Grass People 2015 | Alliance Francaise Johannesburg
Human fragility and the cycle of life, death and resurrection are the main themes embodied in an exhibition of new works by Helena Hugo. The exhibition consists of a series of detailed portraits of sugar cane workers as well as fibre art pieces made from the clothes worn by the portrayed individuals.
Using as a point of departure sugar cane cutters and sugar cane, Hugo explores the human condition and the fate of us all.
Sugar cane - which in essence is nothing but grass - becomes a metaphor for our lives and the impermanence thereof and also represents the cycle of birth, death and resurrection. Like the grass of the field or a wild flower our earthly time is short and our lives are vulnerable and unpredictable -withering away.
The sugar cane plant has its own significant life cycle. Each year it is burnt, cut down to the ground and thereafter even poisoned to make it "suffer" in order to increase its sugar content only to rise again in spring -like a phoenix from the ashes, growing up to two metres in 12 weeks. And what become of the burnt reeds? The life essence of the plant is finally crystallised from these as pure white sugar by the removal of impurities after a long process of crushing, diffusing and boiling - an appropriate symbol of resurrection and hope.
The sugar cane cutters with their heads covered or hooded, their pangas scythe-like and depicted among the fallen sugar cane reeds remind us of the grim reaper. Determined, they are still only there to do their job.
Their clothes, old garments that wear away like lives, are not clothes anymore, but taken apart and re-appropriated - another reminder of impermanence. Yet clothes also become a symbol of new life and resurrection, re-established here as reborn objects with new meaning.
Clothes form a strong personal bond with the owner's life originating from its closeness to the wearer's body, saturated with sweat and in this case sugar cane juice and soot and always worn within the wearer's milieu, becoming one with body movement, living and working.
African textiles are significant in that they have always played an important role in tribal identity, status, life celebrations and burial rituals as well as being a sign of mind states like bereavement in the case of a funeral or joy at a wedding. The weaving process itself embodies many spiritual and mythical meanings. One is that each stage of spinning and weaving thread is a symbolic analogy to human reproduction and resurrection.
The thread that weaves through this exhibition is analogous to the universal connection between us all by means of our human condition. This condition may not be an abruptly ending linearity, but is more likely to be circular and never ending. In a poem from his publication Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman, after observations of graveyard grass, aptly describes our ending as he sees it: "All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses and to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier."
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