Intraparadox: Interview with Elizabeth Balcomb

Auguries of Innocence

4 September at 09:40, Pretoria Art Museum

 Elizabeth Balcomb standing next to 'Son of Man, 2015' (3)

SELF PRESERVATION

Mmutle Arthur Kgokong: I hope you are ok this morning

Elizabeth Balcomb: I’m good very good, yes, yes

Mmutle AK: You slept in Pretoria or in Johannesburg? (laughs)

Elizabeth B: No in Pretoria, geeze just up the road, very closed. I’m fresh

MAK: …yah well I am glad that you are…

EB: close, close

MAK: fresh, you know, after last night’s busy evening.

EB: yes-yes

MAK: And thank you for agreeing to speak to me Elizabeth. Ehhm, I just want us to start right at the beginning. Where were you born, and you know, what was it like growing up where you were born?

EB: Alight, I was born in Westerneria, but ehhm when I was not even three months old my parents moved to Howick in KZN, ya, and then we moved to Pietermaritzburg after, …my father was a minister of a church, but this was during apartheid days, and he was part of the underground [movement] to overthrow the government and in his church he wanted black people to come…and and just start changing South Africa but [the church] elders kicked him out as a result and so we had to leave Howick and moved to Pietermaritzburg and he started lecturing Theology and so yah that was very part of my life was that experience, Yah…

MAK: So (interrupts)

EB: but, about, I wanted to beno, I was told the moment I started drawing pictures that I was talented and I had always had that encouragement my whole life and when I was about eleven years old I saw a sculpture and I wanted to start sculpting from about that age

MAK: Yes, obviously we would come to that a little bit later. So this means that you’ve always had artistic abilities…

EB: (interjects) I always had the artistic ability…(speaks softly)

MAK: Innate,

EB: Yah, yes

MAK: its always been there and

EB: its been there

MAK: you must be thankful that your parents encouraged you

EB:yah (lights up) I am very thankful…

MAK: uhum

EB: and I am thankful to know what my talent is a lot of people in the world don’t know what their thing is and they do jobs to make money and but they are not satisfied and they are looking, looking, looking and so I am also very glad that I have this talent, yah

MAK: yah, and you know it is inborn, obviously it frees you in terms of, perhaps maybe if you allow me to say, mentally…

EB: Yes

MAK: – you are able to do it in order to relax, I suppose

EB: Yah my most favorite thing in the world to do is to sculpt. I just love it

MAK: yes and then in terms of creativity, you know, as you were growing up was there anything …you know when you saw the sculpture when you were a little girl, did you do anything to emulate that sculpture, you know, a fond memory of you being creative?

EB: yah you know ai I got stuff called femo. Its like a plastic clay that put in an oven to make it hard and I made all these little toys. I made all my little toys and put them in an oven to make them hard and those I used to play with and I was always painting, sewing, knitting, paper maché all that kind of stuff, yah, from – I was always, my hands were always busy. I sit in front of the tv and my hands will be making …drawing and I loved to draw! In class I used to ignore what the teacher was saying and draw all my friends from the back and my hand

MAK: (laughs)

EB: I’d spent hours drawing my hand. that’s what I used to do in the classroom (laughs)

MAK: uhm, look tell me, so you went through primary school still fascinated with representation, visual representation. But where did you study formally. Where did you complete your matric and where did you study formally

EB: I completed my matric, I can’t remember the exact day, I am terrible with dates

MAK: well its fine, it was a long time ago anyway

EB: It’s a long time ago, yah yah, and I studied Nature Conservation in George and I got a diploma in Nature Conservation. I did not want to study art because I was keeping that for my self because there was always something that I uhm because there was always a possibility that I would be successful and that for me, my lack of confidence was for me the issue of giving it a go in case I wasn’t successful.

