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BETWEEN GRIEF & HIGH DELIGHT
In ‘Between Grief & High Delight,’ Cape Town-based artist Ilené Bothma performs the simultaneous yet inverse actions of unravelling and knitting together.
Through her carefully crafted artworks, she uncovers for us her experience of motherhood, which is both wonderful and terrible, a source of grief and high delight. There is a strong sense here that the true conception of being a mother exists somewhere in the space between these negative and positive polarities, in the everyday occurrences and routines of child-rearing.
It is in this more complex space that Bothma, a mother of two, situates her latest exhibition. The entire body of work lies on the broad spectrum between multiple binaries – art and craft; personal and public; mastery and mystery. All of these centre on ideas of bodily autonomy, subjectivity, work, worth and taboo.
Multiplicity is revealed in Bothma’s use of scale and material, in the push and pull between the differences. Her finely-rendered oil paintings feature mother and child larger than life. Veiled almost completely in intricate lace or fine loops of wool, the size of the figures reflects the size of the emotions involved, where everything is exaggerated and can feel, as Bothma explains, “just too”. The sacred is also evoked in the magnitude and poses of the figures in these larger pieces.
Her knitted skin-scapes are likewise scaled up: textured, uncannily bulky flaps serving as a reminder of our origins and the intensity of skin-on-skin contact between mother and child. Conversely, the portraits painted onto small ceramic plates are miniatures of intimate, contemplative moments snatched between the endless demands of domesticity, surrounded by traditional floral patterns and curls of oddly fleshy clay; these experiences can feel rendered insignificant.
The spectrum is emphasised by the use of gradient across the paintings. The expansive backgrounds in the pieces flow from one to the next, from black through grey to pale almost-white. Bothma also uses colour to reveal the physical aspects of motherhood. Aside from the monochromatic backgrounds of the artworks, the only colour featured is pink – the intimate pink of her biology, where the boundaries between mother and child are erased. The two figures are also indistinguishable and formless under their lace covers in the paintings, where only a suggestion of shading or partially-exposed limb reveal anything about them.
Bothma’s media are likewise varied: smooth and rough, delicate and messy, fragile and pliable. In all there is an emphasis on complexity and process. The performative nature of what Bothma does co-opts the busyness of women’s-work to expose the constant labour of parenting, the time-consuming, seemingly endless repetition of trifling tasks. It does however also serve as a meditative escape from this for the artist. It is a space of concern about something other than mothering, where the technical precision requires the mind to relinquish distraction.
There is a merging of critical distance and emotional experience here. While ‘Between Grief & High Delight’ exposes aspects of being a mother perhaps not often acknowledged (both the uncomfortable and inexpressible), the thread running through all the work is motherhood’s power, connection and strange beauty.