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“You can blow out a candle

But you can’t blow out a fire

Once the flame begins to catch

The wind will blow it higher”

                (Peter Gabriel “Biko”)

In his magnum opus on Western economics, EF Schumacher – economist, ecologist and one of the progenitors of the subsequent environmentalist movement - argues that humanity dare not consider the solutions to technological problems without concern for the future of our habitats. Penned in 1973 ‘Small is Beautiful: a study of economics as if people mattered’ warns that “ if we squander the capital represented by living nature around us, we threaten life itself.”

Almost thirty years later, we are not only witnessing, but must acknowledge willful complicity in, the relentless erosion of both out human and natural capital. And, circa 2042, should some intrepid cyber-archaeologist attempt to document what remains of our bereft planet, he or she will have to shovel among the scabs and scars, exhuming the suppurating remains of a tortured earth. The fallout from the Arab Spring, the burst blister of global economics, the slaughter of innocents and endangered species, the ongoing plunder of dwindling stocks… our cyber-scholar will be spoilt for choice as to the follies and foibles that caused our demise. Or our cyber-scholar could simply refer to ‘Money and God in his pocket’ - Robert Slingsby’s latest body of research – on our desecrated habitat.

The choice of the words “body” and “research” are particularly pertinent to Slingsby’s oeuvre. For over forty years he has unrelentingly documented the markings of humanity on nature’s skin, whether using petrology-as-spiritual-parchment – as, for example, by the ancient Nama of the Richtersveld – or the more profane scriptures left behind by nomadic communities. His quest has been entoptic, metaphysical and philanthropic: to read, record and learn from the artistic narratives of the past. Insodoing his art has traversed loci, belief systems and life forms increasingly ruptured by ignorance and avarice, marginalised to make way for mining, like the Nama, depleted of dwindling stocks, like the ocean, or butchered like our wildlife, for their bounty. Humanity’s disregard for the legacy left by preliterate communities and its willful plundering of present habitats in pursuit of profits, have reduced these living environments to landscapes of exclusion and violence - sites of marginalisation and massacres wrought by the gun, the fishing net or the bulldozer’s claw.

The title ‘Money and God in his pocket’ derives from a poster protesting nuclear armament, produced by conceptual artist Barbara Kruger. For Slingsby, the phrase also constitutes a multi-pronged protest against excesses of consumption, the worshipping of Mammon – the god of money - against cultural exclusions, prejudicial social hierarchies and against the extinction of indigenous species. It presents charcoal portraits of the buried, massacred, muted and muzzled that are reminiscent of earlier portraits of disenfranchisement and displacement. Although executed in a representational style, their visages are pock-marked with seemingly abstract doodlings, reminiscent of the calligraphic language of Cy Twombly, as well as graffiti art.  They are cartographical signs denoting ancient or original data that has been encrypted, and which is therefore, undecipherable except to the initiated - those harbouring hallowed knowledge of the codes.

Also included in this exhibition are mixed media sculptures and installations, constructed from the detritus of both land and sea, whose themes evoke the unremitting loss of habitat and livelihood.  

And the conceptual ribbon running through each work is the sustained documentation of mark-making.   As such Slingsby is as much an author and concrete poet as he is a visual artist. His art provide the interface between the textual, textural and terrestrial, articulating the intractable polarities of system and anarchy, wounding and healing; splintering and restoring.

So, between bleeding carcasses and suppurating stumps, crawls the scarab or dung beetle – the rhinoceros of the insect world and an ancient symbol of rebirth or redemption. And among the hacked down forests and eroded soil, grows the ancient Baobab, providing an ecosystem, through the millennia, for species large and small.

‘Money and God in his pocket’, therefore, provides an unflinching warning that our acts carry liabilities transcending our own lifetime. It constitutes an appeal to nurture our finite natural capital and maintain a trans-temporal responsibility – one that is cognizant of the consequences of our indelible planetary footprint.

… And as confounded as our cyber-archaeologist might be in trying to sort through the rubble of a self-imploded planet,  he or she will take succour from Slingsby’s research: that from the debris scattered by the catastrophes of historical consequence, some sense was found and with it, the possibility of change..

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  UPDATED 2nd July 2016