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Our Art 4 article on Alice Elahi

This article from Our Art 4, published by the Foundation for Education, Science and Technology in 1993, is written by the late Dr ALBERT WERTH, then the director of the Pretoria Art Museum. Our Art 4 "written by authorities on art, covers the work and achievements of 25 distinguished South African artists illustrated in full colour reproductions of their best work." (p1)The following artists were among those included in the Our Art series: Irma Stern, Anton van Wouw, Maggie Laubscher, Walter Battiss, Gerard Sekoto, Judith Mason, Bettie Cilliers-Barnard, Ruth Prowse and Paul du Toit.

           Alice Elahi                      by Albert Werth

photo of Alice Elahi

Alice Elahi paints in watercolour and oil. Her land- and seascapes are inspired directly by nature. The Namib has been a favourite subject in recent years, but she also has a love for painting flowers in the garden.

Honesty, integrity, a direct reaction to the subject that she paints, these are some of the major characteristics of Alice Elahi's work. Of one of her favourite subjects, the Namibian desert landscape, she has said:

"To capture those special moments in a painting you have to experience them. Some people just drive in to the red dunes for a day, take photographs and drive out again. People who have been there for short periods can admire the stunningly beautiful forms. Yet it is an intensely difficult landscape to paint with any kind of depth, because the red desert and the starkness of the dune areas are very daunting... Yet the dunes have an absolutely indescribable magic.

"One can paint these desert landscapes as pretty, soft, gentle things but they aren’t like that at all. One cannot understand the landscape unless one has experiences the harshness and aridity and the sand when the east wind blows...

"It’s also a very alarming landscape to be alone in. People would drop me off from a four-wheel drive vehicle, and I would climb up a dune to sit and paint until they came to fetch me after dark....

"This kinds of experience has an enormous emotional impact on a person. It really strips one down to size and provides that bonding with the landscape which, for me, is essential. I have to experience these aspects of the landscape before I can express it in my work; otherwise it’s just outward shapes. Unless I have something to communicate, my work is meaningless.1"

There are several clues to Alice Elahi’s work in these words: the fact that she practically always relies on the direct inspiration of a landscape or other subject to spark off her creative drive; the fact that she usually prefers the more dramatic aspects of a landscape (Fig1) to the gentler, softer aspects, and the strong emphasis she places on the direct communication with the viewer through the medium of her art.

Although in some of her more expressive works her bold manner of painting strips the subject down to its barest essentials, Alice Elahi never consciously paints towards abstraction in her work, so that she continues to draw her inspiration from nature itself.

Alice Elahi’s long career as an artist seems to have started officially in 1968, when she won the first prize in the New Signatures group show in Pretoria. But she began painting as a schoolgirl at the age of 14, in Rondebosch, under the guidance of well-known South African artist Florence Zerffi. After matriculating she obtained a degree in natural sciences, thinking of embarking on a career in the family firm, Brookes-Lemos. While at Cape Town University, however, she became secretary of the University Art Society and organised a number of exhibitions, which brought her into contact with some important Cape artists such as Jean Welz, Alfred Krenz and Gregoire Boonzaier. Her family saw that she was bent on a career in art, and with their support she enrolled at the Continental School of Art in Cape Town for a year’s tuition from Maurice van Essche.

Like so many young artists, Alice kept looking for the right teacher and the right school of art. She first tried the Anglo-French Art Centre in London in 1949/50, but was dissatisfied with her progress, so that she also attended classes in stained glass at London’s Central School of Art. Later she studied under the guidance of Victor Pasmore at the Camberwell School of Art. It was in the Polish artist Zdzis Ruszkowski, however, that she found her ideal tutor, and even today she holds him in great regard for having opened her eyes to the importance of colour and light in painting. Echoes of his style can be seen in some of Elahi’s early works such as Forest Pool (1974), but even today two of the main factors in her work remain the strong use of colour and light in her paintings. The artist says of her teacher: ‘We shared a respect for the permanent values in painting. My admiration for him as artist and man is boundless. He is still an inspiration...’

