Judith Mason, who died on December 29 2016 at her home in White River, Mpumalanga, was a revered artist of extremes, her work covering the spectrum from esoteric mysticism to visceral political protest.
Applauded for her highly inventive images and known for her installation at the Constitutional Court, The Man Who Sang and the Woman Who Kept Silent, she was also seen as too enamoured of typical white middle-class themes, with some maintaining her work belonged to a period in SA’s art history that had been overtaken in a country in transformation.
Having grown up near the Kruger National Park, at a young age, she developed a fascination with animals and insects, especially moths. Also catching her eye was a bust of the Roman historical figure Brutus, and these influences set her off on a lifelong quest to merge western mythology with local mystic forces manifest in animal figurations — of whom snakes and hyenas were favourites — and everyday objects.
An example is Oracle, a lithograph late in her career (2015) that shows the head of the Oracle of Delphi from Greek legend, but the Pythoness figure replaced with Medusa, whose mythical snakes turn into pliers, of which one tries to disentangle a clump of domestic wiring.
Such complex images, often rendered in exquisite pencil work or in fog-like colour washes, delighted fans since she completed her fine arts degree in 1960 at the University of the Witwatersrand, with her first solo exhibition in 1964.
Her work has been gathered in all the major collections in SA, as well as in prestigious venues such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art in Washington and the Bodleain Library in Oxford.
She represented SA at the Venice Biennale 1966, São Paulo Biennale 1973, Valparaiso Biennale 1979 and the Houston Arts Festival in 1980.
The work for the Constitutional Court was commissioned at the behest of Judge Albie Sachs, and is often described as the centrepiece of its art collection. It pays homage to the courage of two victims of apartheid security police, Harold Sefola and Phila Ndwandwe, whose defiance was revealed only on the periphery of the Truth and Reconciliation proceedings. Ndwandwe was kept naked in a cell, but fashioned underclothes for herself from a discarded blue plastic bag. Mason made a dress out of blue plastic bags, the central part of the mixed-media piece.
Her political inclinations, although seldom as directly expressed, were also evident in her devotion to Robert Sobukwe, of whom she kept a portrait in her study to greet every morning – she also liked to start the day with "a little bit of ancient rock ‘n’ roll like Little Richard".
In 2004, she described herself as an "agnostic humanist", who "threw Richard Dawkins’s [book] The God Delusion against the wall. I’m the only supercilious atheist bigot allowed in my house," as she told the journal Aerodrome. Paradoxically, she pursued religious influences throughout her career, as in a drawing in which a Congo figurine with nails in its body has Christ-like characteristics.
"My mantra is that ‘everything that lives is holy’ – with the exception of racists, demagogues, mosquitoes and people who fix cricket matches."
She cited Dante’s Divine Comedy as a key source for inspiration, particularly the last canto of the Paradiso, which she said "has mattered to me more than anything I have ever read in my life".
Such contradictions kept her captured in a mysticism that sometimes produced warped, otherworldy forms that were unattractive to some viewers. While her images and the thought behind them were much more sophisticated than those of her contemporary Cecil Skotnes, she was unable to develop a systematic mythology like his, or like that of the Afro-surrealist Alexis Preller.
Mason met criticism with self-deprecating indifference. "Long ago, a dealer advised a group of clients against buying my work, as I had lost my integrity. The truth is, I have never had any. Life has been, for me, a mass of contradictory and often threatening stimuli, flashing past at random. My attempts to catch, pin down and identify some of these are what my work is about," she told DesignArt magazine.
Mason collaborated with several other artists and poets, especially Afrikaans ones such as Johann de Lange and Wilma Stockenstrom to illustrate their work. But her greatest excitement came from the discovery, through DNA tests done by her daughter Petra at Wits, that their matrilineal line had its origins among the Congo pygmies of the Ituri forest.
"We established that my great-great-ever-so-great grandmother was enslaved and brought to Mozambique from where the line interbred with my Afrikaans forebears [who originated from Germany]." This fact "makes me feel more identified with Africa than I ever thought possible", she told artist Khehla Chepape Makgato.
What she described as her own favourite work, Mitochondrial Altarpiece, deals with this discovery, and "is a meditation on being a mongrel Voortrekker and a pygmy slave".
Judith Seelander Menge was born in Pretoria on October 10 1938 and matriculated from Pretoria Girls High in 1956.
She is survived by her husband Revil John Mason, a retired archeologist, and daughters Tamar and Petra.