Artist Van Embden creates novel way to find her sense of place

By Mary Corrigall Time of article published Dec 21, 2017

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Given how many visitors descend on Cape Town during the silly season, the art pickings are surprisingly slim or, at least, superficial.

Most commercial spaces opt for what they dub “summer group shows”, boasting a mishmash of art from the artists in their stable.

As such, Gwen van Embden’s exhibition Genius Loci (a sense of place) is a refreshing prospect. Staged in her attractive Gardens studio off Dunkely Square is an embedded art experience, where art is shown not only in the context in which it has been made, but the setting itself has been exploited as a form of expression.

She has used the opportunity and the setting to address “her place and context” not only artistically but as a citizen. As a white privileged one she finds herself assessing her “place” in society in relation to the legacy of apartheid.

As such her studio is not a venue but the activating frame for her art and a space in which to contemplate her race/place in the wider world. In the vein of self-interrogation, she lays her working life bare, inviting visitors to riffle through her drawers and cabinets, which sit open. 

Small noteboooks, drawings, spill out of drawers and a cacophony of objects fill a capacious studio alongside conventional artworks, which are framed titled and are for sale.

Van Embden has considered the arrangement of each object, treating her studio as a large installation work. She is as much a curator as an artist. 

An old overhead projector, for example, is placed on the floor, surrounded by metal trays used for dissecting small animals. Weighing is a pervasive theme.

Book Weight (2017) consists of yellowed pages torn from old books, sandwiched between twigs, placed on a disused and rusted scale. 

This whole scheme of “weighing”, being accountable, for the past seems inefficient; the scale is outdated and how can the pages of a book, twigs “account” for it.

Her anger and frustration with what has perhaps become a pathological relationship with history in relation to an untenable political situation in the present is given expression in a stack of old books next to neon tube work which reads: “I am not party political but I am pissed off.”

When Van Embden embarked on her career (in the 1980s) many of her contemporaries, such as Pippa Skotnes, were concerned with confronting archival material and reframing it as a way of dealing with the spectre of apartheid and colonial history. 

In a way, Van Embden suppressed an artistic compulsion to create new things in favour of this mode, which appeared to be the only viable route out of an immoral quagmire.

“Curating the archive”, as they call, it was perhaps always going to be her fate, given her father was involved in making maps, charting her home town of Pretoria. 

Van Embden directly deals with this legacy via works such as I’m not my brothers keeper (2017), Opmeting van verdeling (Measurement of subdivision) (2017). 

Here she juxtaposes images of maps made by her father with photos he took of Van Embden and her siblings as children.

They are presented on colourful Perspex which operates as the contemporary “frame” from which these documents are perceived by the artist or viewer. How do we judge these records now? 

Her “place” in the present depends on how we read or judge her history. In judging her archive and history herself, first, before the viewer can, perhaps she somehow navigates white guilt. That is if you assume it can be neutralised.

Van Embden confronts the inescapability of the apartheid legacy corporeally, in reference to “blood”, which is dealt with in the work Wit Mens Bloed (White people’s blood) and the Reddish series, where red ink fills square papers.

Whiteness is not skin deep; it pervades the entire body. Yet the “blood” of black people is equally red - this point is made via a red page bearing the word “black”. What is it that separates white people from black? Nothing and everything, suggests Van Embden.

The neon tube scripto visual work that reads “Bloody Valentine”, referring to the increase of domestic violence women experience on this “romantic” day, is located above a working sink. This installation can’t be replicated with authenticity or gravitas in a conventional gallery. 

Nor the exhibition itself, where the art and her archive are seamlessly integrated. This is what makes this show rewarding, unusual and novel, leaving you with a real sense, to borrow from the title, of her place as an artist and person. - Corrigall is an art consultant at Corrigall & Co. 

Visit for more information on her services.

Genius Loci (a sense of place) is showing at Studio 3, 3 Wandel Street, Dunkley Square, Gardens. Viewing is by appointment. On January 15, at 6.30pm, Pippa Skotnes will give a talk on the exhibition. 

To book your place or a visit, e-mail: [email protected]

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