The Codex of the Films and Pictures of Anja Marais: Oneiric Metaphors – by Rosa JH Berland

The disquieting allure of Anja Marais’ practice comes from a masterly weaving of mysticism. Formally, the work falls somewhere between the grace of Jean-Eugène-Auguste Atget, the shadowy poetry of Surrealist film making, the complex ornateness of Matthew Barney’s films and feminist body art. These intricate worlds are made from handmade sculpture, video, pixilation animation video, and photography. They captivate, one can hardly wait for the next scene or chapter to emerge.

Most recently, Marais has embarked on a series of self-titled “visual poems” including a sequence of related projects comprised of moving picture, photography, costumes, hand made sculpture and mixed media. These “poems” take place in natural environments such forests, hills, expanses of grass, or next to a body of water and appear to transcribe memory and experience, particularly that of woman. The stories are often-wordless visual worlds in which secrets are ritually revealed, the passage of time is shown as wrinkles in a cloth across a woman’s face, the waves in water, or a cocoon like emergence. The protagonists are feminine, in some cases hybrid mythological creatures, veiled or similarly disguised, on occasion grotesque, serving as metaphors for the feminine experience. Marais’ layered work is made up of a truly tactile world of gothic mystery, mirroring the cycle of life using a codex of hybrid creatures, symbology of the natural and religious world, all equally captivating and mysterious.

In all of her work, the viewer is overwhelmed by a sense of shamanism; the women in these series seem to immerse themselves in their own corporeality. Through the depiction of ritual and the association of woman with nature, and the natural world, Marais implies that what is considered abject by our culture, the often-messy cycle of life, birth, death, etc. is in fact, an intrinsically connected part of life, a source of introspection and power, and as such is a rite of passage.

To this end, in the films, and the two dimensional works such as the mixed media works Cathedral Series (2014) Marais poetically and unflinching depicts allegories for life cycles including birth, death and loss as processes or stories, memorialized as ritual and as ephemera, fluid, and cyclical. Water reappears repeatedly, a natural element, and a site for corporeal events. There is a preternatural sense of memory, experience and living, at the same time there is a palpable sense of disintegration and aging, a flux. This sense of memory and disintegration is seen in the fluid film Cathedral (2013), a story of a woman on a journey. This traveller is a veiled woman in somber dress; the stop animation makes the young actor’s gait that of elderly woman, and serves as a parable for the cycle of life. The elusive woman travels through a stark wintery wood to a river, where she finds a bed, and lingers with her fingers in the pulsating water, a metaphor for sexuality. Inspired by the poem by Anna Akmatova, Lying Within Me, Marais’ heroine is going in search of stones, each like a hard impenetrable egg, and scoops them up into her dress, digging in the dirt, and burying them in a ritual manner. This white secret, is hidden, and buried, veiled in some way. Time lapses, like waves on water, and it only at the end that we see a shadow of the woman’s face. Her story is accompanied by a soundtrack of suspenseful music and the sounds of nature, singing birds and whispering wind.

In this film, and her practice is general, Marais forces a collision between the motifs of the monstrous feminine from various genre including horror and body art within her own narrative of the feminine life cycle set outside the confines of homogenous society; this is not a spectacle of the pornographically abject, but rather a poetic recording of experience, mnemonic storytelling and an engagement in the cyclical nature of the feminine experience. Intrinsically, Marais approaches the way in which the depiction of the feminine as abject is part of a social order by having her actors act out and fully immerse themselves in an almost celebratory series of ritual, often including blood and other bodily fluids. Watching these abstracted rituals is one way Marais forces the viewer to confront his or her ideas of place, identity and life. To this effect, still images, from the Cathedral project are carefully worked to create a haptic effect. They serve as reliquaries for events, for example, in the mixed media work Transparency of Rocks (2014) a child’s face is covered in rocks, an allegory for the buried egg or child in the film Cathedral (2012), a loss that becomes an artifact, aging, held tightly, the pigment cracked, scraped and peeling, as if slowly dying. Labor of Burden (2014) shows the white hands of the veiled woman from the film Cathedral burying the dead, inanimate rocks. Because Marais’ mode of working is so enigmatically abstract, one could read this burial as a metaphor for a number of things, memories of past infractions, loss of a dream or lover, child, the stillborn child or another dark secret, the white stone of Akmatova’s poem, the secret that lies within the veiled woman.

