South African Art Times:
South African artist Barbara Tyrrell passed away very peacefully last Wednesday evening. At the age of 103 (and a half), she had been bed-ridden, blind and deaf for some months prior but still recognised regular visitors.
For the occasion of both her 100th birthday and the opening of her retrospective at the Iziko South African National Gallery, Lloyd Pollak wrote a touching tribute to the artist. We included it in the April edition of the Art Times magazine, 2012:
Barbara Tyrrell at work in the early 1940s
Barbara Tyrrell and the Quest for the ‘Unfathomable’
By Lloyd Pollak
There could be no more eloquent testimony to the tragedy of colonialism’s devastating assault upon the indigenous tribal cultures of our country than the work of Barbara Tyrrell who recorded a world that has now been almost completely obliterated.
Drive the length and breadth of our land, and never will you chance upon anyone clad in the tribal attire she rescued from oblivion. Today her watercolour records of the vanished glories of African costume seem like the scenographic fantasies of some brilliant, Surrealist stage designer. Take ‘Ndebele Bride, Middelburg, Transvaal’ for example. Here the body and head disappear behind a blanket and a heavily beaded hood, and the one anatomical detail that we can still discern, a diminutive hand, supports a purely ornamental black umbrella. The mundanity of this prosaic object, and the weird extravagance of the costume, create an unforgettable juxtaposition in which cultures and continents collide. Is this not the kind of wildly exotic and bizarre caprice that Leon Bakst might have dreamt up for les Ballet Russes?
Tyrell’s brush reveals the same passion for unexpected combinations of dazzling colours and the riotous visual intricacy of pattern piled on pattern as the great Russian’s, and, although she intended her work to be no more than a painstakingly accurate record of traditional tribal clothing, her artistry is everywhere apparent. The way she floats her figures upon the ground, the perfect balance between solids and voids and the spatial play whereby heads, arms and feet constantly erupt their confining borders, give her sitters vitality and a decisive silhouettesque impact. Nothing is allowed to interfere with her masterful delineation of attire. Although her titles always cite the name of the sitter, as in “Bushveldt Blonde, Singceni, Swaziland”, the blonde is not allowed to upstage her dress, for these are likenesses, rather than portraits, and her sitters are given the dreamy vacancy of a window-dresser’s dummy. With rare exceptions, the artist depicts only single figures, and these are isolated within a void, with no cast shadows, and no suggestions of a setting beyond the occasional tuft of grass.
The result is that Singceni’s costume positively resplends. The colours assume a blazing intensity, and the yellow red and black checker board patterns of her robes, fall around her body in folds, setting up a hypnotic Op-art shimmer and vibration.
Carol Kauffmann, curator of African art at the SANG claims that “the thoroughness and precision of Tyrell’s representations of tribal dress” make her “unprecedented and without parallel in South Africa.” What elevates her oeuvre far above the conventional ethnographic record is her complete avoidance of scientific aridity. Her love for her sitters and their culture shine forth from every image. As a young woman, Tyrrell studied fashion in London, and this educated her eye, sensitizing her to nuance and detail, and enabling her to inject the panache of a gifted fashion illustrator into her watercolours. She infused dry ethnology with a verve and glamour that immediately captured the public imagination. What made Barbara so aware of the physical beauty of black people and the splendour of their material culture when most South African whites viewed ‘natives’ with disdain?
Participation in the ceremonies of the Zulu people, a superb command of their language, and a close familiarity with their culture, were an established Tyrrell family tradition. During the Zulu king, Cetshwayo’s state visit to Queen Victoria in 1882, her grandfather acted as his interpreter, and he also wrote a serious study of the indigenous tribes, their lore, customs and beliefs. Her father too excelled at the language, and, for a time, he worked as an interpreter in the Department of Native Affairs. Barbara was raised amidst the Zulu, and she insists that “Zulu was our family language, the first I learned, and something I spoke every day with my siblings, parents, the servants and the people living nearby.”
Her parents moved in circles well disposed to the indigenous tribes, interested in their history, and keen to honour their customs and etiquette, and it was to this end that her father insisted his children expressed themselves in an impeccably pure and formal Zulu, employing all the appropriate verbal courtesies and honorifics. Barbara confided that, now that she is living in the Cape, what she misses most about Natal is “the music of the language, its dignity, warmth, softness and flow.”
