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Benjamin, Zak - VM - Gert Swart

Zak Benjamin: Locomotive

Revisioning Zak Benjamin on the Approach of his 70th Birthday

by Gert Swart

Imagination is everything. It is the preview of life’s coming attractions.
Albert Einstein

My wife, Istine, and I have had the pleasure of being the custodians of Zak’s imaginative Locomotive painting for the past 20 years. I’ll never forget the memorable occasion – although bittersweet – when we saw the painting for the first time. It happened while visiting Zak and his wife, Erna, in Three Rivers, Gauteng, South Africa in December 2000.

The “bitter” aspect of our visit was to see how the progressive nature of Parkinson’s disease, with which Zak had been diagnosed, had begun to hinder his physical movement. However, as if to counter this, on an easel in Zak’s studio was his recently completed Locomotive painting that simply delighted us. 

When reflecting on Locomotive it must be taken into consideration that it was painted on the eve of Zak’s 50th birth year, while it also was the year that ushered in the 21st century ‒ two significant thresholds for which Zak seemed to muster his artistic prowess to negotiate. All of this is encapsulated in the etymology of locomotive as it is derived from medieval Latin in loco moveri, which means “move by change of position.” This conjures up the notion of shape-shifting and over the years of meditating on Zak’s Locomotive painting I’ve come to understand a little of how he accomplished his remarkable ability to “move by change of position.”

In the foreground of the painting there is an odd square-like container tilted towards the viewer. The container has a globule of water in it that defies the natural laws of physics, as the water neither takes the shape of the container nor does it flow out. This beguiling globule of water flattens its surface, enabling anyone with narcissistic tendencies to see their reflection in it. But Zak emphatically negates this by painting the universal symbol of water across its surface three times, one above the other, as if intoning the Christian baptismal ritual: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. In so doing he is not only obscuring the vision of any self-seeking narcissist but is also implying that to “move by change of position” necessitates a dying to self that is the first stage of a spiritual transformation.

Curiously, by some stretch of the imagination, Zak does seem to concede to the Narcissus myth as there are four flowers strewn around the container (Narcissus, after a life of gazing at his reflection in water, turned into a flower characterized by six petals that was named after him). However, on closer inspection ‒ and this is where it becomes bizarre ‒ only one of the flowers has the 6 petals of the narcissus flower, whereas the other three flowers have 5 petals each, perhaps signifying their immaturity/inferiority. The sum of the petals equals 21 (21st century)! Sadly, the prevalence of narcissism in our times has brought about the fallacious coming of age of the “Kingdom of Self” that is diametrically opposed to what should have been the natural outworking of Anno Domini (A.D.) that denotes the years since the incarnation of Christ.

I’ve always been amused by Zak’s higgledy-piggledy notion of time peeping out from behind a cloud-curtain. For me this was Zak at his idiosyncratic best until, one day, I wondered what would happen if the cloud-curtain should fall. It would then become obvious that his portrayal of time has a prophetic dimension to it that threatens to disrupt, supernaturally, the normal flow of time, but to what end? I should imagine if eight signifies infinity/eternity, then eternity could be seen to be teetering ‒ unsure of its mooring in our earthly scheme of things ‒ between the Eleventh Hour and the nadir of Absolute Zero.

If Zak’s portrayal of time introduces another supernatural element into the painting, it then makes it easier to accept that the locomotive trundling out of the tunnel of transformation is the personification of Zak. He is not quite the Puffing Billy type (affectionate term for steam locomotive), as he is neither blowing off a head of steam created by a fire in his belly nor, by any stretch of the imagination, does he have a steel exoskeleton that can contain the essential functions of a steam engine. No, the phenomenal grandeur of this wobbling, jelly-baby-like rendition of a locomotive is not physical but spiritual, as it appears to be suffused with the blood of Christ.

The dragon is well aware of what’s going on and stands there aghast, gawking at its unlikely nemesis, while the hill quakes beneath it. The shock of this encounter has caused the dragon to instantaneously shed its feared “fire-water”, saturating the ground beneath it.

In conclusion, the slave bell will never again toll for Zak, as with his new found resolve to keep going forward he will not be a slave to his disability again. In blind faith he is about to cross a narrow bridge that spans an abyss. There are no railroad tracks!

For those of you who are wondering how Zak is now, given the progressive nature of Parkinson’s disease, I’m happy to report that in January 2008 Zak was one of the first in South Africa to undergo a medical procedure whereby electrodes were planted in his brain that have helped him enormously with his speech and mobility. This is nothing short of a miracle and bears testimony to Zak’s faith as expressed in his Locomotive painting. And if you look closely and carefully at the right hand side of the painting towards the bottom, Zak has embedded his signature and date of the painting in a strangely mysterious, sentinel-like figure, who seems to be overseeing all that is happening in the painting and beyond. This act of Zak's implies that he acknowledges that he is not the bedrock of his own life and that he is as one with this all seeing, all knowing presence.


Zak Benjamin: Locomotive, 2000, acrylic paint on board, 50 x 65cm.

Zak Benjamin: On the 24th September, 2017, a few days after his 66th birthday, Zak and his wife, Erna, moved from Three Rivers, Gauteng, South Africa to a small town called Steytlerville, Eastern Cape, South Africa in the middle of the Karoo desert, where he continues to make art. On social media he says this of his move: “My mind found space to rest in the Great Karoo. My work found what I had sought in Miro, Morandi and other artists: shapes for continuous interpretation.” Interestingly,  Zak finds himself sated in many ways in the “Karoo” – Karoo is derived from the Khoisan word meaning land of thirst, a far cry from Three Rivers where they used to stay.

Gert Swart lives with his wife, Istine, in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa and works as a sculptor. Zak Benjamin has been a good friend of his for over three decades. 

ArtWay Visual Meditation October 3, 2021