On the eve of her solo show, The Rest is Memory, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Pippa Hetherington (b. 1971) to talk about her work, her influences and the curation of this exhibition.
Ronnie Yang: Can you tell us a bit about yourself personally and artistically?
Pippa Hetherington: Prior to coming to New York, I was working as a photojournalist and communications specialist with a focus on human rights based in Cape Town, South Africa.
RY: How did you decide on the ICP-Bard MFA program?
PH: I was at a crossroads in my life and started questioning my own career, in particular, what it was about photography I was really drawn to. I had originally enrolled in a Masters of Documentary Arts program in Cape Town, but while coming through New York during my travels, I found out about the ICP-Bard program and felt it was much more aligned to what I was searching for.
RY: Tell us about the title of the show, The Rest is Memoryand its significance?
PH: The title is taken from the last line of the poem, Nostos by the American poet Louise Gluck. The word Nostos originates from Greek literature about an epic hero returning home by sea and about retaining his identity upon arrival. The homecoming and identity element of Nostos is what resonates with me, not so much the heroism.
Living a dual life as a mother, wife and photojournalist in South Africa and then becoming an art student in New York, has been like living in a parallel universe. It’s been very important to retain my identity throughout this experience, as well as, questioning what my role in the world is.
RY: What informs your work?
PH: My work deals a lot with memory and remembrance, heritage and history, and identity. Memory is such an interesting phenomenon. What happens between the time you experience something to the time it becomes a memory is a bit like the process of making a photograph. We all remember things differently; we all see things differently.
RY: Could you talk a little bit about your processes?
PH: I’m deeply in my element when I’m out in the field shooting, as in out of the studio. But I have equally started enjoying working with my hands in the studio. When I am shooting, I wait until I feel connected to what I’m shooting. Then something is ignited. There is something ancient about the experience and there is something newly born about the experience, something I lose myself in. It is when these two states collide that I know something has happened enough for me to take back to the studio to work with. Recently I have been embroidering into my work. It brings me into a present space; it gives me gravity.
RY: Could you tell us about your background as a journalist and how that influences your work?
PH: I guess my journalism stems from being fascinated by other people’s stories. I love the stories behind the portraits. I love the stories embedded into the landscapes.
Prior to the program, my work would rely heavily on text to narrate the image. What I’ve done since coming here is to try and let the image speak for itself. I can tell the stories, but I would prefer that people connect with the image for their own reasons, not because I am telling them how to connect.
RY: How does your work fit into a larger cultural and political context?
PH: My work doesn’t overtly tackle politics, but I don’t pretend politics haven’t shaped what I live with, my existence. Referencing of apartheid will happen either by me, the audience or the nature of the photograph. It’s impossible to disentangle myself from our country’s history. It is not intentional. I just simply can’t extract myself, I’m part of it. So, it’s not just about my own loss, but also coming from a country where there has been a tremendous amount of suffering and coping with that loss.
RY: Home and homeland manifest itself in your work. How has your experience in New York influenced your work?
PH: Distance and travel give you perspective. South African history is very violent and fractured. But it’s been a fascinating time to be in the States. I’ve been aware of the toxic climate here and people’s pain has been visceral and acute. It puts perspective on the complexities at home and makes me aware that there are difficulties everywhere. It has allowed me to appreciate the role of human rights even more.
RY: What about the textile pieces? What drew you to making these?
PH: During this program, we are encouraged to look at different materials and the choices we make around these materials. I had to question why I worked with fabric. I have been heavily influenced by a group of Xhosa matriarchs from a remote rural village in the Eastern Cape in South Africa. These women are embroiderers, story tellers and work with their hands. My work with them and hearing their stories compelled me to want to work with my hands in a way that made me feel close to them.
I also work with thread and fabric to connect myself materially to those I’ve lost, bonding me to past and present.
RY: Is this related to the fabric pieces regarding family?
PH: For example, one of the pieces is a glass box with a photograph of my father I took a few weeks before he died. He is wearing a quilt over his knees made from fabric that I printed of some of my photographs of trees. It was only when we questioned the use of materiality that I made the connection. I remembered the quilt I made for my dad and the photo.
RY: How do you want your work to develop?
PH: It’s often been said that a photograph is a death. I like to believe that a photograph is the beginning of something. It is an untold story. Instead of seeing it as a death, I’d rather see it as a foretelling of something to come and stories we don’t know yet. I am also very excited about continuing my work with fabric and embroidery. I think it is another way of telling a story without words.
RY: This is a very thoughtful and cohesive body of work. It is a wonderful curation of images and pieces that epitomize you and your touchstones.
PH: Thank you
Pippa Hetherington’s show – The Rest is Memory is on view from February 8-10, 12-6pm or by appointment at the ICP-Bard MFA studios in Long Island City
Opening Reception: Thursday, February 7, 6-9pm
24-20 Jackson Avenue – 3rdFloor, Long Island City, NY