Ruth Ige, Garden in the Clouds, acrylic on canvas 2024
Ruth Ige, Garden in the Clouds, acrylic on canvas 2024
Image: Supplied

When the glamour of my moonlighting life as an arts writer comes abruptly to an end each week — Cinderella’s carriage a pumpkin once more, the witty conversation and clinking wine glasses on opening night now a distant memory — I return to my day job as a university academic. I’m not complaining. Being a professor in the arts and humanities is a much better gig than cleaning up after a wicked stepfamily.

There are downsides, one of which is that telling people your occupation is usually a conversation killer. My primary area of research is early modern literature, especially Shakespeare; enough said. But it does have its advantages. For example, you know what to say when (white) people complain, as they are wont to do in the online comments below opinion pieces or when electioneering for certain political parties or standing round a braai: “Why does everything have to be about race?”

The simple answer is that it always has been. Always. Like, always.

It didn’t start with the Western imperial project of the 18th and 19th centuries. Nor with the early modern European imagination that developed over the preceding four centuries, though that was the period during which race as a construct became codified, performed and reproduced on a mass scale. Racism as a mechanism of constructing social hierarchies was there before the Crusades; it was there before the ancient Romans and Greeks; it stretches back to the beginning of recorded human history.

As Malvern van Wyk Smith writes in his magisterial 2009 study The First Ethiopians: The Image of Africa and Africans in the Early Mediterranean World, Western racism actually has its roots on the African continent. In iron age Egypt, the ruling elites of the Kushite Nubians “sought to distance Egyptian civilisation from its African origins” by distinguishing between “worthy Ethiopians” (lighter of skin) and “savage Ethiopians” (darker skinned and identified by other racialised markers of what would later be referred to as ethnicity).

These distinctions would shape the formative myths and sketchy histories in Homer and Herodotus, influencing “virtually all subsequent Roman and medieval thinking about Africa and Africans” and becoming “foundational in European thought”. Throw Christianity into the mix, with its overwhelming imagery of lightness and darkness, and you have the basis of Western art history and Renaissance-era representations of race on stages and in the pages of books across Europe.

In these portrayals, devils are black, and black people are devils. Devils are also bestial; to be black is to be animalistic, dangerous, irrational, non-human. Lucifer’s fall from grace and light is a fall into the earthy and the subterranean. There are no black angels.

An understanding of this history is not a prerequisite to appreciating Ruth Ige’s exhibition “You Are of the Heavens and of the Earth”, but it does serve as useful background to the artist’s observation that the “ethereal, holy, heavenly, otherworldly, royal and beautiful” have long been, and remain, depicted as exclusively white. Ige, who was born in Nigeria and lives in New Zealand, resists the ways in which “blackness and black people” have been “systematically categorised” as lacking “the characteristics or innate ability” to be celestial or angelic.

Her new body of work (on display at Stevenson in Cape Town until 22 June) is a painterly fusion of blackness with the bright light and the transcendental fire associated etymologically with the ethereal. The figures in these images are described in their titles as elders, queens, visitors, seers — beings protected by heaven, bringing gifts of healing and foresight, drifting in “gardens in the clouds”. They have travelled to this earth from afar, from “places with no name”.

Ige’s palette ranges from cerulean to azure, from iridescent blues to dark purples. Here the opposition of darkness and light is not the grim racial binary of black and white, nor the gradation of skin tone by which humans have practised racism and colourism for all these millennia. Instead, the artist creates a richly coloured world — a universe, or multiple universes — described in her own poetry as “the light revealed / the light released”, a black brightness “uncontained / moving through woven realms”.

This column first appeared in Business Day. 

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