Faith XLVII: Optimism is a strategy for making a better future

POSTED ON: January 26, 2021 IN Lena Sulik, On Artists, Word View

by Lena Sulik

I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence. Like failure, chaos contains information that can lead to knowledge — even wisdom. Like art.

Toni Morrison [1]

“Optimism Is a Strategy for Making a Better Future”. Written in letters a storey high, these words underline The Silent Watcher, an almost 200-square-metre mural painted by Faith XLVII in Philadelphia, 2019. [2] While their selection was inspired by the writings of Noam Chomsky (who was born in the city), the words are not just a convenient quotation.

They serve as a motto for the internationally acclaimed artist and social activist, evident in a range of critical and rhetorical tools used throughout her expansive practice, which includes monolithic murals and secret shrines, photography, paintings, videos and tapestries. Faith XLVII’s practice provides a counter-cultural reading of the world, which is nevertheless able to envision a better one, where change effects “social and psychological liberation and freedom from oppression.” [3] Relying on both the rational and esoteric in her recent work, Faith subverts the problematic status quo by drawing attention to its failings and by repurposing objects which represent it, to realise this vision.

Faith XLVII, The Silent Watcher, 2019, Philadelphia (Photograph by Steve Weinik)

Optimism may seem like wishful thinking, too passive a strategy for an activist to achieve anything concrete in socio-political realms (even more so for an artist, who has little if any influence on policy). [4] Saying that “everything will be all right” seems like an improbability when confronted with systemic racism, ever-growing inequality, a global pandemic and looming environmental catastrophe; cynicism seems the obvious choice. As Faith says, “it is hard to remain optimistic when you see the world in chaos.” [5] It is also difficult to consider optimism (in general, and in art) with any kind of academic or critical rigour; filmmaker Guillermo del Toro comments: “These days, the safest way for someone to appear intelligent is being skeptical by default.” [6] A number of intellectuals and creatives have attempted to explore it, from Noam Chomsky, JM Coetzee and Ashraf Jamal, to Toni Morrison and Ava DuVernay — though all come to rest at different places on the despair-hope continuum.

For Faith XLVII, however, optimism is born of necessity, and has become a deeply entrenched part of her practice. From street to studio, she is engaged in manifesting a better world through her imagery, processes and writing, through her work with other creatives, with foundations and charities, and through her audiences. She asserts that it is impossible to achieve this better future without the ability to envision it, or at the very least affirm the possibility that it could exist. Art historian and critic Grant Kester contemplates the potential for reform through art by considering that “the failures of our governmental, economic and social systems can be seen as a failure of the imagination. If so, what happens when art, an act of imagination, is used to creatively address these failures? What happens when instead of “fighting the man,” artists become involved in reimagining the way things work?” [7]

Faith’s optimism functions as a tool to achieve exactly this: part of an alchemical process where the dross of existence in a capitalistic, increasingly restrictive society is transmogrified into enlightenment, possibility and agency. Direct references to alchemy can be extracted from much of Faith’s œuvre, which has an undeniably mythic poeticism running through it. She describes the work in a recent exhibition, Elixir (2018), as inspired by the eponymous substance, “a sweetened, aromatic solution of alcohol and water used as a vehicle for medicinal substances. An alchemic preparation formerly believed to be capable of prolonging life. A substance formerly believed by alchemists to be capable of transmuting base metals into gold.” [8] The ongoing Aqua Regalia series (begun in 2014) is named after aqua regia, the alchemical term for a “highly corrosive mixture of nitric and hydrochloric acid that transmogrifies, dissolves and changes the most powerful substance — gold.” [9] While alchemy is deeply symbolic — a very useful tool for a visual artist — at the heart of all her references to it is the power of transformation. The metamorphic powers of alchemy serve as an allegory for much of how her practice is manifested, and how envisioning a better future is part of an active process, with the outcome uncertain. She explains:

“[It] is a metaphor for the spiritual process of enlightenment … I see in this not only similarities to the actual art-making process, where one takes materials, concepts, reflections and creates a kind of final artwork from that. But also, in the way that having a craft that one can in one’s life continually process, learn from and evolve with is a parallel to the alchemical process within one’s life journey.” [10]

She comments further: “It is in the actual process of making the work where we find real value. This is indeed a form of alchemy.[11] Such art has, essentially, the power to “envision, move, and change” [12] and to open up “discursive spaces in which cultural change can be envisioned and pursued.” [13]

Born in South Africa in 1979, Faith XLVII started doing graffiti in the late 1990s, with a focus on large-scale painted murals. This work, which she still produces, serves as a foundation for her studio practice. Her history as a street artist and as a young South African during this era means her anti-establishment leanings were almost inevitable. She explains that “I come from a country that is seething with the frustration of uncontrollable violence and woman abuse, xenophobia, class and racial divide.” [14] In engaging with the landscape beyond gallery walls, a street artist [15] is a witness to varying aspects of society, often engaging with neglected, run-down spaces in an attempt to find somewhere to create their work, which (perhaps due to its tenuous relationship with legality) is “often characterised by rhetoric of ‘resistance to corporate values and an implicit desire to subvert existing power structures.’” [16] Time spent interacting with the different strata of South African cities prompted the realisation for Faith that the ideals of the country’s government are not part of the average citizen’s lived experience. Embedded thoroughly in the systems that run the country are racial, economic and geographical disparities. Faith’s extensive travels around the world have served to drive the ubiquity of this home (the world map of projects on her website shows murals completed in more than 50 cities) — and we see it reflected in many of her mural projects.