MAK: So you see yourself as a competent [person], as somebody that uhm, when you do something you want it to be good

EB: yes, exactly, exactly

MAK: So you decided to do Nature Conservation

EB: Yes I decided to study Nature Conservation because I did not try to make money with art, I did not wanna…because…yah! I’ve always knew that like I am an unbelievably independent person, I love my independence and financial independence is very important to me. So I did not want to have the world’s eye on my art and having to make a living with art so I decided not to study that and, Yah

MAK: and where did you have your first exhibition? The first time, obviously you studied Nature Conservation so that you could have a formal career to be able to fund your life. This is what I can understand you know to make a living to be able to pay your bills and everything and not to have pressure in terms of your artistic production and so forth. The first exhibition that you had

EB: yes- yes it was in Ben Velley where I lived at the time. I made these little clay sculptures and there was a little restaurant and we made this little exhibition. That was my very first one. That was around five years ago.

MAK: so it was around 2011 or 2010

EB: In two thousand and …I think 2009 actually, and I think two thousand and…

MAK: in Bel Fare

EB: In …No in Ben Velley which is outside of Richmond

MAK: Oh

EB: It is a tiny little spot outside of Richmond where we lived for ten years. Then I started getting into bronze sculpture, I met a foundry man who said he loved my work and he said I could pay him once I sold. [I] Could not come with casting costs if he did not give me that opportunity uhm then I made friends with people, artists that he knew in Durban and I made Facebook friends with them and one artists said ‘I am having an exhibition, I love your work, come and show’. We made a beautiful show at the NSA in Durban, which people say has been the best show that was there. So that was like my come out, duush! I was working for years and years making these sculptures never exhibiting them and I came out with these incredible pieces

MAK: what doe the NSA stand for?

EB: It was the KZN SA, uhm it stands for Kwa Zulu Natal the Society of the Arts

MAK: Exhibition?

EB: yes, and …, no the building –

MAK: Kwa Zulu Natal the Society of the Arts

EB: the space is called the KZN SA, the name of the exhibition was called Homo sapien

MAK: Homo Sapien

EB: Yah

MAK: What was your concept of ideas about art at that time in 2009 when you were making art?

EB: When I started to make art, I was making religious icons. Madonna and St. Francis. So for me my art has always ha[d] a spiritual drive, Yah

MAK: and then …Thank you. You obviously spend the next five years or so having other exhibitions

EB: Yes

MAK: Did it spawn other exhibitions?

EB: it really did,

MAK: whereby [you got] invited

EB: Yes, it really did. Particularly what I did at that exhibition I made facebook friends with all the other artists on the show one of them being Chris Diedricks and he got me into the KKNK (Klein Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees) in Oudtshoorn the Kunstefees, the National Kunstefees, it was an incredible art festival. High quality, Diane Victor is there every year know, it is very good. So I got in there with Diane Victor. I was showing in the same building as her. So yah I really

MAK: It boosted your career

EB: It boosted my career

MAK: then we can come to another exhibition that I think might have added mileage [to your career] that is when you won SASOL New Signatures 2014. What went through your mind when you won the competition in terms of your career, in terms of where you were at the time?

EB: It was an incredible experience, I had heard that if you wanted to get out there, if you really wanted your name out there you needed to enter exhibitions. I had just made those human figures with animal heads I had just cast them and I had an idea that the base, I did not want a plinth; I wanted the base to be part of the artwork. I had this idea of those shapes

(she points to the puffed up organic irregular shapes that were part of the bases of SNS 2014 Overall winning work)

Then I saw Sasol New Signatures, great and it does not have an age restriction. Because a lot of competitions have age restrictions so I cannot enter them. It does not have an age restriction I have never had a solo show, so cool, I can enter this, so I entered these pieces. And then I was not sure if they were conceptual enough you know because the New Signatures is a very,…you can see that it is conceptually art

 

09:50.00 am

 

Mmutle Arthur Kgokong: It is a conceptually driven art

Elizabeth Balcomb: it is conceptually driven and people who enter it are people who have been trained in institutions for art so I was so happy that I even got into the final

Mmutle AK: You came in as an underdog

Elizabteh B: completely from nowhere and iyoh! When I got the call from Nandi (Hillard) that they were flying me here I was over the moon and then flipping winning that night is probably …I will never forget that night I suppose it was the best day of my life so far and then, now I am considered an investment artist.

