Long, lonely, difficult obedience to the King
A chance friendship spawned South Africa's Christian Worldview Network, decades of parallel journeys in artmaking, and, finally, a joint exhibition.
1988. The lights go down. In the darkened auditorium, the audience settles down for the evening's entertainment. It's been a wonderfully inspiring day at the Valley Arts Conference, where Christian musicians, painters, poets, and dancers have met and talked and prayed and worshiped together on the banks of the lovely Hartebeespoort Dam, near Pretoria. The comfortable, well-appointed conference centre in its tranquil setting echoes heaven, far removed from the struggle raging in the country. No state of emergency here. That's outside. Here, we're all Christians, and we love one another. We're safe.
The first slide flashes onto the screen, and the disembodied voice starts to talk about the public monuments the colonial powers—Boer and British—have erected in South Africa, and my tranquility and enjoyment vanish. What is the speaker trying to do? This is no time for re-opening old wounds between English and Afrikaner! The country is in turmoil. What is needed is unity between Christians, not a revisiting of the painful differences between races and language groups. By the time the slide show finishes, I am seething. When the lights go on, I turn around to see the speaker, sitting high up on the balcony with the projectionist. I'm going to give him a piece of my mind! I tell my husband something of my feelings as I hurry him along to the refectory, where we stand in line to collect our bed-time cocoa and biscuits. He's a brand-new Christian, struggling to figure out how to make Christian art, and I'm afraid that this slide show has been no help at all. I march over to the table where Gert is sitting, Zak in tow, and without preamble launch into my diatribe.
Gert takes it meekly as a lamb, and invites us to sit down. I cannot remember what was said, but by the end of the conversation, I was ashamed of myself, and Gert Swart and Zak Benjamin were friends. That was twenty-two years ago.
I marvel at their friendship. That they ever met is a wonder, since we live hundreds of kilometres apart. What has come forth out of their friendship is an amazing thing.
Their friendship was instrumental in the founding of the Christian Worldview Network, an organisation that sought to put Christians of like vision—that Christ must be Lord of all of life—in touch with one another. In its home-made cut-and-paste photocopied quarterly publication, Many to Many, CWN emphasised that labour for the King and his Kingdom cannot be divided into a sacred and a secular (worldly) sphere. The artist alone in his studio is in full-time ministry. The businessman concluding a deal is serving the King. The Many to Many eventually morphed into The Big Picture, a rather more professional electronically produced magazine, before it was discontinued after a decade. (Some articles may still be accessed online.)
Gert and Zak's long conversations about the nature of Christian art led to the compilation and publication in August 1993 of Christians and the Arts in South Africa: A MANIFESTO. This document has been a life raft to many Christian artists floundering in the heavy seas of the art world, where the message of Christ and His Kingdom is often rejected as content for serious consideration by critics and galleries. It has taught me to understand that Christian artists need to grapple with "the awful surd of sin' as well as with the joy of salvation.
Who knows what ripple effect the CWN and the Manifesto might have in God's world? To me, in my little life, the profound revelation of the Father's care and kindness is revealed in the friendship itself. He knew what He was doing when He bound up Zak and Gert's lives in a bond that has sustained them in their long, lonely, difficult obedience to the King.
In the mid-1990s, Zak was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, and Gert was troubled more and more by a debilitating condition called Multiple Chemical Sensitivity Syndrome. As their health deteriorated, both artists became house-bound, their lives circumscribed by illness. They became isolated from both the art world and Christian community. They shared the frustration of being unable to work as they wished. It takes Zak months to complete a painting. Gert has to work wearing an industrial rubber mask, which regularly fails to protect him from days of incapacitation and disorientation. They have not been able to meet face to face for years, but their telephone conversations, shared prayers and laughter have sustained them both. Recently, their long friendship was crowned with a joint exhibition: The Sacred Everyday.
Zak Benjamin's illness severely limits his physical mobility and brings the small things around him into sharp focus, infusing still corners with hallowed light. His imaginative quest for meaning is gentle and compassionate, humble and full of understanding, deep pity and empathy for the human condition.
A stove with cooking pots reminds us that our daily bread is a gift, and that everything that goes into preparing it our service to God.
A steam-iron glows like a monumental, holy engine in the hand of the Unseen, who is getting us ready, gently but with the weight and heat of suffering, to present us to Himself without spot or wrinkle.
A flower blooms next to a ruler, a scraper, a hammer, a bottle of red wine, and . . . a rolled-up scroll?
Although we do not know what is in store, the Architect and Builder of the universe is at work. A radio and electric kettle on a kitchen counter flank an electric outlet, the cables of three plugs snaking in different directions. A large crack in the wall seems to be a fourth cable, or a bolt of lightning. The temple curtain has been torn in twain, God has spoken, and Zak, represented by his favourite blue teacup in the middle at the bottom of the painting, patiently waits to be filled with power and message.
Gert wrote about the work he submitted for the exhibition:
When Zak Benjamin asked me to exhibit with him I could not refuse—we have been friends for over twenty years and never had a joint exhibition! But, my problem was that for many years I have been working on commissioned pieces and, in between, I have focused my energies on a series of large sculptures that would not suit the intimate spaces of the Tina Skukan Gallery.
It was only when Zak mentioned a possible title for the exhibition, The Sacred Everyday, that I realized how I could fit in. The sacred everyday for me became all the abandoned projects/pieces that clutter my studio (obstacles that I frequently trip over), work that I have not had the heart to throw away nor the inclination to finish. Could they, somehow, be revivified?
So, the pieces I chose to rework for this exhibition have a jumble of motifs, like paper-planes, flying fish, fisted-gloves, eggs, spheres, circles, a tree-of-life and others all trying to point to something greater than themselves.
Besides the large still-life paintings, Zak also exhibited a small etching, Planeless. It is a simple little line-drawing in red on a black background that shows a rotund, bald man pouring something from a bottle onto paper airplanes on a table before him. It is extraordinary, and deeply moving, that these two artists, so ill and working so far apart, both chose to depict paper airplanes. Fragile, with very limited flight, yet so elegant and beautiful, they become a metaphor for our life in the Father's hands.
Here is what Gert wrote about three of his pieces:
A diagonal strut reaches into a space circumscribed by a circle. The purpose of this strut is to position a fragile-pink egg more-or-less in the middle of the space. The egg, in turn, supports a paper plane that needs to wrest itself from the egg in order to imaginatively explore new-found possibilities.
The egg and paper plane combination is repeated within a triangular shape. The base of the triangle is curved giving the impression that it could rock or sway in a gentle, nurturing kind of way. The apex of the triangle upholds a scroll. What influence will this scroll have on the potential drama of the ensemble?
House of Cards
The base is a cross. Above its centre two paper planes form an arch. Sinister-looking gloves prevent access to the archway. All of this is overshadowed by a platform with fourteen regimented figures, half the right way up, the rest upside-down. Peculiar orb-like extensions to their craniums suggest over-developed intellects, and that mind has triumphed over matter (even in death). What would happen to the whole construct if one found a way to dream once again in the heart-space beneath the 'paper plane' archway?
The exhibition opened on a Sunday morning, right after church. Those who were there ate bread, drank wine, and were aware that they stood on hallowed ground.