The Augurs Chord is a series of drawings and paintings that juxtaposes a visionary moment from the life of David Beresford Pratt, who attempted to kill South African Prime Minister H.F. Verwoerd, with an exploration of Rite of Spring.
Igor Stravinsky’s ballet Rite of Spring debuted in 1913 amidst chaos and consternation in Paris. Stravinsky described The Rite of Spring as “unified by a single idea: the mystery and great surge of the creative power of Spring". The subtitle for the piece, “A Picture of Pagan Russia in Two Parts”, indicates the outline for the piece (largely developed by Nicholas Roerich, the stage and costume designer): a community of villagers come together to celebrate the arrival of spring with fertility dances. After a ritual selection process, a young girl is chosen to be sacrificed. The piece ends with her dancing herself to death.
The music has achieved wide recognition as one of the most influential works of the 20th century. Stravinsky’s experiments with metre, tone, dissonance and stress resulted in a highly sophisticated score, which offset Roerich’s Romantic vision. This tension creates the two poles in the piece, on the one side a striving for the archaic, and on the other a highly complex, Modernist sensibility. Themes of sacrifice, belonging, othering and Modernist machinistic tendencies are all present in Rite and as a result interpretations can become incredibly rich.
In my engagement with the piece I employ humour, unusual contrasts and quotations from texts that juxtapose in creative ways, drawing from authors such as Bessie Head, H.D. and Christopher Okigbo. Painterly gestures and grids draw from and speak back to Modernism.
I expanded one drawing from the series into a large work that looks at the figure of David Beresford Pratt, who attempted to kill H.F. Verwoerd in 1960. Pratt suffered from depression and epilepsy, and, following a number of attacks and mystical visions, became so convinced of his duty to rescue South Africa from apartheid, that he shot Verwoerd. Verwoerd survived the attack, and Pratt committed suicide in 1961. The moment I focus on is found in the following court testimony, which describes his visions:
“During that period at sunset I received my first message that it was necessary for me to go out and give a message to South Africa. Well, how could I go out and give a message? Could I grab people by the lapels of their coats? So I took no notice. A day passed. The message came again. The second day passed. The third day passed. The message was still there... The first stage of euphoria suddenly occurred when I was driving my car from Magaliesberg to Krugersdorp. It is difficult to describe. It was as though a light was turned on. I was quite out of breath… later they began in much the same way. The message was infinitely stronger… I had the same sense of mission – to give South Africa a particular message. I still took no action...” (The Star, 13 September 1960, 1)
The figure of Pratt as a white man, appalled by his circumstances but somehow paralysed by it, appealed to me personally. I found that there are thematic parallels between his life and Rite, such as mysticism, oppression and sacrifice, and I wanted to make a work that expands on these. The painting is eclectic in its references, which include Nero’s Domus Aurea, Louis the XIV, an epileptic figure from Raphael’s Transfiguration, Akhenaten, Penny Siopis’ The Master is Drowning and dancers from Pina Bausch’s staging of Rite of Spring.
In turn, this heterogeneity is evident throughout the drawings and paintings I produced for The Augurs Chord series, and could be seen to be a kind of strategy that employs juxtapositions of painting, drawing, history and poetry.