Gwen van Embden 

Genius Loci (a sense of place), December 2017

A unique opportunity to visit a private working studio exhibition

In classical mythology, the Latin term Genius Loci refers to a protective spirit attached to a place – a guardian who watches over their part of the world and imbues it with a special character. In modern reality, we still need to be able to identify a genius loci in order to give us an understanding of our environment.

One way of negotiating between the public realm and the individual is through common symbols – Van Embden’s Sampler (shown here), is a reflection on her female subjectivity as a South African. Through obliteration and repetition she turns the studio onto herself as a representation of self, revealing the fraught tensions of (our) place.

The presence of the artist is felt by keeping focus on the working process and in the transformation of the space into a continuous work in progress, devoid of finality, like art, it pulsates via the pure movement of the spirit.

Genius Loci (a sense of place)

Opening at Studio 3 on Saturday the 9th of December 2017  at 11am, with an opening talk by Zapiro, and closes on the the 20th of January 2017.

‘…you begin to realize that the important determinant of any culture is after all the spirit of place’ 

– Lawrence Durrell, 1969. p.156

Weighing in on Place

– Mary Corrigall

You can often guess the dimensions of an artist’s studio by looking at the size of their art. Small works are produced in small studios. It makes practical sense; you can’t paint big canvases or make large sculptures in a confined space. However, large, open, dedicated spaces to make art also smooth the birth of more layered and diverse range of artworks. 

This too is easily explained; the spatial breadth and depth of an artist’s studio can lend itself to being a home for work, to store previous works, offering the space to peruse through them, think it through (thought needs space) and begin the process of interrogating a practice. Gwen van Embden’s enviable studio off Dunkley Square has presented her with a place to create large paintings – her ink paintings in the Black series are over 1,5m in width. This capacious and attractive space has also allowed her to claim her practice, locate its energy, focus.

This has fittingly provided her with the titular Genius Loci (a sense of place), which doesn’t only have ramifications for her as an artist but as a white South African, who has been using her art to make sense of her ‘place’ in society in relation to the legacy of apartheid. As such her studio is not a venue but the activating frame for her art. With her cabinets, their drawers open, entreating visitors to riffle through the setting has set the tone for a form of interrogation and transparency that would be unthinkable anywhere else. That is what makes a place a place; it can’t be located elsewhere. 

Struggling with the politics of place was always going to be her fate in a way, given her father was involved in making maps, charting her hometown of Pretoria. This activity has weighed on Van Embden’s artistic and personal psyche, propelling an interest in the practice of mapping ‘place’ as the means to asserting identity through it. During the apartheid era, claiming space implied the thorough exclusion of black people. The map, along with naming places, served as proof of ownership, naturalised white hegemony, rendering it almost invisible. Van Embden directly deals with this legacy via works such as I’m not my brother’s keeper (2017), Opmeting van verdeling (Measurement of subdivision) (2017). In these works she juxtaposes images of maps made by her father with photographs he took of Van Embden and her siblings as children. They are presented on bold-colourful perspex which operates as the contemporary ‘frame’ or view from which these documents are perceived by the artist or viewer. How do we judge these records now? Belonging to a white South African they function as evidence somehow of culpability, a time of innocence that is no longer viewed as such - though it is hard to find the young girl depicted in the black and white photographs as a perpetrator. Is it her father’s ‘eye’, the self-same vision which plotted streets in Pretoria, that lends the images, this history and identity its politically loaded twist? If Van Embden can’t ‘claim’ these images, this history, however, seemingly mundane, her ‘place’ is uncertain for this surely is her foundation, her roots. The manner in which she displays them, her curation of them, treating each as a component in a visual composition and within the context of an exhibition, she accrues some agency. This allows her to find a way to ‘reclaim’ her history in such a way that she acknowledges her struggle with it but also, the conflict, her nostalgia and irrepressible yearning for ‘lost’ time.

This mode of relooking at history, reassembling documents, objects, informs a group of installations with found objects such as Book Weight (2017). This assemblage consists of yellowed pages of a discarded book sandwiched in between twigs, which are being weighed on a disused and rusted scale. The historical records are being measured but the tools to do so are just as outdated. This whole scheme of ‘weighing’, being accountable, for the past seems inefficient; for the pages of a book, twigs can’t really ‘account’ for it. What happens when the act of ‘weighing’ becomes so common and automatic it has no meaning?

Van Embden confronts the inescapability of the apartheid legacy corporeally too, in reference to ‘blood’. She literally digs into this in Wit Mens se bloed (White people’s blood) and the Reddish series, where red ink fills square papers. Whiteness is not skin deep; it pervades the entire body, like an invisible disease. Getting beyond history or perhaps negotiating it has personal implications for Van Embden with regards to her ‘place’, but it does so too for her artistically. How do you begin to make art, when an inability to claim a ‘position’ thwarts the imagination, the production of new things? Her large abstract black ink paintings, titled Black, which reference race, present this desire to depict another ‘place’ that cannot be accessed, expressing the creative straight-jacket that identity places on artists. In opening up her place of work to the public, Van Embden perhaps hopes that in making her artistic struggles more transparent, allowing us to really burrow inside, in situ, we can bear witness to her ‘place’ in our country’s messy sociopolitical context.

