BELINDA BLIGNAUT: BODY LANGUAGES OF FIRE & MUD

CONTEMPORARY SOUTH AFRICAN ARTIST  |  ARTIST WRITE-UP  |  WILD CLAY

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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’.

BY SOPHIE COPE

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.

 

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.

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Belinda Blignaut | ‘Untitled’ | 2018 | wild clay

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Belinda Blignaut | ‘Untitled’ | 2018 | wild clay

In the sculptural and performance-based piece Working From The Inside (2019), the artist builds large-scale vessels around her own body, quite literally working from the inside out, facilitating a merging of wild clay and wild human bodies. There is a sense in which ‘the inside’ — the mind or the psyche — is coming into being at the intersection of these material presences. At the core of it, Blignaut’s work suggests that the internal world is not ‘elsewhere’ — it is here in the exchanges of mud and matter, and a return to earth is a return to a shared and ancient material continuity.

 

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).

‘And the end of our all our exploring will be to arrive where we started, and know the place for the first time’ - T.S Eliot (1942)

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 our all our exploring will be to arrive where we started, and know the place for the first time’ (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:

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

it’s perfect

whatever you want to call it

it’s not processed

observing and smashing

sampling and labeling

I’ve got a core shape

it’s strong

messy and awkward,

unresolved

that’s why this is so perfect

the plants are gonna die and grow again.

It’s been just doing its thing.

Yeah.

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Belinda Blignaut | ‘Working from the inside’ | 2015  | Clay

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Belinda Blignaut | ‘Thrown’ (Installation View) | 2018 

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