Art@Site Deborah Bell Return of the Gods Johannesburg

Deborah Bell


Return of the Gods

Return of the Gods
AT (Artthrob): Is that what the installation’s title ‘Return of the Gods’ relates to?
DB (Deborah Bell): Initially I was debating whether to use the title ‘Return of the gods,’ or ‘The Ancient Ones’ and I ended up linking the two together. The sculptures just grew in stature and presence and absolutely surprised me. And I thought, ‘What are you guys? Who are you?’ They just developed this enormous presence and I started thinking about the notion of the gods in Western society and how we view them as being either myth or fantasy or new age.
AT: In a sense it’s entirely appropriate that you mention this idea of not being certain of who they are. Due to their sheer size and the way they are displayed in darkness with spot lighting, even once you’ve seen them, you never get a sense of what the smaller figures emerging from the heads actually look like. You can see them as silhouettes from a distance, but as soon as you’re close, they are too high to be seen g obscures them. There’s still a mystique about them.
DB: I’ve been working with the image of little figures coming from the crown of heads for about 15 years, but this is the first time that they have fully emerged. Beforehand it has been a head and shoulders. Years ago I saw a wooden carved figure from Mozambique in the Johannesburg Art Gallery –I can’t remember the exact name of the group– with a simple head and shoulders coming out of a larger head and I think that must have impacted me as a student, because I have a particularly strong memory of that. Then my figures started to have smaller heads emerging from them.
AT: Do they have a particular meaning for you?
DB: I’ve begun to realise that for me they represent the revealing of the spiritual self. So the fact that these sculptures have fully-realised figures with whole bodies shows that they are spiritually evolved beings. The men have female figures on their heads and the women have male figures on their heads. So they also rerriage of the masculine and feminine and an owning of the full self, the complete self.
AT: Besides representing a fusion of masculine and feminine, the figures themselves seem to be quite culturally heterogeneous. Where you looking at specific references for them?
DB: A lot of people ask me that and some people say that they all look Nubian. So I ask them “Well how do you know that? What do Nubians look like?” and of course nobody knows. But the idea that they are Nubian keeps coming up in questions. And then some people say that it’s interesting that the lower part of the faces seem more African while the top part of the face seems more Asian. I’m just responding in a very intuitive, personal way, I will do a face again and again until suddenly it’s ‘Aha!’ I don’t set out to intentionally do these specific features.
That’s why I talk about the notion of summoning. I believe that being an artist in any way is a form of magic. You create something in the world which wasn’t there material and transform it to stand for something else. It’s its own form of magic. I mean William Kentridge deals with illusion and I deal with summoning. I’m calling something and I don’t know what it’s going to be.
AT: It sounds a bit harrowing! Are your ‘ancient ones’ benevolent entities or are there elements of something more inherently malevolent like the ‘Great Old Ones’ in the work of writers like HP Lovecraft?
DB: For me they are absolutely benevolent. I view them almost as forefathers. Whilst I say that I started them unaware of what they were going to turn into, when I started working on them I became aware that they would be related quite closely to a series of five drawings that I had done the previous year of tall, robed figures titled Humanity Unbound. I believe that we are all gods, we have just forgotten and we’re stuck down here repeating old patterns and habitual addictions. So again, that’s what the angel in the doorway is, a memory of what we were.
It took that I was interested in art that can change the world. That intent and creation can alter one’s reality. And I believe that that is what art was used for in many cultures. We just don’t see it that way anymore in contemporary Western culture. For me every single artwork is more of a spiritual discipline about inner transformation. So when you asked me about whether they could be malevolent entities, I won’t work with malevolence. My work is about spiritual transformation. I like to believe that other people will feel that as well. I can’t force it, but if it happens for me then I like to believe that it can happen for others too.
Finding yourself among the gods of Deborah Bell’s subconscious, in her latest exhibition which experientially reads more like the inner space of an ancient, or even futuristic sanctum, one may be easily tempted to engage with her latest work on a purely phenomenological level. This may very well be the intention of the artist, as her catale works and various interviews that followed place emphasis on the spiritual journey of the artist: she describes her work as transcendental, as products of a summoning.
Undeniably, upon entering the installation, “Return of the Gods: the Ancient Ones” on the upper floor of the Everard Read gallery in Cape Town, you may feel as though you have accidentally ascended the stairway to Elysium.
