An Austere Mix of Cultures: Deanna Petherbridge in conversation
DEANNA PETHERBRIDGE exhibited her latest series of ink and wash drawings at London’s Fischer Fine Arts Gallery, since closed. One of her works deals with the Rushdie affair. In an interview with SAJID RIZVI Petherbridge discussed her work, its relevance to the present times and her own place in art. Edited excerpts:
Reproduced from Eastern Art Report Volume I No 22 
Sajid Rizvi. What does your painting, The Judgement Against Rushdie, indicate? What is its relevance to the present art scene and what inspired you to do it?
Deanna Petherbridge. Most of the work for this exhibition has been done in my house in Greece in a very isolated studio, where I am far away from newspapers, radio and other context. I tend to become much more contemplative, and perhaps much more personal in my thoughts.
In the spring of last year, when I started work on this exhibition, I had actually read Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. I have to say that parts of it I found extraordinarily funny … the bits where he talks about Indian personalities, the scenes he knows best. But I did find other parts offensive. I felt that he had been inspired by a sort of existential anger.
It’s almost as if he has got himself into a bind by default. So I started to think about all of this and gradually the work evolved. It is very difficult to deal with issues like this in the visual arts, because an image remains, and apart from that it is an interpretation of the image, as the one I can give now, that is always accompanied by the interpretation of the viewer.
These things are highly ambivalent. It is not like a written text, or any kind of exposition when argument can be worked out or there can be a much more direct dialogue. So in that sense I am in a dangerous area, wanting to deal with issues like this, but because they seem to be so very central to our times, and of the greatest interest to me, I dared to make the picture from a slightly different point of view.
Obviously, the death threat on Rushdie is totally and completely unacceptable, notwithstanding the fact that I approach the debate in a different way to a lot of other people. Rushdie in some way is like an incubus in the body politic of Islam. So I drew him as an incubus, a figure sheltering within the rest, because he is part of a debate. The modernism of Islam has to encompass those issues; he has highlighted them perhaps very brutally, but nevertheless they are the issues of modern Islam.
I am saying all of this from outside Islam, and I realise the dangers always of talking from the outside.
In the background of this picture is an enormous area like light. What the West very often doesn’t understand about Islam is that it is actually a great religion. It’s not just a series of statues, as the West likes to think, for personal living, for restrictions. It is also a religious experience. This is perhaps difficult for the West to understand as we no longer really see the spirituality of Christianity and we project that on to our misunderstanding of other religions. So, in the picture, there is a great light coming out of the back of the picture…
SR. There is also in the foreground what appears to be the image of an Islamic pattern.
DP. I was picking up on that sort of references. So there is the light, which seems to be the light of spirituality and religion, which clears your mind but perhaps also goes into excesses. Everything is extremely ambivalent. I don’t want to make too clarified a reading because things don’t grow like that in a work of art.
SR. But it is a strong drawing; it draws oneself to it. You have in it what might be considered a vocabulary which is perhaps as Western as it is Eastern? Do you see it that way. Do you see it that way?
DP. Yes, I think there is.
SR. The patterns and the constructions in the image, which I believe are close to your heart, can be just as symbolic of Islam as of Christianity.
DP. That is true. Before we begin to talk about this, can I just say one other thing about the picture. There are also bars in the picture. The bars are opened out; they are not completely closed. But they are symbolic of the closed aspects of Islam — the closed aspects of any religion which doesn’t allow itself to develop. So, as there is a great light of religious experience there are also the bars of narrow thinking. The picture puts the two things together in a way.
But to get on to your other question. Over the years, I have been extremely interested in Islam. I did a great series on Islam, great in the sense of many drawings, during the Seventies. Then I started working on ideas arriving out of Moghul India. Later I worked on to look at Hindu architecture.
But I have always had the sense that, as a westerner, I am trained within a formal abstract tradition. What I bring to other cultures inevitably is shaped and filtered through my own culture. I sometimes wish I could forget it and move away from it, but of course it is a determinant.
