South African conceptual artist Belinda Blignaut certainly isn’t mucking around when it comes to visually articulating the urgency of cultivating an intimate connection with the natural world. Her renowned and moving Mud Rites performance, in which she quietly merges her body with large heaps of earth or wild clay, has most recently drawn due attention at Fondation Thalie’s current exhibition, The Sowers in Brussels. In the below Q&A, Angela de Wet probes Blignaut to give voice to her visual expressions.
Belinda, your medium has varied vastly in the past, although your choices in everyday materials are consistent in their honouring of the ordinary. Whether it is a live telephonic voice-recorder revealing attitudes around sexuality amongst South Africans (Johannesburg Biennale, 1995) or mounds of pink bubblegum that you have used to burst the viewer’s social and political comfort zone (Paradisiac, 2010), your media remain honest and impartial in their pursuit of conveying a call for change.
Your more recent creative journey demonstrates a particular affinity with wild clay. Please expand on the meaning behind this choice in medium.
As a child, I grew up on a farm in a remote part of the Eastern Cape coast. I moved far from those roots for a few decades. The clay is a return and has been the most transformative experience and a decade of deep learning about myself, others and the natural world. What I feel most strongly about communicating through my medium choice at the moment is a relationship with the earth. My work hopes to suggest that placing ourselves in or exploring the natural world provides insight and answers.
You have exhibited extensively and have presented a remarkable body of conceptual work to a global audience. Your provocative visual voice has spoken out in defiance of mainstream culture and mass consumerism at some prestigious exhibitions. What do you think your most powerful piece to date is and why?
My most powerful pieces are the most personal ones. They’re made from an intuitive, spontaneous place. A desire, really, more than a concern with or attachment to outcome. These would be the performance works and vessels containing materials foraged from places I’m drawn to or made with residues from my life. Like the piece using ammunition from firearms I’d fired after being shot in a theft at home.
Wild Clay Vessels 2016 ongoing takes the form of a variety of such hand-moulded containers, in varying natural tones and dynamic textures. Each vessel appears to embody a unique story – your stories, seemingly mingled with echoes that plea to be sensorially experienced from the organic matter itself. Are some of these vessels still available for purchase?
The ones from 2016 have all been sold, but the series is ongoing and new works are constantly in production and available from my studio in Woodstock, Cape Town. My most recent vessels take the form of medicine jars made from mud and ash with found stone tops. The plant ash has given me a beautiful gold colour I always hoped for.
The Sowers (9 September – 21 November 2021, Fondation Thalie, Brussels) seeks to honour a universal ecological intelligence through the work of some 26 artists. Please engage us in the process of your recent Mud Rites performance there.
Mud Rites is an act of surrender to earth which I demonstrate by covering myself in mud. It originally came from a place of exhaustion, a desire to lay my body down on the earth. It’s now done to go further on the unknown and constantly shifting paths in my practice, towards passion, and a celebration of an earth connection.
Rites mark transitions, the passage between one state and another. The piece is done with purpose. It’s a personal meditative ritual seeking an inner shift, hopefully in the viewer too. Both art and rites or ritual enable us to express intuition in a visible and tangible way. Placing my body into my work speaks of transformation, a continual return, a dying and rebirthing.
Nature is my guide in this ongoing learning. I remain in awe of both how and why it adapts and survives.
Speaking of adaptation and survival, Belinda, the art world, particularly in South Africa, can be trying terrain. What advice do you have for young aspiring artists?
This is such a cliché, but push through. We are capable of so much we tend not to discover. By pushing through the places we want to give up, we grow.
Any exhibitions or wild clay workshops to look out for?
Always, check my Insta for workshops. In terms of exhibitions, there are many international shows coming up, such as a solo in Paris, a biennale in Geneva as well as residencies in various countries.
See more of Blignaut’s work on her website or by making an appointment to visit the artist in studio. Blignaut’s organic installation, The Call From Things (2021) can currently be viewed at the Stevenson Gallery in Cape Town.