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THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS (article first published : 2004-07-9)

Through the Looking Glass – representations of self by South African women artists - is an important book documenting some historical, but mostly contemporary, works dealing with visual culture. Written by Brenda Schmahmann, it complements a major travelling exhibition that began its run at the National Festival of the Arts in Grahamstown, and continues in Port Elizabeth, Johannesburg and Durban.

The title is a historical reference to the 1870’s tale of a young child, Alice Raikes, who was confounded by her reflection in a mirror. Documenting the exhibition, the book aims to get “behind” the looking glass, behind the genre of self-portraiture, where things are often not as they seem.

Through the Looking Glass examines representations of self by South African women artists from a wide variety of backgrounds and contexts. It explores the many intriguing ways in which paintings, sculptures, prints, photographs and work in other media speak of women’s relation to their communities as well as a broad range of social concerns. Discussing self-representations in light of themes and issues that are of contemporary concern, such as memory and body politics, the book offers important new insights into well-known works as well as interpretations of art that have never previously been reproduced or discussed.

Illustrated in full colour and with a sublimely designed cover, it contains the thoughts and art works of noted and celebrated artists. Chapters are titled self and artist; self and family; self and body; enactments.

Reading this book gives insight into the artists’ thinking and feeling and gives their work deeper meaning through understanding of the inner self revealed.

Through the Looking Glass is described by Marion Arnold, author of Women and Art in South Africa (David Philip, 1996), as “an erudite and persuasive book” that “will make a significant contribution to South African art literature”. The text leans towards the academic but is, on the whole, quite readable. Even if one is not able to see the exhibition, the book is more than just documentation as it deals with and researches the complexity of female identity. It’s a book every woman artist should want to own.

Author of the book Brenda Schmahmann is Professor and Head of Fine Art at Rhodes University. Although she refers to artists such as Dorothy Kay, Maggie Laubser and Maud Sumner, the primary focus is on contemporary artists dealing with contemporary works made during the last two decades.

Artists, whose works are portrayed in the book and can be seen on the exhibition are considered to be among the cream of South African female artists. Names such as Penny Siopis, Marion Arnold, Bongi Bengu, Angie Buckland, Wilma Cruise, Lallitha Jawahirilal, Terrry Kurgan and Kathryn Smith are household names to those who follow the South African art scene.

The exhibition comes to Durban next year and can be seen at the Durban Art Gallery from April to June 2005. Published by David Krut Publishing, Through the Looking Glass is available at Exclusive Books and at the various museums and galleries during the run of the exhibition. Cost R250. – Marianne Meijer.




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