The Taxi hand signs are a silent gestural language that millions of commuters and taxi drivers use to communicate their desired destination. The Jacob’s Ladder series was a direct consequence of the Taxi hand sign ‘to Town’ that was being used incorrectly by a commuter using the middle finger instead of the forefinger.
Out of this error a second body of work emerged using this rude middle finger as an embodiment of different characters. The idea was generated by an observation in the newspaper of Jacob Zuma gesturing with a zap sign when he exited the court after being acquitted of rape charges. [This hand gesture could be seen as a phallic machine gun, as the machine gun song, Umshini wami, is believed to have been Zuma’s revolutionary trademark].
Individuals who become famous - actors, politicians and sports people for instance, are too often made into heroes, even demi-Gods by society and the media. If at all they may slip and not live up to the expectations we created of them, we are quick to judge and put them down. With Jacob’s Ladder each hand represents or embodies a well-known individual, showing his accomplishments and failings. Positive qualities of goodness, a sense of humour, errors of judgement may personify some of the characters selected. In others the immoral or even evil side of that character is revealed. The people who exemplify this hero-villain syndrome in the Jacob’s Ladder series are: President Jacob Zuma, Winnie Mandela, P W Botha, Evita (Pieter Dirk Uys) and Robert Mugabe. One sculpture, “On the Other Hand” represents the judging public. The sculptures take their title from the story of Jacob’s Ladder in the Old Testament. It is an aggressive account of flight, dreams, ladders, stolen identities and judgement. A narrative which talks about human failings, human concerns and endeavours, yet also exemplifies a means towards a greater good.
The Jacobs Ladder series was a direct consequence of a taxi hand sign (a zap sign) that was given to me in error, or perhaps as a joke! Shortly thereafter, Jacob Zuma made the zap sign when he exited the court after being acquitted of rape charges. (This hand gesture could be seen as a phallic machine gun, as the machine gun song, Umshini wami, is believed to be Zuma’s revolutionary trademark). It made me think that politicians and other high profile individuals are recognized by symbols that have a positive or negative valence, and are generally reductive or simplistic. These leaders in effect become caricatures, who are either revered and reviled by millions. We put people on a pedestal as if they are demi-gods and are just as quick to send them to the bottom of the ladder when their faults are revealed. The people who exemplify this hero-villain syndrome are Jacob Zuma, Winnie Mandela, P W Botha, Evita (Pieter Dirk Uys) and Robert Mugabe. One sculpture, “On the Other Hand” represents the judging public. The traditional Snakes and Ladders game on which the series was based was a metaphor the trivial, media-driven and yet profoundly moral dimensions of our political life. The sculptures were not meant to criticize the leaders, as we did during the era of Resistance art, so much as to confront the public with their own thinking (or non-thinking) processes.
In drawing attention to how we and the media in general judge politicians and other people, I choose to represent carefully selected politicians in my artwork to tell the story. The deep and interesting story of Jacob’s Ladder in the Old Testament is about the sensitivity of purpose in bettering ourselves as we go up the ladder and the possibility of bettering the world around us when we are on the lower rungs. It is also an aggressive story about stolen identities, flight, perception and judgement. I use these aspects and more in the Jacob’s Ladder sculptures and artworks.
The people chosen to represent our judgments are Jacob Zuma, Winnie Mandela, P W Botha, Evita (Pieter Dirk Uys) and Robert Mugabe. One sculpture is called “On the Other Hand”. It represents ‘us’ judging everyone else. Positive and negative symbols characterise highly recognised individuals whose reputations are established and who are both revered and as much disliked, by millions. We put people on a pedestal as if they are demi-gods and are just as quick to see them at the bottom of the ladder when they turn out not to be perfect. We seldom give them credit for being human. We see them somewhere in the ‘grey area’ somewhere middle of Jacob’s Ladder. And yet to refrain from judgment does not mean to refrain from humanity - when it is clear that people are suffering, one should have the courage to speak out and take action. This is why I have concentrated on Zimbabwe and Robert Mugabe in the exhibition. One of the sculptures relating to the Zimbabwean situation uses the Zimbabwean National ‘eagle’ (a watermark on the Zim dollar). The actual raptor is a rare and beautiful bird. The image of a bird usually represents flight and freedom. In this case, I have used the bird symbol for an aggressive function - throttling the opening to the unusable ‘vessal’ (representing empty tummies) made of shredded worthless dollars.
Aggression is shown in the forceful ‘Zap’ sign used in the sculptures. The middle finger and the hand sometimes represent not only the person, but in the Mugabe works it is also the constricted ‘lifeline’ of a nation. Nevertheless, in all the art works, I draw from the idea in Jacob’s Ladder that even when one is at the lower part of Jacob's ladder it can be positive. By doing good on earth amongst one’s fellow man, one can move upward on the ladder of life.