Helen Clara Hemsley is a little girl. She loves Dallas and Dynasty. Because its glamorous. And it is a million miles away from Durban, where she lives. The leading ladies on TV have huge hair, and they are simultaneously bitchy, vulnerable and cunning. They exist for their men and live expensive lives, driving big cars and go to parties with waiters in white suits and occasionally they fall into the swimming pool, fully dressed. Their hair is never messed up. They drink, smoke and have loads of sex.
Durban is a port city on the east coast of South Africa. It is stinkingly humid, and South Beach, where Helen lives abuts the harbour. It is surrounded by holiday flats, corner shops, occasional prostitutes. The beach in front of the apartment where she wakes up every morning has white sand, perfect surf and fills up over holidays with sunburnt families from inland places. There are surfers and fishermen outside. She gets up to go to school every morning and walks a couple of blocks. It is the late seventies and eighties, and elsewhere the country is burning.
All of this traps Helen in a bubble of strangeness. She is an odd girl in an odd place. The crap on TV has no reference to what she learns at school or what she sees around her. But it tells her that there are other places to be, other things to see, other ways of being.
So little Helen becomes a big girl and starts making art. She studies, travels, and goes to live on the other side of the world. She makes small things, beautiful things. Little drawings that border on the pathetic. Insignificant scribbles and gestures against a world that overwhelms and confuses. She keeps on making, doing, undoing. Her gestures become objections to things that are not right.
She starts knitting the world right. Puts it in order. One stitch at a time. She dreams, hides, cajoles, plays. She wishes, remembers, forgets. She complains, screams inwardly. She loves, laughs, lives. She makes. It is a quiet revolution of things that don’t gel. Insignificant monuments to a life worth struggling for. She leaves us things that are small in appearance but huge in heart.
She finds things, and places them just so. She is ironic and clever. She battles without signs of obvious upset. But underneath lies a seething rage of an imperfect world. A life of searching for a place, of belonging. She quietly embroiders it ok. Her humour goads and her tears mend. Lovely Helen makes beautiful things. Lovely Helen grows up. Lovely Helen becomes a mother. Lovely Helen becomes a teacher. Lovely Helen is an artist. Lovely Helen makes whole that which is broken.
Published on the occasion of the exhibition, ‘I Never Played Tennis’, work by Helen Clara Hemsley at Mette Saabye Jewellery, Copenhagen 23 September to 15 October 2011.