This suggestively unknowable allegorical mood is precisely what makes Marais’ work so evocative and captivating, there is openness and permeability and yet at the same time, a fineness of craftsmanship and image that as a whole is aesthetically remarkable.


Rosa JH Berland, M.A., University of Toronto, is an art historian based in New York City. She has held positions at MoMA, & the Guggenheim Museum & is currently writing a monographic book on allegory in the work of the late American painter Edward Boccia. As well, she has contributed to numerous scholarly books, exhibit & collection catalogues, and academic journals. Ms. Berland’s research interests include expressionism, mysticism, and the ocular in modern art.

Ucross Art Residency Spring Attendance

I came to the residency with a folded piece of paper with my “How to” questions inked on it. Questions that I wanted to think about while working for a month in my Wyoming studio that overlooked the creek and the snowy hills.

Questions in how to conduct myself as an artist, a woman, a humanist in these ambiguous times:

How to be cerebral without intellectualizing?
How to be spiritual but not religious?
How to be intuitive but not sentimental?
How to feel without emoting?
How to be an observer without being an intruder?
How to be kind without enabling?
How to be ambitious without succumbing to narcissism?
How to be motivated without being obsessed?
How to forgive without becoming a doormat?
How to be tolerant without justifying mediocrity?
How to love without being submissive?
How to be still without being petrified?
How to be immersed without drowning?

Midway through my residency walking through a fallow field with mud caked boots I saw an antelope. We both interrupted our momentum and stared at each other. Her black eyes were dull yet dense with awareness. She did not see me and at the same time, she saw all of me. She was an animal that contained countless ancients under her tick ridden coat. Before she continued on her way she gave me the most beautiful gift. I returned to my studio with an empty mind. Amnesia should be the way of the mind while in the studio.


Cinema of Dreams at Gallery Ground Moscow

My video work “Cathedral” will be part of the exhibition Cinema of Dreams at Gallery Ground Moscow

Exhibition dates: December 16, 2016 – February 12, 2017

Curators program of video art: Elena Gubanova, Kate Bochavar
The curator of the animated program: Pavel Shvedov
The exhibition invites visitors to “Cinema of Dreams”, where on one screen mixed cartoons and video art, surrealism and the irrationality that is the best suited for fixing of dreams and similar states of human consciousness. The curators of contemporary art and animated content curators have tried to bring together both genres work in such a way that the viewer, having lost touch with reality, plunged into a state of sleep awake.

Opening hours: Tues. – Sun. from 11:00 to 20:00

Gallery and Studio Sandy Ground
Street. Novopeschanaya d. 23, k. 7, Moscow, Russia

Artists: Petr Bely, Margarita Novikova, Rose By Sergei Katran, Dmitry Kawarga, Art group “Where dogs run,” Ludmila Belova, Ustin Yakovlev, Kseniya Pankratova, Megasoma Mars, Lika Gomiashvili Asya Ashman, Maria Godovannaya Yelena Gubanov, Jack bag, Eugene K’banchik Olga Lovtsus, Proteus parietal Ilya Shagalov, Masha Sha, Alain Tereshko Veronika Georgieva, Olga Croitor Denis Patraekeev Carla Rebelo, Poema Theatre, Anastasia Potemkin, Fedor Pavlov-Andreyevich, Anja Marais, Eugene Bugaev, Sergei Shutov, Alexander Shishkin-Hokusai, Rostand Tavasiev Julia Zastava, Ma Rina Alexeeva, Tatiana Akhmetgalieva Alexander Petrelli, Groin, German Vinogradov, Andrey Yagubskii Shura Chernozatonskii Anna Ekros, Michael Cross, Valery Polienko Marina Vasin Alexander Vasin Ivan Vasin, Victoria Ilyushkina Ilya Popenko Alla Urban, Eduard Shelganov

Sedona Summer Art Colony and Redreaming the World

Arriving at Sedona Summer Art Colony 2016

This July I was in the inaugural group of artists invited to the Sedona Summer Art Colony in the foothills of Sedona’s Red Rocks. I arrived with a plan of how I would use this secluded month towards my upcoming art project. I had a Plan A, and if I had enough time I even had a Plan B. Needless to say these notions were out the window within 24 hours.

