Sculpture draws from all the definitions of art that have framed the evolution of human artistic expression for centuries. Whether its archiving, history, representation, emotions and thoughts, sculpture can do all that, and quite publicly. Its place in spirituality is central in imagining the deities of various African, Asian and aboriginal spiritual denominations. In history, sculpture acknowledges and celebrates moments and contributions of what a society considers great. In whichever context, sculpture provides us agents of memory that interrogate collective meaning and archive broad grand strokes of human progress. Its evolution over decades has held to those fundamentals, even as artists have explored and evolved the practise. One such artist is Mignon Modema Mayhew, known as Bridget Modema, an artist whose work collides worlds and challenges our notions of meaning.
Modema is a multi-disciplinary artist, curator, and creative entrepreneur based in Pretoria. She has an academic record that makes for an interesting expression of who she is as a sculptor. She earned a BTech in Fine Arts from Tshwane University of Technology, is currently on a Masters in Fine Arts with University of Pretoria, and also studied Metaphysics with the University of Metaphysics in Arizona, USA. She has done numerous residencies with institutions such as Obsidian Glass Studio, Slow Network, and has won numerous awards including first prize at the 2008 Sanlam Trust Outeniqua Kaleidoscope. She curated The Project Space at the 2019 RMB Turbine Art Fair and has participated in over 40 exhibitions since 2013. Her contemporary sculpting work is about the the meeting point between the mental and spiritual. It’s like physics meets up with the divine, like formulas meeting incantations, like thoughts meeting feelings, the fluid meets the rigid, and so on. She brings together worlds that we would have otherwise thought disparate, and she harmonises them.
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I first saw her work at Sculpt X, a group exhibition at Melrose Gallery in Johannesburg, in September 2019. The sculpture that caught my eyes is called Manifestation Device No. 1. It’s a sculpture in the round, made of brushed steel and blown glass. It has a circular base made of sheets of steel with geometric cutouts of triangular patterns. From this base shoots off a thin, long solid steel trunk about 1.5m tall, and perched on top of it is a life-size, clear glass moulding of a human face. The glass is carefully balanced and fused with the steel rod, ensuring proportional distribution of mass from wherever you view the sculpture.
The steel trunk extends into a hollow spiral steel rod stretching above the glass face into a circular wave. It feels like a spinal column that has been compressed and manipulated into this concentric form, giving the sculpture height, orientation and balance. On this hollow steel rod is a perfect sphere made of glass that could easily be moving along this spiral extension into infinity. Flowing, as if on an organic conduit, looking like an orb of energy. It’s grand and feels like installation such that you have to walk around it to fully interact with it. And when you do, it is spellbinding.
Manifestation Device No. 1 has utility. It is meditative. It is one from a collection of works that seem to be interrogating consciousness. The representation of energy, humanity and the machine are tangible and reflect the world today, thoroughly.
The deliberate use of steel in its rigidity and coldness, its form in predetermined shape, and how Modema presents it, brushed, with visible fine marks from the brushing process, makes one think of the fabrication of the material. The welding, grinding and sanding of metal; the technical skill required to prepare and manipulate the material for the art.
The blown glass is a point of interest that brings into this industrial presence, an ancient Roman technique dating back to 5000BC. There’s a lot of romanticism here, the idea of preserving and celebrating ancient historical techniques conjures up a certain warmth that contrasts starkly with steel and fabrication. That glass, is fluid in form, and is combined with solid state steel, adds to that stark contrast.
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Modema makes genius tangible and gets you thinking of the relationship between the artist and industry. In sculptures like these we see the pointed interest in production, and the crystallisation of technique. She gives us a cultural language that connects the artistic idea and all its information and coding, with the hands that possess the artisanal expertise of making tangible objects. It may well be one person who is both artist and artisan, or it may be a production chain with various artisans producing under the guidance of the artist. Either way, it is a relay experience, a passing on of artistic concepts and ideas from the sensibilities of artistic expression to those of artisanal skill, and back. Or from the artist to an artisan and to another artisan and so on, and finally back to the artist. Whether it’s one person flip-flopping between different skillsets, or it’s a collaborative effort between people – it’s transference of energy.
The result is works that are layered, imbued with meaning, whose beauty is not only the final sculpture that you behold, but also, an appreciation of the process. And when that discussion maps onto an artwork that interrogates consciousness, for instance, it becomes and even richer experience that deeply affects and infects you.She takes creativity out of the realm of the mystical and brings it into the practical. Her works challenge the nebulous notion of the talented whizkid whose genius is simply seen as the space between the artist and the final artworks. In her sculptures, the genius is articulated with a broader, and wider vocabulary, expanding the meaning and the language of the art and the artist, and in the bigger picture, of humanity.
Some of her works in this series of sculptures incorporate tuning forks, ‘energy orbs’ in blown glass, and LED lighting. They could be coming out of a sci-fi or a speculative fiction world. There’s a sense of power that each of the pieces carry, such that they could be amulets, not only artworks.The themes continue to touch on thoughts, energies, vibrations, emotions, and the divine, interrogating consciousness. She compels us to look closely at the relationship between ourselves and the world arounds us. The duality that lives in her choice of material, and the place of time in the techniques, also spark engagement on the placement of people in time. The conversation gets me thinking about my ancestral heritage, and my identity, today. And this allows the discussion to expand into collective consciousness, where there is shared energy and shared meaning. I find her work especially poignant right now, where an indiscriminate pandemic is demanding that we vibrate at similar frequencies, and lead with the best of humanity.
Modema is testament to sculpture’s evolution, as a multi-dimensional form that was always about representational work and archiving of objects of humanity in all its complexity. Her work can be found in public collections that include the Pretoria Art Museum, and the Department of Arts and Culture.
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