DEBORAH BELL: Enthroned
Mar 6 – Mar 30, 2019
A new exhibition by Deborah Bell
Text written by Craig Higginson
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive at where we started
And know the place for the first time
- TS Eliot, “Little Gidding”, Four Quartets
When Deborah Bell creates an image in bronze or on a piece of paper, she is not simply making a work of art, she is making a magical object. A magical object is one that has the capacity to bring about a change in the creator or the viewer or even events in the world by drawing on mysterious or supernatural forces. What these mysterious or supernatural forces are goes to the very mystery of the universe, and it is not the ambition of this short introduction – or indeed of Deborah Bell – to attempt to define these forces. Our definitions will never be more than metaphors, fictions used to stand for the wonder of the known and unknown worlds, both of which run through all things like a double helix – from the quietly humming atom to the most spectacular explosion in cosmic space.
For much of Bell’s creative working life as an artist, she has been on a quest. A quest to connect with herself, with others, with the mysterious forces that are everywhere inside and around her. Increasingly, her art-making has been part of a highly personal spiritual journey. She makes art in order to explore, to enter into the unknown, to defamiliarise herself from all her ideas about herself and others – and to merge with what rises up to meet her from what Yeats called spiritus mundi. She has been a traveller into other worlds, other eras, other dimensions. She has gathered spirit animals or daemons along the way, such as hounds, wolves, horses and lions, and found totemic modes of transport like boats and chariots. She has left the interior domestic spaces of her earliest oil paintings and gone outdoors – exploring a series of dream landscapes which feel increasingly like the quantum field or the void of all potentials. Her women have transcended the entrapment of those early figures, weighed down with thickly-applied oil paint, oppressed by the gaze of men and reductive politics, and gone out into the world – and the universe that surrounds it.
As a child and before the shame and self-consciousness she associated with adolescence, Deborah Bell remembers lying on the lawn at night, looking at the stars and feeling sucked up into them. She had constant dreams of walking in the sky with half-known companions. It would seem that much of her creative life has been about trying to get back to that state of being – as a person as much as an artist, because with Bell you can never separate the artist from the artwork, the dancer from the dance. She has wanted to feel as fully alive as it is possible to feel. She has tried to be present in the present, to dwell in the mystery of the single moment – and she has left behind a body of work which records her travels, the trajectories of her journeys from self to outer space and back to inner space again – so that both sky and self become a single force-field humming between the individual and the collective, the physical and the spiritual, the empowered and the disempowered, the present and the absent.
Yet in recent years there has been a gradual change in her work, a farewell to the questing female figure of Artemis and a coming back down to earth. The spirit animals that have transported her – the horses in particular – have grown in scale and become more like resting places in themselves, and metonyms for the world or for home. The figures riding them have in turn become less protagonists, less figures with agency, and more like figures present at a greater event, experiencing something greater than themselves and being content to dwell there. The vacant landscapes that have characterized much of her work have led to caves and mountains of rock. Her female figures have returned to the female body in a way that feels reconciled, devoid of shame, free from the objectifying gaze of others. She has arrived at a new conception of bounty and promise, of water returning to the mountain, of blood returning to the body, of milk returning to the breast. She has arrived at a place beyond judgement – of self and others – where you realize that you are simply a spark from the divine fire, an individual expression of a far greater mystery.
Perhaps the central image from Enthroned, the title of this current exhibition, is the monumental work entitled ‘Debre (Forgiveness)’, a figure who seems to dwell in a space between woman and mountain, rock and fountain, source and receptacle, giver and receiver, the conscious and unconscious, the human and divine. She seems to contain a whole lifetime of experience and be offering it up in order to feed it back into herself. She is enriching and being enriched by her space of rest. She is a new female archetype for Deborah Bell, not so much the opposite of Artemis as the woman Artemis is forever yearning for and striving towards. This is a figure who has arrived back home and has accepted all that has come before and all that is still to come – and this acceptance becomes indistinguishable from the act of forgiveness.
