Figuring the Nurse

Michaela Clark reviews artist Sue Greeff’s online exhibition ‘Stick It’ at Eclectica Contemporary, Cape Town.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, many creatives have worked with the visual language of this international health crisis while seeking to articulate personal struggles and structural injustices highlighted over the course of the last year. From surgical masks and virus models to the sense of isolation and inequalities of race, class, gender, and disability, artists across the world attempt to not only speak to but also survive this global experience (Marandet, Barratt & Fotopoulou 2020). So too for Cape Town artist Sue Greeff, whose latest solo exhibition Stick It (2021) went live online at Eclectica Contemporary this month.*

Prompted by her isolation during the initial period of ‘hard’ lockdown in South Africa, Greeff began digging into photographs from her time as a local psychiatric nurse and midwife in the 1970s and 1980s (Schimke 2020). This personal archive offers much of the visual source material to her paintings and overpainted digital prints, providing a ‘behind the scenes’ glimpse of hospital nursing during that period. This nurse of the past is featured beyond the bedside, with an identity that is independent of both ‘the doctor’ and ‘the patient’ – two figures in relation to whom ‘the nurse’ is so often measured. Suspended in time and space against bright painterly backgrounds, Greeff’s nurse is presented as a wholly autonomous and individualised subject: in certain images she is depicted as a sometimes diligent sometimes idle worker while, in others, it is her social life and recreational self that comes to the fore. Nowhere is this more evident than in the works that feature ‘off duty’ groups or a single figure enjoying a cigarette.

By tapping into an acerbic humour reminiscent of Barbara Kruger’s feminist work, Greeff’s nurse resists stereotypical assumptions. Sexual innuendo – that might otherwise see the nurse operate as fetish – is neither embraced nor wholly contested; sassy glances, pouting lips, smeared makeup, and leggy poses all hold an erotic undertone, especially when paired with the language of ‘sticking’ it. However, rather than serving to objectify those represented, these moments operate as playful gestures – cheeky actions performed among friends and fellows. Indeed, paintings depicting multiple figures emit a collegial air and the gentle intimacy of vernacular or ‘amateur’ photography. This nurse is neither the maternal caretaker nor the vindictive ‘Ratched’; instead, she is complex and multifaceted, an individual shaped by more than her profession.

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Then, as now, the majority of nurses in South Africa are women (SANC 2020); and the history of this profession is fraught with racial tensions as well as the desire for professional recognition and respect (Marks 1994; Digby 2006). Some of the latter can be seen in Greeff’s allusion to institutional norms and administrative records: paintings such as 70’s Intake (2020) reference the ritual of the group portrait (proof of presence and pride as well as institutional hierarchies) while Register (2020) and Block (2020) suggest study, certification, and administration – an indication of hard-won specialist knowledge as well as the day-to-day management of hospital wards and patients. Instead of commenting too widely on the social history of the profession, however, Greeff’s renderings tap into a personal image-repertoire as well as those of a broader (largely online) public – a community of both retired and active male and female nurses whose members shared their own snap-shots with the artist (Schimke 2020).

Uniforms, medical technologies, and even hairstyles call out from a bygone era, heightened by a tell-tale colour fading of Greeff’s private photographic source material as well as her painterly palette. Yet the exhibition does not allow for one to linger too long in this terrain: interlaced between nostalgic flashes of a medical as well as personal history, contemporary realities creep in with works that reference the ongoing pandemic. Full-length disposable coveralls, fluorescent protective aprons and references to vaccination pull the viewer back into the present, calling on a visual inventory that has become all too familiar even to those outside the field of medicine. Indeed, Greeff goes so far as to obscure the ‘70s nurses with roughly painted PPE, so commonplace both within and without the hospital today.

The strategic shrouding of faces and decontextualising of scenes allows past and present to merge in much of Greeff’s work. And the blurring of space and time undoubtedly contributes to an aesthetic of collective nostalgia. However, this ‘looking back’ does, at times, feel somewhat singular and perhaps even a tad sugar-coated: little is evident of the difficulties in South Africa’s medical history, particularly with regards to the struggle for women of colour to receive nursing training and accreditation, not to mention the race-based pay-gap between nurses under apartheid (Marks 1994; Digby 2006). It is clearly not the artist’s intent to reveal a socio-political struggle or daily grind beyond her own experience – but this does make the exhibition as a whole seem somewhat ‘plucked’ from its local context; there are moments in which it feels removed from the experiences of thousands of nurses whose healthcare memories might be far less sentimental (not to mention a little less white) in comparison to those of Greeff. It is in her incorporation of photographs from a generous nursing public that the artist amends this; offering a gentle glimpse of what lies beyond her personal nursing past ultimately serves to shake up her memory-images in the best possible way.

As a whole, Stick It (2021) offers a striking assembly of work that brings the viewer – sometimes playfully and sometimes seriously – into contact with the nurse. This peek into the nursing present and past pushes up against stereotypes of this figure as motherly caretaker, as pitiless matron, or as object of sexual desire. Instead, Greeff’s nurse is a trained professional as well as an ordinary person who makes jokes, gets bored, has a laugh, takes smoke breaks, and waits impatiently for her shift to end. She is also an individual upon whom clinical treatment is built; as, without her expertise, her commitment to care, and her hours of (in)visible labour, the medical ecosystem would surely implode.

*****

Michaela Clark is a PhD candidate at the University of Manchester’s Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine (CHSTM). Her ongoing research focuses on the history of medicine and the politics of photographic representation with a particular emphasis on 20th century South Africa. She tweets at @Michaelaclarkba

‘Stick It’ is an online exhibition hosted by Eclectica Contemporary, Cape Town, which opened 3rd May 2021.

Notes:

*Eclectica Contemporary has added a sensitive touch to the online curation of this exhibition. Rather than the somewhat discombobulating street-view-esque virtual tour (used with a few of their previous shows) visitors to the exhibition website can see an installation view of each artwork via the simple click of a mouse on any one of the individual images.

Bibliography:

Digby, A. 2006. “Chapter 6: Nurses”. Division & Diversity in Medicine: Health Care in South Africa from the 1800s. Bern: Peter Lang. pp. 229-276.

Hallam, J. 2000. Nursing the Image: Media, culture and professional identity. London & New York: Routledge.

Marandet, E, Barratt, H & Fotopoulou, A. 2020. “Art in isolation: artistic responses to Covid-19.” The Polyphony[online].

Marks. S. 1994. Divided Sisterhood: Race, Class and Gender in the South African Nursing Profession. London: Palgrave MacMillan.

SANC. 2020. South African Nursing Council Statistics for 2020 [online].

Schimke, K. 2020. “The art of nursing should make us rethink what we value.” Daily Maverick [online].

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