Khanya Mashabela

Gerda Scheepers, Hello (2016).jpg

Gerda Scheepers, Hello, 2016. Courtesy of the artist + blank projects

In 2016, Gerda Scheepers opened a solo exhibition at Blank Projects titled SITCOM. At the time, I was working as a gallery assistant at Blank, still learning about the scope of contemporary art. Scheepers’s delicate, off-balance sculptures, each invoking the corporeal form, have since stayed with me. 

Hello is close to a ‘white painting,’ that subtle genre of art that has had innumerable iterations over the course of this century and the last. Hello’s dirty white surface was made hypervisible because of its context within the exhibition, made up mostly of wall- and floor-based sculptural objects in graphic combinations of fleshy pink, canary yellow and true blue, set off against white and black backgrounds.

Hello struck me with its abstracted yet precise expression of everyday, bodily discomfort. It is the T-shirt that used to hang off of you and now clings to you, which you tug at one hundred times. Years of 30 minute cold washes have left marks that you thought were not noticeable until they are hit by daylight and the eyes of your friends. You realise that your nipples are peeking through the fabric (“Hello”). You wonder if they have done that every time you wore it, and you are only just now noticing. Perhaps the neuroses evoked by the image of a white T-shirt are my own and not the artist’s. But with the title in mind, I imagine an exchange like this:

His eyes darted down to her chest and then back to her face. He gave a slight chuckle and then looked back pointedly at her chest. Her nipples had been brushing up against her dirty, white T-shirt and were now peaking through the thin fabric. “Hell-ooo,” he said, exaggerating the vowels to up the comedy. A hot and cold rush of embarrassment flushed her body with an intensity only known to anxiety disorder sufferers. Her arms crossed over her chest tightly. She mumbled excuses about air conditioning and a broken washing machine.

How fitting that the exhibition was titled SITCOM, and that the humour in sitcoms often relied upon clichés. 

The nude in art is more commonly a celebration. Naked bodies are often depicted as confident and sensual in their fleshiness or muscularity: Venuses and Davids. Or they are intentionally abject and monstrous, like Saturn’s hunched-over back and spindly legs and arms, and the tree-trunk like torso of his dismembered son. Or they are real and exposed, like in Jo Spence’s no-nonsense self-portraits of her cancer-ridden body. 

Scheepers’s depiction of a body is more relatable to me. It is amorphous and unclearly defined. It relies on clothes and the tensions between covering or revealing -- a love/hate relationship. It is a little bit funny, but also a little bit sad. Most of all, it is awkward. I think that there is a great challenge in expressing ambiguity and ambivalence. Scheepers’s Hello does that for me in a way that I have found unforgettable.