The identity of a white South African is fraught with questions of belonging, particularly as a new generation of the country’s previously disenfranchised black majority make their voices heard. For the past 15 years South African sculptor Claudette Schreuders has been grappling in various ways with this issue. At age 28, Schreuders held her first New York exhibition at the Jack Shainman Gallery in 2001, following a showing of her student work as part of a retrospective of South African artists at the Museum of African Art in New York. Her fifth show with Jack Shainman Gallery, “Note to Self,” opened last week and runs through March 12.
In “Note to Self,” Schreuders has carved wooden busts of people who are close to her and to whom she is indebted for artistic inspiration. But the true power of Schreuders’s sculptures—regardless of its overt content—is contained within their forms. Her sculptures reflect both the West African Colon figures in their angular, painted features and the Baule Blolo sculptures of the Ivory Coast, which are traditionally tied to depictions of relationships. The Colon figures’ re-appropriation of both African and Western aesthetics negates interpretation by refusing to fit neatly into either category. Similarly Schreuders’s sculptures interrogate her relationships in a way that is both an acknowledgement of and a refusal to be defined by her identity.
By both confronting her reality and attempting to break free of history’s noose, Schreuders’s sculptures are imbued with a deep longing for a sense of freedom. In a society where such a thing is still a precious commodity, Schreuders’s work reflects South Africa’s collective need for a catharsis not yet fully realized. In the conversation below, which has been lightly edited and condensed, Schreuders expands on this complexity in her work.
ARTnews: What initially drew you to sculpture?
I was a student around 1994 in South Africa and I just couldn’t imagine being part of the art world. I’d look through art magazines and feel like I didn’t relate much to contemporary art, so I decided to just do what I really wanted to do with no considerations of outside pressure. I was also looking at a lot of African art objects at the time and thought how emotionally powerful they were, even if I didn’t completely understand their function or where they came from. It was similar for me to medieval sculptures that served a religious purpose where they had an emotional charge, like a power.
How did you come to connect that with the inspiration you draw from West African carving traditions?
I’d just finished these big sculptures that didn’t mean much to me. Even though at the time I was proud of the technical achievement, afterward I felt I wanted to make something that would be more meaningful. My lecturer showed me the painted Colon figures and by the time I’d finished my fourth year, I had a more specific reference point. It was an interesting journey.
What specifically attracted you to the Colon and Baule Blolo figures?
The Colon figures are often misinterpreted and reinterpreted—they’re political and quite a hard thing to access. With the Baule Blolo, I love that they are about relationships, specifically love relationships and are a kind of sculpture that serves as a vehicle for sorting out the problems of a relationship.
Speaking of relationship problems, how have you gone about confronting the expectations surrounding your art in relation to your identity?
The first time I had a solo show in America it was called “Burnt by the Sun.” Thematically, the show was centered around the idea of belonging and being a white person born as a South African. That show became very tied to South African history, so with my next show, I wanted to try to go deeper into the personal, so that the personal became more universal. I want to deal with these issues but I also don’t want to be the spokesperson for white South Africans. I want to be able to do anything I want. As a student when you pen down what your work is about, that becomes your cage and with the next thing, you try to get away from what you’ve just said about yourself. So every new group for me is a little bit of an attempt to break free. It’s about the possibility of carrying on and not becoming trapped in your own work and the outside perception of what your work is about.
But as a white South African, it’s a difficult space because there’s a lot of history that must be acknowledged in relation to contemporary society. A lot of that isn’t easy to accept and you can see many South Africans who don’t want to accept it, but at the same time don’t know any other place they can call home. So in a sense then, as an artist, your work becomes an expression of that struggle?
In a way, yes. After I did my first solo show, I was thinking about being so personal in a public space. I felt exposed, which is why I named my next show “Crying in Public,” a title that partly came from crying religious sculptures. I felt that emotion was something missing a bit from contemporary art and that it would be a bit rebellious to go against that. In a relationship you make yourself vulnerable and I think in art you do the same. But instead of it being something you’re saying about me, it’s something I’m saying about myself, which is tied to that struggle of being.
When you’re making your work, do you think about who you’re making it for?
I think about it less now than when I was doing “Crying in Public” and “Burnt by the Sun.” People know me better now and there’s more context, so I just do what I do really. South Africa is a hard place to come from and you have to think and grapple a lot with identity. When [South African author] J. M. Coetzee was asked about the political intention behind his work, he said, “You can’t say this is the work I have to write, you write the work you want to write and then you know why you had to write it.” I love that he said that. It seems like such a simple thing, but that’s a real point to get to—to truly do what you want to do.