I got swallowed whole. The vast landscape squashed my ego, my importance, my mind. The openness unshrouded the sky, leaving my head vulnerable to the heavens. My lungs strained wider for the indifferent dry air. My pale soft body mocked by the ancient red rock formations. Stupendous decaying boulder teeth protruding out of the Earth’s skull. My identity dissolved into the abyss of the desert. Poof.

Sedona Summer Art Colony view

Sedona Summer Art Colony View

The Sedona Summer Art Colony was bursting with talent, ideas, and characters. Musicians, painters, poets, writers, dancers, performers, visual artists, and cultural managers. All hungry to share and shake hands. Pure unfiltered ideas spilled out of them onto the desert floor and eroded it with powerful possibilities. It made me feel strong, alive and insignificant. Not from insecurity at being in the midst of these talents. No, rendered insignificant by the power of the collective creative in its pure unadulterated form. Amazement filled me for the human being in its creative mode. My mind was swimming in harmony with a school of kindred minds. I have not felt this nondual and unpolarized for a long time. That was until the delivery of the package.

Splitting our hearts and minds.

In the middle of the night, the world left a subpoena on our front doorsteps. While we were blissful, the murdering of innocents happened. While we were listening to the moan of the violin, the dueling of the poets, the outside world was hemorrhaging all over the floor. Racism, sexism, fundamentalism, terrorism, zealots – humanity in his most undiluted hatred. Violence. This contrast polarizing our hearts and minds – splitting our songs, our poems, our paintings into fragments. The poets jumped onto the tables with crescendo tongue to open ear and eye demanding how can we allow treating the black man to be less than the white man. The performance artists brooded over altars and sulked in dark corners. The writers drank a bit more than usual and the music shifted to minor arrangements. Anger blanketed, rightfully so.


Summer colony altar for recent victims of violence in the United States.

Redreaming the world.

My Sedona Summer Art Colony experience started to shift as well. Something strange happened to me. I could not stay in a nondual state, that would have been irresponsible, but I just could not join the polarized psyche either. I started sleeping poor, with many unnerving dreams turning into nightmares. I began to have out-of-body experiences. I saw my ten-year-old self in South Africa with its racism, its superiority complex, its heavy embroidered history. I became a spirit child that was half human and half dream. Surrounded by millions of people, each one that had ever lived in South Africa. Crowded and loud. Everybody was speaking at the same time wanting to be heard until I would bleed from my eardrums.

In a crude reduction, the reenactment of history played out in front of me. A flickering stop-motion animation train moving over the desert in a dust cloud. The millions of loud people started to board the train in a chronological order. Each wagon was a diorama. Wagon A: Filled with warrior Zulus that displaced all the Black Tribes of their land. Wagon B: White Pioneers showed up in ships fighting the Zulus for their land. Wagon C: The White English colonized and put the White Pioneers in concentration camps for their land. Wagon D: White Pioneers said ‘Fuck you’ to the White Queen and reclaimed the land. Wagon E: White Man segregated Black Man to hold on to its new land. Wagon F: Black Man stood up and won over White Man and reclaimed their land. Wagon G: Black Man xenophobia murdered other Black Men to hold onto their land. Etcetera.

The train cleaved through brush as its pistons hissed. The iron wheels crushed rock underneath its weight. Going: black-against-black…white-against-black …white-against-white …white-against-black …black-against-white …blackvsblack. .whitevswhite. whitevsblackvswhitevswhitevsblackvswhite. The train has reached exponential length and speed. It trampled the desert. It maimed the fauna it flattened the flora.


View from Cathedral Rock

What next?

Today back home I am left with an intense want to be able to see this destructive train of duality and not to board it. Not to buy the ticket. In my art, it has been important for me to speak out against displacement, against creating outcasts. With these intentions, I recognized that I am still on this perpetual train of duality. As an artist, instead of being ‘against’ something or ‘for’ something how can you ‘be’? How can we break the dark cycle of human destruction without being part of it?

