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  • Writer's pictureJanis Slingsby

Ochre: Affairs of the heart. Affairs of the art.

6th April 2021

Robert Slingsby 'Rights of manhood' Charcoal & chalk pastel on Arches cotton rag paper
Robert Slingsby 'Rights of manhood' Charcoal and chalk pastel on paper

All the ‘Next order’ series have a red ochre ‘ground’. This is in line with an artistic tradition dating back a 100 thousand years. I’d love to be able to show Robert's painting making process from the very start, but the first stages are a secret! What isn’t a secret is that the first layer is ochre.

Robert Slingsby work in progress 'Next order' series
Ochre 'ground' showing of current work in progress from 'Next order' series

The road to Omo’s ochre.

“Ochre, charcoal and chalk, the timeless medium of Africa’s artists, relate to my earliest awareness of Africa’s artistic origins, the art and traditions. Amongst my extensive travels on the African continent, this lifelong preoccupation led me to the southern Omo Valley close to the South Sudanese border. Here my search for the living artists of Africa, practicing that which has almost become part of history, represented a powerful and spectacular encounter.”

Robert Slingsby - Mursi man covered in ochre
Mursi magnificent in ochre

Robert Slingsby - Kara women applying ochre
Kara woman in Korcho applying ochre in butterfat to another woman's hair

As generations growing up in the sixties, which predates overseas travel, families like mine, would travel South or even Southern Africa for leisure and pleasure, leading to a love of Africa.

For Robert, his love of Africa began when his parents bitter divorce culminated in his mother finding her feet with her sister in Zimbabwe, and Robert finding rock art. “I come from a broken family. Through not receiving, my true will, sought to be a giver. What I recognised on the walls and floors of caves by abandoned people was the giving of their fantastically generous art. How could those with such clarity and gifts experience the assault by the barrel of a gun?”

Robert Slingsby 'Cocked'
'Cocked' Charcoal & chalk pastel on paper

As a 5 year old Robert's extraordinary ability to identify pot shards, pots, flints, while tasting and inspecting the treasures in his mouth, established his relationship with the soil of Africa and an awareness of ochre. In addition, his identification with the ancient artists abandonment, his extraordinary ability to draw and his extraordinary inability to read, meant art and Africa would become safe havens where he could retreat.

In contrast, my father and his family’s roots were in Namaqualand. The beauty of the landscape and the beauty of the indigenous Khoisan community is deeply etched into my psyche. Family holidays were to a farmhouse in Bauersdorp, once owned by our family, but then, by Jannie Arkoep, a man who still shot dassies for dinner. My mother hated these pilgrimages to a place with no electricity, us kids camping under orange trees in the garden, and the stench of dead dassies hanging outside. But memories of nearby caves and my father reminiscing over a fire with local Nama from his childhood, meant a love for the people and the place lingered.

Fast forward to the start of our relationship. I was in the twilight of my nursing training and living in a converted garage. Robert, who was living in Den Haag at the time, was visiting South Africa. A partnership with a winning scrabble score, and the discovery that I was the great niece of the anthropologist Prof. Isaac Schapera, author of one of his treasured books, sealed our partnership for life.

In the first blog I mention the three threads of Robert’s RGB brain; art, Africa and Anthropocene man's impact on his environment. And just as with a thread, it too, is made up of finer threads.

Robert Slingsby 'Threshold of obsolescence IX'
'Threshold of obsolescence IX' Money and God in his pocket series

We have a vast archive of images which spans his ‘deep diving’ into the finer threads of the threads. And the prehistoric paint, ochre, plays a leading roll in African culture; the rock art, temple art, indigenous peoples including Khoisan, Himba, Kara and Mursi and their ethnographic objects. And wrt art, the Renaissance and modern artists he was influenced by while studying in Holland, are further examples of ochre’s extensive use, past and present.

Given his lifelong preoccupation with African culture, it’s natural that he absorbed this tradition into his art making process, across all the mediums he engages with.

Robert Slingsby - Ochre decorated Suri woman
Suri woman painting her face with ochre

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