By Robyn Woolley
Norman Catherine is a revered South African artist whose body of work has experienced a metamorphosis over the span of his career. The dark humor and monstrous creatures that are synonymous with Catherine’s artwork have morphed throughout time emulating his shifting perspectives throughout his life. Although Catherine undoubtedly leaves the interpretation of his works for the onlooker to decipher, his outlook on life does shine through.
As an artist he was influenced by his upbringing during Apartheid and his works often showcase the turmoil and violence evident within South Africa’s turbulent socio-political landscape both during and post-Apartheid. Catherine’s work portrays the nuanced and complex issues of power relationships within this era and the lasting effects of a power imbalance. He interprets this by portraying the ripple effect of the dogma of Apartheid in South Africa as a collectively deformed and mutilated psyche which at the hands of systematic brutality can only be interpreted as a form of psychic entrapment. He believes that our sense of liberty in South Africa was deeply distorted by the Apartheid regime, and the lasting effects are haunting. Hence Catherine’s tendencies to lean into a surrealist interpretation of South Africa as the political and social mayhem almost feels like a distorted reality to many. It is this surrealist representation combined with Catherine’s dark humor which encapsulates the dystopian feel of his works.
Catherine’s use of monstrous and distinctly odd creatures creates a balance between the inner and outer psychological trauma of South Africa and depicts the ongoing social turmoil we still see today. These creatures are intended to capture the social collective psyche of South Africans and their political figures in some instances, therefore grounding the political absurdity in some form of reality. However, the humorous elements which transpire in Catherine’s works are often a response to the injustices South Africans have experienced, and for Catherine it is seen as a necessary means.
In some of Catherine’s earlier works where he used airbrush as a primary medium, we can see him grappling with the horror and the galvanization of South Africa’s liberty. These particular creatures he depicted during this era lacked the comical essences that is so recognisable in his works today however, the haunting and horrified elements of these pieces were not only impactful but lead to some of Catherine’s most significant and important works.
It was during his years abroad in New York city and Los Angeles where Catherine solidified his feeling towards South Africa and the atrocities taking place in his homeland. The juxtaposition between America and South Africa was stark for Catherine as he said that “the excess of freedom has become decadent, the harsh realities of existing there [America] make it also frightening” (Jamal 2001: 8). He realised as an artist he could not abandon his home.
Catherine’s collaboration with the artist Walter Battiss on the concept of Fook Island is a perfect example of the perception that governs his work. Fook Island was a notion that was intended to encapsulate a utopia filled with a sense of liberation and joy which led to Catherine creating the opposing/neighboring island of cannibals (Fourth world) after Battiss’ death. He believed that one could not exist without the other as “nothing seemingly pure and innocent could possibly survive within an aberrant society, and Catherine intuitively knew this. Hence, his island of cannibals.” (Jamal 2001: 5). These paradoxical notions perfectly denote Catherine’s perception as he believes to be human means to experience it all – violence, joy, suffering, happiness etc, especially in a displaced society such as South Africa’s.
His work often explores the inner conflicts of the human psyche and as an extension of this motif emotions such as anger, fear and suffering are often depicted in Catherine’s works as he believes that the human experience embodies a degree of violence and suffering which ties into the notion that Catherine’s work is in fact a state of mind. He intentionally projects a sense of discomfort and unease for his onlookers and intends for his artwork to act as a form of psychological self-introspection for his audience.
It is the unique balance of Catherine’s motifs which make him one of South Africa’s most revered contemporary artists. He perpetuates the melancholy which not only governs our reality but also deeply speaks to the socio-political landscape of South Africa. Catherine is a master of emulating bitter-sweet sentiments tinged with dark humor that feel somehow uniquely South African.
Norman Clive Catherine (South African 1949 – ), DS 5 SERIES, five in the lot, the second and third signed, the first
and fifth inscribed AP II/IV and the second, third and fourth inscribed AP I/IV in pencil in the margin, giclée print, each sheet size: 20 x 18cm;
58 x 163,5 by 2cm including frame, Estimate: R15 000 – R20 000 – Hammer: R 20 910