Ann Gollifer: Seeking pathways to home

POSTED ON: February 23, 2021 IN Khumo Sebambo, On Artists, Word View

by Khumo Sebambo

Ann Gollifer engages with narratives of heritage, displacement and belonging. Gollifer uses heritage and history — sometimes filtered through personal experience, memory and imagination — as reference points for her art. At various points her work can’t be discerned from her history and the contexts she comes from.

Gollifer undertook a journey into her ancestry in Guyana by actively seeking out physical and intangible pathways to her home and heritage in the Hosororo village in the Barima-Waini region, her mothers homeland — a community that she had been uprooted from for 38 years. Gollifer left Guyana with her parents and later pursue an education in England, her father’s home country, and later a life in Botswana, where she has lived since 1982.

The process of reconnecting to her heritage began with reading Guyanese and West Indian writers working in the fields of archaeology, art history and literature. The result of this research is a body of monoprints titled Once Upon a Time. The works are Gollifer’s reaction to “Genocide”, an article written by English journalist Norman Lewis that was published in the Sunday Times in 1969. [1] This article highlighted, in horrific detail, the murder and subsequent decimation of the people of the Amazon in Brazil. Using the photocopy transfer process, Once Upon a Time includes the original text of the article as a ground layer and superimposes monoprints of hybrid woman and animal forms over the text. Speaking about the conceptual aspects of this process behind these works Gollifer says, “The text almost completely disappeared in the transfer process and [became] for me a metaphor for the world not knowing the full impact of the atrocities that continue to this day to be carried out on the populations of Amerindians who wish to continue to live in their traditional homelands in the Amazon basin. It is very hard to make sense of this ongoing situation and the artworks are an insignificant comment on the horror, the pain and loss. I continue to work on how to make my comment stronger.” [2]

Harpy Woman, 2018. Photocopy transfer, watercolour pencil and wash, 84 x 59cm. (Photo courtesy the artist).

In the effort to make a stronger comment on the genocide of the indigenous people in South America, Gollifer travelled to her ancestral home in Guyana and began the long process of creating an artist book titled Views in the interior of Guyana — she describes the process of working with the artist’s book as a medium as different to her studio practice. Before returning to Guyana, Gollifer visited the Royal Geographical Society in London (also connecting to her English heritage) and spent time in the Picture Library looking through the Schomburgk Collection, which included the book Twelve Views in the interior of Guiana. Robert Herman Schomburgk was a German-born explorer who carried out geographical, ethnological and botanical studies in South America, the West Indies, the Dominican Republic and Thailand. He conducted this research on behalf of Great Britain from 1830 – 1946. He drew the Schomburgk line, the border demarcating the territories of Venezuela and Guyana. Schomburgk’s book in the library measured over a metre when opened and comprises 12, large, hand-coloured illustrated lithographs. Lithography was popular in Schomburgk’s time because of it was easy to execute, rendered multiple colours and produced a large edition of prints from a drawing.

Ann Gollifer
RH Schomburgk, Twelve Views in the Interior of Guiana, 1841.

Gollifer appropriated Schomburgk’s large book and made her own Twelve Views in response to it, as a way of reclaiming her birthright and birthplace. Gollifer subverts Schomburgk’s fantasy of Guyana as exotic, claiming Guyana as her own. Whereas he undertook the journey under the direction of the Royal Geographical Society of London, in aid of Imperial Britain — she undertook he journey to uncover the heritage that was lost to her through the process of building Empire.

Gollifer often explores ideas in series or bodies of work over several years. She started Views in the interior of Guyana in 2015 with several photographs that she had taken on her visit to Guyana in the same year. She made a selection of 12 photographs comprising several views of the interiors of homes and the Guyanese landscape. Gollifer used watercolour to translate the photographs into paintings mimicking Schomburgk’s watercolour field sketches made almost 200 years earlier. The watercolours show a view of Gollifer’s Guyana:abundant green forests, rivers and waterfalls, a still life of an abandoned meal and scenes of the ordinary lives of Guyanese people doing mundane daily tasks such as a mother holding her child, old men enjoying a drink and people going about their business in a busy street.

