Under the Influence of … Paul Stopforth’s Biko painting called ‘Elegy’

Paul Stopforth (b. 1946) ‘Elegy’ (1980). Graphite and wax on paper on board: 149 x 240 cm. Courtesy Durban Art Gallery

In our weekly series, “Under the influence”, we ask experts to share what they believe are the most influential works of art in their field. Here, artist/academic/forensic practitioner Kathryn Smith explains why she believes Paul Stopforth’s “Elegy” (1980) is hugely influential.

“Elegy” is a postmortem portrait of South African Black Consciousness activist Stephen Bantu Biko (1946-1977) by Paul Stopforth (b. Johannesburg, 1945). It is executed in graphite powder painstakingly polished into layers of Cobra floor wax from which countless hair-fine excisions then excavate the figure from its ground.

Measuring 149 x 240 cm – near life-size – it hovers between drawing, photography, sculpture and painting, demonstrating kinship with all these media and yet claiming a singular materiality.

My relationship with the work

The work was completed in 1980, three years after Biko’s violent death in police custody. It was purchased by the Durban Art Gallery in 1981, where I first encountered it as a young child.

I have a distinct recollection of being drawn towards the surface of this phantom image. Of it filling my child-self’s visual field from above as I tried to make sense not of what, but how it was: it was obvious to me that whoever this man was, he was not asleep. And why did the light in the picture seem so off, seeping out from this body’s darkest parts like a photograph gone wrong?

As with the series of smaller, more fugitive drawings of Biko’s hands and feet that preceded this monumental study, “Elegy” was made with direct reference to the forensic photographs of his postmortem examination, given to Stopforth by the Biko family’s lawyer. There can be no doubt that it borrows from religious iconography, presenting Biko as a secular martyr (the clue is in the title).

Why it is/was influential

Art historian Shannen Hill suggested in her 2005 article “Iconic autopsy: postmortem portraits of Bantu Stephen Biko” (published in a special edition of the journal African Arts) that Stopforth’s graphic techniques “disrupt detached viewing”. Our experience is a kind of looking that is tactile, penetrative, what I would call a forensic gaze.

Forensic photographs embody a beguiling paradox: they perform as evidence, yet they are not self-evident. We demand that they act as arbiters of empirical data, while knowing they are technological constructions that require expert interlocution to reveal their truths.

“Elegy’s” impact on my childhood idea of what art could be – do even – was utterly formative, not least because it was through an embodied connection with an image that I later learned of the existence and significance of its subject.

“Elegy” could be said to represent the critical coordinates of my creative and intellectual life, which has been consistently involved with ideas of the body as image and as experience, evidence and affect, absence and presence.

My praxis is now bifurcated between my experimental (and perhaps even impolitic) interests as an artist, and my professional responsibilities as a forensic practitioner. It requires of me, among other things, to recreate convincing facial images for deceased or disappeared individuals who cannot be otherwise legally identified, in the hope that they might be.

This work feeds the tensions I perceive between conceptions of identity and technologies of identification, the revelatory and obfuscatory powers of archives, and the capacity of objects to be simultaneously loquacious and mute. So it is productive to think through “Elegy” as a sort of conceptual and ethical compass.

Did this image subconsciously navigate my earliest tussles with school teachers who insisted that my mutual inclination towards both visual art and forensic pathology was at worst impossible and at best, deeply conflicted? Did it silently guide me, many years later, from Durban to Johannesburg, and to the Wits Fine Arts department, where I would encounter an influential tutor who insisted the opposite, and who showed me how it could be so?

That tutor was Colin Richards (1954-2012). I would later discover that he’d had his own powerful encounters with images of Biko’s body, twice. The first was while working as a medical illustrator at Wits in the late 1970s. The second was as a deliberate confrontation with his perceived complicity in the administration of Biko’s death. The outcome he presented as the multi-part work, “Veils” (1996).

Colin Richards (1954-2012) - ‘Veils’ (1996). Mixed media. Courtesy of the author

Here Richards employs a representation of the Biblical “veil of Veronica”, a piece of cloth onto which the face of a suffering Christ was reportedly imprinted. As an analogue “print” made directly from a source, it is considered to be the first photograph. On his recrafted veils, Richards instead imprinted facsimiles of images of the cell in which Biko was tortured, and two macroscopic pathology photographs which do not identifiably belong to a specific body (yet they are Biko).

In an interview with Richards in 2004, he suggested to me that “Illustration is a hinge between the linguistic and the visual, and it can turn many ways”. This is particularly true of forensic images. Their simultaneous ability to be authoritative and obtuse is the source of their potency and fallibility.

Public memorialisation of the dead pivots on a core ethical decision: whether to respect personal privacy through maintaining anonymity, or to name. The dead cannot give informed consent. Publishing images of corpses is regarded as something which requires very careful management, lest such dissemination is seen to either objectify or profit from the deceased. Like public shaming, such exposure can turn many ways. And that line is thin indeed.

The figure in “Elegy” is not visually identifiable as Stephen Bantu Biko. This has two possible effects, neither of which are easy: sublimating his identity counts as yet another violation of the historical specificity of Biko as an individual. Protecting his identity could be considered a sensitive choice – a tactical dehumanisation, if you will.

Why it is still relevant

In many ways, “Elegy” tests the very limits of representational politics. After all, it’s yet another instance of a violated black man represented by his social and political opposite, an artist who embodies Apartheid’s privileged classes, specifically the white, patriarchal subject position it worked to strengthen and maintain.

Should this difficulty make us avert our gaze or even more seriously, reject the image? I cannot, because its effect on me now is as potent as it was three decades ago: the sharp, sour shock of touching your tongue on a battery.

Significant events are unlikely to rise to public consciousness without a visual record, and recent events in South Africa - such as the Marikana massacre where police killed 34 striking mineworkers - have demonstrated the extraordinary productive and destructive power of images. A direct response to the atrocities of its moment, “Elegy” reflects on political oppression, those tasked with propagating the abuse of state power and those set up to bear such abuse. It represents processes of concealment and revelation with very real social and political consequences.

Yet images like this are not stable; their significance is neither continuous nor equivalent. They are ciphers for what it means to be human and vulnerable within a social and political regime in which not all bodies are considered equal, and where a state under threat resorts to covert and fatal tactics.