In Knysna she made a definite shift from focusing exclusively on people to a more nature related focus and her work also began to reveal a more conceptual tone
AN EXHIBITION by Helena Hugo, titled Legacy, is open at the William Humphreys Art Gallery and will run until March 13.
According to the website Art in South Africa, Legacy explores the unease we as humans experience with the idea of the loss of “self”, which can be equalled to the fear of death and how it sometimes manifests in destructive behaviour towards other humans, animals and nature.
“It is often revealed in our need to dominate, change and rule over or separate ourselves from other humans and nature or to possess money, things, land or property, knowledge, prestige and even other humans. It also becomes apparent in our need to be remembered or to leave a legacy,” the artist states.
The idea for this body of work began with a three-month artist’s residency sponsored by the Southern African Foundation For Contemporary Art (SAFFCA) on Entabeni farm in Knysna during the end of 2018.
In Knysna, Hugo was surrounded by the beauty and resilience of nature recovering from the 2017 Knysna fires, yet it was also there, in her direct environment, where she was constantly confronted with habitat destruction and the working of humans against nature. Furthermore, on October 24 the Outeniqua mountain fires broke out and destroyed over 68 000 hectares of vegetation in 10 days, four times the area of the 2017 Knysna fires.
Hugo is known for her highly detailed expressions of people, especially South African and migrant hand labourers, people who are often overlooked, but who play an important role in our economy and society.
In Knysna she made a definite shift from focusing exclusively on people to a more nature related focus and her work also began to reveal a more conceptual tone.
The transition was not a difficult one since Hugo believes that, in essence, to care about nature is to care about people, especially the more vulnerable people of our society. For years Hugo has, through art, explored the frailty and transient nature of human life. With this exhibition she begins to explore the even greater precarious fragility of nature.
Soon after her return from Knysna she was made aware of the flamingo crisis, which started in Kimberley and soon became a national rescue effort to save the baby flamingos of Kamfers Dam. She began as volunteer to help raise the flamingo chicks.
Born from her proximity to these near threatened birds and because of the similarities of the themes and issues explored during her Knysna residency, and that which became apparent from the flamingo rescue effort, she decided to add to her Knysna work ideas which related to, and were developing from, her time as a volunteer.
The relevance of the flamingo situation to her exhibition concept was obvious.The Kamfers Dam situation in Kimberley was essentially a problem of habitat scarcity, habitat threats and habitat loss both directly and indirectly caused by humans. Even the severe weather conditions and droughts were indirectly caused by human activity causing global warming and abnormal weather conditions.
She started to gather reference material in the form of photographs, sound recordings and materials used during the rearing process and took impressions of the juvenile flamingo’s feet using non-toxic, fast setting “algeanate”, used in the dental industry and matching and cataloguing these with the flamingo’s microchip numbers.
The result was a conglomeration of work exploring our natural heritage or legacy and that aspect of the ownership of land and nature, which is linked to habitat destruction.
She began to question the word “legacy”, a much used word and one she often heard used during her residency stay. What do different people consider to be the definition of “a legacy”? Is it material wealth and property or something that will make future generations remember the “I” in me? But in trying to achieve this, what happens to our natural heritage which belongs to future generations as much as to us?
By piling up short-term comforts, excesses and artificial possessions during a single short life span and, yes, perhaps even being able to leave these behind for our own children, how much of nature’s precious and irreplaceable natural inheritances are being disregarded, damaged and permanently lost to coming generations in order to satisfy our short-term goals?
But, when Hugo speaks of these human tendencies she includes herself, because to be human is to possess an ego and to be trapped in a system for which the only perfect solution would be a total and global paradigm shift in the way we think about our relationship towards nature.
“Rescuing the flamingo chicks of Kamfers Dam was an enormous effort and many sectors worked together to aim for success. By attracting the lesser flamingo to a man-made dam and island in an effort to increase their breeding capacity, we as humans had a special responsibility towards these birds breeding at this specific site. The rescue effort not only saved the life of a number of near threatened birds, but with extensive media attention had the effect of exposing local municipality irregularities, which could not be overlooked or ignored any more and caused reparations to be made regarding the neglected dam and nearby sewage works,” Hugo states.
“Yet giving of one’s time and money to ‘save’ something as endearing as a baby flamingo has a certain feel good aspect to it. Volunteers felt that they were part of something big and doing something good on a larger scale. But would there have been as many volunteers who would be willing to work towards saving an endangered amphibian or fungi, for instance?
“A definite carbon footprint of its own has been left by the rescue effort. Shrimps, fish, eggs and other food, medical supplies wrapped in plastics, sheets and towels, electricity and petrol for planes and cars … all unnecessary stuff for a mother bird raising her chick in the wild. Keeping all of this in mind, such a rescue effort may unfortunately have its own negative aspect, affecting other species on the planet and even the very future of the lesser flamingos themselves. Not so much a vicious, but a not so successful circle comes in view when looking at it on an all encompassing global scale.
“Nobody can do it better than mother nature and it will behove us to remember that prevention is better than cure, that everything is connected and every single day of our lives offers us endless opportunities to make positive contributions towards the well-being of all species. We do not need to wait for the next flamingo crisis, we can make our mark every day to help the lesser flamingo of Kamfers Dam and all remaining species.”
In terms of the Legacy exhibition, there are two important symbols to be found, clothing and the human skeleton. Also algae, the staple food of the lesser flamingo, is used as material in some of the works and most of the work takes on a greenish hue.
Clothing forms a very strong personal bond with the owner’s life – it is close to the wearer’s body and it shares the owner’s life for a time and it shares their work. Clothing therefore becomes a metaphor for a person’s life and at the same time here, it becomes a symbol for possessions. Hugo has an interest in creating new objects with new meaning from old and withering or discarded objects, thereby imitating life cycles.
She often uses clothing obtained from migrant labourers. The clothing for the fibre art pieces in this body of work was obtained from migrant sugar cane cutters and the piece of clothing used as subject matter in the paintings was obtained from a migrant farm worker on the Entabeni farm residency premises.
The human skeleton is a metaphor for death, heritage and legacy, that which ultimately will be left of us, by us, and for us, in the physical world and that which we may also be forcing onto our environment and fellow sentient beings. Green is life. Algae, our main oxygen supplier and an important role-player in the beginning of life on earth.
Shadows, reflections and imprints are more vehicles which are frequently used in the artworks to convey impermanence. None of the work on the exhibition portrays living breathing things. The images in the artworks are that of long dead or recently deceased people and animals or reflections and shadows, which is but a fleeting moment in time.
The flamingo footprint impressions comes nearest to portraying life, but even those are fourth generation copies of the living original and some of the footprints were taken from deceased birds.
Many of the artworks remind us of archaeology – in the fibre art pieces and embossings, layers of soil are portrayed, like layers of meaning or memory and in some of the paintings we see unearthed graves of recent or long deceased people and animals.
The process of obtaining the flamingo footprints also had the ambience of archaeology. All the algeanate feet imprints were translated into plaster and carefully stored and catalogued in drawers for later reference and use.
Hugo reminds us of the fleetingness of our own lives and of other life forms