Resilience in the face of calamity and casualty: Artists’ experiences of COVID-19
Written by Gemma Hart
Over the last year, every aspect of our lives has changed. On the 27th of March 2020, a nationwide lockdown began as an attempt to curb the rising cases of COVID-19 infections in South Africa. What started as a three-week hard lockdown, has unfolded into months and months of uncertainty and isolation.
The pandemic has also had a devastating effect on the global arts sector, which accounts for roughly 30 million jobs worldwide (Hoek 2021). Limitations on gatherings, increase in unemployment rates and economic austerity measures have dramatically impacted an already precarious industry. The international health crisis has revealed larger structural issues faced by the creative community: artists who are self-employed or participate in the ‘gig economy’ are faced with even fewer means to secure sustainable income (Guibert & Hyde, 2021: 3). The trope of the ‘starving artist’ has increasingly become a reality for many.
We are yet to grasp the long-term impacts of the pandemic. Sarah Strang, director of the Civic Room in Scotland, likens it to the 2008 financial crash, “people don’t rally afterwards, we don’t bounce back, we still haven’t. And this is financial and physical, nobody is resilient, and it’s a world collapse, not just one country that can be bailed out” (McNay, 2020). The pessimistic position characterised by this sentiment is felt on a global scale. South Africa is not alone in having to navigate the challenges that have emerged from this planetary crisis.
Franz Phooko’s Shadows of pandemics within a pandemic provides commentary on the economic impact of COVID-19. The oil painting depicts anti-apartheid activists such as Nelson Mandela, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Steve Biko, Chris Hani, Oliver Tambo, Adelaide Tambo, Helen Suzman, Walter Sisulu and Albertina Sisulu among others, caught unaware by the calamity ensuing behind them. The picturesque setting of Table Mountain is visually disrupted by the collapsing pillars of rands and cents that uphold the South African economy.
Franz Phooko, Shadows of pandemics within a pandemic, 2020. Oil on canvas. ArtbankSA collection
As we enter into our third wave, with cases rising daily and new variants to contend with, it is important to also reflect on the ways in which artists are visualising their experiences and illustrating solidarity. A major theme in the ArtbankSA’s 2020 acquisitions has highlighted this. Frontline workers have been instrumental in curbing the crisis. Newly acquired works by Mothobi Mefane and Lizo Pemba pay homage to the doctors, nurses and other healthcare practitioners who have been actively striving to save lives.
Mothobi Mefane, At the coalface, 2020. Acrylic on canvas. ArtbankSA collection
Mefane’s painting, At the coalface, depicts a dimly lit operating room. Pendulum lights illuminate doctors, attired in surgical gear and huddled in consultative clusters. The tense scene is broken by an almost comically large bottle of hand sanitizer positioned in the background. The sick are visually obscured by the doctors and nurses furiously working around them. Similarly, Pemba’s piece is also set in a hospital context. Above the bed-bound ailing patient is a visual reference to his illness, the now highly recognisable microscopic structure of the virus, is depicted in red paint. Beside the patient, a doctor points to something out of frame, and we are invited to speculate what this might be. Perhaps it serves as a metaphor for the fate of our collective future, just out of view. However, perhaps what is most interesting about this painting, War Against Covid 19, is that medical doctors are portrayed working alongside a traditional healer. In this instance, both western and indigenous models of healing are seen and valued in the fight against the virus.
Lizo Pemba, War Against Covid 19, 2020. Oil on stretched canvas. ArtbankSA collection
In exploring the realities of the pandemic in a rural context, artists Vuyisile Adoons and Asanda Kupa, depict the adherence to guidelines around mask-wearing and social distancing in their hometowns. Hailing from the Free State, Adoons’ vibrant painting represents two men engaged in a game of checkers. The board game is precariously placed atop an upturned bucket. The elder of the two, with his mask slumped down to his chin, reveals an expression of mischievous delight on his face, perhaps from recently outwitting his opponent. The artist writes that, “even though we might come from disadvantaged and impoverished communities, there are always good stories to tell through art”. This definitely defines the sentiment of the piece.
Vuyisile Adoons, Social distancing, 2020. Oil on canvas. ArtbankSA collection
By contrast, Kupa presents his semi-rural village of Molteno with a more chaotic energy and somber palette. His Eastern Cape home is plagued with social issues stemming from governmental neglect and an absence of basic amenities. Ukubethana Kwezimvo depicts a sizable but socially distant crowd, set behind a rusting chain-link fence. Rendered in painterly strokes, the central figure is a woman who appears to be clutching her hands against her chest. Behind her, masked figures are articulated engaging daily tasks of exercise and laundry.
In the midst of the pandemic, Kupa also illustrated a sense of determination and resilience from people who continue to live their lives in search of a ‘new normal’. As the pandemic rages on, artists will continue to use art as a cathartic mode of processing the challenges of daily life as well as the larger existential issues this crisis continues to present us.
Asanda Kupa, Ukubethana Kwezimvo, 2020. Acrylic on canvas. ArtbankSA collection
GUIBERT, G. & HYDE, I. 2021. COVID-19 RSFLG Data and Assessment Working Group. ANALYSIS: COVID-19’s Impacts on Arts and Culture.
HOEK, S. 2021. Daily Maverick. State of the arts: How the pandemic affected SA’s art and culture scene. Online. URL: https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2021-02-24-state-of-the-arts-how-the-pandemic-affected-sas-art-and-culture-scene
Published courtesy of National Museum Publications.