Words by Sophie Cope
The words are important, and the concept is important. But the language of the body — the language of fire and mud — is not a vocabulary that can be learned or listed. Perhaps it was always there, and can only be returned to. South African artist Belinda Blignaut describes her more recent use of ‘wild clay’ not as an omniscient ‘making from scratch,’ but as a returning or a relinquishing — ‘a conscious decision to give in to mud’.
‘… the language of fire and mud — is not a vocabulary that can be learned or listed. Perhaps it was always there, and can only be returned to.’
Since the early 90s, the artist has used writing — a verbally communicable conceptual frame — as a point of departure. But more recently, since finding and working with wild, hand-dug clay, Blignaut has been inspired by dreams and textures. Things have shifted, as they do. It would appear that the artist’s current work with earth and fire has taken a radical turn from the years she spent exploring the material and metaphorical implications of bubblegum (among other things). And yet, at ‘the core of it,’ there is an undeniable continuous thread.
Belinda Blignaut Vessel in studio, Woodstock, 2022, Photograph by Stephané Conradie
Blignaut is preoccupied with the reciprocal relationship between the body and the psyche, and the potential for creative practice to transform or transmute this relationship in a way that is generative. Her earlier works reflected this, and now, extending into the mud, the same thread is there. But somehow there is more of it, or — it exceeds its own metaphor. Of this medium, more than all the others, the artist describes her deep connection to the mud as a kind of homecoming — ‘an ongoing deepening love’ — a cross-cultural language, and a recognition of shared material presences. This is not an abstract or metaphorical recognition.
‘And yet, at ‘the core of it,’ there is an undeniable continuous thread.’
Previously described as a ‘metaphor’ for embodied psychological transformation, Blignaut’s work with wild clay is perhaps better understood as a conversation between living bodies. The clay is alive, and the artist is alive. Neither are metaphorical place-holders for anything ‘else.’ Unlike the translation of a written ‘concept’ into a material ‘thing,’ there is no element of ‘translation’ in Blignaut’s dialogue with clay. The body of the artist and the body of earth are engaged in an encounter — as themselves. Perhaps this is why there was no need for the artist to rely as heavily on words (and why, in the writing of this text, the words seem pale and difficult).
‘The clay is alive, and the artist is alive. Neither are metaphorical place-holders for anything ‘else.’
Blignaut’s writing desk, Woodstock, 2022, Photograph by Stephané Conradie
The words that do emerge as most appropriate here are fragments of dialogue and poetry. With Blignaut’s return to clay, I’m hearing T.S Eliot’s Four Quartets — ‘and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started, and know the place for the first time’ (1942).
‘…the artist describes her deep connection to the mud as a kind of homecoming — ‘an ongoing deepening love’ — a cross-cultural language, and a recognition of shared material presences.’.
‘and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started, and know the place for the first time’
T.S Elliot, Four Quartets, (1942).
And in the collating of an expansive and evocative conversation with Belinda Blignaut, I have included the phrases that could only be quoted directly, in a long bright unraveling thread, like this:
Vessels in Studio, Woodstock, 2022, Photograph by Stephané Conradie
It was my survival as a kid —
words before images
it’s changing a bit
and dreams are more important
I had to give in
a conscious decision
to give in to mud
back to my roots
for the first time
I’m really on my path,
which is nice,
because we don’t always find it
and the potters said, ‘no it’s terrible clay,’
just exactly what I wanted
mud becoming rock,
millions of years sped up
the body of human nature
and my body in the clay
transformed through earth,
which is everybody
I also love fire
fire and mud to create something
whatever you want to call it
it’s not processed
observing and smashing
sampling and labeling
I’ve got a core shape
messy and awkward,
that’s why this is so perfect
the plants are gonna die and grow again.
It’s been just doing its thing.
Belinda Blignaut in Studio, Woodstock, 2022, Photograph by Stephané Conradie
Interdisciplinary South African artist Belinda Blignaut is committed to wild, hand-dug clay, and its capacity to transform embodied experience. Situating the body not ‘with’ the clay but from it and of it, the artist describes this deep connection to the mud as a kind of homecoming — ‘an ongoing deepening love’ — more than a ‘making-from-scratch.’ Blignaut has been making work since the early 90s, emerging as an experimental concept-driven artist on the Johannesburg scene. After years of experimentation with medium and body, Blignaut has found herself within dirt. In many ways, the work began before her body was even there.
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