by Caitlin Cairns
As part of our school Visual Arts Programme a few months ago I had the opportunity to visit Rika Nel’s recent exhibition at the National Art Gallery titled “Paper as a Metaphor for the Fragility of the Human Being.” The exhibition formed part of Nel’s Master’s Degree in Fine Art, the first of its kind to be awarded at UNAM. The exhibition consisted of various components, reflecting upon different forms of abuse and violence.
“Paper as Metaphor” is one of the few exhibition I have visited that I truly felt touched and inspired by. The layout of the exhibition was captivating with pieces set all across the room, hanging on the walls, from the ceiling and standing in vacant spaces. The dramatic atmosphere was set with the sound of instrumental music playing throughout the exhibition.
The exhibition was an interpretation of violence, representing stories of victims of domestic violence and other physically brutal crimes. A story was told on each of the four walls of the room, with masks representing faces of victims. Each mask was a representation of someone’s past. They were created with mixed media, found objects and recycled materials with the foundation of the piece being papier-mâché. Each mask was represented by a history of scars. Some featured the mouth as a zipper and sometimes along with a padlock. Certain masks eyes were shut with material.
Viewing this I felt their stories being told. The zippers were representing someone being terrified to speak out about their abusive struggle or those who were threatened not to say anything at all. The covering of the eyes could be seen as the victim wishing that nothing was seen. Other masks were cracked or split and some were pierced with a nail or a bullet. These were the physical struggle and scars of victims. Each mask was painted in a combination of different browns and some had more earth and purple tones than others.
The exhibition also contained four small child sized beds in each of the corners of the room. Each bed contained a quilt made out of the paper from a used tea bag. Each tea bag had a line of sayings, quotes and thoughts stitched upon it which said things such as “can we give them back the sense of childhood?”, “My fractured life helped me understand others” and “Killed all men carried off all women and children.” Each bed had a different language. Viewers were given the opportunity to be able to participate in the exhibition by being provided paper to write a thought or experience and place it in a pocket of the tea bag quilt. I found it great that viewers were able to interact and participate in the exhibition in some way.
A dinner table was set up toward the back of the room. It had plates, bowls and place mats laid out upon it. These objects were all made out of tissue paper and white glue. The place mats contained written stories and stitching. The black thread was used to embroider out certain words to take the text out of context and make it relevant to the viewer. The black thread is symbolic of death and mourning. Dikenga and Christian symbols embroiled upon it linked with the text on specific pages.
Below a table on which these objects were displayed, contained many scrolls. The hand written scrolls intended to inform the viewer of the abuse taking place. The content inside the scrolls were from various victims of abuse and other sources. The artist appealed to viewers to open the scrolls and read them as the writing was not autonomous and required a reader and interpreter. After reading, the viewer would have to roll up the scroll, tie it with a ribbon and place it back where found.
In the central spaces of the room, tissue papier-mâché sculptures were placed. These sculptures were figures of people and dismantled bodies. These represented fractured lives. Some of these sculptures were sitting on furniture or placed on mats knitted with paper and others suspended from the ceiling. I found that these sculptures added a disturbing and haunting atmosphere to the exhibition as it filled up otherwise vacant space.
The exhibition provided much to view and to think about. It told many stories throughout and allowed one to participate by writing thoughts and reading thoughts. The exhibition featured a serious cause in a striking way through self-expression. Rika Nel spoke for victims and set out her vision for others to view and be a part of. The exhibition Paper as a Metaphor for the Fragility of the Human Being was well depicted as it provided a striking visual image of how frail people can be, as well as how the actions of others are extremely vital to one’s emotional and physical well-being.