Reflections on a cowhide – an exhibition by Franli Meintjes

A few months ago Franli invited me for a tea-and-art-kuier at her home studio in Bloubergstrand. Franli has inhabited many parts of South Africa, being a native of the Free State, she’s lived in KZN, Gauteng, and now the Cape. She’s no longer tied to the agricultural land where she was raised. Aromatic bossieveld of the West-Coast and sandy beach walks with her three-year-old son now feed her artistic inspiration. Franli is honest and open about her Biblical worldview, even though the Contemporary Art World is hardly a context in which many exhibit a Christian position. Her current project was sparked by noticing the black-and-white cowhide under her mother’s kitchen table on a visit to their farm a few years ago. Although I am unacquainted with this object, being an urbanite, I know cattle is invested with valuable symbolism for many inhabitants of the diverse South African landscape. The Fresian cowhide under her mother’s table led Franli to reflect on how all of us – however divided in our clusters of state and stance – are similarly patterned to these majestic but humble creatures. We are covered with distinct but inseparable patterns of black and white. In symbolic terms, we not only hold all of South Africa’s past in our very skins, but we are also, theologically speaking, bathed in light and darkness.

“Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart…” – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Using the cowhide to cloak an anonymous figure, she further reflected on how the ‘hide’ can become a ‘hiding place’. Do we hide from God like Adam and his wife? Do we hide from ourselves within our cloaks of group identity, perhaps pointing fingers of resentment while ignoring the darkness in our own hearts? Her conclusion is this: while in each of us good and bad intermingles like patterns on the hide of a Friesian cow, it is only God who recognises our nakedness underneath, who understands and takes upon himself the whole of our human condition.

At The Gate I
Print on fabric, wool
600 x 800 x 80

Her artist statement reads:

Man’s setting in the Garden of Eden, and his eventual expulsion from it becomes the backdrop within which Meintjes sets her subject. In the vast garden, he was once naked in his innocence, but the figure we see now is covered. The idea of shame comes to mind. While all was provided within the garden, outside the gates of Eden, man is required to work the land in order to survive.

The cowhide is both an outward expression of self and a hiding place. There, in the darkness of the hide is a measure of comfort. Man pulls the wool over his own eyes in an effort to present himself differently to the viewer; while the world can only see the cover he has chosen, his feet are small reminders of the nakedness in which he came into the world. He is resting in, but also blinded by the duality of his nature, the darkness, and light, the yin and yang, the harmony and discord.

Expelled II
Print on linen fabric, wool
780 x 800 x 80

When I look at Franli’s work, I am struck by how the uncomfortable tension in our human story is the same that holds the wayward fibres of a future tapestry together. Only God can ‘set things right’. Only he can make sense of our cherished childhood memories, our painful stories of land, belonging, and expulsion, and of the muddle of tangled wool that is South Africa today. In Him “all things hold together” (Col 1:15-19). It is a message that even the simplest of creatures can understand. *Franli’s exhibition can be viewed at Circa Cape Town, Waterfront, from 8 to 20 August 2022.

About Franli

Franli Meintjes is a mixed media conceptual artist based in Cape Town. Through the years, her work has explored aspects of man’s spirit, like greed, self-exultation, and the misuse of power, with a particular focus on the South African cultural and political context. In this series, Meintjes’ continues her exploration of the nature of humankind; this time, his fall. Meintjes uses her own digital photographs layered with a palimpsest of woolen fibres, to weave together South African landscapes, in particular agricultural scenes. The outdoor scenes have been printed on loose woven fabric, which are then covered with a punch-needle weaving technique.

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