Lux Temba: The heart never forgets

2009-02-06 00:00

For most South African art viewers, Andries Botha’s wooden elephants, collectively titled You Can Buy My Heart and My Soul exist only in cyberspace where small photographs and video clips grainily detail these amazing creatures grazing the landscapes of foreign shores. The works have previously been exhibited at the Beaufort Triennale in Belgium, the Museum of Africa in Brussels and St Brieuc in France. Now, for the first time, a sculpture from this series is being exhibited in South Africa.

This particular elephant — an adolescent female who stands at 2,2 metres high and currently occupies the Nivea Gallery in the KZNSA in Durban — is named Lux Temba and has an especially heart-rending tale attached to it. Commissioned by Bert van der Kamp as a memorial for his deceased wife Annemarie, Lux Temba contains — invisible to the viewer — a wooden heart into which have been inserted the letters that the couple wrote to each other.

The pure sentiment of this — given distance by the public telling of it — should be distinguished from blatant sentimentality. But it’s true that not everyone will see it this way. What is a very simple and profound expression of love, will be perceived by some as being accompanied by strings and syrup. Botha is of course aware of this. But he also thinks that the post-modern framework of cynicism that has held sway for so long is beginning to deteriorate, and that increasingly we are — as art viewers and 21st century citizens — once more able to appreciate simple, enchanting things.

If the response to the presence of Lux Temba in the KZNSA is anything to go by, Botha has a point. I’ve seldom seen people so utterly bewitched by a work or an artist so beleaguered by the public response to it. At the exhibition, in between countless other conversations Botha had that night, we spoke briefly about this power of simplicity. But while I think he is right about the general human desire for authenticity that is swirling in the zeitgeist, at the same time I can’t help thinking also that the response to the work might be similar regardless of the art-historical period or the state of society, so universal is its resonance.

The response — or at least my response, which in turn, seemed not unsimilar to the responses of others — came first at a primal level, both in response to what the work represented — at it most basic level simply a life-size elephant — and to the particular craftsmanship employed, the organic use of raw wood wrapped around an implicit but invisible frame. There is something pre-historical about the work. And elephants, of course, have massive psychic shadows. In human terms, they represent both our connectedness to primal nature, and also our disconnectedness, our exoticised distance from the natural state. They are iconographic. They are religious. They are embedded deep within our collective culture in a thousand different ways. And we slaughter them and do strange things with their tusks.

But these are not the things we talk about when Botha and I gather several days later in the gallery. We walk around the elephant and indeed talk around it too. We discuss the central narrative of this particular elephant and the broader body of work that is You Can Buy My Heart and My Soul, and then proceed to talk about a vast range of things, few of which relate directly to the elephant but all of which are inspired by its presence. Our conversation spans half a century, from Botha’s social position growing up as a working class Afrikaner to the new generation of young South Africans in our tertiary institutions who make us both so excited. We talk about how much the world has changed and how quickly, and about shifts in the ways that culture, media and information are being used, shared and transformed.

Embedded in this conversation is a sense that these elephants have changed Botha’s life, just as surely as lions changed Joy Adamson’s life and gorillas changed Diane Fossey’s life. The fact that Botha’s fellow creatures lack the animation of pulse seems neither here nor there. He alludes to a shift in consciousness, although he doesn’t state it in quite those words. But the process of making and engaging with these giant creatures — together with all that they might mean to him and other who experience the works — has clearly impacted on him in profound way.

Later this month, Botha will launch the Human Elephant Foundation, a public benefit organisation whose simple aim is to reclaim human power and to influence social changes though imagination and creativity, rather than through the systems of capital and law. “Because they are not working. And if we understand the depths to which they haven’t worked, a lot of people will be inspired to act more deliberately to bring about certain levels of change. As creative thinkers we need to take that responsibility, to engage that struggle.”

•Lux Temba will be on show at the KNZSA Gallery until February 15. Entrance is free.

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