Painting expeditions to Cornwall during the summer made Alice more aware of the landscape, in contrast to the emphasis placed on the study of the nude at Camberwell. She stayed in Cornwall for a while together with a friend and fellow student, Mary Allum, to paint the Cornish landscape which she said reminded her of the Cape.  Later, in London, she participated in the Hampstead art Society’s group exhibition shows and was also invited to exhibit fairly regularly with the Women’s Institute Art Club. She returned with Mary Allum to Cornwall in the summer of 1952, and in the next year went with her friend to paint the south of France, especially in Cannes, where the light fascinated her.

After she married an Iranian, Nasrollah Elahi, in 1954, the couple travelled to Greece, Turkey and Iran. In 1955 their first daughter, Roshana, was born, and for the next ten years Alice’s life revolved around her children so that she was not actively involved in the art world but continued painting sporadically. In 1965 the family moved into a large house in Pretoria, with a comfortable studio for Alice to work in. After the birth of her youngest daughter, Dorrieh, in 1966, Alice once more became actively engaged in art and art activities, and in 1968 she won the first prize in the New Signatures competition. Another incident which urged her to throw herself wholeheartedly into her painting was the death of her friend Mary Allum in 1971. Of this stage in her career Alice said; ‘Technically it was like starting from scratch, I had lost all my fluency; my paint application was stilted and heavy. This was no easy path I pursued. It meant hard work and determination and dedication. And I worked.’

Hard work, dedication, determination, these factors dominated Alice Elahi’s career from that time onwards and still does today. There followed a fairly quick succession of solo exhibitions, in 1972, in 1974 and in 1976, all of which received encouraging reviews. Phyllis Konya, at the time art critic at the Pretoria News, wrote in June 1972; ‘[her] intense preoccupation with light and colour often becomes an ability to create a luminous glow at the heart of a landscape: the sun striking the water, bathing fruit trees in blossom, or surrounding a seaside cottage like a halo...’ Again, in 1974, Phyllis Konya reviewed Elahi’s second exhibition in Pretoria at the Bank Gallery: ‘Alice Elahi is an artist who works spells of warmth and enthusiasm. She responds whole-heartedly to the generous abundance of nature, whether it be at sea, in mountains, or in valleys...There is a considerable ebullience in her painting.

When in 1957, the Elahi family had settled in Pretoria, Alice already said that her own ideas about art contrasted sharply with the overriding upsurge of abstraction which she found in South Africa at that time. She felt completely isolated in her art. But with typical determination she did not budge an inch from what she perceived to be her course in painting: interpreting her subject, especially the landscape, in a dramatic, sometimes almost expressionistic way, while relying heavily on the inspiration of nature, which she saw through the viewpoint of a kind of late Impressionism, with light and colour dominating in a personal, dramatic composition of great originality. She does not seek to find any easy solutions to that which nature presents her with. Her involved, sometimes strikingly original compositions are carefully planned, yet appear to be absolutely spontaneous. The surface of the painting, the textures of the water, sand, clouds, and mountains, are often turbulent and emotionally charged. This is what makes a work by Alice Elahi unique: the vitality, the surge of life, the powerful mood which is conveyed in her hurried, nervous brushwork, her powerful but controlled compositions. There is a feeling of tension and excitement which comes through in her strong, expressive painting.

Alice Elahi has said: ‘The Namib to me is Africa . . . There is so much in this wonderworld of the Namib. My work is really memories of this other Africa, the space, the beauty. People who do not come into contact with it do not realise this. They make decisions about places. They never really know what a special place the Namib is.’

Her first tour to Namibia took place in 1981, and she was immediately captivated by its emptiness and silence, its severity, colour, and light and also its dramatic qualities. It seems as if everything that she had been looking for in her subjects came together in the Namibian landscape. ‘There is a vast complexity of colour harmonies, textures, patterns, atmosphere and light in these arid wastes – for instance the red Namib dunes, the immense virgin plains of the diamond areas of the Sperrgebiet, beaches of garnet sand, the pink flats, areas of feldspar rock, plains of shimmering quartz crystals or red jasper, and the zebra dunes of the desolate and forbidding Skeleton Coast.