Five larger-than-life bronze figures stand summoned in the shadowy space: shamans, tall and heavily robed with small figures rising from their heads into the lights that illuminate them. Each carries an individual beauty, male or female: their features offer a transcultural aesthetic, combined with the sort of ideal perfection you may imagine inherent to the countenance of gods.
In a deceptively small space, you experience the grandeur of Qin Shi Huang’s terracotta Bingmayong (Bell’s guardians, though fewer, mirror in their oriental airs a similar imperious stature), as well as the sublimity of the columedral sculptures of the Notre Dame de Chartres. They are the atlantids and caryatids that carry the cosmos. It is once you start to move about them, that you are truly drawn into their magic. Each has been given a ‘voice’, composed by Philip Miller, which activates in your presence—a violin, a Xhosa chant, a shofar. Together, they create a spirited vibration, a euphonious harmony that resounds among them and the mortals at their feet.
Bell is facinated by ancient civilisations and their excavated artefacts. Her work incorporates powerful images and layered visual, symbolic and iconographic references of past and present worlds. In her iconography, the artist draws from a range of cultures - African, Chinese, Egyptian, Greek, early Christian, European - and a range of psychologies and philosophies, particularly the Buddhist preoccupation with stillness and the shedding of attachment and the ego.
In Bell’s recent work human figures have embodied the seeker on a joften accompanied by lions, hounds, wolves, horses and totemic modes of transport such as boats and chariots.
Bell’s artworks convey themes that have evolved through dreams, meditations, altered states, spiritual quests and the process of working. They record her journey into the mysteries of the cosmos – and, like metaphors, like symbols, her works stand for the beings, the presences, the nodes of meaning and association that she has encountered along the way.
Deborah Bell (b. 1957, South Africa) is one of South Africa’s most celebrated contemporary artists. She works in a range of media on canvas and paper, produces dry point etchings and large-scale bronzes. Her earlier more political work has given way to a broader, deeper investigation into the border been mortality and immortality, matter and spirit, presence and absence, the quotidian and the mythic, the grounded and transcendent. In recent years she has developed an immediately recognisable visual langher images simple, stark, symbolic – grounded, silent, still, poised. As Ricky Burnett has stated: at the very edge of time.
Deborah Bell’s work is represented in public and private collections around the world including the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the Smithsonian Institute and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, the Hara Museum, Tokyo and the IZIKO South African National Gallery, Cape Town.
Deborah Bell (1957, Johannesburg) is a South African painter and sculptor whose works are known internationally.
Bell earned fine arts degree from the University of Witwatersrand in 1975 and in 1986 she earned Master of Arts at the same university.
Her career began in 1982 and Bell has had many solo and group exhibitions in South Africa and abroad. From 1983 to 1989 she lectured at various institutions, including the University of the Witwatersrand and the University of South Africa. She has traveled extensively in Africa, North America and Europe and in 198e spent two months working at the Cité Internationale des Artes in Paris. From 1986 to 1997 she collaborated with South African artists William Kentridge and Robert Hodgins on different projects. In 1997, they produced a series of images of Alfred Jarry and William Hogarth works. Together, the three artists have also created works of computer animation.
Deborah Bell is a winner of several awards, her works can be found in public and private collections around the world. Listed below are major African artists who have impacted the world of sculpture... many are still practicing today having had long, celebrated and illustrious careers. Edoardo Villa, SA (1915-2011)
Ben Enwonwu, Nigeria, (1917 - 1994)
Stella Shawzin, SA (1920 - 2020)
Ibrahim El Salahi, Sudan b 1930
Sydney Kumalo, SA (1935 - 1988)
Francis Nnnggenda, Uganda, b 1936
Arthur Azvedo, Zimbabwe b 1935
Ousmane Sow, Senegal (1935 - 2016)
Percy Konqobe, SA b 1939
Sunday Jac Akpan, Nigeria b 1940
El Anatsui, Ghana b 1944
Elkana Ongesa, Kenya b 1944
Wilma Cruise, SA b 1945
Norman Catherine, SA b 1949
Anton Momberg, b 1951
Anton Smit, SA b 1954
William Kentridge, SA b 1955
Willie Bester, SA b 1956
Tapfuma Gutsa, Zimbabwe b 1956
Deborah Bell, SA b 1957
Sokhari Douglas Camp, Nigeria b 1958
Guy Pierre du Toit, Sa b 1958
Speelman Makose Mahlangu, SA (1958 - 2004)
Olu Amoda, Nigeria b 1959
Brett Murray, SA b 1961
Jems Koko Bi, Cote D'Ivoire b 1966
Adeola Balogun, Nigeria b 1966
Angus Taylor, SA b 1970
Marco Ciafenelli, SA b 1970
Wangechi Mutu, Kenya b 1972
Claudette Schreuders, SA b 1973
Sanell Aggenbach, SA b 1975
Peju Alatise, Nigeria b 1975
Michelle Mathison, SA/Zimbabwe b 1977
Niyi Olagunju, Nigeria b 1981
Dylan Lewis, SA b 1982
Mary Sibande, SA b 1982
Lionel Smit, SA b 1982
Nandipha Mntambo, Swaziland b 1982