At a time when many of us have grown sceptical of those in power and of self-empowerment as a state to aspire to, Deborah Bell provides an alternative conception of empowerment and ‘enthronement’. It is not about exaggerating your own accomplishments – whether they be real or imaginary – or about subjugating others in order to feel better about yourself. It is not the kind of self-assertion that comes out of some primal wound or sense of injustice. It is not an acquisitive kind of empowerment that is forever looking for ways to feed itself and its own status. In fact, this figure has closed her eyes to the world and turned her gaze inward, inside the mountain, where her heart conjures up water in order to feed the outer world.
Bell has stated that, in order to make this work – her largest sculpture since ‘The Return of the Gods’ and the most monumental she has ever produced – she had to ‘become’ a mountain, she had to feel what it might be ‘to be a mountain’. She knew what it was to be a human body, but what was it to be rock? The work was already in development when Bell made a fortuitous visit to the Gheralta mountains in Ethiopia in November 2017. Here, churches were carved out of the rock during the dawn of Christianity – many of which are still in use. At the time, Bell was working on a four-plate drypoint and aquatint work of some women accompanied by wolves in a cave that was to become ‘She Wolf’. She also learned during this trip to Ethiopia that the Amharic word ‘Debre’ is ‘mountain’. In a language that wasn’t her own, she already was ‘mountain’ – so how was she to make herself ‘mountain’ in a language that was her own? She states:
“This work came to me as a vision during meditation about four years ago. I had a strong sense that I had to make her and that she stood for ‘forgiveness’. It took at least another two years before I had the time and studio space to do so. Making the woman was easy. I knew what it felt like to be a woman, but I didn’t know how to be a mountain or rock. Working with hard clay helped. Clay knew how to become rock. I thought of erosion and fracturing, and used tools that eroded and fractured. However, I wasn’t sure what kind of rock I wanted to be. I thought of Leonardo’s ‘Madonna on the Rocks’ (where the rocks were similar to those in my original vision), but their shape didn’t resonate with the sculpture as it emerged. At this time I was invited to join family on a trip to Ethiopia, and there when I was asked for my name and said it was Deborah they heard it as ‘Debre’ and told me that in Amharic that meant ‘mountain’. When I spelt my name they said, ‘Oh Deborah, why do you have an Ethiopian name?’
“When we visited Gheralta up in the north, I knew I had found my rock and my mountains. Climbing up sheer cliffs and sliding along narrow ledges to enter the ancient churches carved into the mountains had a sense of rightness, and when I entered those spaces I was overwhelmed by images of horses and riders, lions and serpents, all iconography I had been using in my own work for many years. I felt as though I was dancing with the world. Everything I was experiencing was a confirmation of the work I had been making.”
During her preparation for this current exhibition, Deborah Bell has also been reading a great deal of the poetry of the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, whose poems provide several of the titles of these works. As a young man living in Paris, Rilke became the secretary to the sculptor August Rodin. Rodin helped to transform Rilke’s work from late romanticism to a new kind of modernism – the ‘modernism’ of later Yeats and TS Eliot, which acknowledges the possibility of a spirit world beyond the apocalypse and the wasteland. But Rodin did this not by telling Rilke to go off and meditate and shut his eyes to what is. It is said that he encouraged him to go to the Jardin des Plantes and to look at the caged animals and to write exactly what he saw. There Rilke wrote his famous poem ’The Panther’, which was to change his poetry forever and immediately became a trigger into the vast unknown trapped beyond the physical.
Deborah Bell was recently struck by Rilke’s poem ’Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes’”, but she is the very opposite of Rilke’s version of Eurydice, who has been buried so deep in the mountain that she is ‘already root’; she no longer recognizes herself or recalls her own name when Orpheus comes down through the underworld to find her. She is also the opposite of Orpheus who, through a moment of self-doubt, looks back at Eurydice, sending her back to the darkness and obscurity she came from. If anyone, she is Hermes, the god of ‘distant messages’ who moves in and out of the mountain – a liminal figure at home both in spiritus mundi and axis mundi – the world of earth and the world of spirit, both the mountain and the source.