It is possible to clearly trace the roots of Faith’s contemporary practice to her early work. Even before she began producing gallery pieces such as the Deconstruction and Chaos Theory series which will be looked at more closely later in this text, Faith manipulated the paraphernalia of power to comment on its failings. Her first individuated street art works were undoubtedly disparaging of the prevailing socio-political order, but without the bombastic brashness often associated with street art. Even at its most devastatingly critical, her work has always relied on subtlety. Though the images may span entire buildings, they are usually painted in quiet shades of washed-out grey which give a sense of age and inevitability. Her 2009 —2010 project Freedom Charter takes the principles outlined in this historical document produced by South Africa’s Congress Alliance and scatters these promises (in marginally adapted form) across Johannesburg and Cape Town: “The people shall govern,” “A preventative health care scheme shall be run by the state,” “Unused housing space to be made available to the public.” [17] The crumbling backdrops — informal housing, a broken-down ambulance, homeless camps under bridges, an empty lot in District Six —give the lie to these statements.

Faith XLVII, The Freedom Charter, 2009 – 2010, South Africa (Photograph by Rowan Pybus)

Her 2012 mural project The Long Wait (Johannesburg), in collaboration with photographer Alexia Webster, likewise drew attention to the failure of various systems in alleviating the dire poverty and joblessness of many South Africans. Comprising portraits of dejected men lingering without purpose — a common sight in South African cities — the series is described by Faith:

Miners are waiting for justice. Workers are waiting for a living wage. People are waiting for service delivery. Refugees are waiting for assistance. Men are waiting for jobs. We are all waiting for an honest politician. So many people are waiting for others to do things first. To take the blame. To do things for them. To take the fall. To build the country. To admit defeat. There has been so much waiting in this country that much time has been lost. [18]

In recognition of the despair and frustration that can arise from acknowledging the ineffectuality of the local government or global systems, Faith also turns her work from critical to constructive, in the “belief that art, because it dealt in images, [is] a particularly rich site for the creation of liberatory visions.” [19]

While believing in optimism seems to require a kind of optimism itself, for an artist like Faith, lack thereof is unacceptable. “The harsh experiences of life can easily make us fall into a negative world view,” she explains, “but we each have the ability to transform this base metal of knowing suffering, or inner psychological depression into the gold of higher aspiration.” [20] To achieve change, it also is not enough to use art only to draw attention to or criticise the problematic nature of global hegemonies (whether political or economic). To refer again to Noam Chomsky, an important inspiration for Faith: “As long as the general population is passive, apathetic, diverted to consumerism or hatred of the vulnerable, then the powerful can do as they please, and those who survive will be left to contemplate the outcome.” [21] Cultural theorist Ashraf Jamal, speaking of art in the South African context in particular, states: “It does not only accept the burden of truth, be it ongoing hatred or inequality; it asks that we shapeshift that truth and transmogrify it.” [22]

Though grounded in poetics rather than a purely analytical or conceptual framework, Faith’s current form of optimism does not function by showing an idyllic utopia, but by helping us “realise that the current system does not reflect our values, and cause us to reflect on what it might actually take to build a system that does.”[23] In showing that the current systems, such as capitalism and nationalism, can be de- and re-constructed in different configurations, which she does in much of her recent work, Faith’s strategy is to explore the constructed nature of these systems, allowing for the possibility of change and agency in creating this change, whether it is in the systems themselves or in how they can be viewed.

Created at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, her 2020 series of pencil drawings, A Study of Liminality, exemplifies this elegantly and subtly. Faith explains that she incorporates “reference to sacred geometric principles and ancient manuscripts, illustrations” in her work, as she thinks “there is a mathematical underlay within the universal structure of things.” [24] The sketched lines and shapes in these drawings are reminiscent of Renaissance-era etchings of the world or cells or the universe. They are a dissection of our understanding of these, and how everything within the circles is part of the same system. In the series, concentric circles are separated and shifted across the page. Light and dark fluctuate. The ambiguity and fragmentation are an allegory: “The dissolution of order during liminality creates a fluid, malleable situation that enables new institutions and customs to become established.” [25]

Faith XLVII, A Study of Liminality II, 2020. Pencil on paper (Image courtesy of the artist)

