An Artist’s Reframing of the Past

On first viewing, Jody Paulsen’s textile collages displayed against the bright yellow walls of the SMAC Gallery in Cape Town appear to be a joyful celebration of life. I am drawn towards them, wanting to touch the multiple layers of felt, recalling childhood games and crafts. On closer examination though, I recognise deeper references to my own childhood, strange given that Paulsen is half my age and we are from two different generations.

The three works — Brothers with Imperfect Timing, A Thing of Beauty, and 4 Spoilt Boys — are imbued with symbolism, layered with issues of identity, sexuality, belonging, and representation. Familiar vernacular icons and pop culture images compete for attention with slogans and political signs. I am surprised that I recognise so much of my own history in these pieces: a popular roadhouse, the theatre where we watched variety performances, movies, and held political gatherings, and martial artist Bruce Lee, whose posters adorned the walls of many a young boy I knew growing up.

Detail of artwork Detail of artwork Detail of collage

Fashion statements are juxtaposed with anti-apartheid symbols of resistance. His work references slavery through an image of a slave ship and a kramat (shrine) that represents the circle of safety that Muslim slaves envisioned around the Cape. There are yin-yang symbols, references to local gang culture, soccer and basketball and fast cars.

Paulsen’s work exuberantly asserts his identity, who he is, and where he comes from while inviting the viewer to engage with who they are. The 3D nature of the work adds depth and substance to the colourful texts and images that, while being rooted locally, speak to global issues of identity, sexuality, and gender. I am reminded of the vibrant and diverse cultures, the new language, food, music, and beliefs that arose from slavery in spite of dehumanising legislation and racial subjugation. The same spirit of resistance and survival runs through these fabric tapestries, exploding in a jubilant celebration of what it means to be human.

Paulsen’s family was forcibly removed from an area declared “for whites only” during apartheid, and it is evident that his work is strongly influenced by the experiences of his parents and grandparents’ generation who lived during that time. His work suggests that he is in touch with the trauma of the past as he explores his own blackness as a young South African living in a country that has still to come to terms with its oppressive history. So relatable is this work that it seems that the person who created it must have lived through it himself.

Prof Marianne Hirsch, author of Family Frames: Photography, Narrative, and Postmemory, coined the term “postmemory” to describe the relationship that the generation that comes after has with the one that went before. Through stories, images and behaviour, they are so in touch with the trauma of the past that it is as if they experienced it firsthand. This historical trauma is passed on in cultural memory and becomes normalised unless it is properly acknowledged and addressed. When this trauma becomes normalised, it can manifest in destructive behaviour such as substance abuse, feelings of decreased self-worth, and the re-enactment of trauma and repetition of violence in generation after generation. Repeated cycles of trauma and violence lead to the breakdown of the family unit and to communities that are trapped in poverty.

Despite the abolition of apartheid, crime, poverty, and unemployment are still rife and Cape Town has been described as the most violent city in South Africa. The country experiences high levels of violence that have reached epidemic proportions and one out of four females are likely to be sexually abused before the age of 18. The effects of colonialism, slavery, and apartheid continue to haunt the present and emphasise the need to address the past.

We cannot bury the past — to do so would be to ignore the pain and suffering inflicted upon millions of people and to condone the immoral behaviour perpetrated by those who believed in their superiority based on the colour of their skin.

I am energised and inspired by Paulsen’s reframing of the past, telling the stories through a different lens, reconsidering it without its tragic dimensions, and the possibility of transformation and healing through the telling of not only his own story, but that of a community.

Hirsch’s approach to memory is a reparative reading, open to different approaches to reassessing the past. She suggests that within families, the children of those affected by collective trauma carry the responsibility and the awareness of a sense of loss and the desire to make amends. Paulsen’s self-examination offers us an opportunity to re-examine how we see and touch the past and, in so doing, reconsider how we may live.

Jody Paulsen was born in Cape Town in 1987 where he continues to live and work. He has an MA in Fine Art from the University of Cape Town and has exhibited locally as well as internationally.