Ann Gollifer
Roadside Bar, Hosororo, 2015 – 2018. Watercolour on paper, 84 x 59 cm (Image courtesy the artist).
Ann Gollifer
Lyndon, 2015 – 2018. Watercolour on paper, 84 x 59 cm (Image courtesy the artist).

Gollifer uses watercolour to make similar observations to Schomburgk — she emphasises the deep green colours that characterise the landscape and the mountainous horizon, and she also depicts the local people. The obvious difference is the passage of time — Gollifer’s scenes are dotted with electrical pylons, aeroplanes and cars.  One striking image shows stumps and fallen trees, a comment on deforestation and climate change in South America. To make the artist book, she enlarged the final watercolour painting into prints of the same size of Schomburgk’s book. The artist comments that,

“I love to use the watercolour medium in this way as it has been associated in the past with the small, the pretty and the insignificant, until Marlene Dumas came along that is! Using watercolour as a medium to work life size, and making it from scratch has been empowering. I feel that I am taking control of and re-possessing a traditional European art medium and making it something my own.”

She then collaborated with master printer Joe Legate at LL Editions every year for five years in two-week sessions, to make the photographs into lithographs.  Gollifer describes this process as “lithographs from the photographs of paintings of photographs of Guyana.” The time and labour involved in the process of translating the photographs into prints provided the artist with an opportunity to work closely with the images of home and in that way, connect with her heritage.

Georgetown, 2015 – 2018. Watercolour on paper, 84 x 59 cm (Image courtesy the artist).

Gollifer and Legate only produced a certain number of lithographs each year due to the constraints of finances and the distance between Gaborone and Johannesburg, where the printmakers studio is located. Working in great detail in the studio it took several plates to create a satisfactory image that matched or surpassed the original watercolour paintings. The process of travelling, painting and printing took several years and it is now near completion with binding the book being the only step that remains. In the future Views in the interior of Guyana will be exhibited together with the paintings and the flat sheets (used in printing) in places that hold significance for Gollifer: Gaborone, Johannesburg, London and Georgetown, the capital of Guyana. 

Ann Gollifer
Iona’s Kitchen, 2015 – 2018. Watercolour on paper, 84 x 59 cm (Image courtesy the artist).

Gollifer reflects further on her interest in the legacy of colonial exploration in the body of work, Terra Incognito. These works were inspired by a visit to the Royal Swedish Scientific Society archives. There, Gollifer was able to look at maps made in the 19th century by the British explorer David Livingstone and the Swedish explorer Carl Johan Andersson on behalf of the Royal Geographic Society in London. These maps were made of small sections of paper that were glued to a linen backing so that they could be folded into small travel-size packages that could be carried around on expedition and edited by hand when necessary —similar in purpose to the contemporary city A-to-Z city maps carried by tourists.

Ann Gollifer
Terra Incognito, 2018. Oil stick on Belgian, 2 x 1,5 m (Photo courtesy the artist).

Gollifer made large-scale ‘maps’ on Belgian linen and used colours that were inspired by Swedish naturalist Karl von Linnaeus’ classification that separated the human race into groups by colour: White Europeans, Red Indians, Brown Asians, and Black Africans. Belgian linen is the finest quality canvas, used in traditional oil painting. The artist used this material together with oil sticks to reference the classical painting tradition while making an artwork that did not use the medium in a traditional way. The body of work Terra Incognito marks the beginning of Gollifer’s interest in the colours of races and their parallels with natural ochres. For this body of work Gollifer restricted her palette to the earth colours that began with Terra Incognito: yellow ochre, burnt sienna, raw umber, burnt umber, ivory blacks and chalky whites. She has subsequently continued this mode of practice in other works.