Writer and activist Audre Lorde expounds the importance of working together to achieve change, in that difference can be “seen as a fund of necessary polarities between which our creativity can spark like a dialectic.” [26] Faith’s first major collaborative mural based on these philosophies was the 2014 work Harvest, which both confronted the present and envisioned the future, while taking concrete steps towards effectuating it. It also perfectly showcases her infusion of sacred and mundane. Painted on the side of a building in contested District Six in Cape Town, [27] the dignified woman portrayed floating over the city serves as a backdrop to a pragmatic project. Harvest was developed with the assistance of her now long-time collaborators designer-maker consultancy Thingking and the Design Indaba Trust and was supported by the crowd-funding platform Thundafund and the hashtag #anotherlightup. [28] This synergetic aspect was key to the project, as its reach became much wider than if Faith XLVII had acted alone, and different elements of the project required very different skill sets. Faith herself explains that collaboration is a mutually beneficial way of producing an artwork, as it gives the opportunity to contribute existing abilities and learn new skills and ways of thinking. [29] “The people I have collaborated with,” she says, “have been mirrors and teachers.” [30] Faith portrays this visually with a mandala comprising intricate, overlapping shapes painted behind the woman’s body. Examples of sacred geometry are found in much of her work, drawing on the same conviction in the importance of ritual and symbol that underlies her references to alchemy. LED lights embedded within the mandala were programmed to light up when money was donated to the organisation Violence Prevention through Urban Upgrading, which used funds to install streetlights in Monwabisi township on the other side of the geographically and economically divided city, where services (such as electricity and policing) are lacking. Harvest is “a mural that seeks to create a community-level change through the duality of art-based social impact.” [31]

Faith XLVII, Harvest, 2014, mural, Cape Town (Photograph by Rowan Pybus)

Faith XLVII relocated to Los Angeles from South Africa in 2017, and she has exhibited, created, and painted around the world since then. Her practice has become both more refined — focused on balancing activism through art with self-expression — and more expansive — facing global more than just local issues. A recent striking example of this is SALUS POPULI SUPREMA LEX ESTO, painted on a wall in Skid Row, Los Angeles, in 2018. This neighbourhood is “home” to (at the time) an estimated 2,500 people who live on its streets. The mural shows the hands of a homeless man crossed over his chest in a gesture of self-protection. As in Harvest (and many other works painted between), Faith includes a geometric pattern over the intersection of his wrists — in this instance, a golden triangle within a square enveloped in a circle — to encourage contemplation, connection and structure. The title of the work, which translates to “the welfare of the people shall be the supreme law,” is a critique of the failure of capitalist society to provide for all its citizens or give them the opportunities needed to improve their lives. The mural followed a 2017 film, produced in collaboration with Chop ‘em Down Films, in which a number of destitute men were interviewed by Faith. One interviewee commented: “If you ain’t got no money, you can’t make no movements.” [32] Others speak about persecution by police or the difficulty of raising children without housing. Originally projected on a building like a giant mural in Jacksonville, Florida, By Virtue Of monumentalised the humanity and experiences of the invisible. The scale of the works also speaks of the scale of homelessness.

Another globally themed project is the letterpress print The Human Cause (2018), which both comments on systems of power and generates concrete upliftment. Boldly monochromatic, the print declares Faith’s ideals in clear text, based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was developed by the United Nations in 1948. [33] Where The Human Cause differs from her earlier Freedom Charter series, which used the terms of a similar document but solely to criticise it, is in the support it provides. A percentage of proceeds from sales of the print (which is available on Faith’s website) is donated to two South African organisations which provide assistance to marginalised communities: the Equal Education NGO and the Ntethelelo Foundation. The final words on the print perfectly summarise Faith’s practice: “We realise that we exist in a realm of chaos and irony, thus we embrace the perseverance and poetic optimism necessary to achieve these goals.”

Faith XLVII, The Human Cause, 2018. Letterpress print, 157.5 x 119.4 cm (Image courtesy the artist)

In addition to her activism, another aspect of Faith’s street art which has found its way into her studio practice is her fascination with objects, and how they can be used to represent or think around the concepts of value and agency, which are at the heart of Faith’s drive for a better world. “Objects are sentient things that force us to think and reflect on our relations with the object worlds we inhabit,” artist Penny Siopis comments. [34] The public or abandoned urban spaces Faith has engaged with are not blank canvases. Many of them contain things left behind, which Faith has documented or collected over the years, sometimes incorporating them (or references to them) in her work. Photographs, plastic flowers, flyers and ribbons — these are “once-cherished objects, imbued with emotional value by the strangers that used to own them.” [35] Though a number of found objects have eventually formed part of various installations (such as the ritualistic Shrine of 2015’s Aqua Regalia in New York), by simply acknowledging these remnants of others’ existence, Faith is questioning” one’s invested value in objects and the inherent symbolism of the items that surround our lives”. Within a capitalist society, she recognises, our relationship to a thing’s usefulness and its value is “always mediated,” [36] and it is this distorting lens and the objects that represent it which she has come to focus on, rather than through.