Other sculptures in this exhibition that speak directly to the theme of a reconciled enthronement and the union of self/spirit and world/mountain include ‘Am I Within the Rock I & II’, ‘Unheard Centre’, ‘As the Earth Senses You’ and a slightly earlier work, Offering. Even the chariot figures ‘Hymn’ and ‘Elegy’, which come from sketches made several years ago, have a rootedness and lack of mobility that speak more of coming to rest than they do of imminent departure. Indeed, the wings seem to have evolved into mere stumps as if from lack of use.
Paintings like ‘Forgiveness’ and ‘Dark Mother’ are also clear precursors to ‘Debre (Forgiveness)’ and, although they recall Byzantine images of the Madonna and Child, here the child is replaced by the image of the bowl and the world respectively – and the woman’s body as sacred source becomes the focal point of the image rather than the sacred child’s body as product.
The colour gold has featured frequently in Bell’s work in recent years, and she has spoken of being moved by the gold mosaics in Venice and the early Christian icons at the National Gallery in London. Gold has always been used to represent transformation, alchemy, but here it is the present time and the site of ‘enthronement’ that are being transformed and enriched.
There is another strand in this exhibition that deserves comment, and these are the more shadowy, mixed-media-on-paper images which feature individual and chorus figures in an ill-defined, shadowy landscape. These works also derive in part from Bell’s reading of Rilke. The titles ‘Aren’t Their Voices Other Than Mine’ and ‘My Blood is Alive with Many Voices’ are both taken from lines from Rilke’s poems. The groups of figures in some of these works may recall the chorus of figures in ‘Farewell Artemis ’, but here the solitary figures are connected with the chorus of figures rather than departing from them. In ‘Farewell Artemis’, the female figure of Artemis is clearly leaving the landscape, and the figures who have been looking up to her, whereas in the Rilke-inspired works the individual and the group are more connected.’ In Aren’t Their Voices Other Than Mine’, the figures float together on what may be water, and in ‘My Blood is Alive with Many Voices’ the individual figure stands in the same substance as the other figures and they all have their eyes closed and seem to be meditating on a similar plane. These works also seem connected to the large-scale works ‘Life as a River’ and ‘Life as a Boat’, where, instead of the physical landscape as cosmic plane, we have water – and the image of the river being the movement of all of life through time and space.
Another strand in this current exhibition that – at least at first – seems less directly related to the farewell Artemis/coming home to earth theme are the smaller works derived from the late-eighteenth-century Spanish artist, Francisco Goya, who is hailed as both one of the last of the ‘Old Masters’ and one of the precursors to modernism. Here Bell chooses a cast of female protagonists who are defiant, earthy, free from the male gaze, independent. They also draw together the past and present and, like several of the other works, occupy a landscape that is a blank plane. Deborah Bell has been adapting the work of other artists since she started collaborating with Robert Hodgins and William Kentridge in 1986 in adapting the work of William Hogarth. Other significant adaptations have been of Goya’s ’Little Morals’, Alfred Jarry’s play Ubu Roi and Velasquez’s ’Las Meninas’. Bell has said of these recent Goya works, “All of the women in these images are me, in a way. In order to make a work, I have to feel it, so it becomes about the way I’m feeling. These women are free – free from the male gaze, free from having to prove anything to themselves or others.” As such, they are intrinsically connected to ‘Debre (Forgiveness)’ and the works arranged around her.
Deborah Bell has been working with many of the images in this show for years. She has always had a love of rock and the figures that emerge from rock; she has been using the image of the bowl for two decades; she has constantly returned to the same totemic horses and hounds/wolves. Here again we find the theme of absence and presence, of being present in the void, of living beings rising to meet the void. She is using a similar earthy, monochromatic palette, with touches of red and blue and gold and, as before, most of her protagonists are women – yet not, with the possible exception of the Goya dancers, particularly ‘feminine’. Yet between the trajectory of ‘Farewell Artemis’ and ‘Debre (Forgiveness)’, it feels as if the artist has come home – and is more than ever at home with her body, her landscape, her country, and the vast mysteries that lie inside her and around her.
