SHORTLY after Here Is Where We Meet, Hedwig Barry's first solo exhibition last year in the Nirox sculpture garden at the Cradle of Humankind, the house she and her daughter rented in Johannesburg burned down. Although they were unscathed, they lost everything.
Since July last year, Barry has either been in transit or staying somewhere temporarily. And now she is (temporarily) back in Johannesburg after a brief stay in Cape Town, a residency with the Tswalu Foundation in the Kalahari and a spell in Onrus on the Cape coast.
It was in Onrus that she painted many of the canvases for her latest exhibition in the Johannesburg gallery Guns & Rain in Parkhurst. The exhibition is called Unrest, which gives a sting to pictures in the head of a peaceful holiday spot by the sea.
The work for the exhibition, all in oil on canvas in different sizes — from the tame quartet To the West, To the North, To the South and To the East to the smaller series Every Frame a Painting: Mountain x Sea Dissolve — came about rather quickly.
“I had to work hard and fast," she says with satisfaction, “to be in time for the exhibition" and adds as something of an afterthought, “otherwise I would probably still be working on it now."
When is a job finished, I want to know from her. How does she know when to stop?
“I would say there are four instances that determine when the work is done," she says as if she has thought long and hard about such a question.
“The mutual banter. Me who churns the canvas, but equally the canvas churns me. Until this stops, I will continue to paint. When this stops, I know the work is finished."
As I think of the words of Leonardo da Vinci, who would have argued that a painting is never finished, only abandoned, she moves on. “The second instance is fatal for me. This is when a work has to be finished for an exhibition, or even more fatally when a work is sold and I can do nothing more about it. I envy the French who believe the artist always has the right to tinker with a work.
“The third case is when the work matures over time, reaches maturity. When I agree that the work is finished.
“And the last case is when the artist would give up." She gives a laugh that betrays something obstinate. “But I don't. I am too stubborn for that — to the annoyance of my enemies. Remember, I have Irish and Jewish blood.”
When other artists would give up, that's when Barry starts churning again, or continues to paint. The canvas, the paint, and by implication the hours in front of the canvas, these all become part of a palimpsest as the basis of a new painting. Because one always creates from something. There is always a starting point. Even if it's the ashes of a previous existence.
Unrest is overwhelming at first sight, with an excess of colour, with thrusts and careful brush marks on the canvases, with rhythm and with movement that leads the eye restlessly all the time, and the focus falls on a tension between the bounded, which we think we can so easily tame, and the wide unbounded that goes beyond all understanding.
Possibly for this reason, Barry avoids orientating the work as far as possible. “Up until the last moment" she tries to give it another chance. Which can possibly lead to one being able to approach the work from any angle or point. Precisely because foreground and background are missing.
It is at this point where terminology such as “abstraction" and “non-figurative" could easily enter the conversation. Wrong. Not only because she finds the labelling unnecessary, but because Barry echoes something David Koloane (1938–2019), for whom she has infinite respect, said when “abstraction" was attached to his work as a categorisation.
“Then what is abstract art really," Koloane asked in an interview. “To express anything, you have to abstract it. Expressing it as realistic means that you have to abstract it to bring out the realistic elements."
Apart from sharing Koloane's view on labelling, Barry feels so much more at home with this quiet colossus of the South African art world as inspiration than the American exponents of abstract expressionism.
If her work does not have representation in mind, it may be because she does not want to talk (or paint) about her experience but from her experience. A distinction that one brings before the choice: do you necessarily have to understand the work cerebrally, or can you feel it?
It was TS Eliot who declared: “Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood." A thought Barry immediately endorses. “In that sense, paintings are like poems. You respond to a job because you register whatever it may be.” It can be the colour, the shape, rhythm, movement, an incomprehensible connection with the work.
“Or you can use the title as an entry to the work," she says. “A title of a work is a key, but I think it is also more than that: it is also my dowry to the viewer. The title of a work also opens up the love I feel for a work to the viewer."
