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KATHLEEN FOX (Durban, South Africa, 1948)

Keywords: South Africa, exile, metamorphosis, mud, the unconscious


The South African Background

Born in South Africa where she spent her formative years, Kathleen Fox came to England in 1987 and has participated in the activities of the surrealist movement since 1991. She had first encountered surrealism as a student when purchasing a copy of Patrick Waldberg’s 1965 book Surrealism, which provided the revelation that has formed the basis upon which she has constructed her attitudes towards the world and to the process of creative activity.

It was in 1979 when she moved to Cape Town that she decided to devote herself to painting. Her tutor Michael Pettit showed her how to go beyond narrowly traditional approaches to painting by introducing her to a variety of techniques and crucially advised her never to settle for complacency but to push herself and always remain true to herself.

Her early paintings respond to her personal situation in apartheid South Africa. Without being obviously political they express unease, even despair, in the face of the inflexible attitudes of the white social world in which she had grown up that was blind to the forces stirring in the country and complacent in its certainty of cultural superiority. From an early age she felt more in tune with the vibrant culture of the townships that surrounded her and which she was forbidden even to enter and yet the sounds coming from them energised her and acted upon her imagination. In the paintings from the early 1980s she conjures up strange, often theatrical, scenes with startling juxtapositions. In many of them she sets up a drama within an interior whose features are drawn from the Victorian house in which she lived in Cape Town. In Sacrifice (1982) we see an impressive marble fireplace specially imported from England as a white status symbol into which an outsize insect with a broken wing is crawling and metamorphosing. The deliberate use of Victorian architecture as a setting for the drama was to visually contextualise the conflict between European and African culture and ideology. In Theatre of the Drum (1984) we witness a ritual dance as masked marionettes move to a rhythm we cannot hear in the gloom of a stage-like setting. There is a similar scene in the later painting Exuma (1992). In Shattered Fire (1983), a curtain combusts in the calm of a simple interior but seems unable to make an impression on the surroundings and, as Lautenbach (1986) says, ‘shatters into fiery shards of solid substance’. The sense of a conflagration on the point of erupting is a key element in the work of this period. An atmosphere of foreboding and claustrophobia pervades these early paintings, a sense of fear and dislocation, in which the motif of theatre, with its intensely lit arena, is enacted in a domestic interior and seems to signal exposure to the unseen and unknown. One has a sense of there being a visitor at the door, who may represent a threat to the comfortable interior but whose presence is not acknowledged. This sense of absent life, of an unseen presence that is unable to make its mark on a congealed present, offers a disquieting subtext that is evident in many of her South African works. These are not willed metaphors of a threatening political situation but deeply personal and involuntary forms of expression in which the apparently abnormal – as in Kafka’s Metamorphosis – is also an accurate rendering of an unbearable reality.

Move to Britain

The decision to move to Europe in 1987 was seen by her as the only escape from this confined situation to which she saw no end, its militarised nature giving no intimation that within three years the apartheid regime would collapse under the weight of its own contradictions. The tension in Fox's work plays on a double estrangement:  mentally from white South African culture; physically from direct participation in black African culture. Her identity thus seems to be founded in the margins, neither of one place nor another but in the gap between as. And it is in this appreciation of the value of the margin that her involvement in surrealism seems to be situated.

The sense of displacement revealed in the works of the next decade is acute and reveals a questioning of identity on numerous levels. This begins with Cold Meat (1987-8), her first work painted in Britain which looks back at the apartheid regime. Through a meditation on Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp, she relates Dutch colonial history with the reality of apartheid. Replacing the Dutch medical contingent with South African political and military figures, Paul Kruger (South African President from 1883 to1900) and his henchmen exist in a sepulchral setting, some of them impaled on railings that surround the religious and political symbol of Afrikanerdom, the Voortrekker Monument. Deathly white, as though drained of life, they are so absorbed by a demonstration on how to dissect and eat a black African body that they seem unaware that the corpse, though in an advanced state of decomposition, is more life affirming in tone than they are. The title, Cold Meat, is a 

nod to the comment of Jimmy Kruger (Minister of Justice and of Police 1974-9) on hearing of the death in police custody of the Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko that ‘it leaves me cold’. The number on the body tag is that of Simeon Katisi Sambo, one of many black miners killed in the Kinros mining disaster of 1987.


With exile, a transformation of the themes of Fox's work became apparent. The sense of a threatened world oblivious to the dangers that face it was replaced with an exploration of a personal mythology that has taken myriad forms and began with a re-definition of identity no doubt prompted by her geographical displacement. A series of paintings from 1994-95 offer a poignant reflection on this process. In two key works of 1995, both entitled Lotus Eater, we encounter a woman. Her identity is unclear: she appears to be black, but one cannot be sure as she is covered in bandages (echoes of the invisible man may not be accidental, bringing together images that recall both H.G. Wells and Ralph Ellison, though Fox herself mentions Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as a point of reference). In both works she is immobilised and in the process of swallowing a white someone, the 'lotus fruit' the eating of which, according to Greek legend, causes us to forget our friends and homes and lose all desire to return to our native land. The theme of devouring is common to several paintings of this period in which the devouring character may be the earth itself, a wounded and abused earth that is layered like an archaeological site but also itself appears to have submerged into a sub-acquatic world – an apocalyptic sense is apparent. The character herself shares this layering, her body corresponding to that of the landscape as her body, the lower part already decayed, is unable to take sustenance from what she has eaten.