So, my work has always been in a sense a dialogue. I’ve tried to work out of an awareness, a sensitivity for those other cultures.
SR. So the synthesis that you arrive at is a very personal one, but of a kind that people can identify with?
DP. I hope it is. More and more, and particularly in this exhibition, I see the enormous importance of art that communicates. I expect you’ve noticed there is figuration in this exhibition, which I’ve never really used before. Perhaps that is also what attracted me to Islam, because my previous work was dealing with everything except figuration. No because it was taboo but for other reasons. Perhaps it was a taboo if one came out of a formal abstract tradition.
SR. But in your precious work on Hinduism, and India, you were quite successful in a similar synthesis that involved an entirely different kind of system of religion and society and cultural values. You seem to be quite at ease in different religions, the great religions of the world, floating across from one dimension to another. What inspires you?
DP. Because I don’t believe in eurocentricity. It has always seemed to me that we are living in such an extraordinary international age. And yet within this world, particularly in Britain, we are very selective about what areas of the international world we choose to interest ourselves in.
We live in an age of such worldwide communication that the visual art of so many other culture is accessible to me. Through the art I attempt to try and understand what lies behind the art — the religion, the culture and all those other issues. I am probably always on the outside, but I hope to illuminate other peoples’ view of these things through my own experiences.
I have never been further east than India, so I don’t know how I would relate, but I want very much to go to Japan and China. India is never entirely foreign to anybody of English background. We have incorporated and no doubt changed and modified so many aspects of Indian culture; it is part of our historical heritage.
SR. Do you feel that the Rushdie affair has brought home to some people the fact that the world is a small place, where cultural influences from one part can be felt so strongly in another? Take for example the Islamic debate in Britain.
DP. Absolutely. It is what the sociologist Stuart Hall talks about, the fact that the periphery is now in the centre. In a way, not many people really have quite woken up to those implications. At the level of its political structure, Britain has not really woken up to the fact that it is now international. It hasn’t realised that it is now part of an international culture.
SR. How is that international Britain being reflected in the creation of art?
DP. The miserable thing is that it isn’t being reflected yet. I’ve just come back from Glasgow where I saw the British Art Show. It is an exercise in triviality, silliness … not even fashionable. It is what the students were doing in the late Seventies and Eighties in art schools. This is where we are wrong, we aren’t dealing with the most essential, stirring and exciting issues in our society.
SR. ‘We’ meaning artists?
DP. Yes, we meaning artists. I exclude myself, obviously, and a few artists! But it is a very sad reflection that British art is being completely taken over by notions of consumerism. Artists now just produce tat for the market. The motivator in the visual art world is producing commodities, and sometimes anti-commodities, because we lie in an age of post-modernism.
It is tragic that art isn’t dealing with those important issues. Some artists are doing that, and obviously artists of other ethnic origins living in this country are dealing with those issues.
SR. We have had the exhibition, The Other Story, at the Hayward Gallery in London which is dealing with a lot of current issues in this country.
DP. Yes, it is, in the later work because, obviously, it is also a historical show.
SR. How do you relate to that?
DP. I am very interested to see what comes out of it. A lot of the artists who were in that show have been born in this country, they have allegiances to a number of cultures, and not just to a single total dominating culture, which gives them a great richness, a resource to draw on. That is very enviable.
SR. In the context of The Other Story, a lot of things have been said about the multicultural aspects of British society as it is evolving. Is it an enriching experience for the majority, or is it an impoverishing one, or a bit of both?
DP. I think it is a bit of both. That is well put, yes.
SR. The other point made about The Other Story is that works exhibited there might not have a place in art history.
DP. It’s interesting that you ask me that. I was thinking of just that issue when I went to see the rehang of the Tate Gallery [Tate Britain, Tate Modern was not built yet, Ed] which, by the way, is wonderful. The mechanics of what will go down in the future are so interesting and so complex, but they depend on — again if I may be cynical — on a kind of economistic approach. They very fact that a gallery like the Tate has made an investment in a certain kind of art ensures that the history books will have to include that work.
