Marlise Keith (b. 1972) is known for her mixed media collages; large-scale drawings in pencil, ink and acrylics; and most recently, for her small sculptures of fabric, embroidery and found objects.
Her subject matter is vast, drawing inspiration from a mental medley of horrific news headlines, colonial history, friends’ pets, psychopathology, girlhood memories, dreams, her persistent migraines, and roadside memorials. Subjects too daunting, too confused, or too subliminal to articulate in neat words and sentences, are processed through mark-making; offering an alternative “understanding” of a world that often does not make sense in traditional, logical language. This violence emerges in plentiful paint; sometimes it is suggested by the very act of mark-making itself – paper is gouged, scratched, sanded, torn, folded, and nailed.
The question of value is often explored through Keith’s other choices of media. In her assemblages she juxtaposes found objects and media of varying value: Well-worn but beloved t-shirts, expensive gesso, broken curios, highly specialised micro-mosaic, R5 Store purchases and luxurious fabrics are combined and further worked with embroidery, intricate line, fur, paint, and sequins. The creatures seem to emerge directly from Keith’s self-labelled mental “soup”, equal parts cute and hideous, dark, and witty.
The result is a richly layered body of work both violent and uncanny, made more surreal with a playful use of colour and humour. The latter draws in the viewer to a closer scrutiny of the darker complexities lurking beneath, which offer endless possibilities of meaning.
I grew up on a nature reserve, being far away from art teachers, I turned to copying the botanical illustrations in my dad’s botany books. We also walked hours looking for very specific plants, such as plants that were particularly good for survival, edible, medicinal and poisonous plants. These plants were introduced to my dad by the indigenous peoples living in those specific areas. As my dad could speak Zulu and Sotho, he was privy to a lot of interesting information and spend many hours digging up and documenting these plants and their stories.
I particularly liked the medicinal and poisonous plants. Some of these plants could be both, depending on preparation, time of year, quantity, time of harvest for example.
The science of these plants, how much knowledge is needed and how lives depend on it made me think of our race for the coronavirus vaccine. It is at the best of times, something that should not be rushed. I wonder about my blasé attitude about taking natural remedies because they are off the shelf, natural and therefor safe. I think it is a sign of the ‘pandemic-fallout’, this disquiet and loss of trust in things that we used to take for granted.
I have asked my dad for a list of these hero and, or villain plants. He recently published his memoirs where some of these plants are discussed in detail. A lot of the information shared with my dad is oral, passed down from one generation to the next and would be labelled anecdotal. I thought that would be OK, seeing that we live in a post truth era. My drawings’ relationship to botanical art is tenuous at best. I have taken tremendous artistic liberties. The scale of the flowers, tubers, colours, and compositions are all ‘wrong’ in the tradition of botanical art. But I wanted to draw the magic and the drama of the plant, their value, the respect my dad and his fellow botanists have for them, and my awe of them all.
I have included some works I have done prior and during the pandemic. In the works prior the pandemic, I could indulge my existential angst. It had the ‘safety’ of remaining ‘theoretical’. During the pandemic I made “The crone mutters”, and I found that my younger feminist fervour was replaced by a crone gone quiet in the face of an overwhelming tiny foe. The pandemic has permeated my entire being and has left me most uncomfortable. I have only one way of dealing with my disquiet. I draw.