It could’ve been exotic or clichéd, but with Lynne-Marie Eatwell, it’s different
What it takes to go beyond flat and uninspired representations of the Other
Cultural appropriation has become a cause célèbre in the court of public opinion; it has its staunch defenders and its fierce detractors. It has also, rather unhelpfully, become a catch-all term. People apply it to extreme cases such as Jessica Krug and Rachel Dolezal, white US women who built careers on the claim that they were black. Then there are the more banal controversies: singer Adele donning a bikini decorated in the Jamaican flag and knotting her hair to mark the cancelled Notting Hill Carnival.
If dress-up and sustained pretence both fall into the category of impersonation, then another contested form of cultural appropriation is representation. Novelists, in particular, get defensive on this score. If it is the prerogative — nay, the job — of a writer to enter into the minds of characters and to depict them through acts of “sympathetic imagination”, surely no person or group should be off limits? In principle, no, of course not. But in practice, far too many authors fail in this task because they lack knowledge, experience and insight that would allow them to portray demographic “others” in all their complexity.
Visual artists face a similar challenge. Large swathes of Western art history entail an appropriative gaze: subjects who are “foreign” to the artist and the immediate or intended audience are simultaneously exoticised and domesticated, rendered as mysterious or bizarre but also contained and “tamed” within the frame of the canvas. The culture that is appropriated entertains and intrigues: a curiosity on display, rather than something intrinsically deserving of respect and research.
By contrast, when an artist immerses him or herself in a culture, and takes the time not simply to observe a subject and develop a rapport but to build trust, confidence and mutual goodwill, this too is conveyed in the work. Such is the case with Lynne-Marie Eatwell, whose paintings I encountered on a recent visit to the Orient Hotel in the Francolin Conservancy outside Pretoria.
Readers may recall that on my last visit to this art-intensive hotel I grappled admiringly with the sculptures collected in the Tienie Pritchard Museum. I wasn’t sure, then, if my response to Pritchard’s evocative bronzes could be entirely separated from the sublime culinary-aesthetic experience I’d had the night before at the Orient’s Restaurant Mosaic. This time, in a gesture towards objectivity, I encountered the art before I indulged in the delights of chef Chantel Dartnall’s floral-inspired spring menu, “Nasturtium”.
It’s hard enough viewing paintings with critical rigour when they are exhibited in such a space; the Orient’s collection covers two floors on symmetrical wings of an architecturally grand gallery. It’s almost impossible to do so once furnished with a glass of the finest champagne by sommelier par excellence Moses Magwaza. I tried. Really. But Eatwell’s large-scale canvases blew me away.
They transport the viewer, in the first instance, to the Mongolian steppes. Here eagle hunters gather to compete, their bodies caught in action or repose. The painter’s palette conveys the thin, blue air; her brushstrokes capture stillness but suggest movement — the flash of an eagle’s wing, the shimmer of a fur hat in the wind.
Now we are in Cambodia, through an impressionistic treatment of a fisherman casting his net into Tonle Sap Lake, upriver from the Mekong Delta. A few metres on and we are on the Camargue in France, where Eatwell’s favourite nonhuman subjects, horses, emerge into the morning light in iridescent shades of white, gold and blue.
Those of us who are worldly-wise know better than to fall for such cliché. And yet, and yet ... aren’t these scenes marvellous? Aren’t these people, in these places, profoundly important to our understanding of human history, diversity, dignity? When much of the world’s population has gone down the plughole of urban hypermodernity, or has succumbed to climate collapse, will they still be around? Or will they be among the next to vanish?
There is, along with celebration, a mournful sobriety in the oil and watercolour portraits taken from Eatwell’s series Hunter-Gatherer: Faces of the Khoisan. The artist pays tribute to the Ju/’hoansi Bushmen of Namibia without sentimentality or false nostalgia. Nonetheless, the viewer knows that the subjects into whose eyes we stare signal both endurance and, ultimately, disappearance.