Guest blog – What is Art?

We are fortunate to have Luisa Blignaut, one of our dedicated and talented students, guest blog for us this month.

Luisa Blignaut, Jaime, acrylic on canvas, 2018

What constitutes art? It is a question that I have been asking for most of my life. It defies simple metaphors or descriptions. It is utterly subjective.

In the beginning, it was simple. I grew up in country South Africa. School and church said apartheid had God’s blessing. Everything was divided into boxes. Black or white. Christian or communist. English or Afrikaans. By the age of six I could milk a cow and draw a picture. The pictures I drew told stories. I believed all art was visual. After all, at school we had an hour a day to draw or to colour in books with crayons. It was art class. Crayons became coloured pencils. We learnt about tracing paper. The teacher decided what was art. Art had to be realistic.

At home my father collected paintings. Landscapes mostly. Ornate and ostentatious frames dominated the paintings. My father said the paintings were decorative investments. During my second year at school I developed rheumatic fever. In hindsight it was a blessing in disguise. I missed seven months of school. In turn, my mother, who was English speaking, subscribed to a weekly educational magazine for me called Look and Learn. The first issue that I saw had an article about Vincent van Gogh. My understanding of art burst the dam walls built by Afrikaner Christian Nationalism and its concomitant school curricula and censorship. I remember returning to school and talking about Van Gogh who painted the night as blue waves on which a yellow moon and stars floated. The teacher deflated my enthusiasm by saying he was a mad man who cut off his ear for a woman. I became the laughing stock of the class and the teacher proclaimed that Rembrandt was the greatest artist ever. Afrikaans as a language was a derivative of Dutch. She did not mention Rembrandt’s shadows where wonder resides. The next day she showed a picture of Rembrandt’s Night Watch to the class. White men stepping into the light. She compared it to white people bringing light to darkest Africa. Art was political.

I continued to draw andpaintwater colours. My family had a cottage in the Drakensberg Mountains, splendid in its isolation. It had secrets in its many gullies, densely wooded by indigenous flora including huge yellowwood trees and large ferns. A vagabond called Willy Chalmers, who used to live in the cottage, was a sculptor. In the rocks next to singing streams, he created rock carvings of women and faces. Hid them. Not too far away, were San rock paintings; the reason why Chalmers found his way to the Drakensberg Mountains.

My understanding of art was evolving. The San people or Bushmen,hunter gatherers, were South Africa’s original inhabitants that were squeezed out by negroid people from the north and whites from the south. Bushmen lived in rhythm with nature. They did not recognise “property”. Cattle, like wild animals, were gifts from the spirits. Cattle owners did not take kindly to people who killed their property and ate it. Bushmen became thieves, pests that were hunted. They moved to the deserts of Southern Africa but left their rock art behind. Drawings, paintings of people, animals and hybrid animals and people, in rock shelters and caves. I could look at these paintings all day and marvel at people who acknowledged all life; drew people with hooves running with antelope. I realised that art was cultural, a spiritual chronicle, a history book. Art transcended politics and racism.

I recall a day that I went with my mother to the English Anglican church in town. I had an argument with my father about religion and questioned why black people were not welcome in the white Afrikaner Church. The Anglican church was a small building with stained glass windows. Black and white people worshipped together. This was a new experience for me. During the service sunlight streamed through the stained-glass windows, accentuating andblurringcolour, touching my face, my mind. It was a magical, fleeting moment. I returned the next few Sundays, but the light was gone. Art is ephemeral.

The next huge step in understanding art was at university. I lived in a residence hall at Stellenbosch University. The residence was built around a quad where residents gathered for tea and coffee. I thinkIlearnt more from debates around the coffee and tea cans than what I learnt in classes. I discovered that Monet and Manet were not spelling mistakes but two different artists. I fell in love with Seurat, Cezanne, Kandinsky and Georgia O’ Keefe. I Also learnt a new word. Kitsch.

I started work in Cape Town in the same year that Hundertwasser had an exhibition in the city. Glorious shapesandcolours, political and environmental themes all over the place. I attended the exhibition four times and purchased at least twenty postcard-reproductions of his work. I pasted them on a plywood board that I hung from the wall. Rows of colour. Hundertwasser lead to Klimt. I returned to Stellenbosch to do a post graduate law degree. To finance my studies, I free lanced for a leading Cape Town daily newspaper. I called in stories from a public pay telephone and dictated them to a man called Abe. Every Friday afternoon I returned to Cape Town to meet up with friends, discussions with the News editor and coffee with Abe. Next to the Cape Times was an old neglected building that housed an art gallery. I visited every Friday. The paintings were stacked against the wall and I leafed through them as if I was paging a book. The proprietor became familiar with what I liked and one day told me to take a painting home. I told her I was a student and could not afford it. “Nonsense” she said, “How about $10 a month” That was 1979 and I continued to buy art from her until I left South Africa in 1999.

In 1991 I visited New York. I went to the Museum of Modern Art and turned a corner. Rothko literally arrested me. A huge canvass that jailed me. I became lost in variationsofcolour that left the huge canvas and continued all the way past Samuel Beckett.

So, what is art? I have no idea. It depends on what you see and feel.

It is everywhere.

Written by Luisa Blignaut – artist and MAC student

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