Walking through the hushed corridor of the gallery space in the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research, Lecturer on Visual and Environmental Studies and Director of Undergraduate Studies Paul Stopforth stops before a piece of his, which is entitled ‘Monument.’ “This is in reference to one of the prisoners, who found a piece of high-tensile wire and, with no tools, created a beautiful blanket pin.” Stopforth pauses, and traces the unbroken line of the object with his hand. “It’s an extraordinary manifestation of how individuals under extreme conditions find a means to express their desire to create.”
Stopforth reaches out and touches the surface of the piece, and encourages his audience to do so as well. He explains that the paint he used in this work is made from curdled milk, which serves to reference both the importance of cattle in African culture and the texture of the South African landscape. “Like the piece, that landscape is gritty, yet beautiful.” Guiding his audience through the space, he draws attention to particular elements of his pieces: the “trinity” of institutional stools which are “both ordinary and sacred,” the use of dots of color to evoke the “luminosity of African beadwork.” With his words and gestures, Stopforth engenders an experience of his art that both illuminates the South African history with which he is engaging and enriches the aesthetic quality of the work itself.
Born, raised, and educated in Johannesburg, South Africa, Stopforth did not begin his career as an artist with the intention of spending time at a place like Harvard. In fact, as a South African artist in the late 1960s and 1970s, Stopforth consciously chose to engage with the politics and issues of his region, rather than, as some of his contemporaries were doing, trying to follow the art world trends in Europe and New York. He reflects that “there was a real line drawn between those who thought my work was very powerful and relevant, and those who thought I was corrupting art by engaging with specific political and social issues.”
But Stopforth’s art is not about anything as simple as political parties—he points out that the party he identifies with, the African National Congress, was banned at that time. Instead, his work focused on the human beings who were involved in politics. His series of drawings on the postmortem body of Stephen Biko serve as both a mournful elegy—“Elegy” is, in fact, the title of the piece—and an electrifying portrait of a secular martyr.
Stopforth’s work is filled with this sort of synthesis—combining beautifully crafted pieces with deeply provocative political ideas. His 18 years in the United States have functioned to expand his awareness of the relationship between the political and the artistic realms. In talking about the brutality and barbarism of the apartheid government, he indicates that their kind of violence is all too present in this country as well. And yet he does not seem to be without hope. For Stopforth, his status as an immigrant helps him to be aware and interact with art and politics in a unique way. He says, “I engage with history, with memory; I hover between two places, which is a way of forming insight.”
Whether explaining the long-term use of Robin Island on the tip of Southern Africa as a place where “people who were considered outsiders, whether lepers or political prisoners, were kept” or evoking complex South African language politics through a piece about fig trees, Stopforth’s remarkable skill as storyteller, political actor, and artist shines throughout. His work and his words perform a kind of near-alchemic synesthesia, drawing together the colors of light, the sounds of protest, and the rough texture of nations. And in the end, the quality of his art is met only by the clarity of his words: he states simply, “Drawing is one way of articulating my relationship to the world.”
—Zoe M. Savitsky