The woman who kept silent and the man who sang (1998)
Collection: Art of the Constitutional Court, South Africa.
The woman who kept silent and the man who sang (1998). A triptych, the
piece was inspired by two stories Mason heard on the radio at the time
of the Truth and Reconciliation hearings. They told of the execution
of two liberation movement cadres by the security police. One was
Herold Sefola, who as Mason relates, "asked permission to sing Nkosi
Sikelel' iAfrica before he was shot; the other Phila Ndwande, "who was
tortured and kept naked for ten days" and then assassinated in a
kneeling position. As Mason recounts, before Ndwande was killed, she
"fashioned a pair of panties for herself out of a scrap of blue
Mason says that she "has a problem with political art in that I think that artists ought to perhaps pay their taxes or do other things that are more advantageously politically." But, she continues, "I've always had a great regard for heroic art that commemorates grand gestures. In these two stories I came upon, the two gestures were so grand. Two people are allowed - just because of other people's bad behaviour - to exhibit superhumanly beautiful, courageous behaviour, and that's what attracted me there."
Ndwande's body was found naked in a shallow grave, with the thin piece of plastic still covering her private parts. Mason was so moved by her tragic story that she made a dress of blue plastic bags on which she inscribed a text:
Sister, a plastic bag may not be the whole armour of God, but you were wrestling with flesh and blood, and against powers, against the rulers of darkness, against spiritual wickedness in sordid places. Your weapons were your silence and a piece of rubbish. Finding that bag and wearing it until you were disinterred is such a frugal, common-sensical, house-wifey thing to do, an ordinary act...At some level you shamed your captors, and they did not compound their abuse by stripping you a second time. Yet they killed you. We only know your story because a sniggering man remembered how brave you were. Memorials to your courage are everywhere; they blow about in the streets and drift on the tide and cling to thorn-bushes. This dress is made from some of them. Hamba kahle. Umkhonto. Mason's dress with text forms the centerpiece of the triptych, flanked on either side by a painting in which the blue dress hangs suspended. In one of them, a predator, clearly representing "the rulers of darkness", and partially held back by a honeycomb-like grid, is seen with a piece of the dress in its mouth. In the other, the predator is also depicted, this time without the piece of dress in its mouth, and again caught in the honeycomb-like grid. But here the work also includes a mug and braziers aglow with flames.
The woman who kept silent and the man who sang is on loan from the Constitutional Court for Mason's show. It was acquired for the Court's art collection after Justice Albie Sachs, the primary player in building the collection, had visited Mason in Simon's Town in the Cape, where she made the work. What he saw at first was only the dress and the painting in which the predator tears at the dress. These caused him some concern. As he recalls, he told her: "Judith, it is so hard to put this in the Court. It will make people deeply depressed and distressed, and people come to the Court for succour, for a sense of relief, for protection. Isn't it possible to do a variation of this work, utilizing the same theme, but just a little softer, a little more reconciled? And she said okay."
When Sachs returned to see Mason a few weeks later, she had completed the painting with the glowing braziers. What Sachs saw, as he describes it, was "a warm glow, the sense of reconciliation, of coming to terms with the terrible pain of the past. The predator trapped in the fence, keeping it at bay, the dress soaring." But, says Sachs, it was "too soft. . .too kind. . .too reconciled." What Mason and Sachs agreed upon was to combine the dress and the two paintings, so that it formed a composite work. "They belonged together," says Sachs. "There is a story in the visual objects themselves, in the way she produced them."
Sachs considers The woman who kept silent and the man who sang to be "one of the great pieces of art in the world of the late 20th century, that emerged out of our artistic imagination, our social experience, our sensibility."