Quality is the first norm for art, but its final norm is love and truth, the enriching of human life, the deepening of our vision.


Benjamin, Zak - VM - Erna Buber-deVilliers

Oogsalf by Zak Benjamin
That we may see
by Erna Buber-deVilliers
OOGSALF - OM TE KAN SIEN - OPENBARING 3:18 – thus reads the label of the Marmite bottle that seems to sit on the frame of the painting, as if on a shelf between the viewer and what is behind it. Translated from Afrikaans the label reads: “Eye Ointment - to be able to see – Revelation 3:18.” The verse in question is part of a message the Apostle John was commanded to relay to the seventh of seven churches:
“These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the prime source of all God’s Creation: I know all your ways; you are neither hot nor cold! But because you are lukewarm, neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. You say: ‘How rich I am! And how well I have done! I have everything I want.’ In fact, though you do not know it, you are the most pitiful wretch, poor, blind and naked. So I advise you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, to make you truly rich, and white clothes to put on to hide the shame of your nakedness, and ointment for your eyes so that you may see.”
Marmite is not eye ointment – it is salty, sticky black stuff you spread on squares of buttered toast and have for breakfast. Is the artist joking? I don’t think so. I gaze into the eyes of the dignified elderly man, dressed in the uniform worn by the black South African “soldiers” of WW II. They were not allowed to carry arms, I remember. They were support personnel. They were allowed to carry stretchers and collect wounded men from the battlefields, and they were allowed to die doing it. Some of them got medals, like this man. All of those who survived got a bicycle and a Sam Browne belt after the war, from a grateful government. (Not the Apartheid government. That had not yet been voted into power.)
I cannot read this man’s expression. He is looking right into my eyes, but I cannot see what he is thinking… If  I could see the world through his black eyes, would I understand him better? And suddenly, there’s the connection: black eye-salve, black eyes!
Further back in the picture there’s a mysterious supplicant, garbed in black, holding an empty tin bowl. She has no face. There’s just a deep black shadow within the “kappie” on her bowed head. She’s dressed like a Boer woman, a Voortrekker, those intrepid ancestors of mine who trekked over mountains into the African interior in ox wagons and had a child every two years, until they died in childbirth. This woman looks as if she could be pregnant, but pregnant with what? And why are her clothes all black? Is she in mourning? I remember the words of  Jesus from his Sermon on the Mount: “How blest are the sorrowful; they shall find consolation. How blest are those who hunger and thirst to see right prevail; they shall be satisfied.”
The façade of a strange edifice seems to press the two figures up against the picture plane. They are constrained within the confines of a narrow stage, with the bottle of Marmite between them. The patterns that decorate the building are reminiscent of the traditional monochromatic Sotho style, but the gable with its round fanlight is vaguely Cape-Dutch. Will a door open in this blank wall, so that both can go in and live together? Two mielie plants – maize is the staple of Southern Africa – flank the foreground like two spears, and behind the flat backdrop, the signs of the industrial era rise up into a lowering, reddish sky. Dawn or sunset? Which will it be? Will we apply the eye-salve and see one another?
Zak Benjamin: Oogsalf (Eye Ointment), 1996, approx. 67 x 82 cm, acrylic on board.
Zak Benjamin: Zak Benjamin, born Izak Benjamin de Villiers in 1951, is a South African painter and printmaker. For more about him and his work, visit   
Erna Buber-deVilliers: Erna Buber-deVilliers is a retired high school art teacher and is married to artist Zak Benjamin.
Biblical quotes: Revelation 3:14-18 & Matthew 5:4 and 6 from The New English Bible, Oxford University Press & Cambridge University Press, 1970.
ArtWay Visual Meditation August 22, 2010