Judith Mason: A Prospect of Icons

Notes from her opening address.


I would like to tease out a few threads from the fabric of the work on the display. The first is a fundamental belief in the democracy of pain. The curator of my retrospective, A Prospect of Icons, says my work reiterates how awful pain is. How banal. But when one reflects on how depicting pain is a huge part of popular entertainment, not to mention our political and military adventures, it could be argued that this banality is no longer part of common discourse. From when I was very small, about 6 years old, [ I remember the time and place of this epiphany very well: Bushbuckridge, 1944, daytime in a fallow mielie field] I realised that pain was an experience shared by all of life; that ants, birds, prison labourers, little girls, lizards and snakes were all united by their capacity to feel pain, and were to be similarly pitied, or, if possible, comforted. Later I came to the inevitable conclusion that my duty of citizenship as a human being, and my participation in the animal kingdom depended on my not inflicting pain gratuitously. A lot of my work deals with pain experienced, the nature of pain inflicted, in order to explore the common ground we share and to refine our capacity for making choices. The "blood of our brothers crying out from the earth" makes us tread more gently. I don't consciously set out to preach. My marks are made by my central nervous system.

Bound with the pain thread, as I have already hinted, is a respect for animals. Again when I was very small, and feeling out of favour a lot of the time, I found myself siding with reviled creatures, hyenas, snakes, spiders, bats, resisting the popular belief that they were 'worse' than other beings. Living near the Kruger Park, as we did, in what was then pristine wilderness, some seventy years ago, made respect for creatures in their marvelous variety an easy thing to learn. I have never accepted that mankind has been given dominion over other forms of life, and now most of us realise with increasing dread that unless we identify with the needs and autonomy with the rest of creation, we are ourselves in jeopardy. William Blake's "Everything that lives is holy" is my mantra, give or take a mosquito or a despot or two. I have a blurred sense of species exclusivity, not to mention intra-species exclusivity, and if this transfers itself to the viewer I would be delighted. The third thread is religion. A lot of my work deals with religious themes, even though I have not been a believer in any recognised sense for decades. As I speak I am reminded of Michael Dibdin's remark: I am tired of atheists. They are always talking about God. Yet, as an unbeliever, I threw Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion across the room in disgust. It should have been titled "Disdainfulness for Beginners". Religion and art seem to me to stem from the same set of overwhelming imperatives; a need to try to understand the world, a need to express that understanding, to find beauty in that understanding, and to communicate it. Perhaps all religions have their origin in the sense of wonder and response that motivates artists, and then, because those insights resonated with many people, rites and codes, scriptures, provisos and laws accrued to them and the social and spiritual insights became institutionalised. They became movements which depended for their authority on unflinching obedience to a particular system, and the repudiation, often vicious, of other systems. The same problem arises with systems of political faith, as our nasty decade has shown us. Kill the infidel, reduce a nation to rubble in order to impose democracy, insist, with menaces, that God has made you President for life....We could go on and on but it would be too tiresome. These alternative realities have a tendency to impose the hammer on any dissidents with the promise of hellfire, pre-emptive strikes, jail or censorship.

What the owner and commissioner of Walking with and Away from Dante and I did was to inhabit an alternate reality for more than two years. Our lives went on in the normal way, but our energy and judgement and passion and concern was bound up with Dante's great and terrible narrative, and our own responses to what he described. It was an extraordinary experience, and a very liberating one. We did not approach the Divine Comedy as scripture. We valued it as an artwork that was allegory, love story and political diatribe, with the provocativeness, charm and absurdity that any great work of art acquires with time. We engaged with it, and played with it. Our Walking with and Away from Dante may be pretentious or impertinent, but nobody is going to excommunicate us for it, or sue us, or burn down the studio, or issue a fatwah. The most they will do is write "disturbing" in the Visitors' Book. As Paul Scott wrote in an essay called "Literature and the social conscience", "The action of art may be the only kind of human action that does not directly challenge the HUMANITY of those who hold contrary opinions to his own".[To which I might add, wickedly, "except a critic or two!"]

I have tried to make sense of grief and mortality. It has helped me to appreciate life and joy and the boundless grace of creativity.