramic vessels in many shapes and sizes which are meant to be used in daily life rather than vessels of spiritual nourishment. Also, little earthen golem figures. Sometimes their finish is chalky and sometimes it’s glistening with the viscousness of the freshly hatched. Their irregularities, unexpected depressions and bulges almost suggest that they have taken on the folds of the creative alimentary canal as they passed through. 

Vels’s retrospective A Life in Making cannot be restricted to “art as a way of survival”. It is far wider and deeper. Rather it’s art as a way of flourishing and pitching one’s creative tent in the land of hope. Check it out. DM/ML

In case you missed it, also read Artist Felix González-Torres: A meditation on mortality

Artist Felix González-Torres: A meditation on mortality


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