Looking back on the past year, it is difficult to disentangle timelines and events while still in the deep fog of a crisis, and yet the steady presence throughout it all is the importance of front-line workers. In her online solo exhibition Stick It, Sue Greeff offers an opportunity to retrace a personal history of nursing in South Africa while contributing to the ongoing conversation of a global pandemic. Comprised of a series of portraits drawn from photographs in her personal archive, the exhibition is an exploration of her own memories of nursing whilst offering an opportunity to reflect on the events of the past year.
During the first national lockdown in South Africa, as we all reeled from the early shockwaves of the coronavirus pandemic, Greeff began thinking of her time working as a psychiatric nurse and midwife in the late 70’s. With nurses and hospital staff facing harsh tragedies with COVID-19 cases increasing globally, her thoughts turned to those on the front-lines. In an act of remembrance, each day during lockdown, she created a series of cairns by placing flat stones on top of each other. A year later, the impact of the pandemic has rippled through the world in unprecedented ways and the unfathomable numbers that flash past us on the news each represent countless loved ones lost. While we will continue to grapple with these horrors for a long time, Greeff understands and demonstrates how art has always offered respite and an opportunity for reflection.
The multidimensional artworks work across time and materials. Picking out images of herself and her friends through the years, Greeff has harnessed a playful nostalgia further adding to the complexities of her subjects. Using found images and then reworking onto the surface of each photograph, she disrupts the neatness of the particles captured in the past and shuffles them into the present. As nurses have so often been the ones to translate, transfer, or convey between parties, their stories may have been missed and their roles boxed off into overlooked pretty pictures. Through this body of work, Greeff affirms the dynamism and the humanity behind the images, the latex gloves, and the protective gear. She highlights nurses not only as essential workers but also women having fun, partying, smoking, gazing softly off camera. The title of the exhibition riffs off one of the artworks, where a nurse’s mask has the words “stick it” scrawled over her mouth – alluding to the dexterity of nurses and their needle skills, easily finding the right vein to draw from or inject into, and playing on the much anticipated and contested vaccine jab. Stick It plays on the clinical terminology that to nurses becomes like an additional language they must be fluent in, while also prodding our rethinking of these professionals as also sassy, also playful, also dynamic, and also as individuals.
While “Stick it” is a subversive term that exists in contrast to authority, for Greeff the phrase also lives in her memory as a female and flower child of the seventies. In the aftershocks of the pandemic and its economic consequences, we have the opportunity to reconsider and rethink where we place our value. The immense sacrifices, the invaluable care, and the boundless compassion that nurses continue to offer without restraint must be visualized and valorized. With this exhibition, Greeff establishes a platform for these reconsiderations and acknowledgments to take place and she has touched on just some of the ways we can continue exploring the realities of the pandemic which has so drastically changed the world and everyone in it.