‘I am my own landscape’ Minnette Vári 
At her latest solo exhibition at the Goodman Gallery (21 January – 13 February 2010), Parkwood, Johannesburg, Minnette Vári presented Parallax, a series of anamorphic images on paper and video work.
One of the great things about a gallery walkabout is that one invariably gains some new insight into an artist’s life and work, and Vári’s gallery talk was no exception. In addition, audience participation of particularly well-known artist and academic, Karel Nel, and curator, Neil Dundas, added value to the discussion.
Vári explained the origins of the body of work on show, taking us back to her grandmother’s spinning area, a sacred place, a private space all her own. Vári reminded us that spinning and weaving is customarily considered woman’s work and often associated with single women, women living ‘abnormally’ alone, self-sufficient women defying convention. ‘Spinsters’, Vári says, ‘can be perceived as curiously sinister, verging on dangerous’.
Vári maintains that it is through the act of weaving that women construct their own narrative, weaving together different strands of their lives. It seems, she says, that spinning relates to the symbolic threading of a story, the narrative of women and the unspoken word – yet it is also something very present. ‘It is a way to explain the self to the world – and the world to ourselves’, she says. ‘We can’t help ourselves, we have to tell our story at some stage’, Vári adds. The artist explained how much of the work on show does indeed reference her fascination with her grandmother’s spinning room but, importantly, she drew inspiration from the work of turn of the nineteenth century Spanish painter and printmaker, Francisco Goya, more specifically his ‘Los Caprichos’ series. Vári formulated her Wisdom series around Goya’s moral parables based on goddesses symbolising the three stages of womanhood. She has incorporated Goya’s, ‘collection of obscure moral parables on the follies of humankind’. Vári says that there is something ‘radical’ about women weaving and spinning and this is what she explores in The Discovery of Writing (Skein) and The Discovery of Writing (Weft).
Vári maintains that Goya was a first voice of feminism and is historically acknowledged as one of the first artists to ‘speak out’ against humankind’s brutality and atrocities. Through his art Goya excavated the darker side of history, exposed and communicated social inequalities. Vári’s sensibility shows an affinity with Goya’s visceral treatment of supernatural subject matter that allegorises socio-political realities. He poignantly commented on social structures such as the young girl given over to a much older man in marriage – and the follies of families and the church for allowing their daughters to be mistreated in this manner.
A particular focus of the exhibition is a meditation on the way history and myth consider the different ages of women ‘from temptresses to hideous crones and imbecilic innocents’ and these stereotypes are ‘viciously, but just as often tenderly, portrayed’ by Vári.  The triadic figure of the Fates, appearing in many guises in different cultures, weaves its way through Vári’s work in diverse forms and media.
Female transitions form the underlying theme of the ink on paper series, Wisdom of the Impious (Flown) (2010), Wisdom of the Impious (Spun) (2010) and Wisdom of the Impious (Strewn) (2010). In an interesting morphing of the image, these three works can be viewed straight on, but they assume a different perspective when viewed side-on. Added layers emerge from different standpoints revealing within the landscape the women inspired by Goya’s Los Caprichos, often floating somewhere between land and sky.
As Vári points out, goddesses are often grouped in threes (most notably the many depictions of the three graces) – and the three stages of womanhood. Vári portrays the young woman who spins the thread of life, the woman as mother ‘who measures the thread and who meets out the thread – and who has the measure of us’ and then there is the older woman, the woman that is feared, the ugly old crone. Vári’s describes the Wisdom drawings as anamorphic distortions of Goya’s Los Caprichos women and calls her renditions ‘fluffy young things, mature women, and old crones’ flying across the sky as she locates the women in these three states of being. She also interrogates our role on earth in Wisdom of the Impious (Strewn). There is the promise (or menace) hanging over us that one day with the breaking of dawn, we will leave this earth and be gone – and we will wonder if it mattered that we were here.
During recent research periods in Italy Vári observed how different the night sky looks in the northern hemisphere compared to, for her, the well-known southern skies. Restless at night she went walking and observed the northern constellation. She began to place her camera face up on the ground and captured numerous images of the ‘haunted’ sky watching over us – now incorporated in the Dog Star series. Watching the sky watching over us earthly beings began to raise questions for Vári. ‘How will we look into your own graves? Will we do so with lightness or will it be with darkness?’ she asks.
Vári features Sirius, the Dog Star, which symbolizes a bridge between higher and lower consciousness. When she returned to Johannesburg she suddenly realised that she had been ‘following the stars’ with the changing seasons and Sirius was now shining brightly in the southern hemisphere. Prominent in these constructions are various star maps showing the seasonal migration of constellations such as that featuring Sirius, the Dog Star. She explores landscape in terms of Johannesburg in relation to the world – a city with wide open spaces – and Vári weaves together body and place with fantastical and allegorical places and creatures. She presents virtual and imagined places set within actual cartographic material, such as Google Earth.
