This is an unedited version of a text commissioned by Gallery MOMO, Johannesburg for MOMO The Magazine; launched September 2017.
Pamela Phatsimo Sunstrum, Dazzle, 2015. Image courtesy the artist and Gallery MOMO, Johannesburg.
A female figure crouches. Contained within the space of her body are other bodies: traces of less determinable presences. Movement is implied as two right arms reach downwards. A finger points. The tips of a thumb and forefinger make an almost circular shape. The figure inhabits an empty space that is without specificity. She is focused on something. The object of her attention is not visible to me and I imagine another spatial-temporal dimension. The ambiguity present in the figure’s relationship to movement, space and time extends also to colour. She is blue and horizontal stripes extend across her form.
Pamela Phatsimo Sunstrum, Magnolious, 2015. Image courtesy the artist and Gallery MOMO, Johannesburg.
Another blue figure kneels down on one knee as she supports herself on one hand. Her other arm extends towards her back: a hand rests there, palm outwards. The relationship between skin; clothing; and an abstracted visual vocabulary of forms and substances aligned to the natural world (earth, sky or water) are ambiguous in Pamela Phatsimo Sunstrum’s work. Who are these figures that, displaced from any fixed sense of place and time, perform intriguing bodily movements and gestures, the significance of which can only be imagined? In Dazzle (2015) a figure cradles something in an arm – a mass composed of angular, uneven shapes that I connect to other works within Sunstrum’s oeuvre and, in particular, her interest in abstracted geomorphic forms. In Quadra 04, 2016, a monumental, blue-haired female figure emerges from a mountainous form composed of faceted shapes.
Sunstrum’s art-making enters into rich dialogues with mythological, literary, cinematic, art historical and scientific narratives. The relationship between the female body, the natural world and the idea of landscape is paramount in her work. Each of us will, of course, interpret the work from the basis of our own social and cultural reference points. These may traverse multiple geographical and historical sites; and cross time zones and hemispheres. Of her interest in the relationship between human figures and mountains, Sunstrum comments: ‘For me it is important, in thinking about the process of looking at the figures and the landscapes, that they suggest or insist on some kind of meaning and some kind of specificity but, at the same time, I allow for meaning to be filled in. Certainly there are a lot of references in my work and I am interested in eighteenth century philosophers and notions of the sublime. There is something about a mountain and the act of experiencing it with your body that makes you understand your smallness. The beauty of these epic landscapes is a reminder of our fragile existence.’ Sunstrum speaks here of fragility and yet, in works such as Quadra 04, I see mythical female figures who emerge from the earth as presences that are aligned, throughout the history of humanity, with notions of fertility, birth and (in a more abstract and philosophical sense) with creativity.
Process and medium are closely related in Sunstrum’s work. Her drawings and mixed-media works produced to date, explore a range of media including pencil, ink, watercolour, gold leaf and gouache. They encompass works on paper and wood panel. She tells me that when she begins thinking about a work she almost always begins with drawing. Within the artist’s studio, drawing may function as a ritual which initiates processes of exploration and experimentation. She says that when she first began to pursue art-making she began with a practice of writing: ‘I would give myself a few minutes just to write ideas (or no ideas). It was an act of putting pen and pencil to paper and letting ideas and thoughts come out. This was just a tool that I used to get over that fear that you feel every time that you step into the studio’. She recalls how she began to talk to a mentor about her writing process and he told her: ‘Well writing is useful and I can see how that is useful to you but have you thought about incorporating a daily drawing practice?’ Sunstrum brought this suggestion to her art-making: ‘I still do a lot of writing (I also read) and I think that’s where a lot of the mythological and scientific references feed into the work. But making a drawing every day, whatever form that takes, is really at the heart of my practice. Even though work starts to take other forms (for example, the animations, installations and works on panel) I still think of all the work as an extension of this drawing language.’ She adds: ‘In thinking about how drawing came out of the writing, I realise that I have always been a lover of stories. The kinds of stories that I have always loved have been our common myths. Throughout the world and throughout time we all seem to have this interest in heroes or heroines and the quests that these figures embark on. We can also imagine ourselves as heroes/heroines and our own experiences as filled with meaning. I started to allow my work to be a place for developing these stories’.
In conversation with Sunstrum and through the process of viewing her work, I think about how drawing is so intimately connected to process and the space-time that requires some courage (the fear of the blank surface onto which we must make our mark prevails). I consider what it means in art and life to open oneself up to exploration, experimentation, to the unknown, to success and to failure. In any creative and intellectual sphere, we negotiate our sources which exist in forms that can be tangible or intangible: written, visual, sonic or even intrinsically ephemeral in the sense of thoughts, memories and feelings.
atercolour and gouache on wood panel.