A huge wire installation by Walter Oltmann dominates the entrance of the Origins Centre at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.
Using the linear quality of wire to create forms, the piece traces the migration of humankind from Africa to the rest of the world.
It's the first indication of the many hints and clues to humankind's physical, spiritual and creative development over the past 80 000 plus years.
Upstairs at the temporary gallery, another form of human inquiry takes place, tracking the artistic development and career of the late artist, scholar and educator Colin Richards.
Called A Fine Line, the exhibition is a collection of works that link his early experience as a medical illustrator (from 1977 to 1985) with his later practice as a fine artist. The medical illustrations are placed in relation to works in which ambiguity and the imagination are given free rein.
That the Origins Centre is the location for the first exhibition of Richards's work since his untimely death in December last year is fitting, as is the fact that it has been curated by his wife, the artist Penny Siopis.
Richards and Siopis met in the Origins building in its previous incarnation as the arts school, where they both worked. It was also the first place he worked after leaving his career as a medical illustrator–both of which were origins of a different sort.
But it is fitting, more specifically, because much of his work dealt with a forensic inquiry into the fundamentals of where something begins, where it ends and the traces that remain, which ties in with the archeological inquiries at the museum itself.
Says Siopis: "The marks he made were so precise, you could hardly believe a person had made them. There's a [tension] between the medical and humanity. He distanced himself from the subject for the sake of objectivity, but there is also a feeling of being human. The fine line is the line between human and other, objectivity and subjectivity, and the rational and emotional. The line brings these things together and separates them.”
His repeated use of skulls, shrouds (the Veil of Veronica, which allegedly bears the direct imprint of Christ's face, is considered by some to be the first photograph), tortoise shell and other symbols addresses this, as does his laboriously meticulous mark making, themselves a trace of the artist.
Richards was quoted as saying: "I am interested in labour … It seems to me that this process of work has something deep to do with the specific humanness of creative work. Actually making, fabricating and reproducing remain central to my sense of purpose as a creative person.”
Through careful observation and attention to detail he laboriously sifted through the bones of the philosophical questions that have plagued us throughout history–notions of subjectivity and objectivity, the self and the other, and power and powerlessness.
The work Homunculus, for example, addresses the weight of fatherhood and the notion of authoritarianism. The beautifully rendered watercolour in the Renaissance tradition of early medical illustration shows a cleanly dismembered torso, with a diagrammatical cross-section through the genitalia.
The torso is essentially powerless, yet it is granted a degree of humanity by being placed on a draped white cloth.
Another series, comprising White Headstone and Veronica White Headstone, plays with the ideas of positive and negative, copies and originals.
In a sense, the idea is that we are human because of our relationship to the environment, and that absence is only marked by the presence of humans.
Interestingly, in the creation of White Headstone, Richards had a nosebleed and a drop of blood fell on the meticulously rendered watercolour. It now remains for posterity as a specimen of his DNA.
But there are also much gentler examples on the exhibition, such as the soft and magical watercolours of his son, which told of Richards's practice as an art therapist and emotions as a father.
"[Colin was interested in] the idea of the naked hand, at looking at the human trace drawn by hand. As a skull stands for a person, so the marks were his line. The line traces his presence,"says Siopis. "The subtlety of the line shows the subtlety of inquiry. He was very interested in the origin of things …”
From Richards's first drawing of a foot in formaldehyde, which got him his job as a medical illustrator, through scientific illustrations, carefully rendered watercolours and finely rendered pen and ink, A Fine Line is a fitting tribute to one man's trace in the sea of human inquiry.
South Africa brings together art and history
The connection between art and a collection of old bones might not seem obvious at first, until you start doing a little excavation into our evolutionary history.
South Africa, it seems, is the birthplace of artistic endeavour. Creativity and development of culture and technology have been linked throughout history.
Forming part of the Origin Centre’s collection is a piece of ochre found at the Blombos Cave near Cape Town. It appears to be part of a sophisticated arts workshop where the earliest known paint palettes were mixed and stored.
An example can be found in an upcoming display of a collection of 90 rock engravings.
A gallery space is being built to house the collection, among which are two rock gongs. The thinking is that in creating the engravings the artist would strike the rock, revealing its musical qualities. This led to the creation of music. A workshop will be held in October to explore this development.
The aim of the museum, according to Steven Sack, director of the centre, is to animate the displays and ideas through workshops, discussions and educational programmes that are directly relevant to the Origins Centre.
"This must be an animated space that people want to keep coming back to," he says. –Lisa Johnston
A Fine Line will be on display at the Origins Centre until September 2. The Origins Centre is open from 9am to 5pm Monday to Saturday ?and from 10am to 5pm on Sunday. Phone 0117174700 or visit origins.org.za