An es­say on Elsa Duault


An es­say on Elsa Duault by Ashraf Ja­mal.

The mys­tic-philoso­pher-painter, the French-born South African-based artist, Elsa Duault, has in­tro­duced a rich vein of thought and feel­ing into our art world. Run­ning against the dom­i­nant in­ter­est, do­mes­ti­cally and glob­ally, in nar­ra­tive-driven art, that is, art shaped by the con­sum­ing fix­a­tion with a raced or gen­dered iden­tity pol­i­tics, Duault has pro­vided us with a more es­o­teric or gnomic set of con­cerns.

Elsa Duault’s ‘credo’, she says, is de­fined by ‘the Great All’, a be­lief in the eter­nal cir­cu­lar­ity of life in which ‘noth­ing is cre­ated, noth­ing lost, ev­ery­thing trans­formed’. This vi­sion, or credo, de­serves closer at­ten­tion, for what Duault be­lieves in is not the cus­tom­ary monothe­is­tic ab­so­lute, shared by Chris­tian­ity, Ju­daism, and Is­lam, but, rather, a be­lief in an or­gan­i­cally self-cre­at­ing – and per­pet­u­ally trans­form­ing – world in which nei­ther a sov­er­eign God nor a self-pos­sessed artist is ever wholly in con­trol of cre­ation.

In free­ing her­self from self-con­trol and from the re­liance upon the ab­so­lute, Duault opens up a very dif­fer­ent un­der­stand­ing of cre­ation. It is per­haps fit­ting, as a French woman, that Duault should echo the vi­sions of the molec­u­lar the­o­rists, Félix Gu­at­tari and Gilles Deleuze, as well as the philoso­pher of move­ment and au­thor of Cre­ative Evo­lu­tion, Henri Berg­son. For, like Duault, these three thinkers, and Berg­son in par­tic­u­lar, ad­vo­cate the no­tion of an ‘Open Whole’, that is, the vi­sion of a cease­lessly mor­ph­ing to­tal­ity. This vi­sion is ev­i­dent in the artist’s recog­ni­tion of ‘mother na­ture’s bal­ances and har­mony’ which, all im­por­tantly, is ‘full of sur­prises and beau­ti­ful ex­pres­sions’.

In Duault’s world, there­fore, noth­ing is given, and yet ev­ery­thing is given. One can­not un­der­es­ti­mate the cen­tral­ity of this para­dox in the artist’s paint­ing. Her sur­faces and fram­ing form for her work are cir­cu­lar. This re­fusal, struc­turally, of a four-cor­nered world, af­firms the artist’s com­mit­ment to an eter­nal, never-end­ing, ge­om­e­try, for the cir­cle, more than any other form, attests not clo­sure but in­fin­ity.

Work­ing in acrylic paint, the artist op­er­ates by cre­at­ing three den­si­ties – three plas­tic con­tain­ers of paint, in dif­fer­ent colours, which vary in their thin­ness and thick­ness. The first layer, spilt on the can­vas, is the most thinly pli­able. Duault then varies the den­sity, ma­nip­u­lat­ing the paint by breath­ing upon and against it through a straw, or by shift­ing it about with a stick or blow dryer. What is im­me­di­ately ev­i­dent is that no paint­brush is used.

Duault’s rea­son­ing be­hind this tech­nique has its own mys­tic root, for the artist, as best she can, re­fuses to con­trol the move­ment – co­ag­u­la­tion and dis­per­sal – of paint. In this re­gard, the artist ac­knowl­edges the in­flu­ence of Jack­son Pollock, wit­tily re­mem­bered as ‘Jack the Drip­per’. Ac­tion paint­ing, or colour field paint­ing, or, more in­clu­sively, ab­stract ex­pres­sion­ism, is the artist’s an­ces­tral painterly root. In a sim­i­lar vein, she too seeks to gift pri­or­ity to the an­i­mus of paint. For in Duault’s hands – hands which op­er­ate more as a medium than an agent – what as­sumes cen­tral­ity is the mat­ter that is paint. How­ever, if Duault re­fuses the ego she does not do so with the cool flip­pancy dis­played in Damien Hirst’s spin paint­ings. Rather, for Duault, it is nei­ther the ego nor the ma­chine that, fi­nally, mat­ters. Paint as a ma­te­rial does not only ex­ist in and of it­self. Rather, paint is a means through which na­ture’s frag­ile har­monies are ar­tic­u­lated – paint is a mys­tic por­tal.

Duault speaks of ‘en­ergy col­lid­ing… dis­pers­ing… reach­ing equi­lib­rium… a rest­ing point’. For what in­ter­ests her most is the ‘essence of move­ment’. In other words, it is paint’s in­trin­sic vi­tal­ity – af­ter Berg­son, its élan vi­tal – which com­pels her. It is the mer­cu­rial, or ‘molec­u­lar’ na­ture of paint as a ma­te­rial and medium which, mys­te­ri­ously, ful­fils life’s mean­ing – the very mean­ing of cre­ativ­ity.

It is cu­ri­ous to re­mem­ber that Duault be­gan her ca­reer with a de­gree in mar­ket­ing. One would rea­son­ably have ex­pected the artist to ap­ply this very sec­u­lar and me­dia-driven skill to, say, mar­ket­ing the prod­ucts of oth­ers. How­ever, on dis­cov­er­ing a se­cret trove of paint­ings made by her grand­fa­ther, the artist chose to rad­i­cally shift gears. A de­gree from the Michaelis School of Fine Art fol­lowed. Well known in­ter­na­tion­ally for its con­cep­tu­ally driven ethos, and its com­mit­ment to an Afro­cen­tric in­ter­na­tional style, Michaelis could, log­i­cally, have spawned an artist who could have branded her­self as such. Duault, how­ever, would have none of this.

This is be­cause Duault is em­phat­i­cally an out­lier, some­one who has cho­sen to carve out a sin­gu­lar and com­plex spir­i­tual and philo­soph­i­cal path. One does not read her works as a cypher for some pre­scribed and cur­rent mean­ing – her works are not rep­re­sen­ta­tive or il­lus­tra­tive. Caught up in the enigma and flu­id­ity of mar­bled pa­per – an an­cient Turk­ish tra­di­tion – her paint­ings in­voke feel­ings and mean­ings as un­err­ingly on point as they are mys­te­ri­ous. Ani­conic, non-sym­bolic, anti-nar­ra­tive, strange, Duault’s paint­ings have cho­sen – peremp­to­rily, sud­denly, sur­pris­ingly – to call up the un­know­able at the very heart of the known.

This un­know­able realm, which pre­cedes and ex­ceeds the fetish and ob­ses­sion of the hu­man to­day – its be­lea­guered sub­jec­tive con­scious­ness and fraught agency – is not, how­ever, some­thing to be afraid of. On the con­trary, it is this pri­mal mys­tery – the very mys­tery of the nat­u­ral world – which, for Duault, will of­fer us a greater calm, a greater peace – a greater All.

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