Memo - Omen

Deborah Margaret Bell

Mixed Media on Paper
159.5 x 121cm
Signed: "Bell" (Lower/Right)
Dated: 2006


As the title “Memo-Omen” suggests, memory is a primary motif in the work of South African mixed media artist, Deborah Bell. Over the past three decades, Bell has developed a sophisticated language of mark making that evokes the dual transience and tactility of memory. In her work as a printmaker, sculptor, and painter, the artist consistently renders her subject matter with a ghostly presence, as if at any moment the subject will dissolve and disappear back into the artist’s own consciousness.

This is particularly true of “Memo-Omen”, in which a pad on which “memo” is marked lies open, reflecting the word “omen” back at the viewer, pointing possibly to the haunting presence with which memory is associated, and the trauma with which it comes, even years into the future. Having been a forerunner in the South African resistance movement, before the country’s transition into democracy, it is perhaps unsurprising that Bell captures memory with a sense of impending chaos— the rushed curvilinear streaks of red that dart across the top half of the work seem to add to this chaos, like the artist’s hand knew not where it was going or what it was doing, but only that it had one duty; to capturea scene which could at any moment disappear, vanish as if swept away by the samewind which appears to have left the papers scattered across the tea-stained background. 

What renders the work unusual, and indeed distinguishes it from the rest of Bell’s body of work, is the way in which the artist has sculpted the scene onto a flat surface— whereas Bell’s sculptures have undeniable weight, and only the subject itself, such as an angel, suggests transience, her drawings, and mixed media works on paper, most often present themselves as watery reflections, captured in great haste, with but a few straight marks delineating one figure from the next. Here, however, Bell has dedicated considerable effort to sculpting the charcoal mask that stares at the viewer from the bottom right of the work, as well as the heavy golden memo pad, sitting to the right of an eerily empty teacup that acts as the stage for a cast of smoky blue shadows. 

Although this undoubtedly renders the work unique, it also testifies to the versatility of the artist— who, by crafting the piece around the theme of memory, maintains a sense of continuity in her work, yet by experimenting with bolder, more sculptural mark-making techniques, demonstrates that her notable intellect is matched by the hand of a master draughtsman. The work is thus onethat will holda place of prominence not only within the rest of her oeuvre, but also when exhibited alongside the works of her colleagues and contemporaries, such as William Kentridge and Robert Hodgins.

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