Lien Botha on her Exploration of Image and Text
Born in Gauteng, South Africa, in 1961, Lien Botha initially studied languages at the University of Pretoria and worked as a press photographer for Beeld before moving to Cape Town in 1984. There she obtained a BA Fine Arts degree from Michaelis School of Fine Art in 1988.
Her introduction to alternative mediums such as printmaking, painting, and sculpture has determined her creative output over the past two decades. She has participated in numerous South African and international group exhibitions and has held twelve solo shows.
Besides maintaining a professional photographic practice, Lien Botha has been invited as guest lecturer in the arts faculties of various tertiary institutions, such as the University of Cape Town, Stellenbosch University, and Studio Art Centres International, Florence, Italy. Her work is represented in pivotal collections throughout South Africa as well as in key private collections locally and abroad. In this interview with Omenka, she talks about her upcoming show Lost in Translation, her novel Wonderboom and her exploration of material.
You initially worked as a press photographer for Beeld before moving to Cape Town in 1984. There you studied painting at Michaelis School of Fine Art and graduated in 1988. With reference to your changing themes and embrace of various media including printmaking, painting, and sculpture, how would you describe the evolution of your work and your return to photography?
I find the tactile quality of other materials/mediums conducive to the content, even though I will work with what is needed by a particular body of work. With Safari (2003) and Amendment (2006) I used the word/text as a clue to the interpretation of the work. With Washing Line (1996) I used cloth as substrate for the photographic image, since this body of work was embedded in a ritualistic act (of mourning). Further to this, at the time of producing Washing Line, I accessed the process of liquid light emulsion, which is ideally suited to linen and cotton’s archival qualities. The large bales of cotton wool in Radio Maria (2002) were a reference to the cocoon (of the moth), and again a reference to cloth. (It also recalls the sense of wonder I felt when, as a child, I witnessed nightfall over my grandfather’s cotton fields near Kimberley.) However, the lens has remained vital to the continuity of my work, mapping the outcome.
You are currently preparing for your next solo show Lost in Translation, scheduled to open this year at Barnard Gallery in Cape Town. Please tell us a bit about the exhibition and the works you’ll be showing.
Thank you. The show is now officially scheduled to open at Barnard in March 2020. For this series, initiated in 2018, I have created digitally constructed photographic images with accompanying embroidered “second titles.” The first titles are in English and inscribed on the actual photographic work and the second titles (in my mother tongue, Afrikaans) will act as a subtext artefact/curio.
Image and text—besides activating a “re-reading” of this particular primary school textbook (familiar to many South Africans, especially of my generation)—has prevailed in much of my output over the past two decades.
It is a curious thing to reflect on the “static” content of your youth fifty years after the event. And so, in search of a past/present continuum, I have merged the individual characters of the young protagonists Saartjie and her brother (Boet), their father, mother, and dog (Buks), into the recent South African landscape. Re-framing the past into a comic-style genre allows for playful undertones whilst referencing current issues such as the notion of “home” in a fragile social and natural environment.
The naive figures of Boet and Saartjie, juxtaposed with mostly external landscapes, results in a tension between the seemingly playful characters, gradually being usurped by the very landscapes they inhabit—alluding to the futility of reminiscence when grafting the figments of a colonial past.
Translation, besides its literal configuration, implies relocation/shift/movement. This in itself is an activator for the historical stasis. Corresponding to the digital collages will be 12 smaller works (A5), consisting of digitally embroidered Afrikaans texts on cotton fabric. This process suggests a cadence of receding “greyscale,” while simultaneously paying homage to analogue photography and a vulnerable language (my mother tongue Afrikaans and the mot juste for each of the works). The embroidered Afrikaans texts also demarcates the black and white outlines of the adapted original Boet and Saartjie drawings, synthesising my interests as a lens-based artist working with text, layering, and alternative materials.
Extending the notion of appropriation, titles of individual images frequently allude to literary or film titles, such as Portrait of the Artist as a Dog (Tjanktaal) and a pun on Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog by Dylan Thomas; O Mother, Where Art Thou? (Moedertaal), Dog Day Afternoon (Braktaal), and, of course, the body title Lost in Translation from the 2003 movie directed by Sofia Coppola.
In line with Lost in Translation is the pending publication (June 2020) of my second novel, Vin. And even though a quiet conversation may exist between the two bodies of work (image and text), they function as stand-alone components.
Your recent photographs usually feature a juxtaposition of different objects that “possess the aura of an old cabinet of curiosities.” What informs these experiments?
Possibly our very brief presence on earth and what fragile evidence of our traces remain.
Apart from your visual art practice, you are also an accomplished writer and curator. How do you combine these different disciplines, and at what point do they intersect in your practice?
