IS Art Gallery, Stellenbosch
9 April 2022 – End May 2022
Opening: Saturday 9 April 2022 at 11:00 am
In conversation Wilma Cruise by Jane Taylor

The Lion Sleeps Tonight 2021 Mixed media & collage on stretched canvas 2 x 3m


Jane Taylor: I’m going to begin by asking you about the enigmatic idea that this exhibition has something to do with politics and power.

Wilma Cruise:  Yes it does. In my latest series of exhibitions, I investigate the dynamics between the human animal and the non-human animal. Alice in Wonderland and Alice through the Looking Glass, provide the meta-metaphor to investigate the inversion of power between human animal and animals. Alice stands in as the cipher for human. In the upside-down rabbit hole world, it is never clear who Alice is.  All sense of who she is falls away. She is not even sure of her size. ‘Who are you?’ asks the haughty caterpillar and a little later, the pigeon, who thinks she just might be a serpent, asks, ‘What are you?’ Alice does not have the answer to either question. The caterpillar’s question is significant. Who is Alice and, by extrapolation, who are we? Are we right to presume our position of superiority in relation to the animals? Do we really deserve our place on top of the Cartesian pile?

Jane Taylor: That is obviously part of the unconscious of the exhibition. You talked about Alice not knowing if she was too big or too small. Scale is an enormous factor in your work. I’d really like you to think with us about what size means and about how the body engages with the work in relation to its size.

Wilma Cruise: Scale is important especially when working with ceramics. Fired clay raises the spectre of the ‘art’ and ‘craft’ debate.  Working small in fired clay has the implications of home industry and craft. It is the very last thing I wanted. I wanted my work to be confrontational and the only way to do that is for the work to enter the space of the viewer. In other words, to work on a human scale. Making things life-size, is like stamping one’s foot, and saying, ‘Hey look, this might be a material associated with craft pottery and its emphasis on the interior of the vessel but this is also sculpture with a shift in emphasis to context and (horror of horrors), meaning. Ironically twenty-five years down the line I am making smaller figures. I use them in multiples to suggest scale and the monumental in the miniature.

Jane Taylor: I also want to think about scale in relation to these very surprising horses. They are beasts of burden. They have such a sense of the weight of their lives upon them. And I was struck that these horses have riders, be it of an allegorical kind. Can you give me some idea of how these horses got riders? One is a baboon, one is a figure with a pig’s mask.

Wilma Cruise: This is where I worked intuitively. I can look retrospectively and say this is what a work means. But, at the time, it was just let’s put a rider on the horse and see what happens. Poor Horace had been knocking around in bronze material for about ten years before I thought of giving him a rider. What I’ve done with Horace is to undermine the normal trope of the horse in art, which is of magnificence, movement and grace – and yes, power. The usual mode of depiction of this animal is to elevate the horse on a plinth with a male hero on top, in what I call a phallic configuration.

Jane Taylor: What is so exhilarating about this conversation is that it pulls together so many aspects of your being. The passion for making, your commitment to the image and also this regard for live beings and our interspecies relation.

Wilma Cruise: The whole drive for me within the Alice series of exhibitions is to equate animal beings with human beings without anthropomorphsing them. Anthropomorphising is the ultimate danger when you work with images of animals. I want people to feel what the animal is feeling without making the animal human, or a metaphor, or a cipher for human. It must be in itself, of it itself, that animal.

Jane Taylor: Can you tell us about this rather extraordinary being, this sculpture of a baboon with its own instruments in its hands.

Wilma Cruise: I wanted to equate, at least empathetically, a baboon with humans, and human emotions, and this is where I skate very closely to anthropomorphism. This particular baboon has been given a pair of knitting needles. She is called Rita, which was my mother’s name.

Jane Taylor: So relation is something that is key to your work, and to your thinking. That what you are crafting and putting into the world is various different figures and they are engaging with one another. So many of your figures are asking me to address or acknowledge their existence. Can you talk a bit about relation in your work?

Wilma Cruise: I’m interested in the space between. Between you and me there is a space which is pregnant with the interaction we are having that subsumes the other conversation in human symbolic language. It is possible to have a similar non-verbal communicative space between humans and animals.

The French philosopher, Derrida had an encounter with his cat. He was having a shower, he was naked and he saw his pussycat looking at him (that is the word he used, ‘pussycat’). He realised this wasn’t just any cat, this wasn’t just feline, this was a unique individual being and he was ashamed (as a human) to be seen naked. The fact of the matter is that animals do communicate with us and we have the instinctual ability to communicate with them.


Jane Taylor: I want to turn for a moment to your vast canvases which are drawings of your diaries. They are enigmatic, strange, and whimsical things. There is a doodle here, a drawing there, a note to self. Can you tell us a little bit about how these function? The diary page is obviously of a much smaller size and these enormous canvases are of a completely different scale and medium. They address us in different ways, a tiny sketch of something is suddenly now much larger. Is this a way or recycling thought?

Wilma Cruise: Yes, it is. It started off as note-taking which I exhibited – in a box – for the first time at the Goodman Gallery in 1993. I noticed how people were interested in the thought processes. The ‘diary’ is in no way a formal study for the sculpture. I try and keep it as a stream of consciousness and don’t think too much when I am creating them. They started out as 100 A4 pages which I exhibited hung together so they made a very large composite work. And then the diary pages started to grow, they got bigger and bigger. For my doctoral show, they were A0. Now they are 2 x 3 metre canvases! In a way, I’ve inverted the notion of the diary as something that is closed, secretive and belonging only to that person. I like to think of my diary pages as an available parallel text that complicates rather than explicates the ideas implicit in the artworks.

Jane Taylor: I want to come back to the question of relationship in your work because I remember being so moved by seeing a sculpture of two baboons that seemed to be of a matriarchal baboon figure sitting with an adolescent and the way that they inhabit the space on the bench is so different. But what was marvellous about it is that you left plenty of space on the bench, so that passers-by, so moved, could sit down next to the baboons. Particularly moving in the time of COVID when people were reluctant to sit beside one another.

Wilma Cruise: I was in Hermanus where the sculpture was displayed in a public space. A small boy sat down next to the baboons. At a time when baboons are much vilified, unfairly so, it was encouraging to see a small child have that interaction, which I hoped would extrapolate into a positive feeling towards real baboons.

Jane Taylor: I find that so moving because obviously there is a whole history of the ideology of us turning other beings into instruments for our gratification and it’s so marvellous to see you invert that relationship and work at rekindling the live being in our experience of the animal.

Wilma Cruise: Yes, I like to invert the Cartesian question which is not can they talk, but can we listen?

Fragile 2021 Mixed media & collage on stretched canvas 2 x 3m


Pointing South 2021 Mixed media & collage on stretched canvas 2 x 3m



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