Although she’d far rather be in her large studio that floats at tree height dappled in autumn leaf and music, Sue Martin welcomes me warmly at her front door. Martin is an established mixed-media contemporary artist whose work has headlined in group and solo exhibitions. One of her trademarks is her daring with materials and layering techniques. Another of her signatures is the pervading notion of the journey, whether physical or figurative, threaded through her work.
Her studio is a serene first-floor wing of the striking Johannesburg home she shares with her husband and temporarily (and delightedly) “two of our boomerang offspring" as well as Miss Molly the new Beagle puppy “whose favourite pastime is dragging the poor cat around by one ear.”
As she walks me through the house to her studio she tells how she was attracted to the place a decade ago. “It was outdated and awful, but it was one of those well-built oldies with roof shingles imported from Europe and massive double cavity walls, so the insulation is fantastic. It had good bones and was north-facing.” We cluck in agreement about how often and how unforgivably designers brush over this non-negotiable rule of the hemispheres: buildings must face north in the southern hemisphere and vice versa in the northern. “But even Herbert Baker ignored that.”
“We had to clean up the lines and reinvent the layout. We reused existing materials where we could.” The floors are teak parquet which was lifted and re-installed in a herringbone pattern. “I found this fantastic stuff you paint over it that seals and renews the wood. Over time it develops a lovely patina and buffs where there’s traffic. As you can tell we spend most of our time at the fridge.”
The house is lush with style and is worthy of its own story. Art lives on every wall. I glimpse what looks like a Marlene Dumas while passing through the kitchen. Meanwhile, the indigenous garden that lies dreaming outside the huge glass window panes plucks at my sleeve.
I’m speaking to her following her solo exhibition My African Garden, a series painted in tribute to her late mother. “It was her passion. She physically worked in it digging and planting with her hands in the earth. It was very much an English garden in Africa, very clipped and full of exotics. My own garden is the antithesis of that. I’d never really painted flowers or botanicals before but I just felt I needed to celebrate her life and the legacy she passed on to me in the love of gardens.”
Hers is free-range and forested with indigenous aloes and primordial tree ferns. For the garden series, she painted these plants into the sunburnt skin of old explorer’s maps. In that exhibition, the indigenous plants stood alongside the delicate watercolours of her mother’s garden like a family portrait. Here is my mother it said demure water lilies and frail irises, and here I stand, untame as Leonotis. Family.
“Although that exhibition is over and I’m busy with new work, I find it has taken me in a slightly new direction. For me, it’s all part of the journey.” As the day progresses I notice that adjectives for journeying, exploration, pioneering and inventing are strung into her everyday language. In one of her artist’s statements she says it best, “art is about a journey, an exploration of something that is new and relevant to me.”
It began with growing up on a farm in Kwa-Zulu Natal, then a Fine Arts degree from the University of Natal Pietermaritzburg. “Afterwards I packed my worldly goods into my little car and drove to Johannesburg to seek my fortune.”
Themes of exploration, veils and layers of meaning arise again and again in her work, often set against landscapes misted with nostalgia or mystery; almost always fusing responsive surfaces with unconventional combinations of materials and methods of mark-making.
In a previous series, Lie of the Land, she composed with beeswax and oils, applying subtle gold depth to depictions of figurative journeys while suggesting unseen realities within the landscapes that hold them. Her Walk on the Wild Side series mastered a Chine-collé technique to place ephemeral female figures against dreamy Eden-like backdrops. “I love experimenting with surfaces and different media. I’ve just started trying out some ideas using sheets of Perspex and working into handmade paper with walnut ink.”
In 2020, she created a collection of shimmering Victory pieces for The Lockdown Collection. The title evokes the WWII Allied Forces’ V for Victory campaign. Her signature translucent layering and marrying of materials came into play against macro photographic shots of indigenous Acacia branches and leaves. “Maps and naturalist paintings were employed by early explorers as a means of making sense of the unfamiliar territories they encountered on their travels. I utilised my photographs of Acacia trees to map out my own journey. The V represents our triumph over this adversity (the Covid pandemic).”
Dr Mark Auslander, Director at Michigan State University Museum (US) & Associate Prof of History and Anthropology (MSU) wrote, “Sue Martin’s beautiful, translucent thicket invites us into the forêts de symboles celebrated by Baudelaire, famously referenced by Victor Turner, in his own book, The Forest of Symbols, a pre-eminent study of African indigenous cosmology and symbolic meaning, set among the Ndembu peoples of central Africa. Martin densely weaves together a range of environmental and historical associations in seeking to make sense of our current global moment of crisis.”
Elsewhere in the studio, some completed works hang alongside experiments-in-progress, others are on pause waiting for a fresh eye, while an older piece she’s fallen out with is doomed “That’s a disaster; it’s going in the dump.” It’s all part of her journey. “I think of my work as a string of beads, each one is different and things may evolve or change, but there's a common thread to it all and everything is linked.”