– Corrigall is a Cape Town based art commentator, consultant and curator.

Genius Loci (a sense of place)

The artist's studio, a space dedicated to reflection and conception, a safe place to ruminate and create. Van Embden, whose work is characterised by wit and subtlety has turned the space into its own creation. Allowing the viewer to pick through the artifacts of thought and engagement, through the curation of this most private space, into a representation of the transience of art, creation and concept; her own sense of self and space in the world.

Mapping is a recurring theme in Van Embden's work, maps although in form are functional, once removed from their intended purpose tell stories, reveal relationships that are important to the story teller. They reaffirm the individualisation of place. Genius Loci in contemporary use, refers to a location's distinctive atmosphere, or a "sense of place". Van Embden has surely created this sense within these walls. The works created here reflect her continuous engagement with memory, obliteration and repetition, turning the studio onto herself as a representation of self with her own markings of identity. The presence of the artist is felt by keeping focus on the working process and in the transformation of the space, into a continuous work in progress, devoid of finality, like art, it pulsates via the pure movement of the spirit.

Entering the heart of the exhibition, we encounter the disconcerting diversity of the studio, whose multiple hypostases are brought together. Objects collaged and incorporated into multiple works, personal objects, each with their own history and meaning create narratives that reflect on female subjectivity through various modes of conseptualising the feminine, subjectivity and the body.

In Genius Loci (a sense of place) the physical space of the studio meshes with the intimate and becomes one with the act of creating. Through gradual restriction of her relationship with the world and the reduction of arts instrument to the one ultimate indispensable element, Van Embden inevitably ends up exploring – phenomenologically, psychologically, artistically – her own hand.

I'm not my Brothers Keeper, 2017, perspex, 420 x 780 mm

 White on black, 2017, perspex, 420 x 780 mm 

 Inklings, 2017, ink on paper, 235 x 295 mm 

 Ectoplasm, 2017, mixed media, dimensions variable 

 Inklings & Fragments, 2017, ink & paper/found objects, 

Cookie Time, 2010, video, 9:16 

 Full Moon, 2017, slate board, 200 x 260 mm 

Beaches, 2016, ink on paper, 360 x 460 mm 

Cookie Time, 2010, video, 9:16 

 Duo Tempi, 2017, video, 13:50 

Black, 2017, hahnemule rag paper, 795 x 714 mm 

White, 2017, hahnemule rag paper, 795 x 714 mm 

Reddish, 2017, ink on paper, 310 x 365 mm 

 Sampler, 2000 - 2017, perspex, 590 x 720 mm 

White Works, 2017, perspex, 420 x 780 

Thinking Fragment, 2017, fragment, dimensions variable 

Thinking Fragment II, 2017, fragment, dimensions variable 

Black 1, 2017, ink on paper, 1013 x 1660 mm 

Wit mens se bloed, 2017, perspex, 590 x 720mm 

This always happens to whites, 2017, perspex, 420 x 780 mm 

Opmeting van verdeling, 2017, perspex 420 x 780 mm 

Other People, 2017, perspex, 420 x 780 mm 

Black 2, 2017, ink on paper, 1013 x 1660 mm 

G1 Genius Loci 3, 2017, ink on paper, 1013 x 1660 mm 

6 Kitchen Drawers, 2017, matt light jet paper, 661 x 650 mm 

Pink on relection, 2017, LED in frame, 1013 x 1660 mm 

Book weight, 2017, found objects, dimensions variable 

Make imposible conections, 2017, ink on paper, 375 x 275 mm 

Well defined materiality, 2017, ink on paper, 375x275 mm 

Mona’s no 1, 2017, found objects, 310 x 350 mm 

No I am not party political but I am pissed off, 2017, neon, 

dimensions variable 

Black 4/5, 2017, ink on paper, 1013 x 1660 mm 

A Brown Enquiry, 2017, found objects, dimensions variable 

House Keeper, 2017, found objects, dimensions variable 

Garden Gate 1, 2017, wood & bone, dimensions variable 

Dissonance in color, 2017, wood, crayon shavings, slate board, 

dimensions variable 

Stereoscope, 2017, metal, wood & glass, dimensions variable 

Garden Gate 2, 2017, found objects, 600 x 600 mm 

Easter under Table Mountain, 2017, found objects, dimensions 


Inklings 1/2/3/4, 2017, ink on paper, 290 x 235 mm 


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