Union House, 25 Commercial Street, Cape Town
Thursday 6th October – Friday 25 November, 2022
Some of us are so obsessed with the past that we die of it. It is the attitude of the poet who never finds the lost heaven and it is really the situation of artists who work for a reason that nobody can quite grasp. They might want to reconstruct something of the past to exorcise it. It is that the past for certain people has such a hold and such a beauty ... Everything I do was inspired by my early life.
The artist Louise Bourgeois spoke repeatedly of her artistic practice in relation to memories of her traumatic childhood. Her emotional vehemence when she told of her childhood suffering, suggested that these layers of early trauma went deep, deep down. Yet through her art they were constantly uncovered, relived, and cathartically reconfigured. In 2017 Pippa Hetherington saw Louise Bourgeois’ exhibition An Unfolding Portrait at MoMA New York. She says of the memory book piece Ode à l'Oubli, a fabric collage of cut-up old garments: “I was struck by the weight of the book, like the weight of memory, at odds with the title: “Ode to Forgetting”, 2004. I realised that for Bourgeois the transparency and lightness of truth, coexists with the burden of remembered trauma.”
Bourgeois has been one of the greatest influences on Hetherington’s work, (the artists of Keiskamma Art Project are another significant source of inspiration). Like Bourgeois’ cloth sculptures, her standing dress is a self-portrait, a way of processing the weight of layers of memory, co-existing strata of joy and trauma laid down by her family history and childhood. In the overlaying of shweshwe, English linen and lace, she finds, paradoxically, a sense of lightness and freedom. As she cuts, stitches together, unpicks, restitches – an activity that is perhaps a sublimated expression of self-harm -- she sculpts and recreates the dress. The layers still carry weight, speak of a burden, but the process of making, unmaking, remaking, over and over, allows a kind of reinvention and unburdening of self.
At the same time Hetherington takes the personal into the communal and collective through juxtaposing African shweshwe and colonial English fabric, and adding the necklace made of found shards of British crockery and military buttons from the Eastern Cape, the land of her colonial forebears. For Hetherington we are a collage of stories – a matrix of past, present and future – womb-like, interwoven. The hanging mealie dolls in their colourful , hand-stitched clothing are an attempt to convey something similar.
Once the weight of repressed trauma is out in the open and shared, it is shot through with light, a colourful kaleidoscope of shifting meanings and configurations. This is why the surfaces of Hetherington’s photographs are like reflections in water, the wholeness of the image dissolving, fragmenting. Hetherington says, “As each person in habiting the dress voices and shares their truth, I feel a shimmering, ephemoral moment where past, present and future, you and I, collide and coalesce. A glimpse of lost heaven.”