MAK: …an investment artist (softly echoes the phrase)

EB: People buy my art for investment purposes because of winning and that has been huge. And my additions the Hyena, that’s number thirteen now

(she points to one of the pieces on show her solo exhibition, an exact replica of one of the works that won SASOL New Signatures 2014. The girl with the head of a hyena)

number fifteen and this guy here as well

(she points to the boy with a bird’s head)

I think he is number twelve number fifteen. So I mean I’ve been selling!

MAK: So it has been a success

EB: It has been a success yes.

ART COMPETITIONS

 

Mmutle Arthur Kgokong: What are your thoughts on art competitions as far as artists are concerned. Your general thoughts obviously by now you’ve already answered that question 50%

Elizabeth Balcomb: ok…

MAK: What are your general thoughts on art competitions?

EB: I think …

MAK: was this the first art competition that you’ve entered

EB: Yah, it been the first competition that I’ve entered. I think they are very good for exposure and that’s what artists need, exposure. It also takes courage to enter them and put your name, you know, to run there with the others. Also I was very aware that it all depends on the judges’ personal opinion. It doesn’t mean if you do not make it in the final it doesn’t mean anything about your work it just means those judges don’t like your work. If you win it means those judges liked your work, you know what I mean, art is such a matter of opinion

MAK: yes of course, so you have to be strong when you enter art competitions

EB: yes you do

MAK: as a way of exposing your work to the art world or to the art scene

EB: I think if you wanna make it as an artists you’ve gotta enter competitions and you have to be strong. You have to actually separate your self in a way you just have to watch your self do it you can’t take it personally it is hard (laughs gently).

MAK: (joins in the subtle laughter). Auhm, Now Elizabeth I want us to look at the general theme of your work, commenting on the general theme of two works that won the competition and the general theme of your solo exhibition at the art museum presently

EB: so I was living in the wild place next to an indigenous forest. I have studied Nature Conservation. The environment is such a huge issue for and thinking about South African story the world story, environmental issues and just feeling that we all have spirits inside us. If we could relate to each other as spirits rather than as a body how different the world would be was to do a figure that the viewer will respond to in an empathetic compassionate way as if it were the same species whereas there is an animal head there. So you have…There is an empathy that is created for another species so that was the hope of the feeling that those pieces will elicit

MAK: solicit from the viewer

EB: yah exactly

MAK: Obviously you have the bodies of human with animal heads. For me they are like teenagers, girls and young boys, is there a reason why you are not using, of course with this exhibition, the monumental sculpture here is a fully grown male, but connecting with the winning work last year and coming to this exhibition this year. There is this sense that these are teenagers or youth is there a reason why?

EB: yes it is about the vulnerability the way we treat our children. We look after them, …like, the way I respond to children. All children are my children I love them. I engage, so yah that was part of getting that feeling of compassion within the viewer. And yah the vulnerability of being in human flesh and live, what it means to like live in a body because when I am treated as a white female it hurts rather than as a human spirit

MAK: So in other words you are not particularly interested in race or in sexual politics or should I say in gender politics if I m specific but you are looking at the spirit itself

EB: I am looking at the spirit (she speaks softly)

MAK: at the body as a containment of the spirit

EB: as a containment of the spirit.

 

 THE NATURE OF BEING IN THE HERE AND NOW

 

Mmutle Arthur Kgokong: And then your association with William Blake?

Elizabeth Balcomb: Yoh, He, ai – that guy, I think he bordered on the insanity but I think he tapped into a powerful source in that space that he was in. In this show I’ve got my father’s words which are very intellectual, very western created, yah, very academic and [those of] William Blake who just tapped into the source of the universe and just pouring out unbelievable truths and then the sculpture. So there is three things hopefully making an overall picture. I find William Blake’s poem, Auguries of Innocence, very positive in that it is encouraging where he says ‘life is full of joy and woe if this we know through the world we safely go’. So to just know that we have pain and we have joy and if you just get to grips with the fact that there will be difficulties in life then you will walk safely through the world. But when you’re fighting ‘this isn’t right, it shouldn’t be like that rather’ than just accepting things as they are and moving forward [its gets difficult]

