We on Top

Written by, Andrew Lamprecht, Michaelis School of Fine Art, University of Cape Town, 2009

Perhaps the best art is that which celebrates our existence while still posing questions. Maria van Rooyen’s We On Top(2009) provides us with a view of the world and the universe beyond that, at first glance, may seem to be unsettling. Dancing figures are seen to occupy the outer rim of what seems to be a globe turned in on itself – a hollow inside-out globe – and what is more Africa seems to be upside down. Beyond this lie abstract areas of light and dark possibly suggesting the cosmos.

We on Top, Diptych, Maria van Rooyen, Charcoal, Ink, Gold Leaf on Paper, 2009

But if the viewer considers this image for a moment they will see that the figures epitomise joy and are safely enclosed within their space, making merry. Furthermore, there is no ‘up’ or ‘down’ in space; no ‘north’ or ‘south’. Who makes the decision that north is ‘up’? The French cartographer Nicolas Desliens produced a world map in 1566 in which he put south at the top: an ‘upside-down’ map. No one is certain why he did this but the experiment had little following and European map-makers continued for centuries to not only prioritise their continent at being ‘on top’ but also emphasised the importance of the northern part of the globe by skewing its proportions. (In fact as the most recent Times Atlas has pointed out you could fit the USA, Argentina, India, the whole of Western Europe and China into the land area of the continent of Africa with space still left over.)

It was only in 1979 that this simple question of ‘who’s on top’ would be asked again in a similar way, this time by a young patriotic Australian, Stuart McArthur, who on his national day that year launched a new map ‘McArthur’s Corrective Map of the World’ which centered Australia and turned things on their head. This map has now sold over 350,000 copies. In her way, Van Rooyen poses a similar question with her work: ‘who decides what and who is on top?’ In so doing she challenges assumptions about centricity and upturns centuries of prejudice and assumption inherent in how Europe saw our continent.

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But what of the figures who encircle this sphere? Here it seems that van Rooyen is making several art historical references. Clearly there is an allusion to Paul Cezanne and his figures which frequently expressed the joy of life but there is also a more explicit nod towards Henri Matisse’s huge canvas (in a scale similar to this work by Van Rooyen; Matisse’s is 175 x 241 cm) of 1905-6 entitled Le Bonheur de vivre (The Joy of Life). In his work Matisse shows a number of figures standing or sitting all enclosed by nature. In the central background is a group of dancing figures evoking the pure theme of joy.

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 Henri Matisse. Le Bonheur de vivre. 1905-06

Another art historical reference may be found in the use of the questions in Afrikaans, English, and Sotho, written directly on the work. This is surely an allusion to Paul Gauguin’s Where do We Come From? What are We? Where are we going?of 1897. In asking similar questions of us, the artist forces us to consider our existence beyond the circle and the earthly realm in which the dance takes place. We are reminded of our mortality and the fact that we occupy this earth but for a time.

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Paul Gauguin. Where do we Come From? What are We? Where are we Going? 1897

Maria van Rooyen has offered us a view of the world and our place in it that is rich in historical reference but also uniquely her own; an image that asks as many questions as it provides answers for. We are forced to reconsider our place in the world and it would seem that she is encouraging us to celebrate the joy of life. At the same time, however, we should bear in mind that this temporal dance of joy takes place in an enclosed sphere and that there is another existence, much more impenetrable and difficult to conceive, that lies beyond.

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