Alexandra Makhlouf : Art Beyond Seeing by Nolan Stevens
When I first heard about Alexandra Makhlouf, a Johannesburg-based fine artist who is blind, I was blown away. How would that work? Who was this person? What makes her tick and most importantly what constitutes visual creative expression for an artist who cannot see.I caught up with Makhlouf and her trusty guide dog, Bonnie, at the Wits Art Museum (WAM), ahead of her March MA exhibition. We spoke initially about the challenges of being a disabled person trying to navigate the art world in a context where the conversations surrounding marginalised communities is most concentrated around race and gender inequality.
I learnt quite early on in the process of interviewing disabled artists for Rhizome, that as soon as I identify as a disabled person, communication opens up and a sense of community is created between myself and the artist. After I told Makhlouf I was disabled, our conversation became a lot more fluid.
For the first hour, the interview, which should have been about her art and artistic process, became a conversation about the intricacies of life as a disabled person – something which Makhlouf highlighted when she told me about a section in her Master’s thesis where she speaks of unashamedly wanting to be known as a blind artist even though she had been warned against the possible stigma attached to being known as ‘that blind artist’. She explained the reason for adopting this stance was due to the frustration of living in a context where from an infrastructural level to a social level, disability is invisible. She added that the barriers in society that disable us do need to be made visible at some point, saying, “But I don’t always want to be seen as ‘the blind artist’, my identity is nuanced; with bits that come to the fore and some that dissolve into the background every minute of every day. You can throw any number of other labels at me, such as ‘woman’, or ‘sister’ at me that will fit, but when it comes to disability, you have to force people to acknowledge it, by breaking down the stereotypes that exist around it.”
Makhlouf tackles these issues in her thesis as well as discussing crip theory and various ideas on inclusion and community building. She concedes that because everyone’s disability journey is so individual, her interrogation of what it means to be a visual artist with no vision has only led her to more questions. Questions she hopes to grapple with more through her art making than in her extensive reading, research and thesis writing.
“I am an art maker, not a writer,” she cries out mid conversation, breaking the quick pace of her words and bringing even more weight and urgency to what she is saying.
The investigations she has carried out through her art making have presented Alexandra Makhlouf with enough questions to force her to rethink her artistic process in numerous ways. Most noticeably, in shifting who she views as her audience. She says, “Initially, I was more interested in making work that would be accessible to people like me, who are visually impaired or blind. Then I decided that since I’m technically making visual work and I am querying this idea of sight and visuality, I should explore things from the perspective of not seeing, which doesn’t mean not understanding.”
This realisation manifested itself in ways which saw Makhlouf attempting to make her work more tactile, or even sonic; which by her own admission moved her away from the practice of drawing or painting. She came to the conclusion that the addition of these elements would not only have created a sense of separation between her and her process, but also carried with it the danger of these extensions or translations of her medium causing her to lose authorship and creative control. This would be the case if her work entered the realm of production where she wasn’t in full control of the process, for example, 3D printing or sound installation. She mockingly says that actually her art-making process is selfish, “I find that when I make art, it’s self-indulgent because I mostly make art about what I am interested in,” she added.
Makhlouf is constantly re-evaluating where her orientation point lays, her mode of working is always evolving. She renegotiates and explores ideas of herself as an artist, as a woman, as a disabled person grappling with the changing nature of her impairment, and as a human being trying to understand her place in the world.
One gains a real sense of her journey when studying her mark-making – wrinkles, tears, smudges and figurative outlines. It is the journey of a woman who when she entered the art world was sighted but over time, as her vision became blurry and further deteriorated, she adapted. Her artistic process involves a physical intimacy with her materials where she often feels, falls on top of or crashes into her work, in direct opposition to institutional teachings on the care an artist ‘should’ show an artwork. Somewhere in-between this process of bumping into things and sitting on top of her paper as she draws, there are clear indications that she forms a symbiotic relationship between made mark and mark maker.
Whether charcoal, pastel or egg tempera on Fabriano paper or her acrylic paintings on board, it is clear that Alexandra Makhlouf’s works deal more with alternative ways of feeling, rather than seeing. She questions how it is that disabled people are the largest minority population but still must fight for our place in the world.
Published 11 March 2019
ALEXANDRA MAKHLOUF completed her BA Fine Art at WITS University in 2009. She started at David Krut Workshop as the artist in residence in June 2010, initially creating small-scale experimental drawings then becoming involved in the printing process of the workshop making multiples of miniature etchings. Her work has featured in various exhibitions. In 2013 she was commissioned to create performative drawing installation for the This House exhibition, Palais de Tokyo. Her most recent exhibition, ‘Re-orientating the Mind’s Body’ is an exploration into visuality and is hosted by the Wits Masters program and The Project Space in Johannesburg. Alexandra is about to submit her dissertation for an MA in Fine Arts at the University of the Witwatersrand.
NOLAN STEVENS was born in exile in Swaziland but has lived the better part of his life in inner-city Johannesburg. He is the fourth and youngest member of an artistic family. His mother, Stella May Ntsihlele wrote children’s books, short stories and plays. He attributes his love of writing to her. His eldest brother is a sound engineer and his middle brother is in the film industry. Nolan is a visual artist who works with ideas of Blackness in an Afro-urban context. He explores various aspects of black identity in his art making, arts writing and curatorial projects. He started curating by partnering with American, Anne Gordon, and organising exhibitions at the Bataki Kollective. Under the banner of “A Funky Mad Hatter Joint” he curated The Pink Light District; an all-female exhibition which grappled with ideas of how women feel they have been prostituted by traditional African culture, the media and society as a whole. His second show was Deck Society; a collaboration with an international education and skateboarding organisation called SKATEISTAN. This exhibition asked artists to think about issues facing South African youth and to create Afrocentric Pop Art works on skateboard decks provided by SKATEISTAN. Nolan was chosen as UK Unlimited’s 2018 international placement; an experience that shifted his perspective not only in terms of how he views disability, but how he sees himself as a creative person with disability contributing to understanding disability arts as a community. Nolan feels that barriers faced by people with disability in South Africa are difficult to overcome, both in terms of infrastructure as well as public education. He was for many years, the only disabled artist at art school, university and in his immediate artist environment.