Shrine, from the Aqua Regalia series, 2015. Installation view, Jonathan LeVine Projects, New York (Image courtesy of the artist)

Faith’s ruminations on the inherent or applied value of her collected found items led her to consider common objects which are representative of value and of political power, such as banknotes, maps and flags. While many modern and contemporary artists have used every day found objects in various guises in their practices, Faith incorporates them into her work not to question what constitutes art, or to render the unfamiliar the familiar, but instead to interrogate the systems these objects represent.

Superficially, these items (notes, maps and flags) all serve practical purposes. A banknote is used to buy something, a map to locate something. A flag is used to identify a place or group of people. They provide standards of measurement, value and definition. They make it easier to exist within a multifarious society. Because of this functionality, however, their use is taken as a given, and their other behaviours subsequently often ignored. “The less we are aware of them,” artist and scholar Alison Kearney explains, “the more powerfully they can determine our expectations by setting the scene and ensuring normative behaviour. The objects make us as much as we make them.” [37]

In addition to their everyday utility, Faith postulates that these articles have symbolic functions which are deeply prescriptive. They are representative of a national identity as it is created by those in power, representative of “the institutionalised imagination of a self-proclaimed national community regarding its proper human and territorial boundaries, its cherished ideals and principles of action, and its rightful place in the community of nations.” [38] Because of their pervasiveness, these objects “provide the state with millions of small advertising spaces, for free and with assured wide circulation.” [39] Where they become problematic is in their appearance of inevitability and coherence, as well as the underlying social contracts and promises, often implied but so often left unfulfilled. They are used to exert power and control over a country’s citizens through artificial and imposed parameters about who they should be, what they should value and where they can go. Ashraf Jamal writes about this as the “circuitry which defines the meaning-of-power and the power-of-meaning”;[40] the two are difficult to extricate from each other. As writer Wole Soyinka elucidates: “what they mean to the masses is entirely separate from what they mean to their rulers.” [41]

Faith involves these objects in an esoteric alchemical reaction, in which they are transformed through a wide range of techniques including deconstruction, collage, installation, projection mapping and performance. The weight of Faith’s works lies in the metaphorical density of their materials, which are sites of implied value and texts with narrative and rhetorical qualities — not just in an artistic context, but in how they function in the world. Maps, money and flags operate in several complex layers of intertwined, often hidden, encoded and propagandist relations of meaning, value and control. “The government has at its disposal a kind of visual and linguistic shorthand for enlisting the loyalties of its citizenry,” comments art historian Albert Boime, “Yet such loyalty is also predicated on the flag’s inclusion within a larger sign system of power and intimidation.” [42] While some critics, like writer and activist Audre Lorde, assert that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” [43] Faith draws on the textual qualities of these “tools” as détournement. Détournement is a revisionist technique which subverts an established paradigm by making use of its existing imagery or rhetoric, which an audience would be familiar with, to critique it. [44] Just as reading and writing are two interlinked systems which rely on the same basic units of meaning, Faith takes the languages of these socio-political texts and reorganises them to convey new signification, with what Soyinka would describe as a “revolutionary syntax.” [45] In visually reformulating them, Faith is reconceptualising the systems in the hope that a change in the way systems operate and value is established can be imagined and effected. For Faith, the desired paradigm shift can most easily be achieved by “adapting the tools we have rather than by reinventing the wheel; although the wheel is reinvented along the way.” [46]

Fellow South African artist Barbara Wildenboer explains that “through the act of altering books and other paper-based objects the intention is to draw emphasis to our understanding of history as mediated through text or language.” [47] Faith’s fascination with the workings of language and senseis revealed throughout her work, not just her map and banknote pieces, with many of her murals, prints and paintings incorporating text (as in the Silent Watcher and The Human Cause mentioned already). She also writes about her own work, adding poetry and quotations, or clarifying meaning and inspiration, on her website and social media, in interviews and publications. This is perhaps a relic of her street art whose impermanent nature requires documentation for it to have lasting impact. Art historian Annemi Conradie observes that “the complex and reciprocal relationship between text and image” in Faith’s work “is of immense significance to its layered meanings, as are the interactions between the text in her work and those texts existing beyond the ‘frames’ of her pieces.” [48] Often the text incorporated into artworks will be in Latin which, like the workings of economics and politics, is beyond most people’s knowledge. [49]  Faith explains that “sometimes we need to look a little deeper to understand things, so for me the Latin is a way to have a meaning layered into the work which one needs to interpret to begin to tie into the visual language of what is being portrayed.” [50] Though the work doesn’t include text itself, Faith painted Language as a Boundary (2016) in reference to a chapter of Soyinka’s Art, Dialogue and Outrage: Essays on literature and culture (1993). [51] Located next to train tracks in Cleveland, the work is a flock of massive herons. If the lines of the bird’s necks are followed, it becomes clear that one bird flows into the body of the next. They are entangled, they are headless. The colonial strictures of language become feedback loops, making easy definition unclear and hampering the freedom and direction of flight.

