Barbara Wildenboer (seen here putting the finishing touches to the memorial to Olive Schreiner) says she wanted the memorial to be aesthetically pleasing as well as something the public would interact with
PICTURE: LENORE CAIRNCROSS © SUNDAY TIMES
BY SUE VALENTINE
ARTIST Barbara Wildenboer speaks about the challenges of capturing the essence of a multifaceted woman, author and activist.
"She was so complex — the challenge was what to focus on to capture Olive Schreiner’s life," says Cape Town artist Barbara Wildenboer.
In the end Wildenboer chose two motifs, which she fused. The first emerged from Wildenboer’s reading of Women and Labour, Schreiner’s 1911 non-fiction work that became a bible for the international women’s enfranchisement movement.
"I wanted to capture Schreiner’s belief in the power of the vote and so decided on using voting crosses in the piece," she says.
At first Wildenboer wanted to try to create something to distinguish the voting crosses as women’s votes; then she decided that given Schreiner’s firm belief in the equality that should exist between men and women, it didn’t make sense to isolate women as a special category.
"I chose the St Andrew’s cross because it has four equal sides. Seeing that Schreiner campaigned for equal rights for men and women and for black and white, I wanted the emphasis to be on equality. The shape of the cross also makes it a bridge between opposites," says Wildenboer.
The other element that she wanted to capture in her installation was something evocative of the Karoo — not only because it is the setting for Schreiner’s best-selling novel, The Story of an African Farm, but also because of the writer’s love of the Karoo — and the fact that it was where her asthma troubled her less.
"I was driving through the Karoo and reading Olive and looking for something that captured ’the Karoo’ and not seeing anything," says Wildenboer. As she travelled past the endless stretches of scrubland, she realised that one of the things that epitomised the landscape was the round farm dam that provides water for the sheep.
An initial idea to create a realistic dam effect with a water pump was shelved and instead Wildenboer created the illusion of water with blue Hammerite paint. This was painted onto a surface of concrete just below the lip of the "dam".
The dam is a brick circle — 2.5m in diameter and built up to a height of half a metre — "sitting height", says Wildenboer, who wanted the piece to be as functional as possible.
Each St Andrew’s (voting) cross is attached to a 20cm length of steel piping inserted into the concrete. A short stem protrudes from the concrete so that the crosses are level with the lip of the dam. The shallow birdbath-like depression will fill with water when it rains, giving the impression that the crosses are floating on the surface.
Because the crosses are raised above the concrete surface, they cast a small shadow on the blue paint a few centimetres below.
Wildenboer says she wanted the piece to fit in with its environment. She hoped the blue would pick up the colours of the sea — False Bay forms a spectacular backdrop to the piece — and that the whitewashed sides of the "dam" would resonate with the white-washed homes of Kalk Bay and St James.
I like the reference to sundials and clocks, and the passing of time, that is suggested by the shadows the stainless-steel crosses throw on the surface
"It’s a simple concept," says Wildenboer. "People will read different things into it themselves. One of the themes in The Story of an African Farm is the issue of time — I like the references to sundials and clocks, and the passing of time, that are suggested by the shadows the stainless-steel crosses throw on the surface."
Finally, Wildenboer wanted the Schreiner piece to be something with which people would interact — that they would sit on the edge of the "dam". "If it’s semi-functional as a birdbath, that will be fine too," she says.
"Also, I wanted something that was aesthetically pleasing. Generally the public think artists are pretentious, anyway — and I didn’t want to reinforce that notion!"