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An uncompromising passion - Harrie Siertsema

This speech was given at the opening of the exhibition Alice Elahi: Landscape Through an Artist's Eyes - A Retrospective at the Pretoria Art Museum on 7 February 2015.

It is a great honour for me to say a few words on the first day of the showing of this “monumental” body of work that spans the painting career of Alice Elahi. Honour would not be the preferred word when addressing a very real and valued friend of almost two thirds of my life. But privileged or pleasure seems too personal to capture the essence of Alice and the magnitude of this body of work. This honour is not without its pitfalls. Being so closely related to Alice, her family and late husband Nassi for so many years, it seems almost impossible to stay impartial to Alice’s work. In my favour is that I had acquired a painting by Alice from the Hoffer Gallery some time before I got to know Alice through her daughters. This acquaintance became a lasting friendship and only strengthened the appreciation of her work and awakened a deeper grasp of it.

Throughout the years it was always possible to turn up - not on - the flames in Alice’s eyes by mentioning the words, Namibia, desert, sea or docks. I have seldom met a person whose love of painting, especially landscapes, so encompassed her life. An almost all-consuming and uncompromising passion of the way she experienced her subjects and the way she wants to share them with us.

Landscape painting only really became a genre during the 17th and 18th centuries, although artists have painted landscapes since ancient times. For centuries the landscape remained primarily the backdrop for subjects or objects inserted into it. The birth of photography in the late 19th century was a dominant influence on how we perceive landscape painting to this day.

Three categories of landscape painting prevail. An exhibition at the University of Arizona’s Museum of Art titled Nineteenth Century Landscape – the Pastoral, the Picturesque and the Sublime addresses the golden age of landscape painting in Europe and America. I focus on the Sublime, for it is here that Alice‘s works find their niche.

Sublime images show nature often and at times very fearsome, remote or inaccessible. Now very appropriate, I can quote philosopher Edmund Burke whose Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful was published in 1757. In Sublime images there is an awe and reverence for the wild that to him was akin to intense passion. Humanity is small and impotent in front of raging rivers, violent storms and utter desolation. Sublime works open themselves to the viewer in a deeply spiritual way. And this is passionately experienced in Alice’s works.

Her painting challenges humanity’s right to use the planet responsibly. Global warming, mineral mining rights and wildlife preservation and land use are all controversial issues. Her works emphasize the contribution of the artist to our view of a natural world and its significance in our lives.

Alice revisited her subjects as often as she could over the years. An appropriate parallel can be drawn to Monet’s waterlily paintings. He painted them repeatedly for many years at different times and under different circumstances. They were not only a source of prolonged inspiration but in a way also served as an alternative diary for him. Alice’s works reflect the same commitment of passion. To walk with Alice while viewing her works, recreates feelings and emotions that become almost tactile to the viewer and enable you to experience the atmosphere she captured relentlessly for years or decades.

There is so much more to remark on or ponder over or experience in Alice’s work. I however leave it to you, the art lover, to explore this exhibition and travel in the footsteps of Alice through remarkable countries and locations and experience the vibrance of her all-encompassing love of colour.

These works so fittingly relate to what great thinkers penned.

“Everything has beauty but not everyone sees it” (Confucius)

“Almost nothing need be said when you have eyes” (Tarjei Vesaas)

“Glance into the world just as though time were gone and everything crooked will become straight to you” (Nietzsche)

These words by these great thinkers are reflected in Alice’s paintings: not only beauty but also the absence of time, the presence of an eternity and the comfort that experiencing these works will always make what is crooked straight.

© Estate Alice Elahi