Language as a Boundary, 2016. Mural, Cleveland (Image courtesy of the artist)

Faith’s principles of reorganisation and reinvigoration find refinement in her recent studio practice, which aims to break us out of our habitual patterns of thought and engagement with the world. Banknotes, maps and flags have all appeared in a number of works in a number of forms over the past few years: the tapestries of her Deconstruction of Value and Chaos Theory series, the Unbound and AD PACEM flag murals (the latter of which incorporated videography), the Aurum performances and, most recently, her Human Cause sculptures and Entanglement drawing. These works all make use of visual metonymy, with the selected objects standing in for systems of value and power. A single image can carry a lot of conceptual weight through this device, “a visual trope that represents a wider landscape of social reality.” [52] Faith’s artworks which use printed texts can be included in this list. Her Petroleum (2020) silkscreen was printed on pages pulled from an edition of Milton Friedman’s Price Theory, which acknowledges the social implications of economic theory. The fractious horse portrayed on the Petroleum print is “the unrestrained beast, the legacy of unrestrained Neo Liberalism.” [53] We see a similarly frantic horse in Novus Ordo Seclorum (2019), painted rearing on collaged pages of the constitution of the United States. Drawing attention to the connection between politics and economy, the work’s title (which translates as “new order of the ages”) also appears on the United States dollar notes as part of the country’s seal. Empire (2020), a bronze horse head sculpted by Faith, references the growing global movement towards the abolition of colonial statues, which so often present a white man astride a horse as a symbol of power or conquest. For Faith, the horse “bears the weight of our projected nationalism and patriotism, upholding statues of oppressive statesmen and war ‘heroes.’“ [54] As with Novus Ordo Seclorum, the horse here is “dignified with its own sense of agency, independent from human quests.” [55]

Novus Ordo Seclorum, 2019. Mixed media on found paper, 70 x 85cm (Image courtesy of the artist)

While Faith uses a wide range of techniques to envision a paradigm shift, the most significant is her use of collage-as-quotation in the map and banknote tapestries, in which a multitude of found paper objects from different countries are cut into hexagonal, rectangular or rhombic fragments and hand-sewn into large quilts. The spark that inspired the technique has purely aesthetic origins, though it has subsequently come to carry overt conceptual weight because of the ability of the process to transform the meaning of the source materials. The very first deconstructed works were made from the paper cups used by Faith to mix inks in her studio. “I fell in love with the horizon marks created by the inks as they dried,” she explains. “This led to me deconstructing the cups and creating mosaics from them … After that, I looked at maps and atlases, thinking more about borders and land and the notions of states and nations, immigration, human movement.” [56]

Considering her fascination with alchemy, perhaps a fitting metaphor is that “placing things in proximity enables them to interact. No chemical reaction — be it simmer or explosion — occurs unless reagents first come into contact.” [57] 21.10.2015, produced in collaboration with South African photographer Imraan Christian in 2016, is a striking early iteration of this technique used to illustrate clear political themes. The title refers to the date of a photo taken by Christian during the Fees Must Fall student protests in Cape Town, which showed youthful protesters facing police officers in riot gear while pink tear gas filled the air. The protests were part of an attempt to decolonise local universities by ridding them of colonial symbols (such as statues) and doing away with exorbitant fees (beyond the reach of the average South African), but which resulted in violence between protesters and police. The protests served as inspiration for many overtly political artworks at the time, such as Sethembile Msezane’s powerful performance Chapungu — The Day Rhodes Fell at the University of Cape Town. Faith also created a painting, #FeesMustFall, which was available on the Daily Maverick news website for free download, to use as a poster or placard during the protests in 2015. In 21.10.2015, Faith and Christian reconstituted square fragments of the original image into a large, abstracted mural collage. Faith commented that, to better understand a political event like a protest, “sometimes we need to dissect things from a different perspective.” [58]

Faith XLVII and Imraan Christian, 21.10.2015, 2016, deconstructed photograph (Image courtesy of the artist)

This initial supposition has evolved in her work since then to further examine and address ideas of value, power and agency. Mark Wagner, another artist who uses banknotes in his work, explains that “collage is a reinterpretation, or redigestion, of what went before, hence it is often quick to irony, sarcasm, and critical thought”, making it ideal for Faith’s purposes. [59] In the Deconstruction of Value and Chaos Theory series, she reinterprets the original banknotes’ and maps’ meanings using her own visual syntax by separating them physically into fragments andsewing them into new configurations. In both series, the act of collaging implies that by altering the objects themselves, their intended purpose is denied. [60] By using real objects to represent change, Faith indicates that change in the real world is perhaps achievable. Faith refers to how the butterfly effect, “an underlying principle of chaos, describes how a small change in one state of a deterministic nonlinear system can result in large differences in a later state.” [61] In a surprisingly apt metaphor, deconstruction, geographer J.B. Harley quotes, is “to reinscribe and resituate meanings, events and objects within broader movements and structures; it is, so to speak, to reverse the imposing tapestry in order to expose in all its unglamorously dishevelled tangle the threads constituting the well-heeled image it presents to the world.” [62] In bringing together items from a range of countries in a single work, a larger pattern of the systems at work comes into view. By transforming them while leaving them recognisable, the works “invite us to imagine ourselves and our relationships differently. They make that process visible and intentional, where it is typically hidden, automatic and unquestioned.” [63]

