Eszter Kismődi, SRHM Chief Executive, interviewed South African artist Grace Cross who’s painting is featured on the cover of the SRHM 2021 Open Issue.
Grace Cross is a Zimbabwe born material painter who draws symbols from feminism, motherhood, home, and belief structures. Cross’s art is inspired by women throughout history, performative archaeology, and African cosmology. Her work addresses our deep history – bringing transformative cultural wisdoms and stories together to reflect the abundance and variety of life she sees around her.
Cross’s paintings reflect her cultural transmission across national borders. Throughout her childhood, she moved between continents. She was brought up in Zimbabwe, Kenya, Greece, India, the United States, and finally South Africa where she currently lives. Her diverse upbringing informs her painting practice where she fuses cultural storytelling, spirituality, and the archaeological mining of symbols in her loud and colour-filled canvases.
Cross’s latest series, Atlas is a Woman, investigates the psychological and physical weight that South African women carry. The series started when Cross’s daughter would only go to sleep when strapped tight to her back. Cross took many long walks to get her daughter to sleep – an experience that got her thinking about the heavy expectations that mothers are asked to fulfil, both historically and today. Similarly to the Greek mythos of Atlas, a titan who was condemned to hold up the celestial heavens for eternity on his shoulders, Cross’s painted figures are physically burdened. The bent over women seen in Cross’s paintings carry children and world globes on their backs, in addition to their own psychological and physical hardships. They are symbols of endurance and strength.
“The burden of being a mother is taking on the cultural pressure of shaping and improving the world for future generations,” says Cross. Women, and mothers in particular, are central to her art. So much of women’s experiences and struggles have been overlooked and underrepresented in history. By weaving the cultural fabric of motherhood and ritual into her canvases, Cross hopes to carve out space that celebrates the importance of mothers everywhere. The mothers that Cross depicts in her art pay tribute to the profane strength that is required to raise children. The mother figures depicted show their animalistic sexuality and virulent fragility; qualities that are seldom attributed to mothers in art history . Instead of the coy, virginal mother that has plagued so many representations of women, Cross’s women are unapologetically lionized for their sexuality and strength.
Another theme covered in Cross’s art is domestic violence. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, many countries have adopted stay-at-home orders which mean that several women were confined with abusive partners. Cross’s paintings serve to witness, bring attention to, and honour women and their experiences.
Cross’s canvases also depict the history of labouring women. They follow a bloodline that connects many women’s experiences. Indeed, the colour red is used to speak of the umbilical cord that connects mothers and babies, of menstrual blood that signals one’s entrance into adolescence, or of the blood shed from domestic violence related injuries. Cross uses colour in her paintings to emote. The colours signify histories and stories of lust, love, and the diversity of life.
‘A Certain Blindness’, the painting chosen for the SRHM 2021 Open Issue cover, depicts a mouth that has swallowed a universe. Taking inspiration from the story of Pandora’s box – behind the bleached, anonymous lips of the figure is revealed to be a world of colours, and a cacophony of shapes and textures. The eyes looking out from the mouth represent the importance of multiple perspectives and freedom of speech. Cross’s artwork is a celebration of diversity of people and opinions. Inside us all lives an exuberant and joyful mess of opinions, feelings, and directives that are pushing us ahead through the harsh and exciting world we all inhabit.
Cross’s art maps a colourful world of dismembered figures that reflect our own emotional divisions. She offers a hopeful vision for the future, one where women and mothers are celebrated for their strength, opinions, and cultural impact. As the great Lao Tzu once said, “the beginning of everything is the mother of everything. Truly to know the mother is to know her children, and truly to know the children is to turn back to the mother.”
Grace Cross graduated with her MFA at the University of Illinois at Chicago in 2016 and holds a BFA from the Michaelis School of Art at the University of Cape Town, for which she was awarded the Judy Steiner painting prize in 2010. She has participated in numerous group exhibitions locally and abroad. Cross is a grant recipient from University of Illinois at Chicago, USA and National Arts Council, South Africa. She has participated in many art fairs in South Africa and abroad, having a solo booth at Joburg Art Fair in 2016. She has work in the collections of the Africa First Collection, Spier Arts Trust and the University of Cape Town among others. Cross lives and works as a mother and painter in Cape Town .