Mmutle AK: So pain and joy are intertwined

Elizabeth B: Pain and joy intertwine he says they make a beautiful garment for the soul divine, yah

MAK: Let’s look at this work, it is quite an imposing work

EB: Yes

MAK: with, you know, in the context of what you’ve just said about William Blake eh in terms of pain and joy being intertwined if you’ve reconciled the two polemics you’ll walk safely through life

EB: Yes, I have made a lot of female figures and the only male figures was a young boy and I was thinking what is the male figure, what is the representation of the white male figure that I would make? And I just thought rubbing like rubbing up against something that’s what I wanted to find and this elevation, this believe of being outside of natural law. This conquering of technology and obsession with self ego and control and domination of entire world this flipping western world view of capitalism and religion and conquer and this is the only way. so that’s kind of the thing, I mean and with William Blake’s Joy and Woe you know, it means too that you can look at the world you don’t have to hide away from it. So I just wanted t put it out there that this is the struggle of Humanity

MAK: of Humanity

EB: but particularly white western male patriarchical society, humanity, which spreading over the whole planet basically. If you wanna be [an] Amazonian Indian living in your forest you can’t do that anymore generally because there are dams being created over your habitat to create power for the cities that are there. You cannot make a choice we’re all trapped in this flipping Iron Cage

MAK: Can it be subverted?

EB: I think it is hard to even think about it because we’re inside the iron cage how can you be outside of it trying to think how things ought to be? I mean I think the capital world can work, but at the moment it is not, it is just destroying the natural environment

MAK: displacing communities

EB: displacing communities, its taking away our birthright I mean our water belong[s] to the government and water is our birthright. When we’re born into this planet this planet is our birthright and this structure of ownership and money it’s taking away our birthright.

 

10:00.00 am

Elizabeth Balcomb (4)

Mmutle Arthur Kgokong: So this man, this imposing sculpture, what does he represent?

Elizabeth Balcomb: Yah this imposing sculpture, imposing himself believing that his way is the right way. Technology is gonna save him from himself

MAK: he is aloof

EB: he is aloof, he is above, he’s separate, he’s got his flipping idea in his head and he is going there. like all of these guys they look like they are being watched they are standing still

MAK: there is a fragility about them, I mean if you look at the girl, the way she stands – there is that machine, I think it’s a surveyors machine

EB: yes

MAK: She’s attentive the way she stands, as well as this boy

EB: Yes

MAK: but he looks like he’s scratching himself there, so this is what I see when I look at these, they’re like

EB: these are

MAK: specimens

EB: they are like specimens, they’re being watched! They are being reduced to their flesh. They are being watched. They think he is watching them but he is on his own mission. And that’s like,…in the world we behave like that. Like we’re being watched but in fact everyone is looking [out] for themselves

MAK: each for his own

EB: each for his own, yah

MAK: in other words, rounding off my questions for you this morning, when you say Auguries of innocence,

EB: mhum?

MAK: are you saying our innocence is under threat or are you saying our innocence is not really innocence because we’ve been exploited? Obviously you’ve used a very unusual word there

EB: That is the title of William Blake’s poem

MAK: yes

EB: an Augury is an omen of the future

MAK: …of course an omen…

EB: so also [I] found it absolutely fascinating

MAK: omen of the future

EB: an omen of innocence, its like within our innocence. In fact we feel like our innocence is being corrupted as we grow older and you are being more greedy and more whatever in fact even going down that road is innocence because we don’t know what it comes out of. If we did know we would not go down that road

MAK: So you are responding to William Blake?

EB: In a way yah and I feel that within my pieces there is a certain innocence despite the weight of the global issues of environmental stuff there is still an innocence within their beings and also being born into a physical body. Like when you are born into being a woman – it is expected that you like to cook and wash dishes (laughs) you know and if the child is crying at five o’clock in the afternoon and the man is at work it is up to you even if you also

EB: don’t wanna do it, it always falls…

MAK: you comply

EB: you do it. So, it is like being born into a body and I also believe we’ve got lots of lives, I have been a man, I have been rich…