Ann Gollifer
Terra Incognito, 2018. Oil stick on Belgian, 2 x 1,5 m (Photo courtesy the artist).

When she started to restrict her colour palette in Terra Incognito, Gollifer also began making life-size works and using her own body. “The size of the maps was made to fit my body print as I decided the best place to start a search for the unknown was in myself,” the artist says. The works in Terra Incognito are inspired by Cuban-American artist Ana Mendieta, who pioneered connecting the female body with nature and used her own naked body in order to explore her connection with the Earth. 

Someone like You, a body of work that takes its title from the Van Morrison song of the same title, sees Gollifer continue her use of limited colours and marks the beginning of the process of making her own paints. She sourced raw earth pigments from the Botswana landscape to grind for paint and combined the raw earth pigments with gum Arabic as the binding medium. Since then, she has used these pigments to mix her own paint. Finding the natural earth pigments enables Gollifer to replace the French and Italian ochres with those of Botswana. The artist works with Mochudi whites, creams, yellows, pinks, reds, browns and blacks.

Gollifer’s description on the use of ochre borders on poetry. It reads: “As I stir each pigment into the Gum Arabic I notice its texture, finer or grainier depending on the colour. Lamp black is so fine, made up of tiny particles of soot, silky like black talc. Whereas Ivory black, bone char is courser. The ochres are grainier, they are earths, and so take longer to dissolve into a smooth, workable paste.”

“I can understand how the first people took that beautiful paste and smeared it on their skin, covering their bodies with it. They clothed themselves with earth for protection from the sun and the wind.  They did it for protection from the biting insects. They also clothed themselves in the earth to conquer nature. The ochres gave them shape-shifting powers, disguising their colour, smell, form and movement.  They also clothed themselves in the ochres to honour and worship nature. What came first, the worship of the ochres, from the commonest to the rarest ones, or their use for protection and conquest?”

The description allows us to reflect on the labour involved in making pigments as well as the conceptual underpinnings involved in making pigments from earth sourced in her chosen home. In Someone Like You, the artist attempts to use her ochre paints to parallel human skin tones by returning to Von Linnaeus’ classification of humans into four groups: White, Red, Brown and Black. “I chose a dominant pigment for each painted head, sort of trying to conform to the classification but of course it didn’t work because physically there is no such thing as a white, yellow, black or red person,” she says.

Someone Like You, 2018. Watercolour on paper, 29 x 21 cm (Image courtesy the artist)

The faces and figures shown in Someone Like You are distorted. Gollifer’s use of thinned down paint creates smudged and washed-out figures as the paint runs and mixes. The works are reminiscent of Marlene Dumas’ practice and her eerie bodies and heads rendered in thin washes of paint, ink or chalk. For Gollifer, the concerns at the forefront of this body of work are about racism. Someone Like You is a metaphor for the artist’s own experience with race: “I am very ‘mixed’. That description of my origins even appears on my birth certificate,” Gollifer explains.

Ann Gollifer
Someone Like You, 2018. Watercolour on paper, 29 x 21 cm (Image courtesy the artist)

The artist selected a dominant pigment for each head, trying to conform to the classification of the races, and an accent colour. The final works show the colours mixing together and make a comment on the fallacy of race and racial purity. “I wanted the work to talk about how we are all the same under our skin, we all have eyes, nose, mouth. We are all human and connected by the same genetics, DNA, mitochondria. When you cut any one of us, the blood from our veins runs dark red and the blood from our arteries runs bright red,” she says.

Addressing the fundamental fact that we are all human frequently enters Gollifer’s works. In Mitochondrial Eve, a title that evokes the biblical story of Divine Origin, she made eight separate paintings featuring female nudes. Rendered in watercolours, the paints bleed into one another and the colours mix. The artist uses the female form as her inspiration in this series because of its familiarity, being a woman herself. To the artist, the female form is also a metaphor for a potential physical and metaphorical connectedness throughout the human race. The title Mitochondrial Eve references human genetics and the idea that all human beings share a common matrilineal ancestor — a single woman who lived in East Africa around 100,000 years ago. “In other words we all come from the same mother, woman, clan, group, tribe, race, the human race,” says Gollifer. “My use of the female figure is very much about that potential for connection: as is the work ‘Someone like you’… and also about what it means to be alive and human right now.”