She talks about change that takes place in the margins (in the exhibition there is a work with the title Change Happens in the Margins), and immediately brings music into the picture. “Rhythm is important," she says, “rhythm is bending time". While she paints, she listens to music all the time. “Perhaps this is another key to the job."
Khatia Buniatishvili's interpretation of Frédéric Chopin's Nocturne op. 27, no. 2.
Although Barry has a “life in the arts" behind the scenes, her breakthrough in the art world came relatively late. In 2021, she captured the imagination as if overnight with her three-dimensional works, such as “Crumpled" on a grass bank outside BMW's head office in Midrand and visible from the highway.
And as these tall aluminium shapes with bright colours in spray paint and meticulous painting appeared one after the other, Barry found her footing ever more firmly in the art world. In February last year she completed a residency at Nirox and presented her first solo exhibition.
Inside and outside, of weight and weightlessness and the best of imagination, she made room for wonder and for freedom.
Perhaps it is freedom, even more than surprise and wonder, that is the defining driving force behind Barry's artistry — an artistry that is more deeply rooted than overnight fame.
“I am now as free again as I was as a child," was her realisation at this exhibition. The pictures she evokes with these words are those of a little girl who liked to draw and after Afrikaans Hoër Meisieskool went on to study art at the University of Pretoria (UP). Apart from the degree in visual arts she obtained, self-confidence was not one of the byproducts of this course.
It was the tumultuous 1980s, and as a child of her time her activist involvement made her stand out at UP like a sore thumb. It was the time of emergency and unrest. And so, Unrest, the title of her latest exhibition, is likewise a reference to those years. “My work remains political, and so much of how I live my life, the sacrifices I make, the consequences of my actions, can be considered ideological."
Although she continued to draw, to make ends meet in the early 1990s she started working at The Artists' Press, Mark Attwood's new graphic printing studio in the Bag Factory in Johannesburg. This is where she crossed paths with Durant Sihlali, Koloane, Sam Nhlengethwa, Pat Mautloa, Ezrom Legae, Belinda Blignaut, Kendell Geers, Alan Alborough and Joachim Schönfeldt.
Then she wanted to master animation and joined the SABC. Later, as a partner in Barry Bester, with Rory Bester, she made a series of TV programmes for SABC2 under the title Right Through the Arts. Artists who were part of this series included Koloane, Kathryn Smith, Tracey Rose, Hasan and Husain Essop, Dorothee Kreutzfeldt and Nhlengethwa.
After a short involvement with Afda, she started teaching at the National School of the Arts in Braamfontein and obtained her postgraduate teaching certificate. It was in the classroom that she encouraged learners to be good in their art practice and began to listen to her own advice. “If I said they should be brave, I should have been." This attitude flourished and with it her self-confidence as an artist. When it came to a topic for her master's degree, the process of teaching and learning in the art class was decisive.
Looking back on the 30 years since she graduated, it is clear Barry was in a way preparing herself for the breakthrough she has now made. She got to know the art industry inside and out, and in television work, deadlines and realistic expectations became part of her life and she got to grips with the limitations of budgets and the importance of networks.
“Over 30 years I have built up a vocabulary that I can use now; I learned how to embody vision," she says. “If you have talent, it's nice, and with that you can get far, but it's vision, that inner compass, that you need to keep going, because otherwise the road is too difficult."
Earlier this year, Guns & Rain showed some of her paintings at ARCOlisboa in Portugal, and the fact that her work sold so well is confirmation of talent, as well as an inner compass.
Early next year, she will show the work she made during the Tswalu residency at Everard Read in Johannesburg.
Hedwig Barry's success did not come overnight. All her experience, all her study and the discovery of a theoretical foundation, which she had missed since her university years in Pretoria, all the sharpening of her ideas and thoughts, all the uncertainty she went through, all this contributed to her artistic development.
“I think I can call myself an artist now," she says, and intimate peace comes with these words.
♦ VWB ♦
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