In Deconstruction of Value, with notes from around the world cut into pieces, reversed, tessellated and sewn into intricate tapestries, Faith complicates the idealised representations the original objects represent. The latest South African banknotes, for example, foreground the life of Nelson Mandela as a “beacon of freedom and democracy.” [64] With Mandela’s image etched on each note, the Reserve Bank is centring a watered-down version of his ideals as a defining characteristic of the nation. The same can be said of other icons portrayed on banknotes, as well as idealised landscapes, monuments, animals or historical events. In the Deconstruction of Value works, Faith reduces “the assumption of wealth and power to the rich symbolism within the notes.” [65] Mao Zedong is fissured. Mahatma Gandhi is overturned. Monumental architecture decays into fragments and instrumental moments of history are sliced to unrecognisable shapes.

Detail of Deconstruction of Value VII, 2020. Deconstructed bank notes and sewn tapestry on linen, 71.1 x 63.5 cm (Image courtesy of the artist)

The Chaos Theory deconstructed maps are indicative of another major concern of the artist: human immigration and displacement, and the controls and restrictions thereon. The title comes from the mathematical concept which “bears a relationship to geography, political and economic structures and the way that we self-organise.” [66] As a South African who has worked around the world, and who is currently based in another country, Faith comments that “I think the movement of people is such a natural thing, and for some people, leaving ‘home’ is a necessary step in their evolution.” [67] Faith reflects this self-determination by redefining the seemingly inevitable. Maps are seemingly inevitable because they are seen as relating to something concrete: land (as opposed to the more ephemeral money). Harley explains, though, that “the steps in making a map — selection, omission, simplification, classification, the creation of hierarchies, and ‘symbolisation’ — are all inherently rhetorical.” [68] Mapping relies on conventions, and conventions are not objective. Commonly-used Mercator maps, for example, show Europe in the centre of the world, and distort the size of landmasses to suit the printed page, in what Harley calls “subliminal geometry.” [69] Wole Soyinka writes about the constructed nature of borders: “It may be that we discover that boundaries — geographical, political, economic, cultural or linguistic — are walls of straw, that specifically in Africa, they were eaten long ago by the termites of black discontent, that they are held together only by the inheritors of white empires.” [70] In recognition of this, Faith’s maps use the principles of randomness or pure aesthetics (such as colour gradients) to re-order the world. Germany is south west of Jamaica. Improbable mountains flank misplaced deserts. The Mediterranean lies due east of Indian Ocean. While there is no certainty, there is perhaps a new world.

A work which uses a similar technique to these series is the deconstructed flag drawing, Entanglement (2020). As with Deconstruction of Value and Chaos Theory, Faith takes representative texts — in this case flags — and defamiliarises them. Instead of cutting up real objects, though, Faith uses colour pencils to draw each stripe and symbol painstakingly. The fractured shapes of some of the flags are used to form the image of a globe which appears to extrude from the paper’s surface. She writes about the work:

Borders, passports and visas are an unquestionable reality. This isolation however is a facade, for beneath the structured reality that we subscribe to are natural disasters, integral trade dependencies, the internet, group consciousness, viruses, earthquakes, planetary forces, the earth’s frequency, our reliance on the natural balance of ecosystems, our susceptibility to solar flares. The COVID-19 crisis is an example of this solidarity that we are a species cannot escape from. We are bound together, to each other, and to the planet. This is a dire lesson we must learn. To see the world as a whole. Entangled. [71]

Entanglement, 2020. Deconstructed flags of the world, pencil crayon and ink, 259 x 173 cm (Image courtesy of the artist)

Flags are found elsewhere in Faith’s work, taking the form of video projections, sculptures in brass, murals and collaged photographs. As with money and maps, a flag is “the collective sign of a society elevated to be visible to every member. It is the emblem of a coherent group identity that in principle expresses the shared values of that group and distinguishes it from all others.” [72] While flags are superficially signifiers of a particular nation, for Faith they are, looking further, symbols of “ideology, the exploitation of resources, dominating power structures and colonial empire. Of military conquest, defence, expansion, national identity, cultural identity, peace, community, ethics, rebellion, freedom, dignity and oppression.” [73]