New horizons

The first decade of her relocation to Britain represented a transitional phase in her work in which she was coming to terms with her sense of displacement and in a sense settling scores with her relationship with South Africa. Since the beginning of the new century, however, her work has entered calmer, or at least less turbulent, waters as she extended her themes and practice to engage with an astonishing range of materials, including objects and assemblages while continuing to explore the two-dimensional, even while stretching this category to its limits and pushing it far beyond the normal ‘oil paint on canvas’. Nonetheless, adaptations of this traditional medium have proved a source of unexpected images as a result of practices that have clearly been learned from her engagement with surrealism and its automatist practices. While continuing to work with thin glazes of transparent oil paint to create 

luminous paintings of sometimes translucent figures, she also investigated techniques that involved the accumulation of thick impasto pigment and the scraping and scratching of surfaces to reveal suggested narratives. Both these techniques were explored without any preconceived idea of how the suggested imagery would develop, and those created subsequently in a wide variety of different mediums are themselves generative of images which she could pursue and elaborate or leave at a minimally suggestive level.

The most extreme practice in Fox’s deconstruction of two-dimensional image-making – excluding collage – has been her use of mud. Having collected mud from rivers and estuaries at Shoreham and Cuckmere Haven she spreads it out over paper, finding it to be vibrantly alive, and the resulting surfaces have constituted an endless source of fascination and surprise. There were the tracks of aquatic insects varying in scale, some very tiny, the passage of mysterious shell creatures that leave traces across the surface, and all kinds of curious marks, bubbles, cracks and craters. These works represent a kind of automatism of nature – the unpredictable movements of growth, life and decay are revealed in all their variety – that has clear parallels with the use surrealists have made of decalcomania. Fox develops the initial mud configurations, using other mediums, to reveal the images she sees in them.

In Le Bal (2008), for example, she adds paint, wax, resin and collage to bring out the forms of three figures whose outlines were loosely suggested by the insect trails – ‘automatic drawings’ of the natural world. There is the hint of eroticism and death in the encounter of the figures, the largest of whom appears to have a shadow torso whose disturbing behaviour and unsettling visage the small female figure is attempting to ward off.

The layering of the materials in these works is ‘suggestive of both… archaeological sites and of the natural layering to be found in sedimentation and the human imagination alike’ (Richardson and Fijalkowski, 2010: 7). They have a strong physical presence, of a slightly archaic nature, and are powerful metaphors for the spaces of the unconscious, with depth and density. There are links with alchemy, too, in the idea of regeneration though decay, which finds such direct expression in the mud paintings.

In 2008 Fox was commissioned to undertake an ambitious project at the Freud Museum to explore ‘portals to the unconscious’ by means of considering the links between Freud and surrealism via an engagement with the museum’s collection. The resulting exhibition took place in September 2010 and involved the creation of a complex multi-space environment representing a journey between the conscious and the unconscious as it engaged with the relationship between surrealism and Freud.

The exhibition included objects and videos, which had by then become an increasing focus of her attention. Similarly accumulated from or inspired by the natural world, she is sensitive to the histories of different kinds of power objects – a mole, a bone, a claw – that could be used in rituals, or to ward off harm. She has made fetish-objects with the bones found in owl pellets, sticking these tiny mouse, mole and shrew bones onto other supports, sometimes a head or an animal skull. The objects she fabricates also point to her extensive interests in mythology and pre-history and in animist cultural traditions.

The pure pleasure of making and taking sensuous delight in the materials is evident in every piece, as is the finding of echoes between the most unlikely objects and fragments. These often complex accumulations – bone, wax, glass, string, wire, fur, hair – combine and juxtapose textures and colours of great diversity. There is a double movement in many of her objects, between startlingly dissimilar things and an underlying pull of attraction in unexpected similarities of form, surface, colour.

Some of her object-sculptures look to the oldest known examples of sculpture, human figures with carefully exaggerated sexual features, or tribal pieces.

Cry Wolf (2012) displays both male and female attributes and is partially inspired by a primitive double sculpture that resembles a phallus from the back of the male and female co-joined figures. She then often adds other materials and found objects, such as wire or hair. In another work Fetish (for voles) (2011-2015) the elongated legs of a female figure are balanced by delicate wing-like arabesques in place of arms. The white dolls hands that complete the arms are an acknowledgement of the theatrical practice of ‘blacking up’ in the 19th century minstrel shows. At first sight the figures appear to be ebony, but the material is in fact black wax, which she has built up in layers to create a smooth ebony-like surface.

Since moving to Hastings on the south coast of England, her restless need for experiment and exploration has led her in recent years to a closer relationship with the sea and the secrets of its depths, providing the pretext for further enlargement of her concern with the residues and layers that are left behind by time and marked on every part of the planet. This has led to another complex multi-media project devoted to the Leviathan and based on themes from Moby Dick.

Dawn ADÈS and Michael RICHARDSON



Richardson, Michael and Krzysztof Fijalkowski (2010) ‘Introduction’ to Kathleen Fox The Spaces of the Unconscious, exhibition catalogue, the Freud Museum, London.

Lautenbach, Dale (1986) The Argus Cape Town 27th May 1986

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