So a whole lot of forces, not entirely to do with actual cultural values, or significance of a work of art, or the fact that it reflects what is going on in society in its time – a lot of other issues — actually determine the history of art and what we, in the future, will be given as the history of the 20th century. Our readings of it will actually always be partial.
Trivia is going to enter into the history of the 20th century art and be given, as now, a significance it doesn’t deserve. The other question is whether the history of contemporary black artists in Britain is being written. Actually it is, and these works will go into the history. Because we are giving them a lot of importance, so they cannot be ignored. It is part of a great complex.
SR. Looking at recent art history, do you think there are any particular areas where injustices have been in evidence, in terms of assessing artists and their work, which might happen? And if injustices have occurred earlier, what’s there to assure us that injustices might not be repeated in the future?
DP. Yes, I’m a little cynical about it all.
SR. How do you rate yourself in terms of art history?
DP. Well, I rate myself as tremendously unappreciated! I think I am, because I refer to a much more major story than is acceptable at the moment. At the moment the art world only wants trivia, or a fairly simplified debate about race, internationalism, and cultural interaction.
For example the debate is always about how black artists work in the country, not perhaps about how a white artist looks at a black artist working in the country. So, again, it is only half of the debate, and as a result the kind of work that I am doing is excluded, which depresses me deeply.
SR. You have come a long way developing your style. How did it all begin?
DP. The problem in life is that I’ve never been in the mainstream. I’ve never been doing what everyone else was occupied with. I’ve always been, to use an old fashioned word, an ‘outsider’. Probably because I wasn’t born in this country; I was born in South Africa. I came here from another culture and I hadn’t been through art school, so I’ve always been slightly on the outside.
I arrived here in the Sixties and I found the hip Sixties style greatly trivial. I came from a society where life and death and the most important issues had confronted me every day of my life, where I understood about repression and suffering. I had seen and experienced it from a very cushioned position of being white in a predominantly black South Africa. So I came here with a sense of seriousness.
I did a whole series of paintings about Vietnam, sort of suffering bodies. They weren’t particularly good paintings, but it was at a time when everyone else was jumping up and down and wearing high boots and sequins, and going in for minimal art or whatever popular things that were happening in the Sixties. I was totally out of touch.
SR. You were out of touch or the others were out of touch?
DP. I wasn’t conforming. Then I went to live in Greece and worked in great isolation.
Then I started drawing, and moved to line, to simplify the whole experience, because I didn’t believe in painting — nobody believed in painting in the Sixties, painting was dead. One had to find another means, so I took to drawing in line, and perfected it, in fact, on a first visit to Tunisia, where I sat on the island of Jera, just drawing and drawing and drawing, the wonderful architecture of Tunisia.
From there developed a way of working, which was very austere, which had no colour, texture, or paint. From that I gradually became very interested and did my Islamic series, where I adapted the means of line to pattern. It’s rather curious … the Islamic principles move between all the decorative forms, from architecture to the minor arts.
SR. The geometrical principles?
DP. Yes, the geometrical principles, from which I developed in my own way, out of touch all along with what was going on in western art establishments, to what I am today. In that sense I have been very isolated.
SR. You stand out quite remarkably, with your use of geometrical patterns or lines and the precision with which you use them. Is this a style which you hope to carry through your life?
DP. It is changing, now, so I can’t quite tell. There will always be line and drawing and I hope very much to go on working on paper. In a way, this is a kind of political campaign on my part. Works on paper are very under-estimated. We judge, quite arbitrarily, that art on canvas is of greater value than pen and ink on paper, or pencil on paper.
One’s development is something with which one has a dialogue, but one doesn’t actually direct. I will never sit down and think ‘I am going to do this.’ The work has its own dynamic with which I have a conversation with what is developing in my work. But I don’t direct it, so therefore, this is an open ended era.
I must say, however, that I am very wedded to the notion of the austerity of my means. There is no paint. There is no gold. There are denuded means; a simple piece of paper and pen and ink.