Writing, art and the rewriting of history

Ruth HartleyAfrica, Apartheid, Art, Art Process, Colonialism, South Africa, Storytelling, The Shaping of Water, The Tin Heart Gold Mine, Truth, War5 Comments

I’ve had to learn a different history

8 drawings are arranged on the gallery wall they show a woman with 5 arms, 5 breasts each containing a drawing of a child. She has wings but is rooted to the earth. Her head is that of Medusa and she holds scissors, a gun, a thread and a lead attached to a dog who is biting her thigh.
Charcoal and mixed media drawings on cotton rag paper titled ‘The ‘true’ History of my Body’ by Ruth Hartley

I grew up during the British Empire when Cecil John Rhodes was the hero of school history but I had a great teacher. She was a cynical idealist who toed no party lines. At Cape Town University under the Rhodes Memorial, I followed up her questioning style and explored a more radical history opposed to racism and oppression. That enabled me, in 1973, to rewrite the South Africa long-distance learning course used by my Zambian students. My personal history has been rewritten without my agreement but that is life and happens in every family. None of us sees our history or our world from exactly the same angle. History can be twisted to disadvantage or to denigrate other people so it’s a human requirement to keep on asking questions of history that take us closer to the truth. So for that reason, I’ve come to use my art and writing to interrogate my history and my experience. The drawing above, for example, is titled ironically “The “true” History of my Body”, It’s about the way my experiences feel to me and not about my real body just its mythical meaning for me.

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Reflections on reflecting screens

Ruth HartleyArt, Art Process, Books, Creativity, Imagination, Power, Reading, Storytelling, Writing, Writing ProcessLeave a Comment

The stories we write or tell about ourselves come from within us. Now in lockdown, we turn to a screen and a digital image to make contact with people. Videophones and Skype seemed normal – I looked at you looking at me. I was still inside myself and our gaze was shared. When I Zoom to the “Screen” to be with friends and family I can see myself as well. For the first time, my own face is a barrier outside me. I once had a dear friend called Wardie who I loved for her straightforward kindness. She was small, bespectacled, with uneven rabbit teeth and a Lancashire sense of humour. She quoted Woodrow Wilson “For beauty I’m not a star, There are others more perfect by far, For my face I don’t mind it, For I am behind it. It’s the people in front that I jar!” That quote makes me realise what a fundamental change is happening to our idea of our “self” by this “barrier” of a digital image on a screen.

The photo shows mirrors, computer screens and a mobile phone with reflections of Ruth taking a self-portrait on her camera
Screens and mirrors
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Cuba, art, installations, Zambia, Africa, and the 1989 Havana Biennial

Ruth HartleyAfrica, Art, Creativity, Imagination, Installations, Mpapa Gallery, Politics, Power, Printmaking, Racism, Slavery, War, ZambiaLeave a Comment

Che Guevara and that famous poster

Che Guevara screenprint by Jim Fitzpatrick from a photograph by Alberto Korda sent to him via Jean-Paul Sartre – international art and artists in cooperation.

Old revolutionaries will remember the importance of Cuban screen prints as propaganda tools for the fight for freedom all around the world. In 1968, my communist friend, Bill, insisted that we visit the Cuban Embassy in London to see this particular brilliant and sophisticated form of art and agitprop. We all remember the poster of Che Guevara. Those were the days of international socialism, demonstrations against the Vietnam war and the London and Paris student uprisings when posters like this one decorated our streets. The Cuban Embassy was open and welcoming. They understood the power of excellent art and cinema. Then and there, I planned to visit Cuba. Soon after by contrast, the nearby Chinese Embassy, in a paranoid frenzy, threatened to use axes against the British press. The1968 Chinese Cultural Revolution under Mao Zedong had just begun. It was to end art, music, culture and creative thought in China for decades.

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The Shaping of my Art

Ruth HartleyAfrica, Apartheid, Art, Art Process, Creativity, Mpapa Gallery, Poetry, Politics, Storytelling, Zambia2 Comments

Damaged self-portrait 1971

The world hasn’t stopped turning in spite of the COVID-19 pandemic, but most people’s lives have been upended. It’s been a time for self-reflection for me as well as a time of tidying up files and boxes of photos. Some photos record my changing appearance, but the more interesting ones are those that detail how my art has altered and developed. My recent return to Zambia and my meetings at Lechwe Trust Gallery and the Open University art exhibition with artists made me think of the influences on my own art practice, and the debts I owe to other artists. I’ve decided to share some of that experience with you in the hope that you will tell me about your own ideas and developments in your own art practice in the Comments below.

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The Shaping of Water

Ruth HartleyAfrica, Apartheid, Books, Colonialism, Creativity, Displacement, Freedom Fighters, identity, Politics, Power, Reviews, Storytelling, The Shaping of Water2 Comments

Returning to the past to build the future

Daniel Sikazwe interviews Ruth Hartley on the terrace of the Ridgeway Hotel

This year I time-travelled back more than 30 years. I returned to the Ridgeway Hotel in Lusaka to the place where golden weaver birds build their nests above small sun-worshipping crocodiles. Here, there once was the excellent Zintu craft shop, a regular Zambian ladies lunch, an Independence Day National Art Exhibition and gin and tonics on the verandah under the management of Richard Chanter. On this occasion, I was meeting Daniel Sikazwe, journalist, broadcaster and PEN member who was interviewing me about my novel The Shaping of Water. The Ridgeway was as pleasant as ever! As with the Alliance Francaise event compered for me by Daniel, it was a very enjoyable interview. Daniel asked me penetrating questions about the reasons I wrote The Shaping of Water, and the truth of the facts in it. “It’s a book that should be standard reading for Zambians,” Daniel said. “It tells of a part of our history that is not known about.” And so we talked about how I came to write this book and the problems of writing cross-cultural history as a novel.

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