Knowing Your Context
Knowing your context, 12” x 16” Mixed media on panel, 2009. ©R. Sawan White.
The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard. Their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world. (Psalm 19:1-4)
The Psalmist affirms that the created world speaks of its Creator, and that everywhere we look or listen there are words, speech pouring forth in abundance. But are we prepared to hear that speech? Will we listen to it on its own terms, in the context in which it occurs? Or will we hear only what we already ‘know,’ see only what we want to see? Psalm 19 affirms that the speech of the world is heard, but it does not say that speech is necessarily listened to, much less understood. For the speech of the world is as a foreign dialect to us, and if we want to hear what it has to say about the Creator (and overhear the praise it offers to the Creator), we need to learn to listen differently.
As Bible translators know, learning a language is much more than a matter of vocabulary. We may master a list of names or definitions, but still miss the heart of what a language is about, what its speakers are making known about themselves and the world. Just as important as the individual terms is the structure of the language—its grammar and syntax—the way it tells its stories more than the objects and characters that populate them. This may or may not be the way the hearer’s own language casts its narrative thread, so we must be aware of our own practices and patterns in order to recognize the sameness and difference of the foreign tongue. In other words, understanding another language is doubly relational: we must explore the relationships within a given dialect, but also the relationships between it and our own linguistic home.
An awareness of this relational, provisional quality of language is at the heart of R. Sawan White’s practice as an artist, rooted in her own experiences of being linguistically out-of-sync, notably during her art training as a printmaker in England. There, she mistakenly assumed she would be speaking the same tongue as those around her, only to discover that profound differences can be communicated (or lost) through inflection and cadence of speech, let alone vocabulary. Beginning by including old maps and encyclopedia pages in her prints, then by encasing others’ anonymously-deposited secrets in plaster, and later moving into an abstracted but personal exploration of graphic elements that stand in for words, White has been using paint and wax and her etching stylus to engage with the richness and limitations of “local knowledge.” Aware that each cultural context has its own way of framing the world—its own dialect—that must be taken on its own terms, she highlights the necessity of conversation between ‘locals’ across boundaries, and holds out the promise that piece by piece and layer by layer, we will approach a more wholly encompassing sense of who we are and how the world is.
White’s oil and wax painting, Knowing your context (2009), is a visual enactment of that process of negotiation between words and syntax, between medium and meaning—using forms and figures that struggle to find and dwell in their proper physical, relational context. While we are tempted to read it as a landscape, that overall pattern is a byproduct of White’s primary visual interest, the way those small graphic elements and lines—emblematic of words (and sometimes people)—relate to each other and to larger shapes and fields of color, built up in the layers of wax and oil paint that define the overall structure of the work. Thus, both small, oscillation-like squiggles and large, organic shapes arrange themselves across the surface of the panel, but also emerge from and disappear into the irregular strata.
The red-orange circular shape at the upper right, for instance, is not defined by the application of color onto the white surface, but by a final application of thick, matte strokes of white paint over the ruddy, under-layers; meanwhile, the white is itself bounded by curving lines previously inscribed into the wax. Below those layers, we can see a more directly-formed oval of blue, whose top half is now obscured, but whose bottom half influences the curvature of the lines in the lower section of the painting. Finally, the detail image of the lower right edge of the panel shows incised ciphers buried deep in the wax and paint, as well as some holding their own at the surface.
These small re-curving figures are what function most like words in White’s work, but perhaps a better way of describing them is as indeterminate or extremely flexible ideographs—a symbolic shorthand for exploring relationship without referencing specific things outside the painting itself. Her squiggles usually enjoy a kind of freedom within a painting—hovering, floating, sometimes dangling in a way that is “haphazardly self-contained, unconnected”—and seldom tied down or to each other as they are here at both the left and right lower edges. As White said of the now-marginalized characters, “They’re stuck but also foundational, they don’t get to go, but they’re crucial to this part [of the painting].” Comparing these shapes with the ones floating but isolated in the white area at the upper left, White continued, “the ones down here, though tethered down, are in a more dynamic space, their crossing is causing many things to happen with boundaries, overlaps, etc.” This is a dialogue, then, between the artist and her medium about what happens when things get confusing and we begin to notice novel relationships emerging—how a new sense of connection and order arises there, too, even if it seems unfamiliar and uncomfortable to all involved.
Again, what’s being abstracted in Knowing your context is language, not material objects—and not even specific words, but their role as place-holders and connectors between people, local places, whole worlds. White’s reference to the drawn characters as “discovering” their situation, learning to “know their context,” reminds us that her work is also a narrative: it is the trace of her negotiation with the piece itself about how words and ideas and images are situated in particular places and moments, about how slippage, misunderstanding and newness occur when ‘figures of speech’ are removed from their usual homes or asked to do work which they are unaccustomed to doing. Indeed, even her titles are part of that process, for they often find their genesis in phrases only partially heard and mis-understood; they, too, are artifacts that emerge from the process of engagement with words rather than descriptors added at the end.
So circling back now to the familiar psalm with which we began, how might this visual exercise about the complexity of speech in all its forms help us reflect on the relationship between science and Christian faith, between God’s word and his world? We are now very well accustomed to reminders that the first chapters of Genesis were not written to tell us the kinds of things we sometimes want to hear. But it is also easy to ask the material world to say things it is not equipped to say, as when we expect it to speak unambiguously about of God’s activity within it. If we truly wish to hear the speech that pours out day after day in praise of the Lord, we need to let the heavens speak in their own way and strain to listen to them in the voice God made them to have—not in the voice we wish they had. In taking hold of the difference between those ways of listening, we not only understand the world more truly, we unearth our own biases, our own deafness, our own unwillingness to hear God the way he wants to be heard.
We can’t force Scripture or the natural world to speak to us in our ordinary tongue. But by listening to them both on their own terms, and by creating and dwelling in imagery that enables them to speak to each other through us, guided by the Spirit, we may be privy to interactions that reveal unexpected and elegant truths about their dialects, but more importantly, about the God whose Word brought both into being.
R. Sawan White was a Provost Scholar at Virginia Commonwealth University before transferring to Loughborough University in England to complete her First Degree in Fine Art Printmaking with highest honors. Since returning to the US in 2000, she has exhibited her work regularly in group and solo shows, and taught and lectured at museums, art centers, colleges and middle schools. To see more of her work, please click here.