Visual artist Mariapaola McGurk’s body of work at TAF speaks to disconnectedness, anxiety and loss, due to pandemic

The artist juggles her 9-5 job as a civil servant and working at night as a practising artist

By Edward Tsumele, CITYLIFE/ARTS Editor

Towards the end of last year, almost by this time last year, I found myself interested particularly in finding out what was going on at Constitution Hill, a place full of history and a place us joburgers, simply prefer to call Con Hill. This is because at the time, there was renewed buzz going on there, as the place keeps on reinventing itself. In a way, it has to, because as the place stands today, it is not what it was more than 30 years ago. Then, it was a place of pain and suffering, a prison where those agitating for change and transformation of society were often jailed. This is where the notorious prison called number Four used to be housed during apartheid, and freedom icons such as Gandhi, the late first President of a democratic South Africa, Nelson Mandela and others were once imprisoned there, and so were women prisoners of the time such as the late Winnie Madikizela Mandela and others.

But today, it is a place of hop, transformation and where justice prevails as it is a home to interesting art ideas, concepts, artistic experimentation and where human rights and people’s dignities are protected, among several cool and important things happening at Con Hill. The Highest Court in the land, the Constitutional Court is also housed on this hill,  that sits awkwardly between Hillbrow on the East, Parktown on its Northern side and Braamfontein on its Western side. The place is so awkwardly geographically positioned to the extent that its location is  awkwardly referred differently as a place in Hillbrow, in Braamfontein, or in Parktown.  It really depends on the mood of the day or the person who’s mood, where they decide locate it. But it is is there. It is here.

However you want to position Con Hill, the fact remains, and that is that, the  Con Hill of today, owned by the Gauteng Provincial Government, is an important place to know, visit and reminisce about its past, the past of South Africa and its future as well. It is a place where the past lives side by side with the present as both elements are also important in forming its future. Philosophically, it is as awkward as its geographical position. I mean how does one place embrace an ugly future and at the same time meld that past with an uncertain present to create a promising future?  But that is what Con Hill is today to most people that have visited it and got to understand the role it plays in the current South African socio-political context.

 For example, is it in Hillbrow? Braamfontein? Parktown?  Or philosophically, is its past as important as its present and future. In short, Con Hill is an interesting place to visit and work. It is an interesting political and philosophical construct in post apartheid South Africa. Visit it to immerse oneself in its rich historical heritage where struggle heroes that contributed to what South Africa today were once imprisoned. And it is an interesting place to work at simply because the dream of a vibrant, culturally diverse South Africa also is also solidly etched in its walls, boulders and every single space you find here, including its former prison cells-turned into music studios and museums of politics.

Anyway, during the day, this is where you will find Mariapaola, a creative turned civil servant. She works here in her 9 to 5 job, charged with transforming part of Con Hill into a vibrant and culturally diverse arts hub. When I first interviewed her towards the end of last year, she had just been appointed to her current position, whose main responsibility is to transform part of Con Hill into an arts hub, a home to artists’ studios, and also a home to small businesses and entrepreneurs in the creative sector. That is what she does during the day.

But come night, back at home, she transforms her mind into a psychological frame of a practising visual artist, working in paper, after changing the medium in which she initially worked in, which is painting.

She in fact has just completed a body of work, which will be exhibited at the Turbine Art Fair (TAF) in Illovo, starting on September 30 running to October 2, 2021.

CITYLIFE/ARTS had a chat with her this week, focusing on her as a practising artist, and not as a civil servant, particularly her participation at TAF 2021.

CITYLIFE/ARTS:  Can you broadly discuss your art practice, as in style and your area of focus as well as your medium.

Mariapaola McGurk: I am a papercutting artist. I currently work with black paper in both very small artworks (10cm x 5cm) to large works of 100cm x 70cm. Paper cutting is the art of paper designs. The designs are cut from a single sheet of paper as opposed to multiple adjoining sheets as in collage.The process is slow, and I must be very careful as it really is just a piece of paper. To cut fine detail the paper needs to be thin. I use archival black paper that is the same thickness as normal exam pad paper. Nothing is added to the paper but rather extracted through cutting. The process, fragility of the paper, and the simplicity of material is critical to my conceptual narrative as a visual artist.

CITYLIFE/ARTS: Can you discuss the body of work that you are taking to TAF.

