Far from tacky or tongue-in-cheek, the intricate creations of SA artist Gina Waldman unveil a new side to kitsch, imbued with soul and heart and protest.
In Praise Of Kitsch: Gina Waldman
'There’s kitsch and there’s kitsch,' smiles installation and mixed-media artist Gina Waldman, who completed her Masters in Fine Arts at Wits in 2003. 'The kitsch I’m fascinated by isn’t tongue-in-cheek or about a sensibility; it’s an observation of a time and it’s about social commentary. For me, kitsch is a nostalgia of past, mass-produced relics.'
It’s a fascination that has come to dominate her oeuvre, not least in Waldman’s most recent solo show, ‘Cattivo Gusto’, at Joburg’s Mesh Club.
‘Cattivo Gusto’ translates as ‘poor taste’, and Waldman’s richly detailed body of work explores historical notions of femininity through her use of tapestry. 'The entire set-up of traditional women’s craft is template based,' she explains. 'For me, tapestry is a kind of paint-by-numbers aesthetic. Women all over the world would receive the exact same tapestry kit, the exact same threads, a mass-produced relic of the patriarchy. Even in their leisure time, women were controlled to a template.'
Of course, being so mass-produced, these tapestries came to hold no tangible value – they were common. 'I find many of the tapestries I work with in second-hand stores selling for nothing. They’ve been discarded; after all, they’re kitsch. But when you think about it, it’s crazy: a woman laboured over this tapestry for weeks – maybe months. My work seeks to expose that: when I make artworks using tapestry, I cut the tapestries up and turn the pieces on their heads so that you can see the back of the tapestry. That’s where you start to reveal the labour and see the energy and care that went into them.'
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In the early 20th century, while women were sitting in their homes creating the same tapestry, men were dominating the art world – something that still isn’t shifting fast enough for Waldman. 'Do you know how many women there are among the world’s best-selling artists of all time?' she asks. 'None.' The disappointment in her voice is palpable.
'While men had carte blanche to read and think and vote and have sex, women were at home, painting by numbers for their leisure. All of my work is an allegory of this, and turning the female labour in these tapestries into new expressions of it.'
Waldman’s polemic isn’t simply embodied in her medium, it’s embraced in her subject matter too.
She points to an impressive landscape piece entitled ‘Olympia’ (pictured above), which is crafted from tapestry, thread and pearl pins. It’s inspired by the infamous ‘Olympia’ painting by Édouard Manet, which caused uproar when it exhibited in Paris in 1865. Dubbed 'immoral' and 'vulgar', it was one of the first times a prostitute was pictured as such in a piece on public display.
'So many other artists before who had depicted nude women showed them as soft, demure, passive,' says Waldman. 'But Olympia defiantly stares at you – she has gaze. That was what I wanted to capture and reconstitute using the labour of so many other women: tapestries.'
The result is a rich, textured collage that reveals something new at every glance. This thread of intricacy is woven throughout all of Waldman’s pieces, giving you a sense of new discovery as the layers of complexity reveal themselves with every consideration.
'My pieces take you in because they are so laboured,' she says. 'You slowly uncover that it’s not necessarily all of my own labour, either. You start to see the backs of the tapestries and the threads, woven by the hands of other women. My labour becomes merged into theirs.'
It’s this that truly makes Waldman’s works – it’s what gives them heart and soul. Waldman couldn’t agree more: 'The material and its origin will always be more important than the prettiness of anything I ever create from it.'
Gina Waldman has exhibited at the FNB Art Fair, Standard Bank Gallery and Everard Read Gallery. Find out more about her work on her website.