Aside from Entanglement, Faith’s flags are typically white, without markings, “a blank canvas for our projections.” [74] By taking something meant to separate and erasing its distinctions, Faith here even more than in her other work allows for possibility and agency. This is seen most clearly perhaps in AD PACEM, a mural created in Cincinnati in 2019 in collaboration with videographer Inka Kendzia, whose images were projected onto the mural during the Blink Lights Festival. The work portrays Eirene (the Greek goddess of peace) dressed as an ordinary woman, astride a bare-backed horse. She carries a broad white flag in one hand while gesturing for us to join her with the other. Faith describes the project as inviting us “to connect with [our] humanity and to see [ourselves] as a part of the whole; to feel an interconnectedness between humans and nature, and the fluidity of geographic understandings of place and home.” [75]

The alchemy of Faith XLVII’s work is not about creating figurative gold, but in showing us that the elements of our world can be altered with insight, dedication and collaboration. “These are not works made to be pretty or decorative”, she explains. “These are works made to consider, to dismantle, to question. To be angry. Realistic. Sad. Hopeful.” [76]

AD PACEM, 2019. Mural with video projections by Inka Kendzia (Photograph by Chop ‘em Down Films)

Lena Sulik is a curator, writer and designer who ended up in the artworld accidentally. Her main interests are women in the arts, textiles and the ways in which those behind the scenes can help artists articulate their own visions.  

[1] Ashraf Jamal, “Homo Empathicus.” In I Am Because You Are: A search for ubuntu with permission to dream, ed. Hawthorne, T. (Johannesburg: The Standard Bank of South Africa, 2018), 66-77.

[2] Though Faith XLVII, originally Faith 47, is clearly not her given name, all her work is signed thus. She will be referred to throughout as Faith.

[3] Lisa Gail Collins, “Activists Who Yearn for Art That Transforms: Parallels in the Black Arts and Feminist Art Movements in the United States,” Signs, 31, no. 3 (2006): 727.

[4] Philanthropist Darren Walker gives a delightful concrete example of the power art has to change the world for the better: “Legendary” art patron Agnes Gund, after reading Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow and watching Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th, which both look at mass incarceration and racial injustice, sold one of her Roy Lichtenstein paintings and used the funds to invest millions towards criminal justice reform (2019).

[5] Faith XLVII, email communication, July 8, 2020.

[6] Guillermo Del Toro, “The Most Radical and Rebellious Choice You Can Make Is to Be Optimistic,” TIME Magazine, 2019,

[7] Grant Kester, “On the Relationship between Theory and Practice in Socially Engaged Art,” A Blade of Grass, 2015,

[8] Faith XLVII, Elixir exhibition statement, artist website, 2018.

[9] Faith XLVII, Aqua Regalia exhibition statement, artist website, 2015.

[10] Faith XLVII, email communication, July 20, 2020.

[11] Faith XLVII, “Faith XLVII on the Power of Collaboration,” filmed February 2019 at Design Indaba, Cape Town, video,

[12] Lisa Gail Collins, “Activists Who Yearn for Art That Transforms: Parallels in the Black Arts and Feminist Art Movements in the United States,” Signs, 31, no.3 (2006): 732.

[13] Tema Milstein and Alexis Pulos, “Culture Jam Pedagogy and Practice: Relocating culture by staying on one’s toes,” Communication, Culture & Critique, no. 8 (2015): 397.

[14] Faith XLVII, The Silent Watcher statement, artist website, 2019.

[16] Gill Saunders in Lindsay Kosel, “A Tropic Understanding of Street Art as Political and Social Advocacy” (Honours thesis, University of New Hampshire, 2018), 1.

[17] The Freedom Charter is a document created by the disenfranchised of South Africa in the 1950s but many of the demands were later incorporated into the Constitution of South Africa after the first democratic elections, making the principles part of the ruling government’s laws (Wikipedia 2008).

[18] Faith XLVII, The Long Wait statement, artist website, 2012.

[19] Collins, “Activists,”, 734

[20] Faith XLVII, The Silent Watcher statement, artist website, 2019.

[21] Noam Chomsky, “Noam Chomsky, Who Owns the World?” Tom Dispatch, April 21, 2011. Accessed 20 July 2020

[22] Jamal, “Homo Empathicus”, 71.

[23] Max Haiven, “Money as a Medium of the Imagination: Art and the currencies of cooperation.” In MoneyLab Reader. An Intervention in Digital Economy, eds. Geert Lovink et al. (Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures, 2015), 184.

[24] Faith XLVII, email communication, 20 July 2020.

[25] Faith XLVII, email communication, 20 May 2020.

[26] Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, (Crossing Press: New York, 2007), 110-14.

[27] District Six was a site of forced removal by the apartheid government in the 1970s, and has remained a contentious area since, particularly due to gentrification.

[28] The Design Indaba Trust is a multi-faceted platform dedicated to promoting creativity in South Africa. They produced a follow-up video on Harvest in 2017.

[29] Faith XLVII, email communication, July 8, 2020.

[30] Faith XLVII, “the Power of Collaboration”.

[31] Faith XLVII, Harvest statement, artist website, 2014.

