Grace Cross: The Three Graces

Grace Cross: Atlas is a Woman

Painter, feminist, weaver, mother – contemporary African artist Grace Cross adds an important voice to the global art landscape. 

In a fierce interplay of colour and symbol, the work of artist Grace Cross is at once celebration and statement.

Born in Zimbabwe and based in Cape Town, her motherland is “the great African South”; while as an artist trained in the US with Greek heritage, she calls herself “trans-global”. At 32, the 2010 Michaelis graduate (where she was awarded the Judy Steiner Painting Prize), has an MFA from University of Illinois, Chicago (2016), as well as an English Honours Degree (2012) and Business Diploma (2011) from UCT. She’s held solo exhibitions in Cape Town, Johannesburg and Chicago, taken part in group shows in Hamburg and Perth and has artwork in the collections of Nando’s and Spier Arts Trusts, among others. She’s also a young mother. These aspects of her identity that speak to place, gender, motherhood and being an artist find form in Grace’s highly expressive work, where medium and subject matter engage in an energetic dance. One that’s almost inviting you to take off your clothes and join in.

We chat to the more-than-prolific artist on the cusp of her solo show Atlas is a Woman, on now at the Silo Hotel’s Vault gallery in Cape Town’s Silo District at the V&A Waterfront.

“Painter, feminist, weaver and mother” you say on your IG profile. Your identity seems entrenched in your artwork and vice versa: you closely address personal topics through your work, such as your experience in motherhood. What is the role that art has played in your life and how does being an artist help you express your identity?

Making art has always been a way for me to think through who I am and express my ideas about the world around me. I had a very colourful upbringing raised across countries in a very creative household, and writing stories (whether through words, or imagery) has always been a way for me to understand myself and others. I think being brought up this way made me feel a little placeless and making art has always been a pathway to finding my identity. Being an artist is such a privilege; it’s an open call to investigate your inner feelings and make them manifest for examination. It’s been a real challenge being an artist and a mother, from finding the time for myself to motherhood being considered a bit taboo in the art world. So, it’s very important for me to share my unapologetic feminist ideas about mothers and tell women’s stories in places that they have historically not been welcomed.

Graphic, honest, bold, humorous, self-reflective, symbolic, expressionist – are some of the words I would use to describe your work. What would you add to that?

Colourful, loud, celebratory, textural, big, feminist, red, immediate, intense, statement!

What are some of the social concerns you’re dealing with through your art?

I am invested in exposing the labour of motherhood and gender inequality. My work addresses legacies of history upon us from a third-wave feminist view. I am interested in writing and honouring a history of women in the stories I show and propelling new engagement with current battles women face, like gender-based violence which affects so many South African women and children.

Gender is a massive topic – what are you contributing to the conversation?

My work is a celebration of gender and all sexuality! The figures I paint are full of sexuality, of care, of strength and fragility. I hope that I am bringing more representation to mothers through my work. I try to reflect unseen female labour and gender inequality, in the hopes of righting it. I think that the personal can be universal and working from a place of honesty about my experiences, with empathy for others, is a way for people to see themselves reflected.

Calling yourself a feminist (as do I) – do you come up against many challenges in that space? What does a feminist look like in this day and age versus, say in the ’90s, ’60s or back to the 1920s when women’s roles were very different and as feminism has developed and evolved in meaning?

Feminism has grown and blossomed significantly since my grandmothers’ and my mother’s generations before me. I come from a long line of strong matriarchs, and ideas about gender and equality have evolved to be more inclusive, to this moment in 2020 where we are all still grappling with some painful legacies of our history. But I feel, raising a small daughter, that we have an empowered future ahead! The history of feminism teaches me that we can grow and expand and make the world better generation by generation. I think the last year has opened many new people up to intersectional feminist ideas as we painfully come to terms with our history and start addressing inequalities more starkly shown by the pandemic. Feminism is a framework of thinking that makes me more open to the world, and full of empathy for others. I think that social media and the internet have helped nurture more progressive thinking for social change – championing body positivity and gender inclusivity.

How do you interrogate African identity through your art, and as a white woman in South Africa born in Zimbabwe, how do you feel you fit into that?

Growing up in so many different countries and places made me very interested in how identity is formed. I’ve always felt a little outside of the labels that are attached to my identity, and I think my work reflects me adopting and grappling with these. Being African, with a capital A, has so much baggage and history attached to it, as does being a white woman, with its layers of embedded privilege. I try to unwrap these layers in the work that I make. I feel very strongly linked to my motherland, the greater African South, and to the spirituality that emanates from the people here. Our history is a messy one, full of things that need readdressing now, but it’s not one I would deny for anything. Knowing where and how I fit within an African identity is the stuff that keeps me making art.

What is life in Cape Town like for you and how has it impacted your artistic practice?

