The next two blogs I will devote to each artist individually. While the works of Merle Payne and Bronwen Findlay have many very complementary aspects they also deserve to be investigated separately.
Today I will be looking at Merle Payne’s work and the principles behind Barok’s designs, in particular the use of irony and (sometimes dark) humour.
The image below is of a Barok cushion cover and is a particularly good example of Merle Payne’s use of irony – indeed it is a slightly disturbing piece of work.
The crowned griffin grasping a large gun, with the slogan ‘Republic of Banana’ makes for a rather sharp statement on the state of many African countries. The fact that it appears unusually on a cushion cover somehow makes the statement all the more ironic. It seem to be implied that tolerating corruption in government has become commonplace, something that we live side by side with and are de-sensitized into taking very little notice of.
The image has been repeated in the work XXX Extra Strong.
The lion is a frequently used symbol for Africa and particular the strength of Africa and its leaders. As a very recognizably African symbol it is often utilized in Barok’s proudly South African work, although the archetypal lion takes on various guises, some more threatening than others. In this piece he seems to be closely associated with violence.
The fact that Barok’s creative methods are located in the female domain seems to give the commentary a particularly cutting edge. The value of what is perceived of as ‘strength’, particularly with regards to archetypically male qualities, is severely criticized. The lion, being a predator, is an aptly chosen symbol for a system that relies on brutality and intimidation to rise to the top.
There is a strange contrast between what I can only vaguely define as the ‘innocence’ of the creative method (working with cloth, embroidery and embellishment) and the disturbing content of the work. It creates a sense of unease as well as humour in an art form that is not often noted for engendering such responses! The result is a tongue-in-cheek quirkiness that is hard to define.
It is also worth noting perhaps that these are striking and eye-catching images, very suited to bold flag-like work. In particular the image of a lion also has many more positive qualities such as bravery and great-heartedness.
Despite the presence of the fearsome banana republic griffin in XXX Extra Strong, the image of a leaping lion is undeniably a heartening one, the sort of thing one can imagine inspiring patriotism in the hearts of those inclined to it. In fact many of these wall hangings are inspired by the Fante Asafo flags of Ghana which are loosely based on military flags. Asafo are local "companies" of men that serve several purposes, from celebrating festivals, inaugurating chiefs and defending their town or village. The flags tell stories about the areas where they are from.
It seems that the women of Barok are telling a rather serious story about the world around us in a format that is unusual and eye-catching.