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Artist to Open Exhibit on South African Communities

 By Joel Magalnick

Transcript Correspondent


When Mercer Island artist Madelaine Georgette paints these days, she focuses on what she calls ubuntu – community.  Her newest exhibit, entitled “Building Community:  Truth. Justice. Reconciliation” examines the abstract nature of apartheid and how her native country, South Africa, has embraced the concept of community in rebuilding itself since apartheid’s end in 1994.  Ubuntu puts the emphasis on the whole of the community.   “If an individual is aberrant in any way, that the community has somehow failed that individual,” she explains.  It is what set the framework for the creation of South Africa’s progressive constitution, which provides protections for women, blacks, and gays, but also guarantees the rights to important resources such as water.  Spreading the story of the emergence of the new South Africa is the centerpiece of Georgette’s work.  The exhibition, on display at the Art Center Gallery of Seattle Pacific University from November 11 through December 11 is the third of our in her series of paintings on South Africa.  A reception will be held November 13.


Georgette has spent several years painting, but only in the past four has she turned her brush to her homeland, in an effort to help others understand South Africa’s challenges in rebuilding itself.  Georgette has a lot of respect for former president F W de Klerk.  She disagreed with this politics, but admired how he could overcome his prejudices to end apartheid.  She says he saw that his country could survive no other way. 


“He literally wrote himself out of South African history,” she remarks.  A close look at the thick, meandering lines that define her work reveals text describing the three points of her theme.  Through all of the pieces, much of them two and three canvases wide, the text incorporates messages of truth and justice, such as “Murder is murder whether committed by the state or by liberation.”


All of her paintings have bold lines with different patters and shapes that evoke rivers, deserts, and communities of people.  She explains her love of patterns as a part of her childhood, when her father, who owned a textile business, would bring home boxes of samples and she would play among them, making them into doll’s clothes.  Because South Africa’s black population was so poor, much of what they wore were mismatched hand-me-downs, but in that Georgette saw beauty.   “They couldn’t necessarily be color-coordinated, so they’d combine all these patterns.”  The beauty reflects on the thick strokes of the figures’ clothing.


She painted all of the series abstractly, because the idea of truth and justice, especially n this case she says, are so difficult to pin down.  Georgette’s love of bold colors is why she chose to begin painting in the first place.


That boldness reflects on her own personality, which explains why she read so many o the transcripts of the finding s of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on apartheid.  Thousands upon thousands of pages were recorded, and Georgette used the testimonies of black men and women, many of who feared for their lives, as inspiration for these works.


Her work has brought recognition not only for the work itself, but in grants from sources like the King County Arts Commission, the Puffin Foundation and Artist’s Trust.  Apartheid has been a part of the lexicon recently, with many people comparing the situation in Israel to what used to be the norm in South Africa.  While Georgette is torn about the way Sharon and the Israeli army has treated the Palestinians, she insists that what is happening in the Middle East is far different from apartheid.  She says she sees Israelis as having justification for closing borders, because they need to protect themselves.  She does understand oppression, however.  Her husband and her father are both Holocaust survivors.  She left South Africa to come to the United States in 1973, partly because of her need to get away from apartheid, though she has returned to visit many times since.  She says South Africa is her homeland.  It is in her soul, and that’s why she expresses herself in the best way she knows how; through her paintings.


Not all of the pieces in this exhibition will have subtitles or descriptions, but it was important to Georgette to have some explanations in an artist’s statement, because she wanted her viewers to love what they see, but within it intended context. “That makes it more powerful,” she says. “I want them to ask questions.”


While the work is beautiful enough to stand on its own, putting it into the context of truth, justice, and reconciliation will let those viewers understand more of the story, especially with the words scattered throughout the paintings.


With the recognition she is starting to receive throughout the Puget Sound area, Georgette hopes that by seeing her works people will understand how community has made such a positive change in the new South Africa and hopefully learn from her experience.


Article is reproduced with permission from The Jewish Transcript

(Originally published November 8, 2002)




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