Of Past and Future Wrought

This article is the first in a series of writing about one another’s art. Elbie Visser’s work explores themes around place and belonging. She was born in Namibia, lived in Pretoria for a number of years and has recently moved to the Cape.

Elbie Visser’s oil series titled Fragmented heroes speak about ruins and decay, but not in the dialect of the sublime and Romantic that is so typically associated with it. The series of 5 paintings were exhibited at a group exhibition titled Soma as part of a 40 Stones exhibition at the National Arts Festival in Makhanda.

My first visit to Rome was overwhelming. Where we live in the southernmost regions of South Africa our relationship to ruins and antiquity are different than in Europe. Apart for a few exceptions [1] ancient buildings don’t exist as historical sites in our cities – rather one travels to the mountains to find the caves where ancient peoples lived. Of the beautifully crafted beads, hand tools and sculptural objects only the rock paintings remain, and, considering trend to auction off pieces of wall (Banksy!) one hopes our beautiful rock art will at least stay put.

To visit Rome, a city with antiquity so vividly present, felt a bit like climbing into the biblical story of Acts (or at least onto the pages of Asterix & Obelix). Antiquity truly inspires the sublime, as 18th century writer Edmund Burke points out in A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and BeautifulAnd classical sculpture has a way of signalling elegance and beauty, even – or perhaps especially – if broken and disintegrated. It is remarkable that in this light Elbie Visser’s series of paintings don’t meditate on the sublime. That is, they don’t engender the romantic feelings of heroic destruction or picturesque decay, the “craze for ruins that overtook artists, writers and architects in the eighteenth century” [2]

Delphi, the city which inspired Visser’s paintings, was one of the most important places in antiquity, perceived as the navel of the earth Goddess Gaia and home of the famous Oracle of Delphi. ‘Navel’ seems to resonate strongly both with the body images expressed, and the theme of the exhibition, ‘Soma’, Ancient Greek for ‘body’. But it is not the human body that the artist primarily interrogates.

Like myself, Elbie was struck by the antiquity around her. She felt both amazed by these century-old objects and struck by their presence. Upon returning to South Africa she painted a number of small works containing fragments of the ancient sculptures that she encountered. Visser reflects on the fallen relics of ancient Greece, aware of how Western humanism continues to shape our culture, but also unsentimentally and in the language of contemporary painting. Along with the paintings she places a number of passages from the hymns of the ancient Hebrews (Psalms) and in the prophetic writings of the Hebrew prophet Habakuk: “They have mouths, but they do not speak; They have eyes, but they do not see; They have ears, but they do not hear, nor is there any breath in their mouths. Those who make idols are like them.”

How does the artist speak about idolatory in these works?

Firstly, she removes typical indications of the ‘grand’ (a pedestal/a mountainous landscape/the nostalgic marks of time) by decontextualising the objects. In the two blue paintings ‘fragmented heroes I & III’ the sculptures lose their heavy, marble like quality. Without their gravitational pull they aren’t imposing. Instead, they look a little bit lost, broken and confused. Some look frozen in the moment of action; some appear to be looking for something. Others look inert and powerless, mannekins no longer in vogue (Heroes I and III).

Elbie’s sculptures employs the characteristics of the ínnocent and beautiful (according to Burke: lightness, mildness, clearness, smoothness, gracefulness, and gradual variation)[3] to show how unimpressive they are. Yet at the same time, by titling the works as she does, the artist alerts us that their seemingly harmless beauty makes these objects, and what they represent, more dangerous.

In the work “Blind” Elbie clearly overturns classical sculpture’s unaffected beauty, making it unsettling and almost grotesque. Compared to Christian iconographic techniques employed to make the viewer behold beauty and acceptance in the eyes of the subject, the eyes of this sculpture is empty and disconcerting, It looks past the viewer into a self-interested future. Visser seems to suggest that idols aren’t innocent. Ideologies should be mistrusted. The yellow stone-coloured work “Foolish wisdom” speaks of battle and heroism, reframing the virtues of bravery and honour in battle to the purposeless striving of headless, beast-like figures.

