24 August 2012

Namibia: 'To Be Free!'

Windhoek — The National Gallery of Namibia is hosting an exhibition by Susan Mitchison, titled To be Free.

The title of the exhibition was taken from a song by Bob Marley, which is in itself, interesting, considering that Marley, himself was a free spirit, who inspired and entire generation to 'free their minds'. In the context of the southern African condition, mental slavery was considerably worse than the physical shackles that were endured for three hundred years. The lyrics of his songs addressed that condition.

In similar vein Susan Mitchinson does something similar with her current exhibition. Her signature figurative black woodcut works are familiar to most Namibians.

They are on display in private and public spaces but this exhibition consists of a cross-section of mediums from sketches, to woodcuts, pastel paintings and works in oil. It is interesting that she chose to hang the black works along the rise of the staircase to the space that houses her exhibition, and, in a sense, causing a disconnect with the larger body of work. That, in itself, might not account for much. What is very noticeable, however, is the very clear reference to images of 'freedom' with her use of horses and various forms of wildlife.

The horse image is pertinent to the artist in more than the immediate and obvious context. Mitchenson owns her own stables, and owns horses, hence the fact that they find their way into her work(s).

But, from an art historical perspective, Mitchinson produces work in the expressionist genre, which 'freed' itself from impressionism, just as the latter broke from realism.

And what is particularly noticeable is the fact that she follows in the tradition of a direction within expressionism, which came to be known as Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider/Horseman), which is the name of a painting by the German artist August Macke(1887-1914), and also that of the movement.

Mitchinson's horse paintings have an uncanny way of transporting the viewer back to the time of Macke, who died in the first year of WW1. Der Blaue Reiter is what can be regarded as the logo for the movement, and Mitchinson, who studied in France, would have been influenced by the developing trends in art early in her life.

The mark-making and the manner in which the paint is moved across the surface of the canvas, is reminiscent of artists of Der Blaue Reiter, the forms, colouration, composition all, somehow, do the same. But Mitchinson is less concerned about the art historical aspects of expressionism. She focuses on the idea-'To be Free', just as Bob Marley did. The evidence of the freedom expressed in the imagery is fore-fronted by the horse, and the various wild life which find their way into her work(s).

The animals, more than the human figures, tend to express the idea of freedom. Animals do not rationalise freedom/liberation into logical arguments; people do, and, therefore the works remind us, and hopefully inspire us to pursue the ideals of freedom both physically and mentally. And therein lies the almost metaphorical directive in the works.

Mitchinson's images speak plainly, without requiring a huge amount of intellectual energy, but it does require the application of the intellect to associate ourselves with the intention of the works.

The various sections of the exhibition do elicit different responses. The black works have become very familiar, though they do not trump those of her earlier period. In fairness, they might be a response to different stimuli. The painting titled Shebeen Guest, is of particular interest. There seems to be a shift in focus, since most of her figurative works depict people in static poses, which is yet another element in the quest 'to be free'.

Her animal works generally show the subjects in motion. Another work titled Dawn With a Klipspringer, is yet another work that speaks of 'freedom'. The klipspringer is in the process of moving away, of getting away. And then there is The Look, a very sultry, portrait presented full-on, in the style of Irma Stern (1894-1966), which presents the model as static.

Her life drawings show the desire to 'free' the body. Does it do so? To a degree, yes. Could the title be part of the journey to full 'freedom'. Earlier woodcuts went a long way to 'free' the body. This time round one gets to feel that the rest is yet to come.

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