Their Carriage is Grave and Demure   

This collection of drawings, was shown as BEAST AT HOME at AOP (Art On Paper) Gallery, Johannesburg,  from March 6 to April 3 2010.

I wrote previously about my interest in the basic but powerful desire that seems to lie behind our need for place and the longings of nostalgia.  With regard to issues of attachment to place, identifying  the desire itself as the issue rather than any fundamental fact of history, birth or ancestry was an important step for me in my questioning of our often exaggerated identification with place. 

Once the desire was emphasised, the force behind it became the focus of my image-making. 

All works 2009. 69cm diameter. The medium is wool dust and archival glue on paper.                 

                                          4am Making Little Headway

                                          We Lived Among People Who Vanished Into Exile
Adam Phillips, writing about Freud on the subject, frames the very "young" nature of this desire.

"The child, it seemed to Freud, was the virtuoso of desire, for whom the meaning of life could only be its satisfaction. "

                                                                 Adam Phillips        Beast in the Nursery, 1998, Faber and Faber Ltd.

Perhaps our association with the word 'desire' is very often a sexual one because it is in this territory that we are able to acknowledge ourselves capable of 'uncharacteristically' forceful feeling and 'surprising' behaviour. 


I am interested that, when I look at these drawings now, there is something wry and comical in Beast, in addition to its darkness. I imagine this is because I was focussed, during their making, on the extreme emotions of which we are capable and which usually are only revealed in the moments when we find we are unable to check them. 

                                          The Wind Was Blowing And The Waves Were High

                                          Periods of Anxious Waiting
We are familiar by now with the idea of our own unconscious as foreign territory ... the Other where we least expect to find it. And, if Utopia is an imagined, distant and longed-for place (and dystopia a distant place we fear), surely we need to make this interior zone a focus of discussions and ideas around connection to place. For years I looked for meaning in the bond we have with some or other place; nationhood and history must count for something. But I think I understand a little better now that what we desire so fiercely is somewhere even more remote than motherland.


                                          The Favourable Wind Took Us Further In Our Position

Beast belongs to the other inside, and sprang, I suppose now in retrospect, from my recurring amazement at a need which, despite its being mostly quite neatly hidden, has the force to mould and direct us. 

                                           The Sound Of His Falling                 

                                                  Panic And Haste

                                          (Beast Triptych) Night Operation   
                                          10 X 70cm

Two Catalogue Essays for Beast At Home ...

Wilhelm van Rensburg is an Art Historian and gallerist based in Johannesburg

The tondi of Bonita Alice’s latest drawings could well be what one sees when looking through such optical instruments as a telescope, microscope, pair of binoculars, or field glasses.The viewer could use these instruments to make distant objects appear nearer and larger, or to magnify objects so as to reveal details invisible to the naked eye. Alice’s ‘objects’, however, are of indeterminate shape, constituting a vocabulary of abstract mark making that invokes a sense of space, rather than an illusion of mass.These spaces, alien and surreal, yet populated with seemingly shifting shapes and implicit and/or explicit protagonists, are akin to that of the space at the edge of a precipice, or to a sudden void; an empty space that opens suddenly before one’s eyes.

These spaces conjure up latent situations, time periods, geographical settings and conditions obscurely significant in some or other way by what appears to be predominantly bold black strokes, exploding on the picture plane.They are redolent of the style of such an abstract expressionist artist as Franz Kline who, together with many other abstract expressionists, transformed the language of art with their formalist vocabulary.They broke the painting’s dependence on an illusionary, sculptural space; they freed line from shape, carrying abstract art further from the depiction of things than any artists before them.They created a new kind of space in which objects are not depicted, shapes are not juxtaposed, physical events do not transpire in any form or shape. In short, they staged, according to Philip Leider (Artforum, 1970) “the most exquisite triumph of the two-dimensional manner”.

Bonita Alice is triumphant in utilizing her unique ‘found’ medium, wool ‘dust’ glued onto paper, to create her abstract shapes. Her images are made up of exuberant abstract gestures that hint at possible organic shapes and forms and contain ‘breathing room’, white spaces that draw the viewer into the playful yet controlled work.The various formal properties of Alice’s work, however, are there first and foremost for the sake of feeling, and a vehicle for sensation, an alienation of what ever might otherwise serve to mediate the spectator’s response to colour and form, such as recognizable imagery and reference, figurative illusion, and even physical texture.The artist’s commitment to the medium serves as guarantee that the content is truly aesthetic and not,for instance,anecdotal,or tendentious,or merely intellectual.

Alice’s work is playful, but at the same time there lurks a sense of uncertainty, a feeling of the indefinable, the chaotic, even the monstrous in the work. Her work moves between explo- sive abstract motifs and a dark psychological space. It explores the way the mind processes fragmented or ambiguous data, similar to focusing that which is seen through the lens of a telescope, or microscope. It evokes monster-like shapes that function on a psychological plane as allusions to the base powers which constitute the deepest strata of spiritual geology, seeth- ing as in a volcano until they erupt in the shape of some monstrous apparition or activity. Her wool ‘dust’ drawings combine organic forms and elusive references to landscapes in abstract compositions suggesting links between interior and exterior worlds.These compositions hover between romantic expressionism and minimalist objectivity.