One of the quotes Elbie noticed on the Delphi temple’s is ‘know thyself’, one among a number of ancient Greek sayings attributed to the sages. Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote a poem in response to this, urging the viewer to “Ignore thyself, and strive to know thy God!”[4] There is a deep irony in this, since for the ancient Greeks Know Yourself implied ‘know your limitations and that you are not gods’, whereas for a modern reader it sounds like an invitation towards individualist self-realisation.

What hast thou, Man, that thou dar’st call thine own?—
What is there in thee, Man, that can be known?—
Dark fluxion, all unfixable by thought,
A phantom dim of past and future wrought[…]

The artist ventures away from the typical portrayal of ruins and antiquity by her compositional point of view. In her paintings the Greek sculptures appear small because the viewer can see 7 or 8 fragments at once within a small frame. They look like small fossil-like objects, collected and neatly placed against a blackboard by an inquiring archaeologist. The archaeologist has a perspective broad enough to see the objects from a distance, i.e. ‘objectively’. He turns them over one by one, asking: “Where is the wise man (philosopher)? Where is the scribe (scholar)? Where is the debater (logician, orator) of this age? Has God not exposed the foolishness of this world’s wisdom?” 

Elbie explains that “whatever bodies of knowledge sets itself up against the knowledge of God will be destroyed”. Not only has time eroded the oracle of Delphi (“Tell the emperor, the splendid hall fell to the ground./ Phoebus no longer has his house, nor the prophesying laurel,
nor the speaking well. The speaking water has dried out.)[5] It has also eroded the culture of the Biblical Pharisees when they, in response to Greek humanist evangelising, became so rigorous in obtaining their customs and identity, that they became “religious crustaceans; all their bone structure was on the outside.” (Eugene Peterson’s words). Whether Greek or Jewish or Christian, lifeless, brittle religion perishes.

So yes, the works are about decay and destruction, but not in the dialect of the sublime. Instead they expose human endeavour (whether Greek or Christian) as beautiful but unsatisfactory – blind and deaf heroes that cannot deliver what they promise. Although their beauty draws us to them and the worldview they represent, they become exposed when removed from their grand background and shown for their self-interested agenda. And by looking them in the eye one can be one step closer to ‘know thyself’and thereby ‘know thy God’. If we truly ‘know ourselves’, we realise that whatever means we use to desperately try and transcend our creatureliness (medicine or meditation, knowledge or rhetoric), we are bound to look “lost and broken”, statues trying to lift ourselves up by the pedestals under our own feet.

Read Psalm 115 for a beautiful reflection on posterity, idolatory and self knowledge.




[1] Large stone ruins typically appearing more towards the northern parts of South Africa (Zimbabwe, Mapungubwe), but kraals and shelters were often made from organic material and therefore weathered by time. 

[2] Thus described in a 2014 Tate Modern exhibition titled ‘ruin lust’.

[3] For Edmund Burke, the beautiful is safe and satisfying, whereas the sublime has the power to compel and destroy us.

[4] Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem: Self-Knowledge (1832)

[5] One of the last prophesies made by the  Delphic oracle. Passio Artemii 96.1284.45–7, Cedrenus 1.532.8–10)”


Elbie Visser, “Fragmented Heroes III”, 2019, Oil on board, 220 x 300mm

Elbie Visser, “Blind, Deaf and Dumb”, 2019, Oil on board, 300 x 400mm

Elbie Visser, “Fragmented Heroes II” 2019, OIl on Board, 20 x 20 cm

Elbie Visser, “Fragmented Heroes I”, 2019, Oil on Board, 20 x 20 cm

Elbie Visser, “Foolish Wisdom” 2019, Oil on Board, 30 x 30 cm