The Human Gesture

Long ago a dealer advised a group of clients against buying my work, as I had lost my integrity. The truth is, I have never had any. Life has been, for me, a mass of contradictory and often threatening stimuli, flashing past at random. My attempts to catch, pin down and identify some of these are what my work is about. In the nature of things I don’t explore those which satisfy and delight, although in my old age I am tempted to recall beloved people, gods and mountains in paint to remind myself what a pleasure my sliver of life has been.

Ballot Box, 1978
10 Lithographs in 11 Framed Panels, 28.4 cm high

Painting and drawing are my means of trying to understand the things that baffle me, primary amongst these being the nature and the necessity of suffering. I dislike being classified as a ‘woman artist’ and used to believe that one’s gender had little to do with how one makes artworks. Lately, I am more and more drawn to the conclusion that female artists are less proactive and more receptive than males.

You Write your Life across my Face, 1993. Oil on board. 90cm x 80cm. (Spier Collection)

Men seem to be stylistically stronger and impose their vision with greater force. Of course, fellow feminists are invited to shout this idea down. It is a notion, after all, not a theory, and maybe it just applies to my own passivity. The severest critics of my work have been men, repelled perhaps by its subjectivity and ’emotionalism’, and possibly by its sometimes ashamed ugliness. In truth, it gets me down too – a bit of pulchritude and some irony would be nice, but as Oliver Stone said, “I’ll just have to be myself. Everybody else is taken.”

So, who am I? I am elderly female artworker – a ghastly term. My antecedents are German and Afrikaans with DNA-proven Pygmy matrilineal thread. My politics are liberal humanist. My faith is inquisitive infidel – not atheist, as I loathe the condescension of their secular priests. My education is Old Fashioned Thorough, with English overtones. My dress code is charlady chic, my hair is by sparrows nest, Mpumalanga. My mantra is that ‘Everything that lives is holy’ – with the exception of racists, demagogues, mosquitoes and people who fix cricket matches. My suspicion is that pain and greed are the cogs around which we revolve. I lack a consistent style, and my work has sometimes been compromised by the need to make a living, which can result in unresolved or flatulent images.

Tombs of the Pharaohs’ of Johannesburg (Triptych), 1987. Mixed Media, 250 x 200 x 150cm. (Tatham Art Gallery)

I respond to the moment and have a self-destructive tendency to let my judgment be clouded by the needs and imperatives of other people. But now, in what is surely the last decade of my life, I want to concentrate on the stimuli that prompt me, to harness the energy that they give me without having to compromise.

I am a crone, not a woman, and I want to embrace all the freedom that this status bestows. My artworks reflect the ideas and events that have engaged my life as a citizen. Politics, faith and the nature of animal life have fascinated me since I was very young, and as is usually the case, manifested themselves in belief and protest and charitable causes of various kinds.

Battery Hen (2 pieces), 1987. Oil on Board, 159 x 156cm

My artworks have never been offered in lieu of participation, they are the philosophical notes I make on the actual existential business of living. Artwork cannot be a substitute for going to the barricades when called to do so, but it can help one to make sense of what one was doing there. If any sense is to be made. Lazy security policemen who knew me as a naive easy target, rather than an adversary of some importance, made three attempts on my life. With lots of these things in life, an embarrassed shrug is the only footnote necessary.

Pomegranate I, 2010. Eleven-colour Lithograph, Edition: 40, 51 x 70cm

Refusing to eat meat because one is morally and physically revolted by factory farming is probably ineffective, but it certainly beats painting about it, and donating to local crisis clinics may cater to somebody’s desperate immediate needs while a drawing in a gallery will not. Making artworks has been the one constant in my otherwise disordered life. It is not because the rewards are great. I remember a tax accountant looking at me with dismay, asking me why on earth I didn’t do something more profitable, when my income showed an improvement from zero to more or less nothing.

Making artworks is how I think. An artwork is something between a thing and a thought. Suffering is the common thread that binds my thinking about faith, life and politics. I explore the democracy of pain in an attempt to make sense of it, and its fellows – anger, resignation and cynicism. This sounds both priggish and pretentious, but I have no better words with which to describe it – which is probably why I am drawn to working in the code of visual images, using my hand and a few elementary tools – oil, pigment and graphite. Artwork which is mediated by other means, such as video and photography hold little interest for me, although I respect many works made in this manner.