She is, apparently, the only artist who has painted these isolated areas, as she has been given complete access to even forbidden areas by the Namibian Department of Nature Conservation. Through their support she has been enabled to paint in ecologically vulnerable areas to which the public is totally denied access, often being driven in four-wheel drive vehicles and camping out in the open at night.

For Alice Elahi the Namibian landscape has become her chief source of inspiration, a source to which she returns year after year, and which has been the source of a number of successful exhibitions such as the following: ‘Sand of the Namib’ in 1982 at the Association of Arts Gallery in Pretoria, and again at the Swakopmund Art Association in the same year; the ‘Lure of the Namib’ exhibition in 1984 at both the Aleta Michaletos Gallery in Pretoria and the foyer of the Nico Malan theatre in Cape Town; the exhibition entitled ‘Namib – Desert of Gems’ at the Shell Gallery in 1986; and the exhibition ‘A Desert Adorned’ at the Windhoek Arts Association in 1987. Progressively, in all these exhibitions, Elahi showed her increasing freedom of execution, her spontaneous grasp of the essentials of the landscape, her joyous use of colour, and her expressively dramatic vision, which gave every work she produced, even the smallest, a gripping directness  which was unmistakably her own.

Her usual method of work is to do relatively small watercolours on the spot, and these gems have a freshness and directness in the best Elahi style. She then considers these ‘sketches’ (usually they are complete works of art in themselves) for paintings in oil on canvas. She ‘translates’ the effects she has achieved in watercolour into oil, and this is sometimes a source of problems to her, as she is acutely aware of the specific qualities of both media and of what will ‘work’ in one and not in the other. She will never use a subject in an oil painting taken from a watercolour that she realises cannot be expressed in the oil medium.

In 1977 Johan van Rooyen had this to say about Alice Elahi’s work:

"The easy tags of –isms do not apply to Alice Elahi’s work. Her approach, so direct in its visual appeal, would necessarily incorporate elements of Impressionism, while the remarkable emotional charge of the paintings would invest the deliberate distortion of the imagery with the quality of Expressionism. The mature Elahi style is a personal vehicle for the experiences she wishes to share.

"Her development has led to an increasingly broader and freer application of paint. Brushwork is confident, energetic, and honest. She abhors slickness. She paints in pure oil pigment only, prefers to scumble for opalescent depth of texture, and disdains the easy effects of turpentine dilution. In her most recent works the brush is less heavily loaded. She continues to favour a moderately large scale. Her sustained investigation of the quality of light has caused her to develop away from the more static and linear compositions of the past towards the subtle dynamics of the recent water studies.

"Considering her working methods, one is impressed by the careful preparation and study that goes into the achievement of the apparently spontaneous impact of her oils which retain all the freshness of plein-air painting. Painted in the studio, these oils are the meticulous end-products of translation. A study in watercolour, executed on location, exists for every oil painting. Problems of colour, form, and space are accounted for and resolved before transposition takes place from one medium into the other."

Alice Elahi’s flower studies have the same spontaneity, strength, and vibrancy of colour as her landscapes. Some of them have the emotional charge of Emil Nolde’s flower paintings, the poignancy of short-lived flowers standing in a blaze of colour and life, but also containing their own mystery and tenderness.

We have followed Elahi’s career which started in a style related to the French Intimiste school of private, intimate beauty, with links with artists such as Bonnard and Vuillard. But this, as was the case with Maud Sumner, developed in Southern Africa to a vision of our landscape, flowers, and seas which is very powerful and personal, a product of this southern tip of Africa, a vision which is wholly her own, entirely different to any European vision or concept. It has a rugged African beauty, rich in texture and colour, vibrant with light and with a beauty entirely individualistic and personal. Her work today possesses a life of its own apart from the life of any object or landscape represented. It is simultaneously realistic and abstract, and possesses both power and beauty.

At present Alice Elahi paints with a freedom and fluidity which is totally convincing. Her confidence indicates that she has assimilated all the experience gained through long years of hard work. There is a sureness of touch which bears the stamp of a true artist.