Ann Gollifer
Mitochondrial Eve, 2019. Watercolour on paper, 122 x 82 cm (Image courtesy the artist).

Mitochondrial Eve doesn’t try to translate scientific concepts behind genetics for a lay audience. Rather, Gollifer asks where the concept of a common ancestor is taking all of us and how we should respond. At the time of writing, Gollifer’s works and commitment to recognising and gaining humanity speaks to the #blacklivesmatter movement, George Floyd, resistance against police brutality and Indigenous People’s Movements. These concepts should not be confused with colour-blindness, which advocates for ignoring race without confronting the inequality and discrimination it breeds, but rather encourages us to see our humanity as a common language whose daily interactions have the potential to facilitate an understanding that transcends difference.

Omang (translated as “who are you?”) is a body of works that pay homage to the place she has lived in since 1985. Cotton prints, known as Leteisi or Shweshwe, are used in the making of the works. Historically, these fabrics came in red, brown and blue and were manufactured in Europe. But southern African women adopted them and subsequently the colours have come in candy shades of blue, pink, and orange. Leteisi is worn at special occasions such as weddings and is considered a national dress in Botswana. It also holds a special place for southern African women, particularly those of Lesotho, Botswana, South Africa and Zimbabwe. Gollifer is intrigued by the cultural significance they hold and uses the candy-coloured fabrics to pose the question: Omang?

Ann Gollifer
Omang, 2017. Linocut and embroidery on fabric (Image courtesy the artist).
Ann Gollifer
Omang, 2017. Linocut and embroidery on fabric (Image courtesy the artist).

“Being a non-African living in Botswana as a permanent resident, domiciled in Botswana, my home for the last 34 years, I consider myself, as an artist, to have been made in Botswana. My work has tried to address this problem of belonging. The series Omang addresses the problem of belonging using as ground the cultural material, the Leteisi, that embeds us all in the same society despite our origins,” says Gollifer.

The fabric works are overprinted with linocuts and many of the pieces have also been embroidered with images of human figures, fauna and flora to create narratives on the human condition of belonging. The embroidered and printed animals represent totems found in Sotho-Tswana society where members have an animal totem. They are usually inherited from the father and are passed on like an English surname. When naming a clan, the name of an animal that they venerate is often used and this totem describes one’s belonging or not belonging within a society. In several of the fibre works of the Omang series, a Mynah bird appears marching through some of the pieces. Gollifer uses this species of bird as a motif in this series because it is unwanted worldwide and is a symbol here of not belonging.

Omang, 2017. Linocut and embroidery on fabric (Image courtesy the artist).

Gollifer may have ended up living in Botswana for personal reasons but it turned out to be a good place for the artist to work, partly because of its close proximity to Johannesburg. “My relationships and collaborations in Joburg have shaped me as an artist as much as living in Botswana has,” says the artist. The artist describes the art scene in Botswana as small, but she makes the most of it by creating a close relationship with other creatives through the Thapong Visual Art Centre, a membership-driven organisation located in Gaborone. Established in 1998, the centre is dedicated to fostering growth and development as well as promoting arts locally and internationally through their gallery space and exhibition programme and workshops. “In Botswana you have to look for and help nurture contemporary culture with great earnestness and generosity of heart. There is so much to do in terms of advancing the growth of civil society through the arts,” says Gollifer.