The artist vividly remembers the war dance her father arranged in honour of the visiting Prince of Wales when she was but a toddler. The colonial audience was covered up from ankle to chin in elaborate Edwardian formal attire more appropriate to a Mayfair drawing room, than the sweltering Zululand sun. Fierce ululations, booming drums and the pounding feet of the Zulus warriors made the dust fly, and the climax came when the entire impi charged forward brandishing kieries, spears and shields, and causing many a terrified spectator to take flight. This vision of the mystery of darkest Africa imbued Barbara with an intense yearning to fathom the ‘unfathomable’, and plumb the mysteries of the Zulu psyche.
After studying Fine Art and a stint of journalism, Barbara realized that she had a vocation, and the purpose of her life became the recording of traditional tribal apparel at the eleventh hour – before the pressures of westernization and Nationalist political interference caused them to entirely disappear. She soon found a mentor in Alfred Duggan-Cronin, an authority on African anthropology, and befriended Dr Killie Campbell, the notable collector of tribal Africana, who became her stalwart patron. The travel writer, T.V. Bulpin also came within Barbara’s orbit, and this was the set amongst whom she chose to move rather than the torpid suburban Durbanites basking in the sunshine of the Raj.
The artist converted a Chevrolet van into a mobile home, and for decades she defied convention by travelling alone all over South Africa and beyond, documenting the garb of over twenty-five different tribes. A photograph reveals her standing beside her beloved caravan, a dashing, trousered blonde presenting her long legged self with the fastidious elegance of a Vogue model on safari.
The adventurous Barbara was indeed a mould-breaker and tear-away. Although she married and bore a son, nothing deflected her from her task. Her deep respect for African culture and profound familiarity with Zulu language and customs enabled her to win the confidence of her sitters who readily divulged how costume silently relayed copious information about the rank of her sitters, their marital status, age, gender, occupation and economic condition. This sartorial language relayed copious classificatory information. In the case of women, it identified the tribe they belonged to, whether they were pubescent or pre-pubescent, ready for courtship, of marriageable age, or betrothed, brides, married, mothers, mature matrons or widows.
I visited the artist in her Fish Hoek home, and discovered that – far from being a daunting grande dame – Barbara is an entrancingly droll and whimsical centenarian with a sense of fun so infectious that we constantly dissolved into unseemly fits of giggling. When the worthy burghers of Eshowe learned that she accepted Zulu hospitality, spent time in kraals, participated in rituals, and even – horror of horrors – danced with them, her mother was admonished for “condoning such bad form”, and roundly told that such familiarity with blacks was “letting down the side” and “just not cricket”.
Back in the patriarchal mid 20th century, there was strong prejudice against women, particularly in the unenlightened backwaters of the Empire, and Barbara was patronized by professional anthropologists and ethnographers. “To these learned men, I was neither a doctor, nor an MA, just another ‘little woman’. They did not take me, or my work, seriously, and felt I should have rather stayed at home tending to my household duties.”
Those unfortunate enough to move amidst academics will be familiar with their purse-lipped elitism and dismissiveness. Until about six years ago scholars and curators sniffily dismissed Barbara Tyrrell as a mere draftswomen devoid of any artistic skill. No Amazonian feminist art historian gallantly leapt to her defense, no Boadicea at UCT, no Valkyrie from Wits. Barbara only ceased to be a trespasser in the groves of Academe when Haydon Proud, saluted her aesthetic strengths in a few brief, but pithy, words in his seminal “Revisions: Expanding the Narrative of South African Art” in 2006.
This set off a trend. The Constitutional Court acquired some of her work in 2006: the order of Ikhamanga was bestowed upon her in 2008, and now her new found status as an artist, rather than a mere illustrator, has been commemorated by the current SANG exhibition which opened on her hundredth birthday. As she left the gathering in her wheelchair surrounded by an adoring retinue of near and dear, I saw her smiling with delight that, at last, she had been granted the secure niche in history that she had so long deserved.