Office of the President
Andrew Petter, President and Vice-Chancellor
Remarks at the Opening of an Exhibition of Paintings by Noel Hodnett
October 19, 2007
Dr. Michael Stevenson
President and Vice-Chancellor
Simon Fraser University
ART AND EXILE
Remarks at the Opening of an Exhibition of Paintings by NOEL HODNETT
At the Teck Gallery, Simon Fraser University Vancouver
It is a great pleasure to welcome friends of the artist and the university to this exhibition of a small sample of the great body of work by Noel Hodnett. The work in this exhibition consists of six portraits of historical victims of political persecution and two large scale landscapes that deal more abstractly with political issues. Collectively, the work represents a deep engagement with the artist’s role as a social conscience to societies that learn little from “memory, history or loss,” to use the key words in Hodnett’s title of his installation.
I am especially pleased to acknowledge the extraordinary generosity of the artist, who has donated these works to Simon Fraser University. Apart from their great artistic importance, of which I will say more momentarily, they connect to a strategic interest of the university in international and political studies, especially in the area of international justice and security. These paintings will be a permanent stimulus to SFU’s “thinking of the world.”
My own appreciation of these paintings reflects a very personal connection to Noel Hodnett. We are both South African by birth and upbringing, and émigrés to Canada. Noel and I, and many friends in the room tonight, whose personal experience has been shaped by the experience of political tyranny and of exile, share, I think, a distinctive understanding of the terms memory, history and loss.
Our own personal histories are shaped by an official history which is much more contested, much more politically constructed, corrected and reconstructed, and therefore much more in doubt than the histories which inform the lives of many others. The particular unreliability of our history makes memory all that more important. Yet memory is also highly unreliable for émigrés and refugees whose memory fades out of touch with the physical and social stimuli on which it is based. We have the most profound memories of political atrocity and horror, but over time those memories become plastic and changeable in the way of bad dreams. And loss, of course, is fundamental to our experience: a loss of home and of identity which magnifies the ambiguities of history and memory.
The psychological impact of this lack of historical certainty; corrosion of memory and sense of loss is magnified by the experience of immigration. At one level, the loss for those raised in politically obscene regimes is made up by the exhilaration and liberation of exile. But exhilaration is confused by the ennui that results from no longer living intensely at the edge, where everything that happens and everything you do has important political significance. And the liberation of exile is confused by the oddly cramped sense of living in a new and disorienting environment, where you are not fully free to be, because you have lost a real identity and take on a new one with only marginal success; because your memories and history no longer apply.
This psychological confession is perhaps a bit bleak, with perhaps little relevance to Noel or others here. But it does inform my reaction to his work. For me, Noel Hodnett magnificently transcends in his art the political and personal contradictions that mark our experience. He is able superbly to articulate what for most of us is inarticulate, sub-conscious, repressed, confusing and emotionally overwhelming.
His portraits do this by dramatically reshaping memories of political martyrs, heroes and victims; by demanding attention to the violence and cruelty we have known, but too easily forget; by reminding us that while power has always shaped individual personalities by constraining instinct and desire, and while power has always shaped societies by obscuring and denying its origins in violence and theft; the harsh reality of the state must often be felt, even if only empathetically, as direct violence to the body and as human pain and suffering.
Hodnett’s portraits are therefore not comforting, not decorative, not in the tradition of glorifying power and the powerful, but a compelling articulation of some of the most basic truths of our experience, and of some of the most important moments in our political memory. His landscapes equally articulate what too often we cannot articulate. They are often surreal, dreamscapes, threatening and forbidding, and filled with political symbol. Like his “Big Brother,” a landscape littered with the technology of surveillance around a mound of slain humanity. Or like his depiction of the ruin of the lost city of the American South West, where the archeological mystification of history is opposed by the artist’s explicit inscription. As political as the portraits, these landscapes create discomfort and compel attention.
And there is in Hodnett’s technique, a perfect fit to the profound thematic unity of his political art. His painting involves a progression of erasure, over-painting, and survivals of earlier states beneath the final surface. In this way, Hodnett’s work is reminiscent of the work of his famous compatriot William Kentridge, but more difficult, costly, and time-consuming because his medium is painting not charcoal drawing and video. Still, his very technique informs us of the central psychological experience of forgetting and remembering as constituting our images and history.
Nobody should conclude from this condensed exhibition of Noel Hodnett’s most political work, that all his imagination is warped by politics, or that all his art is dark and difficult. My wife and I own a glorious landscape entitled “Homage to Shadbolt.” It is a bright, vivacious, and glorious embrace of the British Columbia landscape, with gestures to Jack Shadbolt’s colour palette, triptych division of the visual plane, and merger of realism and fantasy. I have seen recently a larger than life portrait by Hodnett, which is not of anyone in particular, but condenses memories and creates an attraction more satisfying and compelling than any portrait I have seen. And just the other day I saw one of his most recent landscapes that I covet: a magnificent and vibrant work that evokes the Karoo and the Eastern Cape as much as the American South West. It is probably not an historical account of either place, but a lucid memory of both. In any event, it is a wonderful celebration of the earth and of the possibilities of our ecstatic identity with it.
But the work in this exhibition draws us back from the liberation and celebration in much of Hodnett’s work, to the deeper and darker recesses of his political memory and sub-conscious. It demands that we think and that we grieve…lest we forget. Simon Fraser University is proud to be the permanent home of this great work, to honor a great artist, and to call attention to the important lessons he teaches.