Homage to Christopher Smart. 2014. 2/5. Tapestry. 2150 X 2800mm

‘Haptic’ from the Greek for ‘grasp’, refers to the process of recognising objects through touch. I literally try to grasp ideas through the use of a pencil, to identify not only objects, but states of mind, and the seismographic action of pencil or brush on paper records what I am hunting for and how the hunting was done. Each painting or drawing done by the human hand is a force field of hundreds of small decisions, erasures, errors, apprehensions, lucky strokes and hungers. In attempting to create an image, the artist has to feel it, and this informs the boldness of a shadow, the soft feathering of a wing, the jut of a wrist-bone.

Tenderness, outrage and grief are plaited into the image by the artists’ repetitive actions, and the idiosyncrasy of the artist’s feelings reach the onlooker at a different frequency to that of, for example, a news photograph. Compare Goya’s Third of May with any war journalism, or Diane Victor’s raped infant with any forensic documentary. Goya and Victor touch us, while other images inform us.

Human gestures make us human. When we visit art collections and museums, part of the pleasure we feel is in sharing the radiant space where so many hundreds of hours have been spent making so many thousands of marks. Parallel with my need to address suffering, and my attempts to translate it, is my interest in religion. Belief is an artform, created as artworks are, in an attempt to understand the incomprehensible.

Not Being Able to Paint, 1992 Oil on Canvas, 720 x 120cm

But religions embrace doctrine, I need ambiguity and tragedy and the tension of never being certain. Nevertheless, sacred art and music have been the mainstay of my aesthetic life. I have watched, with fascination and sadness how various systems, holy wars, science, the moral squalor of adherents and the spirals of trashy discourse into which arguments descend have eroded.

Malignancy is there, but also splendour. I am trying to find a way to record the death of faith, or its mortal wounding, without being facile, without jeering. Being cognisent of the loss. Christ descends from the Cross, cutting his image down as if it is paper on a billboard. This image pleases me as it honours the capacity we have to make images, and respond to images as if they matter.

A Very Brief Chaucer Reader, 1993. Band Saw Blade, Rust & Golden Leaf on Wooden Base, 19.5 x 15 10cm

I also want to explore the notion of original sin, which assumes that a tiny scrap of humanity drags a toxic load behind it. I want to look behind my abhorrence at Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son to a capricious bully, to see why that ugly story has lasted so long. I want to work out the effect of the desert on the Prophet. And the mountains on Shiva. I am ridiculously grandiose!

Who knows? Perhaps being a crone means looking at the small pleasures of life more clearly. The glancing light on a glass of wine, a couple of white browed robins, the exasperated glances of my grandchildren may well appear in future work. Maybe.

My lack of integrity is, however, a permanent condition. My work is fragmentary, made by a fractured person. This does not stop me from longing to stare into the abyss, as Dante did and “see how all the pages of the Universe are bound by love, into a single volume.” Substance, accident and mode unite, he tells us – a serviceable definition of an artwork, surely, and one that holds out the promise of wholeness, while one gets out the paper and sharpens the pencils, and wait.


This essay by Judith Mason was published in 2010 under the title ‘Human Gesture Makes Us Human’ in Design>Art No.2. It is republished here with permission of her family. Mason was born in Pretoria on 10 October, 1938. She was awarded a BAFA from the University of Witwatersrand in 1961. She taught painting at WITS, The Michaelis School of Art at UCT and the Lorenzo de’ Medici School in Florence.  In her 2016 book The Mind’s Eye: An Introduction to Making Images she wrote that:


Curiously, the older we get, the less blocked we become.
Ideas flow freely and we have a different problem to deal with:
the sense that we are clutching at the ends of time by our
fingernails. We won’t complete all we want to do, but going out
brush in hand makes for a pleasing obituary.


She died later that year on the 28th December. She is survived by her daughters Tamar and Petra and grandchildren, Maru and Simon.


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