DIGGING UP AN ANCESTOR

CLAY AS LIMBS UNFORMED, CLAY AS ARCHIVE

Belinda Blignaut
Belinda Blignaut's Studio | Woodstock | Photograph by Stephané Conradie | 2022

1.CLAY AS LIMBS UNFORMED

By Caitlin MacDonald

There are stories buried at the base of the spinal column. Some stories are so familiar that they become instinctive. This is one: the hardened palm of a god reaches into the cold red flesh of the earth, scooping out a fistful of clay, pinching out limbs, fashioning the delicate machinery of the ear, the opal nails, rolling out the cobwebs of nerves and veins, smoothing over the surface with water, making the first human being. The potter-god and the creation of breathing clay is a story repeated in many tongues, many times over. The Abrahamic God, the Yoruba spirit, Obatala, the Greek Prometheus, the Egyptian deity, Khnum, and on and on were all the first potters of the human body, adding breath and blood and water to the clay.

‘The Abrahamic God, the Yoruba spirit, Obatala, the Greek Prometheus, the Egyptian deity, Khnum, and on and on were all the first potters of the human body, adding breath and blood and water to the clay.’

Belinda Blignaut
Work Drying in Studio, Belinda Blignaut | Photograph by Charl Dettmer | Woodstock | 2022

Another prominent example of this clay motif is the golem of Jewish folklore, a narrative that emerged in the Middle Ages. In it, a clay creature is called to life by a rabbi to protect his people from persecution. In some golem narratives, the creature is animated through the recitation of the sacred name of God and in others, the inscription of the word emet (“truth”) brings him to life and the smoothing away of the first letter to form the word met (“he is dead”) puts him to death. 

Before this folkloric hero, the first instance of the Hebrew word golem (“limbs unformed”)  appears in Psalm 139: “My body is no mystery to Thee. How I was secretly kneaded into shape and patterned in the depths of the earth. Thine eyes did see my limbs unformed in the womb”.  Centuries later, the rabbis of the Talmud taught that these words were the autobiography of Adam, a memory of his time as clay.  In these stories, the clay itself exists in the beforetime of the human body, in the time without words; it is only the membrane of language that separates the sentient being from the mud. In these creation stories, clay is the absolute body of both the earth and of the creatures that populate it.

2.CLAY AS ARCHIVE

Mirroring these mythic or magical creation stories, human beings have reached for clay to give flesh to their dreams or to extend the body.  The most rudimentary gestures of world-making begin with a fistful of clay. We have constructed shelter, vessels for food and water, made idols, art objects, vases, currencies, talismans, funerary urns, inscribed laws and myths upon clay surfaces.

In turn, human history has been imprinted in the archive of clay. We can read the long-decomposed body in the artefacts clay has left behind, in their absences – here the cavern left by a palm, there a crescent scored by a nail. We can feel the remnants of the potter’s movements: the depth and angle of the gestures which moved the clay before it was frozen by fire or sun. Clay bears the memory of the earth itself: the impressions of fossils, the spiral ammonites and the spines of extinct creatures. Exceptionally preserved fossil assemblages, complete with remaining soft tissues and intricate details of form are commonly found embalmed by the minerals of clay, with forms clearly legible in the accepting loam. 

‘But beyond this great capacity to remember is the ability of clay to change, to lumber towards the future, yielding under force. Clay forms wax and wane; they are capable of great frailty and recovery.’

Ammonite
Mantelliceras Ammonite Fossil, Morocco

But beyond this great capacity to remember is the ability of clay to change, to lumber towards the future, yielding under force. Clay forms wax and wane; they are capable of great frailty and recovery. Keeping watch on the Malian flood planes is the Great Mosque of Djenné, a massive, precarious structure made from earth. Mudbrick daises are bound by earthen mortar and veiled in a skin of clay. Its spires are coronated with ostrich eggs. Since the mosque’s creation, it has been unmade many times over, shifting form beneath heavy rains, and cleaving in the sun, only to be rebuilt again and again by the surrounding community.

A certain vulnerability is inherent to the architecture; thorns of palm sticks protrude from the walls to both moisture-wick the interior and to provide steps for community members to climb the walls and make repairs. Restoration is ritualised in an annual celebratory event. In the days leading up to the festival, young boys play in the plaster pits to stir up its contents. On the day of the celebration, elders watch on from a place of honour in the centre of the market square while women and girls transport water between the pits and mosque and groups of men smear clay over the building’s facade. The material of the mosque and the bodies that sustain it are precariously bound together, creating each other. Just as human hands mend the walls of the great structure, the mosque itself moulds the town of Djenne, shaping and sheltering its rituals and shared dreams.

‘The material of the mosque and the bodies that sustain it are precariously bound together, creating each other. Just as human hands mend the walls of the great structure, the mosque itself moulds the town of Djenne, shaping and sheltering its rituals and shared dreams.’

Djenne Mosque
The Great Mosque of Djenne , Mali, Photograph by Francesco Bandarin, 2005, UNESCO

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