Living in Cape Town is a way for me to be close to both many cultural centres and to nature. I think the central role Cape Town has in the history of South Africa and for the continent as a whole as a trading post, makes this city a really inspiring place to work from. It’s such a pleasure to be able to pop over the mountain to spend time on the beach with my daughter or hike on Table Mountain on the daily. I love that I can go from feeding the squirrels around the national museum in The Company’s Garden, to a trendy coffee spot like Arthur’s Mini-Super near Sea Point promenade, to a freezing swim at Llandudno beach, all within a few hours. It is a pleasure to be a mom and an artist in a city that provides so much access to nature and heritage in such sweeping, beautiful surrounds.

Your series Atlas is a Woman looks at the various roles of women – what are some of the hats you wear and juggle, and how has your personal experience informed this series?

This latest series, Atlas is a Woman, has been evolving over the last year. The paintings investigate the psychic and physical weight that South African women carry with them. It started when my daughter would only go to sleep when I strapped her to my back. On the long walks, getting her to sleep, I kept thinking about what women are expected to straddle. The hats I juggle are being a mother, an artist, a daughter and a wife. I think that it’s really important to talk and make visible the cultural burden of motherhood. The politics of caring for children makes women fiercely strong but also vulnerable in our society. I want to show in this series the complicated roles that women and mothers inhabit.

Some thinkers locate the roots of feminism in Ancient Greece. Is there a connection there for you with Atlas? What does she mean to you as a mythological figure?

I feel very connected to my Greek heritage and have had the luck to spend a lot of time there from when I was a young child. So, I take huge inspiration in my work from ancient Greece, their artefacts and the storytelling mechanisms of that time. I reference the mythic figure of Atlas in my series to relook at an ancient myth reframed within a contemporary context. Atlas was a titan who was condemned to hold the celestial heavens on his shoulders for eternity. I felt that it was much more apropos that my Atlases would be women, rather than men. My women are not punitively condemned, but rather pinned by society’s expectations of them.

In what other ways do you explore myth through your work?

I take lots of inspiration from archaeology, rock engravings, fairy tales, poetry, storytelling and so much else. I use symbols from my everyday life and my research to create new myths or bring to life old ones. It’s a way for me to work fluidly, and play with time, making the old new and mythologizing the present.

How do the artistic mediums you work with serve the messages you communicate?

I love how oil paint continues to surprise me. Each painting I make, I learn something new about the medium. It is also a medium that packs maximum saturation, and as a person obsessed with colour, this is a huge appeal.

The luster of thick oil paint is both soft and luxurious, but can also capture so accurately the grotesque and the obscene.

I love how emotive the medium can be, when stripped of pigment with too much solvent or piled high on the canvas. I think the emotional communication of the medium is what draws me to it again and again.

Give us a snapshot of your process in the creation of an artwork from start to finish.

Often an idea for a work comes to me when breastfeeding, when I’m zoning out on a walk, or when I’m trying to get to sleep. It’s in those private, quiet moments when my thoughts can be free. From there, that kernel of an idea will either be written down in haste, or I’ll do a quick sketch if the idea has a more structured composition. From there the idea changes a lot in process and through the medium, but I feel that the initial idea stays with me through the duration of its making and often helps me title the work at the end.

You’re curating a wish list of South African art (you have a secret billionaire benefactor). Which artists are on the list?

David Koloane, Cameron Platter, Simphiwe Ndzube, Zanele Muholi, Penny Siopis, Jackson Hlungwane, Cinga Samson, Isaac Zavale and so many more!

What’s the best Christmas gift you ever received?

An exorbitant vet bill paid for me! A couple years ago, we picked up our beloved puppy, Lemon, off the street, and she needed lots of care after much neglect and an incident with an aggro cat.

What has been your best thing and your worst thing about the New Normal that 2020 has gifted us with?

My worst thing has been feeling more anxious than I ever have before in my life; feeling insecure financially, watching the art world kind of fall apart and not being able to see so many friends and family.

The best thing has been the intimate moments of time spent with my daughter. I have, like everyone, had time to take stock and embrace a more zen approach to life. Take every moment as it comes and feel it fill you up. Watching my daughter grow and develop has been the greatest joy of my life. With fewer distractions and more home time, I have been acutely awake to her changes, her humour and her growing vocabulary and am very grateful for the privilege of parenthood. 

Any shows on the horizon or other news for Grace Cross fans?

I’ve just installed my exhibition, Atlas is a Woman, at the Vault gallery in The Silo Hotel at the V&A Waterfront. The show opened with the hotel on 1 December and is on for 6 months, so there is plenty of time to go get a cocktail at the hotel overlooking Table Mountain and go check out the show after! 

View the exhibition catalogue for Atlas is a Woman by Grace Cross.

Show runs until May 2021 at The Silo Hotel’s Vault Gallery in the Silo District, V&A Waterfront, Cape Town. | @gracecross_studio

WORDS: Sarah Jayne Fell and Grace Cross
IMAGES: supplied by the artist
HERO IMAGE: Atlas is a mother (graces), 2019, oil on canvas, 90 x 120 x 4.4cm
PRODUCTION: Sarah Jayne Fell

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