[32] Anonymous, “By Virtue of,” filmed 2017 in Florida, video.

[33] Faith XLVII, The Human Cause statement, artist website, 2018.

[34] Penny Siopis in Alison Kearney, “The framing of objects in Penny Siopis ‘Sympathetic Magic,’” de arte 48, no. 88 (2013): 46-61.

[35] Faith XLVII, Aqua Regalia Hong Kong exhibition statement, artist website, 2017.

[36] Max Haiven, Art after Money, Money after Art: Creative Strategies Against Financialization (London: Pluto Press, 2008), 63.

[37] Kearney, “Sympathetic Magic,“ 54.

[38]Jaques Hymans, “International Patterns in National Identity Content: The Case of Japanese Banknote Iconography,” Journal of East Asian Studies 5, no. 2 (2005): 315-46.

[39] Lutz Marten and Nancy Kula, “Meanings of money: national identity and the semantics of currency in Zambia and Tanzania,” Journal of African Cultural Studies 20, no. 2 (2008): 185.

[40]Ashraf Jamal, “’Small Acts’: The Perspective, Location and Agency of Theory in South African Cultural Studies”, Theoria: A Journal of Social and Political Theory 49, no. 100 (2002): 177.

[41] Wole Soyinka, Art, Dialogue and Outrage: Essays on Literature and Culture (Michagan: Pantheon Books, University of Michigan Press, 1993), 90.

[42]Albert Boime, “Waving the Red Flag and Reconstituting Old Glory,” Smithsonian Studies in American Art 4, no. 2 (1990): 12.

[43] Lorde, Sister Outsider, 110.

[44] Milstein and Pulos, “Culture Jam,” 397.

[45] Soyinka, Art, Dialogue and Outrage, 88.

[46] Mary Loving Blanchard and Mary Loving, “Poets, Lovers, and the Master”s Tools: A Conversation with Audre Lorde.” In This Bridge We Call Home: Radical Visions for Transformation (New York: Routledge, 2002), 254-57.

[47] Barbara Wildenboer, “Library of the Infinitesimally Small and Unimaginably Large”, artist website, 2015.

[48] Annemi Conradie, “Faith 47”, de arte 55, no.1 (2013): 99

[49] As an artist, Faith is also interested in the visual qualities of text, and what we can read from the shape of letters — whether scrawled in an abandoned building by the almost-illiterate or painstakingly inscribed in a church. She has developed her own typefaces, like Levescere (which translates as “to become light”). Faith further complicates language when, for example, she painted the title of her work Aurum using Cyrillic letters which look like Latin ones: АЦЯЦМ.

[50] Faith XLVII, email communication, July 8, 2020.

[51] The use of language as a tool of power in the South African context is interesting. Marten and Kula explain how language policy, during the apartheid regime, was used to separate and control. Since the advent of democracy, the official adoption of the eleven official languages was “explicitly formulated to support a pluralistic society” (2008: 185) — though of course it can be argued that this doesn’t work in practice.

[52] Kosel, “A Tropic Understanding,” 6.

[53] Faith XLVII, Petroleum statement, artist website, 2020.

[54] Faith XLVII, email communication, July 14, 2020.

[55] Faith XLVII, email communication, July 14, 2020.

[56] Faith XLVII, email communication, July 8, 2020.

[57] Mark Wagner, “Look Sharp: The philosophy and practice of collage,” Mark Wagner Inc., September 14, 2019.

[58] Shanthini Naidoo “Pivotal moment in #FeesMustFall protest immortalised in mosaics,” Sunday Times, September 23, 2017.  

[59] Wagner, “Look Sharp.”

[60] Kearney, “Sympathetic Magic,“ 60.

[61] Faith XLVII, email communication, 20 July 2020.

[62] Brian Harley, “Deconstructing the Map”, Cartographica 26, no. 2(1989): 1-20

[63] Haiven, “Money as a Medium,” 184.

[64] South African Reserve Bank, “Striking the Right Note for All of Us.”

[65] Faith XLVII, The Deconstruction of Value statement, artist website, 2019.

[66] Faith XLVII, email communication, 20 July 2020.

[67] Neo Maditla, “Faith XLVII talks about the importance of staging Aurum in South Africa,” Design Indaba, May 31, 2019.

[68] Harley, “Deconstructing the Map,” 9.

[69] Harley, “Deconstructing the Map,” 5.

[70] Soyinka, Art, Dialogue and Outrage, 87.

[71] Faith XLVII, email communication, July 8, 2020.

[72] Boime, “Waving the Red Flag and Reconstituting Old Glory,” 4.

[73] Faith XLVII, The Human Cause statement, artist website, 2020.

[74] Faith XLVII, email communication, May 18, 2020.

[75] Faith XLVII, Ad Pacem statement, artist website, 2019.

[76] Dave Mann, “CHANT: Faith XLVII”s public practice”. The Daily Maverick, April 22, 2020.