“Not only did bodies tend to indicate a world beyond themselves, but this movement beyond their own boundaries, a movement of boundary itself, appeared to be quite central to what bodies are.*” – Judith Butler
Lulama Wolf’s practice is formulated by lines that rise and fall smoothly to create lithe bodies in space — bending, contorting, carrying, standing, and moving. As per Judith Butler, Wolf’s depicted bodies indicate a world beyond themselves and signal towards broader themes and processes. Traversing both the personal and the political, the Johannesburg-based artist engages themes of African spirituality within a contemporary context and merges that with colour theory influenced by traditional South African architecture and indigenous rock art. In addition to her studio practice, Wolf is known for her profound interest in fashion and design, fields that weave themselves into her sensibility of creating meticulously bold yet minimal paintings.
For her latest body of work, Wolf focuses on rest as a narrative spine around which her figures bend themselves. She considers rest as a way to think through practices of care, taking care of oneself and taking care of each other, emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually. The work seeks to reimagine varying possibilities of how rest is conceived — an impulse brought on by the slower pace as a result of the global pandemic – and pays attention to a new grammar of deep rest and deep care.
In Capturing Looseness (2020), a figure with elongated arms is twisted elegantly. There is a suggestion of ease, aided by the sensuality of a stretched eye painted in deep blue. The work is simple but remains sapid, with an intentional sparseness motioned through broad gestures and strokes that oscillate between abstraction and figuration.
Within her artistic practice, Wolf is influenced by both spiritual and art historical forerunners, citing the late Zulu diviner and author, Vusamazulu Credo Mutwa, and South African visual artists, Helen Sebidi and Ernest Mancoba, as key influences. The effect of Mancoba’s lucid abstraction and Sebidi’s intricate storytelling are visible in her work as demonstrated in the painting, Raised by The Bottle (2020). Made with acrylic and sand, the work is a nod to head-carrying practices ubiquitous in many parts of the world, and more specifically in parts of Africa, where women carry and transport heavy loads (of water, fruit, etc.) on their heads, supported by a small folded cloth for stability. The use of sand brings an element of tactility to the works and motions to Wolf’s interest in traditional mediums and symbolism through materiality.
A common thread throughout Wolf’s practice is what the artist refers to as “formless femininity,” which animates the intricacies of being a Black woman in the world, where notions of femininity are allowed to morph, transmute, and evolve over time. In her seminal book, Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex with the apt chapter title, ‘Formless Femininity’, Judith Butler examines Plato’s idea of the female form in relation to materiality. Plato suggests that the feminine is “a permanent and, hence, non-living, shapeless non-thing which cannot be named… synecdochally collapsed into a set of figural functions.”
Unlike Plato’s females, who are not permitted to exist as human forms, Wolf’s depictions of femininity are fluid and self-determining. Through her practice, she presents us with possibilities of womanhood in various states. Her figures are not fixed but instead transition freely between practices of affective labour and conditions of rest when necessary, shifting the boundaries of what is expected from the female body as they take shape and — perhaps more importantly — take up space.
*Judith Butler. Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex. Routledge; 1st edition (April 4, 2011)
An artwork interpretation by Nkgopoleng Moloi for the ART X Lagos 2021 artpaper