Centuries apart, yet close together on opposite ends of the spectrum, these works depict a story about society. Girl With A Pearl Earring is my second favourite Vermeer paintings (Girl reading a letter at an open window is my first), a master of light and creator of context in the mundane. This painting however, marks a departure from Vermeer’s typical works, it is lonesome. Vermeer’s subjects were often in simple settings that contributed to the narrative, despite the subjects remaining in focus but not entirely so. With this painting Vermeer is rid of all distractions and our sole focus is the girl, her face and slightly parted lips as if she was about to say something and of course the pearl earring. The name was attributed to the painting in the 90s, one of many that finally stuck, and it has given more context to Vermeer’s story because she represents a changing world.
On a trip to New York last spring, I visited the 154 art fair, which showcases works of artists from Africa and the diaspora. It was the first time I had come across any works of Pieter Hugo. Mimi Afrika from the KIN series. This painting… it stays with you, long after you’ve walked away it stays with you. Mimi Afrika with eyes so soft you lose yourself in its liquidity, amid a green background, headscarf on the head, looking right at you, head turned towards the camera. The lines on her face, the quietness of her eyes, her full lips and a hint of a smile. It is soft but not overtly, it demands your attention in its entirety. We are curious about her story, her life…everything about her is all encapsulating from this portrait.
These two works are characterised by very similar traits despite their stark difference, in technical terms the Vermeer is a tronie rather than a portrait, but the genre never quite caught on. Besides, this is about similarities not differences. The bigger story is life outside the confines of the portrait or easel. Many narratives have filtered around Vermeer’s painting, it is rumoured that he sought to acknowledge the rise of the new society of merchants in Delft, his home, as opposed to aristocracy after the region broke with the nobility of the catholic church and Spain, others suggest this painting is entirely from Vermeer’s imagination; a girl without ties to specificity, which is why she is even more fascinating today. And if the fictional depiction is to be believed, she was a maid of Vermeer’s wife who sat for this painting dressed in her jewels and with whom he had a romantic liaison. In KIN Hugo’s portrait of Mimi Afrika also denotes a wider narrative; South Africa and its changing and ever complicated landscape and in so doing questions his place in it. In Mimi’s face we see the existing chasm of a country that was not too long ago in the depths of apartheid, the complications of belonging, the concept of home, the ugly history, the soft amidst the hard, and the even more severe hardships that prevail amongst the poor. The difference in realities of the man behind the camera and the woman who is his subject; representatives of both classes.
Both works are deeply personal, self reflective and a reckoning.
This is more than the moment between artist and subject and it is almost to obsessive perfection the way both works are presented, focused, singular, a series of emotions so aptly captured. With the simplest of compositions, void of distraction, non-distinct backgrounds, an engaging gaze and that turn of the head towards us, we are drawn in, curiousity peaked about their lives, unanswered questions, and the mysteries they will remain.