Deborah Bell - 'Unearthed' at João Ferreira Gallery
by Nikki Winward Cross
Student review written as part of the Practical Art Criticism course in the History of Art Honours Programme at UCT
Comprising bronze sculptures, mixed media drawings and graphic prints, Deborah Bell's exhibition 'Unearthed' continues to develop the ideas and concerns first explored in her show 'Displacements', held at the Goodman Gallery in 2001. Possessing an archetypal spiritual resonance, these works represent a revisionist process in which Bell seeks to "resurrect ... histories and ideas that have been buried and forgotten for millennia".
On entering the exhibition, the viewer's attention is drawn to a single, almost life-size bronze figure positioned within the central space. This thickset figure, stylised in both form and design, sports an elaborate headdress composed of an upturned sacrificial animal with three small figures resting on its belly. In its fusion of archetypal West African, Chinese and Egyptian forms and visual language, Unearthed I (Sacrifice) represents both physically and symbolically Bell's revised and reconstructed understanding of cultural and social heritage.
The "unfinished", encrusted patina of this and two accompanying sculptures, Headpiece - Unearthed 2 and Headpiece - Unearthed 3, creates the impression that these pieces literally come from beneath the ground - "unearthed" relics referencing and representing Bell's disinterment of ancient cultures that have been buried and forgotten. In borrowing, emulating and adapting various visual and cultural references, Bell not only comments on the multifarious and diverse elements making up an ostensibly Western heritage but further, in referencing objects and artefacts employed to mediate between the spiritual and natural realm, imbues her sculptures with a ritual and spiritual function.
In the mixed media and graphic works on paper, the ceremonial and mythological material Bell assimilates and adapts in the sculptural works is once again utilised in portraying the artist's revisionist and metaphysical journey. Works such as Secret Wisdom II, Journey of the Magus I and Journey Home VI depict two-dimensional variations of the totem-like figure and headdresses of the central space, while the collage-drawings The Journey Home: Crying Cup and The Journey Home: Holy Grail portray multi-layered spiritual landscapes steeped in metaphoric allusion. In these drawings ritual iconographical objects and symbols float within a non-perspectival matrix of space. These modelled and unmodelled forms, suspended within veils of earth-toned colour washes dribbling from the surface of the page, are at once ancient and extant, residing at the interface between identity and memory; complex evocations of a once obliterated and untapped heritage.
Bell's application of colour, line and medium in these collages and drawings further suggests that these multicultural manifestations are evocations inhabiting a distinctly liminal space. Animated marks, muted colour washes, spectral shadows and various degrees of modelling emphasise the metaphysical nature of Bell's "explorations" and "excavations" into a mutable, shifting time and history.
These eclectic pastiches, drawing on sources ranging from Benin equestrian figures to Sumerian mythological artefacts, Chinese terracotta warriors and conical head coiffures of Yoruba figurines, realise a metaphorical language devised in order to extract, "resurrect" and represent an "alternate history", a re-visioned past. Remarkable in execution, they speak of a personal, spiritual exploration in which a heritage, obliterated by the influences of Occidental culture and history, is retrieved and embraced.
Until June 1
João Ferreira Gallery, 80 Hout Street, Cape Town
Tel: 021 423 5403 or 082 490 2977
Fax: 021 423 2136
Hours: Tue - Fri 10am - 6pm, Sat 10am - 2pm