It is not unusual for mediums to intersect, and throughout history, many artists have worked in this way. Think, for instance, of the German writer Günter Grass, who also trained as a stonemason, and studied sculpture and graphics. There is camaraderie at play between the various disciplines, and they dovetail through necessity.
“I probe libraries, as well as city streets, articles on the myrmecoleon, Codex Witsenii, a lost man found after nine years with only bone and cloth intact, W.G. Sebald’s integration of image/text.” Please shed more light on this statement culled from a recent interview, taking care to respond to the criticism that in attempting to preserve the past, the ubiquity of images in your work lends only to their role as visual memory aids, with your incorporation of text showing what the images may be ineffective in describing.
My work is hardly an attempt to preserve the past, but rather a way of examining aspects of it in order to try and make sense of the past in the present. In terms of subject matter, it is an archaeological dig, and an artist should know how to manoeuvre a spade. This much I have learnt.
Kindly tell us more about your ‘Wonderboom’ series.
Wonderboom, published in 2015, was my first novel. This format offered me the opportunity to synchronise my two main concerns as a lens-based artist (i.e., image and text). In this contained “narrative” is the summary of my 30-year experience as an artist living and working in South Africa. Wonderboom could thus be regarded as the culmination of my artistic sensibility up to this point. Each of the eighteen chapters in Wonderboom opens with a “disintegrating” visual collage, which can be interpreted as a stand-alone body of work but also as visual subtext for the plot of the novel.
Not only are the 18 composite, accompanying photographic constructions a map to the reading of the text, but they are inherently reflective of the nature of photography as a means to preserve and document a life/event in order to contain it for the future viewer. The response to Wonderboom (and the subsequent Dutch translation of the work) further acknowledges this as a visual/text document reflecting our critical time.
Wonderboom (Wonder Tree) could be considered as a dystopic novel that takes place in a post-apocalyptic era within the South African landscape. It is the time of disillusioned citizens, for whom access to most resources is limited—except for the plutocrats. The result is that the division between the haves and have-nots is more severe than ever before and is particularly evident along the fringes of society. The protagonist, Magriet Vos, is a fifty-year-old violinist whose memory is disintegrating. Due to the fact that she is a regular performer at the “court” of the despotic ruler Albino X, her impending mental incompetence pitches her at a knife’s edge, because when she is no longer able to master her art, Albino X will have her killed and dispatched to the taxidermist in order to extend his diorama. In addition to this, she has virtually no friends or relatives left in the coastal village where she lives, and she is thus compelled to migrate north, back to the Magaliesberg and the last members of her clan. Vos raids her past in a desperate attempt to survive the post-revolutionary wasteland in the hope of arriving “home” safely.
The text fluctuates between the territory of memoir and travelogue as the journey progresses and her sense of consciousness starts to dissipate. Aspects of her musical craft, such as rhythm, tone, and tempo are synthesised in the structure of the novel. Furthermore, careful consideration was given to references to existing texts by particular authors, serving the purpose of either parody or elegy.
Vos’ journey commences in Betty’s Bay on the southern coast of South Africa and unfolds through four voices, or perspectives: the main narrator (illuminating the idiosyncratic viewpoint of Magriet Vos); Magriet’s diary (memoir); encyclopedia (endnotes); disintegrating photo texts: a series of constructions/collages, which serves as introduction to each chapter and refers to the “image sequence” of the British photographer Eadweard James Muybridge (1830-1904) and is here applied as a dismantling device to allow text and image to dovetail. The tree is a central metaphor, both as axis in nature and as archaic source of the “knowledge of good and evil.”
Your series ‘The Stern Exchange’ comprises a unique set of eight photographic prints, and features staff of the Irma Stern Museum assuming different poses in the building. What informs your selection of subject matter?
‘The Stern Exchange’ (2014) was a collaborative project with ceramicist Clementina van der Walt for the 2014 Cape Town Month of Photography. It was site specific, and I wanted to pay homage to the individuals who are working there—animated presence juxtaposed with the static interior of the Stern museum.
Periodically, I have worked with an aspect of the “memorable,” but in the last ten years I would say that I have moved further and further away from that subject as a matter of necessity and evolution of process and content. You work with what engages your days and nights at a given moment in time; you work in order to make sense of past and present. I have always worked primarily from my environment: the physical landscape as well as the internal landscape, and from this wide space come small moments and events that can trigger an idea or concept.
An important part of and a recurrent motif in your oeuvre are your photographs of preserved animal bodies. Does your fascination go beyond taxidermy and issues surrounding it?
I should sincerely hope so.
June 21, 2021