With the 20th anniversary of the demise of apartheid in South Africa coming up in 2014, museums and publishers alike have been embracing a steady stream of South African artists, both black and white. Especially in Europe, I’ve noticed a rising number of exhibitions and books devoted to artists who lived and worked in South Africa during apartheid, with undertones of how and if life and racial relations have changed since then. Inevitably, these are explorations of the new post-apartheid South African identity.
Claudette Schreuders, a new book on the South African artist by Johannesburg curator Rory Bester, touches on all of these themes. Schreuders’s work is predominantly composed of human figures carved out of wood. Wood type represents race, so that any exposed skin remains unpainted. A white descendent of South African colonists, Schreuders creates sculptures that amalgamate a wide variety of African and European sculptural traditions. “Stories in sculptural form,” her figures are also often somewhat autobiographical.
One particularly enlightening example is Abba (2010), which depicts a black woman carrying a white baby on her back. In the section of the book titled “A Letter to Claudette,” poet Antjie Krog describes the African tradition of carrying babies in an abba kaross, a length of fabric tied around a woman’s mid-section. Serving as a rudimentary baby backpack, the abba gives the mother the mobility to do her work, while at the same time keeping her child close—in both senses of the word. When the European colonial powers arrived, this method of carrying babies continued to be used by black women working as nannies who applied it to their white charges. In addition to Krog’s poetic description, the “letter” includes photographs of Schreuders’s mother, aunt, and son all being carried by their black nannies. Like many of Schreuders’s sculptures, Abba invites the viewer into a deeply personal and human experience, one never permeated by racial politics.
Covering the artist’s best work since 1994—coincidentally, the year that apartheid came to an end—Claudette Schreuders provides excellent insight into the life and work of the artist as an individual, while setting out the connotations and significance of her sculptures. The book’s greatest achievement is that it raises these complex issues not through overt politicization but by letting Schreuders’s wooden figures speak for themselves.
by Rory Bester, Faye Hirsch, and Antjie Krog
New York: Prestel, 2011
240 pages, 150 illustrations, $49.99