Gollifer is also a founding member of Art Residency Centre (ARC), an artist-run space she runs together with other artists. ARC is an art residency centre based at the Gaborone Club in Botswana. The residency is on offer to artists working in all mediums spanning performing, visual arts, poetry, dance and theatre among others. ARC’s multidisciplinary approach is reflected in Gollifer’s practice. She is interested in a multi-disciplinary approach to the arts as it allows her to express her concepts and feelings. “It might start out as a poem about loss or a sense of not belonging and then become visualised in a series of paintings or a story book. I may want more connection with the community and then it might become a series of workshops and/or events with other artists. I try to adapt the outcome to the need,” the artist explains.

Being interested in founding an inclusive — in the sense of artistic practices — art centre makes sense considering that Gollifer’s practice has incorporated different mediums and  writing and text at different periods. “I have always migrated between mediums because for me making work is a little like problem solving,” she says. By problem solving the artist is referring to her process, which requires her to respond to her problems in lived experiences and questions in other artists’ works. “Sometimes the response needs the use of paper, or the use of fabric. It depends what I am trying to say and how I want to say it,” says Gollifer.

By working in multiple media, the artist explores new ways of expressing herself and as seen in Views in the Interior of Guyana, she experiments with new styles. The media that she isn’t familiar with imposes new constraints and eliminates old ones, allowing her to think and create laterally. These experiments with different mediums and the continuous exercise required to master them are a core part of her practice.  “When one refers to someone’s ‘art practice’ I often think that ‘practice’ is the perfect word,” says Gollifer. “Sometimes that practice becomes something worth sharing. I have done a lot of practicing. Process is also a huge part of my practice … the process of thinking about work, while drawing, painting or writing.”

Writing is integral to Gollifer’s practice — her website is a combination of images of past works and her own personal writing reflecting on those bodies of works. Her writing conveys different knowledge or ways of thinking about her practice that those of academics and critics do not. Her texts fill discursive gaps between critical writing and artistic production and creating intellectual, political, and cultural possibilities that would not otherwise be articulated. It seems that writing is a studio-based activity for Gollifer. “As I have become more confident with my practice, I have allowed myself to let writing become an important part of my work. Writing helps me clarify and shape my concept. And this shape is then accommodated in the visual work,” the artist says. The artist book Views in the interior of Guyana is a great place where the writing and art meet in the final form of the work.

Botswana is currently isolated when it comes to contemporary art but Gollifer’s attraction to it and instance on working there highlights the fact that significant art is being produced outside of the established art centres. She is dedicated to her studio practice arriving every day at 9:30 and only leaving at the end of the day. “I usually spend several hours at the studio each day until between 4pm and 6pm..,” she says.

Gollifer recounts that her interest in art began in Trinidad when she was a girl of six. Her teacher drew a fish using simple basic shapes like a triangle and some circles. She was stunned by the way that symbols could turn into a representational image and this incident marks the beginning of her artistic journey. At this stage of her life, Gollifer is reflecting on the paths she has taken, showing through her practice that heritage making is much more about the present than it is about the past.

 By being a process and a practice, heritage is “constantly chosen, recreated and renegotiated in the present, to the point that it has been defined as a production of the past in the present”[3]. The past is brought and made alive into the present “through historical contingency and strategic appropriations, deployments, redeployments, and creation of connections and reconnection.”[4] For Gollifer, heritage isn’t linear and going back home is as much a personal journey as it is a tale of remigration or diasporic return. Her work is about revisitation; the power of personal histories, the practice of archiving and surveying her work reveals how going back to Guyana constitutes creating an archive. Ann Gollifer’s bodies of work have used multiple mediums to communicate concerns close to the artist: the oneness of humanity, her search for “home” and her experience of femininity.

Khumo Sebambo is a writer and curator based in Johannesburg. She holds an MA from the School of Literature, Language and Media, WITS University.

[1] Norman Lewis, “Genocide,” Sunday Times, February 23, 1969.

[2] All quotes from the artist are sourced from email and whatsapp communications between 27 May 2020 and 16 June 2020.

[3] Rodney Harrison, Heritage: Critical Approaches (London: Routledge, 2013), 165.

[4] Rodney Harrison, Heritage, 32.