For the third week of my Tate Modern course, The Spirit of Things: Poetry of the Body, we worked with Balindile I by the South African artist Nicholas Hlobo and three of his drawings that incorporate rubber and coral-hued embroidery in his signature baseball stitch.
We spent the first two weeks in the powerful Marlene Dumas: The Image as Burden exhibition, almost overwhelming with its vast rooms of over-life-size faces and bodies staring out at the viewer – confrontational in their gaze, conjured from her masterly brushstrokes, at once alive but ghostly.
This is her portrait of her daughter, The Painter. To attempt poems responding to Dumas' portraits we discussed the exquisite poem 'Michael's Dream' from Mark Doty's sequence 'Atlantis', where he asks, "What is the body? Rain on a window, / a clear movement over whose gaze?" We also discussed Natalie Diaz' erotic and linguistically adventurous poem 'The Cure for Melancholy is to Take the Horn', Sharon Olds' 'Poem for the Breasts' from her TS Eliot prizewinning collection Stag's Leap, and the haunting, floating-on-the-page-like-a-spectre 'Some Ether' by Nick Flynn, the title poem of his debut collection, where the main portrait is an absence with a visceral pressure on the narrator, her hands "resting on my shoulders // trying to steer." Marlene Dumas has written much about her art so we also consulted her writings and quotes, which include this wonderful one:
Drawing is closer to whispering into someone's ear,Dumas' bodies are figurative, but Nicholas Hlobo approaches the body in a more ambiguous way. He titles his work in Xhosa, an Nguni language spoken in South Africa, so like Dumas, there is much attention to titles and the power of words for him. But it's the materials and textures that dominate, industrial rubber such as the inner tubes of tyres, hosepipes, are contrasted with drawings woven and stitched in precise pink and coral thread. His figures are active and organic, giant coiled blossoms suggestive of inner body parts and sexual organs.
while painting is more like the ear itself.
It contains all that has ever entered there.
It listens more than it speaks.
It throws speech into the dark.
Painting is not speechless.
It is a drunken mermaid's song.
We'll spend two sessions with his works. Last night we started by playing the Definitions Game to create unexpected juxtapositions of concrete nouns and their definitions. I gave everyone two nouns, each one on a paper strip, they defined them, then we tore the noun from its definition and passed it to the next person to pin to their nouns. So the definition of a purse which starts as "a receptacle for keeping money safe" was matched to a breast: "a breast is... a receptacle for keeping money safe" and so on, 40 surreal definitions which we laid out on the floor to pick and choose from.
We discussed CK Williams' magnificent poem 'Tar', as it's so full of textural descriptions of industrial black stuff – "licorice", "Dantean broth"– the kinesthetic sensations of flexing ladders, and air "gunked with burst and half-burst bubbles". These helped to write poems in response to Hlobo's rubbery and sutured black and pink forms. The group also consulted a list of eight senses and had to write a poem that included them all, as well as one of the surreal definitions.
Next week we'll study CK Williams' poem 'Invisible Mending' from his collection Repair, to take a closer look at the embroidering aspect of Hlobo's work. His needlework, traditionally women's work, challenges gender roles in his Xhosa culture.