We are left with the lasting words of others who have gone before us and faced the same questions. I’m thinking particularly of the Nigerian novelist Ben Okri. I always have his book “A Way of Being Free” within reach.  In his essay “Redreaming the world” he talks about transcending the destructive cycle of humanity:

 “The oppressed lives within the stomach of their oppressors. They need the thinking and the structure of their oppressors to transform their realities. The oppressors need the blood of the oppressed for the rejuvenation of their spirits. The spirits of all become weirder…It would appear that they [the oppressed] have to compete in this world, but not necessarily on the sullied terms of the world dominators. They have to fight for their places in the modern proscenium. They can no longer, it would seem, hold themselves down with rage about their historical past or their intolerable present. But they have to find the humility and the silence to transcend their rage, distill it into the highest creativity and use it to reveal the greater truths.” (1)

He gave us further guidance in his Steve Biko Memorial Lecture:

“The idea is passed along that we can transcend our tribalism without losing our roots; that we can transcend our religion without losing our faith. The idea is passed along that we can transcend our race without losing its uniqueness; that we can transcend our past without losing our identity.”(2)

A similar message was conveyed by the philosopher Alan Watts, a believer in natural homeostasis (literally ‘standing still’ — describes the mechanisms by which all biological systems maintain stability):

That some way or other the human race has to learn how to leave the world alone. The problem is that we do not know how to stop, we got something started and we see it is going in the wrong direction. There is an old Chinese saying that when the wrong man uses the right means, the right means work in the wrong way. In other words, there is something wrong with the way we think. It is shocking news for us and our human pride that we will only make a mess by putting things straight. When we stop, we will find a world that is happening rather than being done by and to us.”( (3) Watch the linked video for his full explanation of this complex yet simple thought or read his” The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are“)

Back in my studio.

Filled with the sublime of nature and the human condition I left the Sedona Summer Art Colony in a fog of dreams and questions.  How I will transcend my art making is yet to be seen, but this experience will definitely impact my studio practice in a positive way. Sedona Summer Art Colony flourished as a natural homeostasis where artists could find stability between exploring creativity and dealing with the harsh challenges of the outside world.

A Way of Being Free, Ben Okri, 1997, Phoenix Publishers. pg. 130 -131
** Ben Okri, 2012 Steve Biko Memorial Lecture. (You can read his full inspirational lecture here.)
*** Alan Watts. 1971, Conversation with myself. Youtube  (quote transcription from video and emphasis my own)

Anja Marais working at the colony

Working at the colony


Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami write-ups for “Intersectionality”

Anja Marais Art Anja Marais Art

“On Their Shoulders” 2016, Photomontage Mixed Media and Found Objects. 72 in x 48 in x 28 in

My  work got mentioned in the press for the “Intersectionality” exhibition curated by Richard Haden:

By Phillip Valys from

….The piece calls to mind old-world colonialism and immigration, which is echoed in Anja Marais’ installation “The Crossing,” where nine pairs of adult and children’s dress shoes filled with dirt sit next to an out-of-focus photograph of a muddy cornfield.

Although Marais emigrated from South Africa during apartheid, the shoes evoke the current Syrian refugee crisis, Haden says.

“When migrants are being forced out of their country to escape oppression, they have to pack your belongings hastily. You leave with the shoes on your feet,” Haden says. “It’s a dehumanizing process, these journeys from one world to another.”

Read full article [HERE].

By Anne Tschida for Miami Herald

Two installations leave a searing impression. One is a large photograph of a fallow field; in front of it are shoes — some of them lovely dress shoes — filled with dirt. Artist Anja Marais, an immigrant from South Africa, created the work in reference to the plight of Syrian refugees, who have fled with the shoes they wore on whatever day they ran, tripping through muddy fields in high heels. Adjacent is a sculpture of tattered furniture bundled together, left behind as the journey became more treacherous. Migrants are in a perpetual process of losing and reforming identities.

Read full article [HERE].
The exhibition is open until August 14th 2016