Visual artist Mariapaola McGurk

Mariapaola McGurk: For TAF 2021 I will be showing a range of works that were created over 2020/2021 which reflect my journey through this pandemic. Feelings of loss, fragmentation, and despondency. When lockdown started, I saw my company unravelling and going through an incredibly difficult period. The Coloured Cube had 6 employees at the time and opportunities for work simply stopped. It was an impossible period for all businesses – mine included.

The most difficult component was that there was nothing we could do about it – locked up at home with no opportunities for work. I was incredibly anxious and overwhelmed. The production of artworks was critical to me finding my feet again.

The works that will be exhibited speak to that disconnectedness, anxiety, loss, isolation and confusion. That fragmentation became evident in the artworks and the cutting of paper to release the imagery. You are stepping into my mind – stepping into how I perceive the world and how I try to make sense of it. The paper cutting process is the only thing that allowed me to get through the challenges and turmoil of 2020 – the process, the time, the focus – it clears my mind and helps me find the ground again.

A common thread in my works is the use of patterns to connect the images. The patterns are a functional part of my works as paper cutting is the removal of negative spaces. Without the pattern – the artworks would not stay connected. ‘Finding the Pattern’ became an idea relating not only to the practical rules of paper cutting; but to a deeper sense of place and process within ones life. Finding the pattern that holds us together within ourselves; or as a society.

CITYLIFE/ARTS: Is this the first time you are participating in TAF:

Mariapaola McGurk: I have been part of TAF before – as a curator but not as a visual artist. I am thrilled to be exhibiting again after many years of focus on study, making, managing and working. I will be having a solo exhibition at Julie Miller Contemporary in 2022.

CITYLIFE/ARTS: Are you participating as a solo artist or through a gallery, and If so, which gallery?

Mariapaola McGurk: I am represented by Julie Miller Contemporary and will be sharing the ‘stage’ with fellow visual artists LuzukoDayile and Fleur de Bondt.

CITYLIFE/ARTS: You mainly work in govt now and how do you find the adjustment of being a practising artist and being a civil servant, as sometimes some people find this balancing act quite challenging as I can imagine you need to attend planning meetings, and sometimes strategies are never implemented as fast as in the private sector?

Mariapaola McGurk: This is an ongoing challenge for many creatives – one that I wish there was more discussion on. Creatives have a very specific way of working that often does not synergise with governmental processes and structures, so there is often a disconnect.

There should be an awareness from government that if they truly want to develop the creative economy and allow it to have the substantial economic, social, and psychological impact it could (and does) have on society then they must start listening, start learning and start implementing ways to enhance rather than suffocate. My artwork is done in the nights – for hours and hours I will cut and go into another place where words and linear thinking are not necessary. We all have a variety of contributions to make in society.

I do wish to contribute to the growth of the creative economy and creative entrepreneurship; as well as sharing the reality of the sector and how it functions with those who could be better supporting that growth. Visual art is the rhythm of my life – the reminder of the actual point of anything.

CITYLIFE/ARTS:  How long have you worked on this body of work? What are the issues you are raising in this particular body of work If any?

Mariapaola McGurk: I often struggle to explain and put the conceptual reasoning of my art into a few sentences. Since my teenage years I have kept visual diaries. I have boxes of them. I regularly re-work, re-look at works I did years before. They remind me of the common thread in my thinking and in my processing, but they also offer visual context which I can then reinterpret with my new knowledge and skills. For the first 10 years of my career, I was a full-time painter. Many of my sketches just did not resonate with this medium. For the past 10 years I have focussed only on paper cutting and have found that this medium speaks to my early sketches. This has led to an on-going body of works that speaks to the human experience – my human experience. A work such as ‘From Control to Chaos’ was initially sketched when my first child was born 15 years ago. It was only during Covid that the sketch seemed right to develop into artworks.

The idea of artists having to clarify what issues they are raising in their work has always confused and annoyed me. We are not narrators –we are not writers – our language is our work. Our work needs to speak to the viewer. Every artist is grappling with their identity, their perceptions of the world, their experiences, challenges and views. Every artist is dealing with politics and society. Art is complex and layered. It has an obvious narrative which one can speak to, but all good art has many contextual and philosophical layers too. When one looks at my work there is an obvious visual relationship to the feminine – but my choice of medium, of using only black paper, of having very stylised imagery and simplistic compositions – all of this plays into deeper ideas which I hope the viewer relates to.

.Mariapaola McGurk’s artwork can be seen at TAF G10 and G11

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