Totem (2010), a digital video with stereo audio, has a distinctly Italian feel with the swaying cypress trees framing the churning, morphing piled up bodies. The trees are quintessentially Mediterranean, but in reality the trees in Vari’s Totem were photographed in the courtyard of her Johannesburg home, once again unsettling our sense of geographic place – and our sense of belonging to a specific landscape. The assembled group watched Vari’s video and how the anamorphic bodies swirl in the landscape. The artist remarked that an objective was also to consider the notion that ‘we are much more that just who we are’. ‘We are largely defined and determined by our sense of belonging’, says the artist. If it were not for our specific place within a family structure or how we fit into the layers of lives that have gone before us we would not be who we are, Vári maintains.
Vári explores the interconnectivity of human beings and expands on the idea that we inhabit this world because of others. Karel Nel remarked that we are all just conduits of information, of what has gone before. Vári quotes Isaac Newton who famously wrote, ‘If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.’ In Totem Vári stacks several layers of bodies one upon another, all doing the same thing at the same time, flowing through the seasons of our lives as the spindle turns and as the sky reflects the changes of the flow of time.
The eerie soundtrack for Totem is composed of the recordings of different women sighing. The sighs are melded together and mimic the haunted sound of wind blowing in the night. Vári’s has recorded her own ‘anxious sigh’, the sigh embodying her mother’s ‘pent up frustration’ (she was ill at the time), there are ‘delighted and delightful sighs’, erotic sighs and despairing sighs. As we viewed the cypress trees swaying in the wind and the bodies heaving to the rhythm of the sighs, Vári observed that the cosmic eye looking over us would no doubt also sigh at us from time to time.
Nel commented on the recurrent and dominant theme found in Vári’s work, that of morphing the body and the landscape. Vári contends that we are formed by our landscape, as is our politics shaped by the landscape and certain geographies. We respond to our lives in terms of the landscape of our personal experience, our place of birth, our battle fields, our history and the psychological geography we construct for ourselves. Geographical spaces serve as our markers in life – even if this does not always make rational sense, she says. We only need to consider how a drive along a certain route can trigger a memory and transport us back to a very specific moment in our life.
Nel expands on this line of thought saying that in pre-literate societies, there were no boundaries between the private body and the landscape, and that Vári interprets her body in relationship to the landscape in a similar fashion. She says, ‘I am my own landscape. The horizontal body is just another landscape, a very personal one.’ There is, she says, a thin membrane between body and landscape and psychological terrain. It is only through our skin that we are able to internalise all that gushes into the crevices of our beings, she adds.
What it means to be African is a contentious in general, but for the descendents of Europeans who grapple with the notion of what it means to be African there are added considerations. Nel poses the question whether Vári imagines herself from the perspective of the European psyche or an African psyche. Vári responds that she does not know how to be European and conversely she does not know how to be African. White South Africans look like Europeans in every way, yet we have been born and live in Africa, some of us for many generations. Of course, in South Africa this debate is very much contested ground as we attempt to decipher what it means to be African. Vári says, ‘When I say I am African I feel that in some way I am lying, yet I am attached to and feel part of the landscape.’ ‘But, what does it take to be African?’ she asks
A central work on exhibition is, ‘Parallax’, a digital video on DVD with audio stereo, a work in which Vári has formulated multiple layers of images that morph into each other, images of nature, of flowing water, trees and moths, the human body. The crone called Atropos who gave her name to Death’s head moth and around which superstitious lore abounds swoops in and out of the video frame. This compelling motive draws out a personal recollection for the artist through her entomologist grandfather. The genus of the moth, Acherontia, draws its name from the mythological river Acheron that souls must cross into the underworld. There is also an actual river Acheron in north-western Greece, and this play between mythical and real landscape is a recurring theme of Vari’s work being exhibited.
Nel commented that Vari’s work shows the morphing of the body into a part of the universal world, a constantly immutable change at the heart of everything – and that the music becomes the overarching element. Nel observes that Vári’s work has surrealistic qualities but also elements of Cubism. Like the cubists she looks for the formal elements but like the surrealists she looks for the mythic and the psychologically that destabilise – and that she dwells on both the psychological and physiological realm, he remarked. The combination of the formal and the psychological becomes a lever of detachment – a means of throwing the viewer slightly off balance, Nel added. One recognises the symbolism in Vári’s work, but she does not employ imagery in the usual context making for an unsettling undertone. And, as Neil Dundas concludes, it is with a thread of creative power that the artist weaves her narrative through all the works on show – resulting in works where the ‘mind morphs matter’.
 Minnette Vári at the exhibition walkabout 13 February 2010
 From the Greek for ‘change’ or ‘alternation’, Goodman Gallery publicity material
 Goodman Gallery publicity material
Goodman Gallery publicity material
 Goodman Gallery publicity material