Exhibition text by Professor
How do we come to terms with the legacy of violent pasts? How can art engage with the complex and emotionally charged histories of trauma and migration? These are the demanding questions that Annelize Mulder, a Brisbane based artist, confronts. She bravely interrogates the impact that the threat of physical harm and displacement from a homeland has had on so many migrants who have come to Australia.
Annelize’s practice is wide-ranging, with the hallmark of bold experimentation across a range of media, including painting, video, textiles, sculpture and installation. Her work is underpinned by the desire to make sense of her own experience as a migrant and her need to reconcile the violence of her South African past and her new life in Australia. Annelize belongs to the diaspora that saw large numbers of South Africans settle in Australia following the end of apartheid in the mid-1990s. Most of these migrants were fleeing escalating crime and a country with one of the highest murder rates in the world. For most South Africans the post-apartheid era resulted in prolonged exposure to both the threat and reality of violence. Burdened by troubling memories, usually overlaid with a sense of dislocation and feelings of absence and loss, most South African migrants have arrived in Australia with the legacy of a violent past.
Annelize Mulder is one of the first artists to tackle this emotionally charged topic, as she faces the deeply unsettling issues of the collective migrant experience of South Africans and her own individual story. Her focus is on the lived experience of reconciling a violent history within the sanctuary of Australia. As the title of this exhibition indicates – Peculiar Freedoms – freedom from a geographical location does not bring with it an all-encompassing liberation or a straightforward release from troubling histories. Instead, freedom is peculiar, strange and can take many unexpected turns for each individual. Annelize’s art challenges us to contemplate the complexity of this peculiarity and reflect upon how it varies from person to person, resulting in a range of ‘freedoms’.
One of the key works in the exhibition is Pursuit, which is a mechanised sculpture in which elongated legs dangle from the ceiling and become entwined as the feet slowly rotate. There are ten pairs of feet that reference individual but also a collective and group identity. In all her work, Annelize cleverly uses objects and symbols that are deliberately designed to elicit an emotional response and in this case, the bare feet evoke ideas of freedom but are also vulnerable to harm. The feet are remarkably expressive with the clawing toes and pulsating veins referencing the trauma of those involved in this ‘pursuit’, a word that works on two levels of being pursued but also pursuing something better. The feet are actively engaged in seeking escape but as the machine pulls the legs around there is also a sense of being subjected to the control of other forces.
In another major work, Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, three miniature white chairs are installed high on the wall, immediately stripping them of their function and creating a sense of disquiet. Three sets of human legs unnaturally stretch down to the floor, with the feet struggling to find sure ground. Under each chair, there is some mealie meal, which is a South African food staple made from ground maize, but scuff marks are visible in the grain. This introduces a sinister note, which is enforced by the feet being bound by white cotton, delicately but still perceptible. The cotton that ties the feet trails off to another chair on the opposite side and the ends are buried under a neat pile of mealie meal. In this configuration, Annelize creates a complex web of objects which subtly reference violence and disturbance, the foundations of South African society, displacement and the struggle for control, and the bonds of the migrant experience and memories of a homeland.
Peculiar Freedoms is not an easy exhibition. Annelize has confronted her own past and the shared experiences of other South African migrants and calls upon their individual and collective memory. Annelize’s work is hauntingly beautiful and sophisticated, inviting contemplation of human vulnerability in situations of adversity and recognising the persistent nature of memories of violence. By using objects with layered meaning, she draws out the complexity of freedom for many migrants, particularly from South Africa, who live in Australia with memories of a violent past, and she asks us to engage, understand and reflect upon their peculiar freedoms.
La Vie en Rose
Words by Adam Anderson
Edith Piaf’s 1945 chanson La Vie en Rose (life in pink) celebrates the end of the Second World War with the promise of a sweet, romantic, and hopeful future. It’s no great mystery that the song has become an anthem for those who have suffered great hardship but who maintain great hope. The noble notion of La Vie en Rose does not, however, preclude the memory of the war, its violence, or effect on people’s lives.
My initial reaction to Annelize Mulder’s Pursuit summoned an image of Auschwitz’s ‘angel of death’ Josef Mengele. It recalled a large bin filled with the amputated legs of Jews used by Mengele to conduct monstrous medical experiments. That might seem an obscure initial reaction but the reasoning behind it supports Mulder’s central claim: that cruel and pitiless violence affects people for a lifetime. In Israel where I was born and raised, we are exposed to these images from childhood, a way of remembering the Holocaust to ensure it never happens again. As we say in Australia, ‘Lest We Forget’.
Of course, Mulder is not an Israeli migrant but a South African one. Her cognisance of violence is related to a life lived in South Africa with its significantly high rate of burglary, torture, rape, and murder. As a result, for many South African immigrants, remnants of prolonged exposure to violence produce disproportionate reactions to everyday situations in Australia. These situations are not threatening to the rest of us. The habits of safekeeping and self-preservation are coded in Mulder’s behaviour as a direct result of her exposure to levels of brutality seldom seen in Australia. It is this discomfort that Mulder communicates in her recent work.
Pursuit engages the metonymy of feet that refers to motion and the way we experience the world through our bodies. Feet are weird. Their ambivalence is such that they can connote an excess of often opposing meanings while eluding those meanings altogether. Gnarly, creepy and sometimes smelly, they’re an abject appendage banished to the farthest reaches of the body as if to be kept away from our face. Nevertheless, feet can also be a fetish, an object that emanates mysterious power. One need only consider the intense sexual passion, if not worship, of the foot fetishist. There’s also the golden lotus, the tradition of foot-binding, which was considered beautiful, erotic and a way for girls to achieve some (though limited) social ascendance.
The feet in Pursuit are enveloped by this ambivalence. Being disembodied and dressed in white, a link is formed with the common pop-cultural depiction of corpses in cop-shows. Corpses are veiled in white as both a gesture of respect, privacy and concealment. We respect and mourn the dead, but we don’t like seeing death. Only feet escape the white veil and bare a ‘toe-tag’ that identifies the deceased in an emotionally detached way. As in the cop-show corpse, Pursuit cites violence that has already occurred, the present shaped by the past. In the mortuary, corpses are trapped in transit between the site of their death and their final resting place. This parallels the migrant’s transit and inability to ever completely ‘wipe the slate clean’ of disturbing memories.
There’s something almost endearing about the size of the feet in Pursuit, like the feet of children. In opposition to their size, they’re wrinkled and expressive, more like the feet of adults. The slightly curled toes index the way in which muscles endure an acute sensory stimulus. When coupled with the perpetual circular motion, this might refer to ‘walking in circles’, an indication of being lost, managing anxiety, pointlessness, repeating mistakes, or arriving at a place only to be turned back. Possibly the inference is less cynical. The wrinkles of the feet can invoke a traveller or someone who has walked a long way barefoot. I think of the white-clad Jewish Ethiopian elders who immigrated to Israel by walking from Africa to the Middle East. This physical endurance is comparable to the emotional and psychological endurance many migrants undergo in leaving one home and setting off to another. Legal or illegal, migration itself is a pursuit. The pursuit of la vie en rose, the life in pink, a sweeter life. It is not measured by its destination so much as by the pursuit itself.
Finally, in Judeo-Christian scripture, feet reoccur in narratives of pilgrimage, rituals of cleansing and purification, worship, devotion and pursuit of the divine. Through feet, the permeation of violent memory in the present may ultimately be redeemed. Instead of processing these memories as disabling, shameful or a burden, we may acknowledge pain as a mark of survival, endurance, and a linking narrative of past, present and future.