In the context of climate change and of the recent droughts, especially in Cape Town (where Bell has been spending more time recently), the image of the woman mountain who finds her own abundance within herself feels apposite. Bell states:
“Whilst the inspiration for the mountain (Debre) had been in Ethiopia, when I now visit Cape Town I keep looking up at Table Mountain standing protectively above the city, and I feel her as my mountain woman, a Madonna with the gift of her sweet waters – the Camissa, which flows so abundantly down into the city. At the height of the recent drought I felt that it was fitting that this sculpture would first be shown here and that the waters would return like an act of forgiveness.
South Africa – and the world generally – is also in a middle-space between decay and regeneration, doom and redemption, the wasteland and the promised land, and it seems that the figure of ‘Debre (Forgiveness)’ provides a powerful metaphor for how to dwell and endure during such times. In spending time with these images and in having the privilege of speaking with the artist herself, I kept thinking of the closing moments of T.S. Eliot’s ’The Waste Land’, when the thunder finally arrives in the mountains and the promise of water returns to the rock:
If there were rock
And also water
A pool among the rock
If there were the sound of water only
Not the cicada
And dry grass singing
But sound of water over a rock
Where the hermit-thrush sings in the pine trees
Drip drop drip drop drop drop
Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.
Shantih shantih shantih
For Deborah Bell, the artist can be a rain-maker, a shaman, a witch. She can summon up rain even from the most arid places. The images she creates map the constellations and trajectories of her life’s journey. We may be living in difficult and challenging times, but when has life ever been easy for anyone? There has always been a crack in everything – but, as Leonard Cohen has written, that’s how the light gets in.
Craig Higginson, Johannesburg, 2019
Opening event: Wednesday 3rd March from 18:45
Walk-about: Saturday 30th March from 11:00
 The spiritual world, the realm of spirit.
 See ‘Farewell Artemis’ in the current exhibition.
 See, for instance, ‘Home Coming VII’ and ‘The Last Word That Can Never Be Spoken’.
 See FRAIL CROWN I & II, in which the protagonists are both recognizably male. Here the artist investigates the dangers of empowerment and enthronement.
 These include the sculptures ‘Am I Within The Rock (I & II)’, ‘Silence of Stone’, ‘As the Earth Senses You’, ‘Unheard Centre’ and the works on paper ‘Be Earth Now’, ‘Aren’t Their Voices Other Than Mine’, ‘The Last Word That Can Never Be Spoken’, ‘My Blood is Alive with Many Voices’, ‘As Well as Orpheus’, ‘Eurydice and Eurydice’, ‘Hermes’, which were inspired by the poem ‘Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes’.
 See Yeats’s poem ’The Second Coming’.
 See Eliot’s ’The Waste Land’, quoted further below.
 See ’Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes’ in the Stephen Mitchell translation in the Rilke anthology cited above, page 49.
 Rilke, page 51.
 See the work ‘Axis Mundi’ – meaning ‘the world of the earth’ – in the current show, which signals the return to the earth/the home.
 In conversation with the writer.
 Here Bell adapted ’Marriage à-la-mode’, Hodgins ’A Rake’s Progress’ and Kentridge ’Industry and Idleness’.
 See “What the Thunder Said”, Part V of “The Waste Land”, TS Eliot, Collected Poems 1909-1962, Faber, London, 1963.
 From Leonard Cohen’s song “Anthem”. Bell has often listened to the music of Cohen while working and sometimes his words have found their way into her work.
 Craig Higginson is a novelist and playwright who lives in Johannesburg. His previous novel, The Dream House, is the IEB Matric set work in South Africa for 2019-2021. His latest novel, The White Room, was published by Picador in 2018.