Paper and wool ‘dust’ are combined into objects that divide, delineate, and frame space instead of simply inhabiting it. Her moody, nostalgic, and often somber drawings spring from a poetic imagination of social space and personal memory. Her work utilises evocative everyday detri- tus and materials culled from her personal life, as well as wistful and romantic utopian literary sources. Bonita Alice makes richly allusive drawings on paper in which layered images and juxtaposed spatial orientations evoke the subtleties of diverse but coexistent perspectives.


Yvette Greslé is an Art Historian and arts writer currently living in London

Ah, who is it we can turn to for help? Not angels.
Not other people. Even the knowing creatures already dumbly see we do not feel at home in our interpretations of the world, though there is, perhaps, a specific tree on a hillside we settle on over and over. (Rainer Maria Rilke, Duino Elegies: ‘The First Elegy’)

The world is nowhere, my love, if not within. Our life passes in transformation.The external world is forever dwindling to nothing.Where once there stood a solid and lasting house, now a dreamt-up construct straddles our path... (Rainer Maria Rilke, Duino Elegies: ‘The Seventh Elegy’)


Anthropomorphic and of uncertain gender the Beast is an ambiguous creature.A composite
of the stories we invoke and re-cast: fairy-tale and folklore; science fiction and comic strip. A grotesque: eluding classification it is the receptacle for all we cannot speak, decipher or contain.The Beast is everything and nothing. Its past and future is unknown and unknowable. Its present infinitely volatile, restless, precarious: volcanoes, explosions, cliffs, ravines, white empty spaces. From landscapes, at once recognisable and strange, the Beast is ejected and propelled. It falls and floats. It hovers and flounders. In our humanness we search for a glimpse of ourselves in its falling and in our searching we catch sight of the falling that is our own.The Beast offers us only ourselves. 

The Beast is at home in a state of falling. In this, a paradox, for the promise of sanctuary awaits the rupture. Home is, after all, a battleground of uncertain struggles. Elusive and abstract, home is the repository of our memories. But memory is chimerical. A hinterland of half-truths and phantom longings.And thus it is we come to understand impermanence.We look more closely and in our looking we realise the Beast and its beautiful, treacherous landscape, is dust. A me- mento mori of a kind for it is in dust that we remember the biblical invocation of our mortality and the transience of human experience.


Bonita Alice’s most recent body of work grows from earlier concerns with place, geography,
history, memory and the transience of all things. In these works – made following Alice’s re- location from Johannesburg to London over two years ago – there is a sense of a very private, inner journey; a profoundly personal exploration of what it means as lived, human experience, to migrate geographically from the familiar to the strange.

The series ‘Beast at home’ produced from Alice’s studio in Dalston, London, emerges most immediately out of a process that began with ‘Anticipated Memory’, an exhibition held at Art on Paper, shortly before her departure from South Africa in 2007. It was in works exhibited on this show that Alice really began to explore the medium, which would become the focus of the London work: drawings on paper, made from dyed wool dust, sourced from felt factories in Johannesburg.Through a painstaking and infinitely patient process,Alice literally draws onto her paper surface, inch by inch, layer by layer, using wool dust, archival glue and a finely tipped paintbrush. In the London drawings, she increasingly works with a circular format the symbolic associations of which are many: from the Roman oculus - a source of light and air - to the worlds imagined through telescopes and ships’ portholes. Alice’s sources range from comic books to the Japanese print-making traditions of ukiyo-e or ‘pictures of the floating world’. Of interest to her are the ways in which Japanese prints ‘render almost everything decorative, even the treacherous and precarious’. It is this sense of the ambiguous that is very much a part of the experience of Alice’s work and indeed lends it its irreducibility.

In making works for ‘Anticipated Memory’ Alice envisioned a vessel that would allow her to travel an inner, metaphysical world unfettered by the limitations of the everyday. She explains: ‘A vessel which would allow me to silently traverse space and time, both past and future’. But ‘the fantasy of avoiding impending loss’ held within it a contradiction: ‘The vessel allowed me great freedom but also made me vulnerable, having no steering or braking mechanism, and subject to winds and air currents’. From her studio in London Alice was to explore this sense of vulnerability and what she calls the ‘folly’ of her fantasy. Making new work, while watching from the window of her studio the monumental cranes and construction around Dalston Junction, the vessel underwent a series of transformations becoming a weightless inflatable dinghy-like object and then increasingly anthropomorphic and ambiguous. Alice’s inner world, the solitary world of the studio and its view of the world outside intersect and overlay.

Sources Rilke, Rainer Maria, Duino Elegies.Translated by Crucefix, Martyn (2006) Enitharmon Press: London, pp.15 and 57.