On Returning Ruth Baumgarte’s Gaze

Maren Bodenstein

Writer, South Africa

Looking at the photographs of Ruth Baumgarte dressed in khaki, standing amongst a group of Masai tribespeople, she feels somehow familiar to me ― as if I have met her somewhere. Born in the same year as my father, her photographs and paintings pull me back to a childhood spent in a tiny village in Zululand, South Africa.

Hermannsburg was where the German missionaries came to learn isiZulu before venturing out to remote mission stations. My parents were teachers there. Bohemians at heart, they loved music, theatre and art and whenever they could, they left behind their brood of five children to visit Germany. The experimental and questioning cultural climate of post-war Germany excited them. They made friends with musicians, radical theologians, artists and adventurers. Many of these would in turn visit Hermannsburg. Their amusement at our pre-war backwardness did not escape me.

The highlight of these visits would usually be a trip into “The Thorns”, a rocky, dry acacia scrubland about 30 kilometres away. The journey was made in our battered old car, and being the youngest, I was allowed to come along. The excitement would start once we descended into the escarpment and the goats started running across the roads. Women with bare breasts carrying huge clay water pots and young men in animal skin loincloths made our guests feel that they had finally arrived in “authentic” Africa. We stopped to visit artists and the homesteads of chiefs. Hands were shaken, open-hearted connections made. My father spoke Zulu fluently and there was a sense of good-hearted mutual curiosity.

And then we left again.

On our way home (with me now squashed in the back between freshly purchased wooden sculptures, clay pots and beadwork) there was usually an initial silence. And then the adults would burst into speech. Trying to give words to their enchantment, they spoke of the wonderful complexity of African culture which they had witnessed and the openness they had encountered. Something always opened up in them on these journeys. Some deep connection was made.

And these connections in turn have influenced me deeply. Living and working as a white woman writer in a post-apartheid South Africa, much of my work is about negotiating a sense of belonging here, of trying to locate myself in the country of my birth.

It is from this position that Ruth Baumgarte and her relationship to Africa interests and fascinates me. And, looking at her work, so many questions come flooding into my storyteller mind.

“Why did she travel to Africa so often? Who did she travel with? How did she travel? What was she looking for? What did she find here? What was her relationship to the people she painted?” I am interested in her gaze.

Looking inward

“On the river bank”, 1988) is one of the first in the series of her Africa paintings. It is an intimate portrait of a black woman sitting next to the river, away from a looming city. The colours are muted, melancholic, almost painful. The woman is taking a break from her toils to turn inwards, towards herself. And I cannot help wondering if this pausing, this turning her gaze inwards, was not the initial gift which travelling to Africa gave the artist who is in her mid-sixties?

The after-image

Four years later, Ruth Baumgarte paints another contemplating African figure. “In the Desert” shows a man contained by a timeless landscape and held in rich, intense colours. But this person is at ease within himself. He does not need to shield his eyes from the world.

The paintings from this year (1991) are large and bold and glow with colour. Africa has opened something up in the artist and I imagine her drinking in the landscape and the people with all her being, making sketches to capture forms and shapes. Europe has vanished from her consciousness. And then, after weeks and months, she returns home to Germany ― to a bleak and grey landscape; an industrialised, ordered, systematised world that is saturated with ideas and memories. She sits back and lets the experience of Africa slowly distil itself inside her. She reaches for the tubes of colour, for her brushes, and paints out the vivid after-images left on her being. Feels the warm openness of the people she encountered on her travels.

In “African Landscape I” (1991), a small figure walks away into a timeless and abstract landscape of which she is completely a part. The artist is now freely projecting onto the canvas a world which is alive and shimmering with so many colours.

Sitting down with the women

“The Mid-Day Rest” (1991) shows the artist sitting down with the women under the trees, enjoying a break from labouring in the midday heat. Beyond the comfortable bubble of the tourist, she has become the third, unseen woman in the scene.

In “The Bride Price” (also painted in 1991), the artist is again seated on the ground, at the same level as the women sitting in the distance. Sitting right behind the young man, she can see the path he has to travel, past the women, all the way to the village where he will pay the bride price. Again, figure and landscape become one. Something that seems typical of her work.

The direct gaze

The artist has become obsessed with Africa. She visits South Africa, Kenya, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Uganda, Ethiopia, Sudan over and over again (almost forty times over 40 years). Not only is she fascinated with the landscape, but it is the people to whom she is drawn. It is as if exposure to the other opens up unknown spaces within her.

In “Misunderstanding” (1993), the artist’s gaze is confidently and flirtatiously returned by the young woman in white. The gaze is defiant and intimate ― possibly even a mirror of the artist’s own defiance against the self-important patina of European life and culture?

In both the 2001 paintings, “The African II” and “The African III”, the African gazes back at the woman who has come to gaze at them.

The allegorical gaze

With repeated visits, the artist becomes more aware of the politics and the conflicts of the places she visits. She paints allegorical and political statements about Africa. This is shown in titles such as “African Vision”, “His Land”, and “The African”. She endeavours to speak for Africa.

From around 1995, reds, oranges and yellows ― the colours of fire, of heat and passion ― start to dominate the paintings. The artist’s brush strokes have been let loose, almost to the point of chaos. Some of the reds, especially in “Rift Valley” and “His Land”, evoke blood ― both as markers of vitality and violence. Death hangs over the paintings of the vultures in mid-air and at rest. It is as if the artist’s journeys into Africa have finally split her open ― allowed her to reach through the thick layers of her own culture and training, to a more essential and mortal self.

The warm gaze

Ruth Baumgarte died in 2013 (the same year as my father) and right to the end of her life she expressed the desire to return to Africa, the place which has offered her so much profound connection ― a mirror to her defiant aliveness.

“In the Evening” (2003) marks the end of this great woman explorer’s repeated into “The Thorns”. And with this painting the artist, now in her 80s, returns to a more intimate and contained space within herself. Sitting in a room filled with people she gazes fondly at a new generation which is learning by the warm red, yellow, orange light of a lamp she has painted.