MAK: reincarnation

EB: muhm …done it all but each time you are born into this body and you’ve got to deal with what it means. You’ve got to be in this world, yah and its like, I speak to my partner about stuff and all my male friends about that but ehm its very hard for them to see in themselves how they treat you as if you were a woman, its very hard for them to see that and that is a form of innocence in a way

MAK: So in a way this man is aloof of humanity

EB: mhum

MAK: and he signifies patriarchy which is aloof of female sensitivity, to be sensible of women, to be sensible to treat another person as an equal

EB: yes

MAK: not to be above and have expectations to be served

EB: exactly exactly … yah the male energy is like strive and do and action but generally the family is behind him and he is dealing with the world out there and sometimes the family needs to go like ‘hey we’re here too’ you know. That’s what I was trying t find with this male figure, yah

MAK: He’s an imposing figure. And in terms of your medium obviously you started with clay in the beginning

EB: Yah and all my originals are made out of clay. I still work in clay, I love clay. I love it hey, a lot of sculptors use [bronze]

MAK: what kind of clay is it?

EB: Paper clay, yah I use paper clay

MAK: I remember reading somewhere that you like the crackling of it

EB: yes, yes

MAK: when it is in the oven

EB: I love it, I love it – I love paper clay hey

MAK: and the feel of it when you work with it

EB: yah

MAK: and your decision to be a sculptor, usually, generally sculptors are males. And your decision to be a sculpture, I mean to be a sculptor did it come by itself or did you consciously decide that you want[ed] to take up this medium, as someone who people would not necessarily expect to work in bronze casting or did it just happen by chance?

EB: No I’ve just always wanted to sculpt and I got clay but I was finding it that you made one piece you can’t ask very much for it because people don’t value clay. It can break, it’s a once off. A friend of mind had a foundry

MAK: yes of course

EB: and he said people value bronze. You can do limited editions just give it a go and so that’s how it happened. I am driven, I’m just driven to sculpt. But I do like to paint and now on my holiday I am gonna be painting (hearty laugh)

MAK: (joins in laughter) well I do hope you enjoy making a few canvases, produce a few canvases and what do you think of the future of contemporary art in South Africa?

EB: uhm

MAK: Obviously that is a tricky question

EB: it is a tricky question

MAK: very broad

EB: very broad

MAK: but what do you think of it, I mean we’ve seen with the winners of SASOL New Signatures this year, a video installation won the first prize and we’ve also seen a move away from the traditional art making

EB: yes

MAK: tradition

EB: tradition, absolutely I think that’s happening on a global level from what I can see when I look at the Venice Biennial – pieces that were there, I am excited by the fact that art moves and goes into new directions and I think it is great and South Africa, and so called African Art is huge in the world out there at the moment right now and it’s a great opportunity for us to go for it galleries are just waiting for good art to come out of Africa and it’ll be great if there was support in the South Africa of the arts, I don’t think, jeepers, enough is done around that theme. Artists needs support. I just feel that there is so much talent in South Africa and talent is not flipping race orientated you get born into it and I just [think] that hey the possibilities for studying art and entering competitions is all happening and we hear endless talk about job creation there is flipping job creation right there with people with their talents and artists start employing people to start helping them with their work

MAK: yes of course

EB: there was this… I mean I heard recently that South African Jazz was the most highly esteemed Jazz the world over. I didn’t know that! you know and why did I know that? – this should be part of our culture we should be proud of the fact that South African Jazz has a distinctive flavor and in the whole world it is viewed with such a huge esteem. We should all know that and art as well, we’ve got incredible artists I mean in South Africa and a lot of people don’t know what their names are. This creates identity; art, music that is creating identity and we need our own identity stuff American western viewpoint lets have something that is ours, you know.

MAK: Well thank you Elizabeth

EB: Thank you Mmutle

MAK: Thanks for agreeing to see me

EB: It’s a pleasure

MAK: I am just going to ask later to take a photo of you next to the art work

EB: Ok

Mmutle AK:… maybe a couple and then

Elizabeth B: great

Mmutle Arthur Kgokong: that’s it.

Elizabeth Balcomb: thank you very much.

 

10:11.34

 

End of Interview

 

Spring

18 September

Mmutle Arthur Kgokong MMXV

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