By Helen Teede
A few weeks ago, a musician and friend of mine, Vee Mukarati, approached me to shoot a music video in my studio. After bouncing a few ideas around we decided to do a collaboration in which he would be painted the same colour as a blank canvas and stand in front of it. Through the progression of the song I would make a painting on him and the canvas without acknowledging his bodily presence.
This kind of idea risks being rhetorical and so many things can go wrong. But a collaboration between two artists is always risky. Both of you have to try to abandon your egos at the door and allow the process of working with someone else to take you somewhere you might not have been before, while at the same time maintaining the integrity of your practice. You have to trust each other and have a deep respect for each other’s work for it to even have a chance at being a success. A collaboration-gone-wrong can put a stain on your career, at best, and ruin a friendship at worst. But a collaboration-gone-right, especially one where unrelated media collide, creates an openness to vulnerability, and a dialogue of chance encounters that allows you to assertively experiment with uncertainty.
I’m constantly trying to create this sort of uncertain environment in my studio, so that I am susceptible to what the works and the materials I’m using are telling me, instead of me forcing and manipulating them into doing things without considering them as entities on the other side of a conversation. Being a painter, I spend most days completely alone, so it wasn’t without trepidation that I approached working with a musician, whose process is for the most part about engaging and interacting with people.
I often have visitors to my studio, but they never witness the vulnerable space I enter when I’m deep inside one of my paintings. When I open my studio door, they see the presentable, talkative, friendly, and emotionally-blocked-off side of me. At the prospect of collaborating, I knew I would have to work as if I was alone in a room, but with at least four people present. And for it not to be rhetorical I would have to put all of my mechanisms of defense aside.
What ended up happening, completely unpredictably, was a sort-of endurance performance with Vee standing still for three hours and getting gradually colder, voicing the words to the song which was on repeat, while I allowed my brush to move in lines across the canvas and his body. The shoot began light-heartedly. The three people who were filming, Bongani Kumbula, Kombo Chapfika and Verseless, are natural everyday comedians so we spent of lot of time before the actual painting took place laughing and joking around.
But as we got into it, a stillness settled and time disappeared. I was in dialogue with the music, the canvas, and the body inside the canvas. The song, being on repeat, almost became a chant. It was strange to treat sound as material in a painting, weaving it into and making it react with colour and line. And it was strange to treat a body as material, with the knowledge that inside that body was a person with whom I was making a work of art. There were moments in which I felt extreme vulnerability and deep emotion, fatigue, lightness, pleasure and insecurity all at the same time. Space disappeared. Figurative language disappeared. Pure abstraction, in sound and in marks, asserted itself.
The collaboration taught me that the ephemeral nature of performance is an important material. I am so used to my paintings remaining in the world, that making something with somebody else that only truly exists as a memory has allowed me to begin cultivating a different way of thinking about painting. Documentation can never really cover what happens during a performance, which is why I like the music video so much. It holds a trace of the event, but it isn’t trying to recall exactly what happened. Rather, it exists as an entirely different artwork, made out of the materials collected on that day.
“Over and Over Again”
Written and performed by Vee Mukarati
Filmed, edited and produced by Bongani Kumbula, Kombo Chapfika, Verseless and Vee Mukarati.
- Cage, John, Silence: Lectures and Writings, Connecticut, Wesleyan University Press, 1961.
- Kandinsky, Wassily, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, Trans. M.T.H Sadler, New York, Dover Publications, 1977.