MOTHER IS A DRUM | Grace Cross

Wed, July 31, 2019 to Sat, August 31, 2019


Here is a red thread. Crimson red, like blood. Placenta red, menstrual red, nipple-sucked-raw red. The shade of birth and death, and of life in between – the shade of passion and shame, love and rage. The colour of warning and good fortune; of fire and fertility. A colour analogous with the warm dark cave of the womb. As in the body, so to in the earth – vermillion clay, russet ochre, iron oxide. And above, in the sky, in dawn’s scarlet and dusk’s magenta, at the far end of the colour spectrum, at the rainbow’s apex: red. It is a colour that belongs as much to the exterior world as the interior, to the real as to the symbolic. A colour saturated with meaning, with metaphorical import. Potent and charged with the significance we lend it. And there, the thread, tracing its red line across the canvas.

For this exhibition, Grace Cross takes as subject the birth of her child and the quiet revelations of motherhood: the pleasures of abiding, of repetition, of surrender, of finding in ordinary devotion the most perfect communion. Her repertoire of symbols extends to include leaking breasts, spilt milk, hungry mouths, and mashed food. Yet her paintings, for their familiar themes, remain ambiguous offerings. Theirs is the ambiguity of excess, their surfaces thick with accumulated symbols, with strange metaphors and uncertain similes.

Cross gives to each object she paints the status of totem. A showerhead, a spoon, a child’s toy – each imbued with ritual power. They are neither static nor passive, these objects and their images, but alive in their associations and entanglements. They are suffused with psychic weight, with sympathetic magic. For Cross, the inanimate animates even while it keeps its stillness; it produces effects, it inspires engagement. The most familiar objects – her paintings suggest – are at work in both the real and symbolic worlds. A breast pump is seldom just a breast pump.

Pregnant with symbols borrowed and invented, Cross’ paintings do not lend themselves to a finite reading. They are as legible as dreams; prophetic visions told to the layman. Only the artist can divine their true meaning. For Cross, each object is a metonym for something else – a story, a myth, an anecdote. Some evoke her childhood, others her heritage, the people who populate her life, the writers she returns to. None of the objects Cross paints are insignificant, however strange or commonplace: each belongs within her cosmology of signs.

As in her earlier work, Cross returns to the motif of textiles in her compositions. She weaves not with yarn but with paint, her brushstrokes mimicking the fabric’s weft and warp. It is a gesture of repetition and ritual, the artist following each thread across the imagined loom of the canvas. Cross plays the part of weaver, mystic, and good enough mother, working the threads of her life into a carpet of images. Her woven paintings are both a material and immaterial coming together of fibres and stories, a plane on which the sacred and mundane coincide, where the rational rubs up against its antonym. Her compositions are buoyant, even startling, in their colours; with their playschool primaries and brilliant tones. There is a lightness of being to her palette, which is seldom muted, seldom muddied.

Cross weaves words into her paintings as spells or incantations. Words like suck, push, pull, like pick, drop, pick, drop. There is here here here here written in purple, and I am I am I am I am in yellow. Mother is a drum. Dum dum dum. Words written on words, text within textile. Pat, pat, pat. Such is the repetitive language of a child and the repetition of a mother’s work.

And here again, the red thread. A thread with which to darn and mend, a thread to join and stitch. It moves in and out of Cross’ paintings, compositionally sewing the symbolic to the real, tethering the objects to one another. Look for it, among the profusion of her images, follow its crimson tangles. It is the red thread of fate – the bloodline that traces a history of labouring women. Placenta red, menstrual red, nipple-sucked-raw red. This is the tie that binds – an umbilical cord – the maternal line. The thread is fine but strong; it will not come undone; even as it unspools, running from the distant past to the present, from one canvas to another.

MOTHER IS A DRUM opens on 31 July, 2019 at 17:30 and will run until 31 August. For further enquiries or to request a Q & A with the artist, please contact Jana Terblanche at