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Ceramic Sculptures by Wilma Cruise: Fragments and Feminist Transgressions

Brenda Schmahmann



The author suggests that the fragments of bodies in Wilma Cruise’s The Nurse of the Mad (2000) and Hysteria Suspended (2001) are sites of resistance and transgression. She argues that Cruise’s works do not lend themselves to the possessive form of viewing that Norman Bryson associated with the ‘gaze’, and instead encourage the episodic form of looking he associated with the ‘glance’. The author also examines Cruise’s use of the theme of hysteria, indicating that it asserts female subjectivity. Finally, she suggests that the surfaces of Cruise’s fragments defy an understanding of skin as a definitive boundary to the body, and that this is tied to a subversion of social rules and regulatory principles.

The Nurse of the Mad (2000) (fig. 1) is a work by the South African ceramic sculptor, Wilma Cruise.1 Consisting of two torsos, each propped on its own chair, the reference to maternity invoked by the work’s title is reinforced through its form. Like wooden Russian Matreshka dolls which nest inside one another to represent different generations, the larger torso here is clearly the ‘mother’ while the smaller is the ‘daughter’. In this instance, however, one form has been quite literally birthed by the other: Cruise used the larger torso to make a mould for the smaller torso. If The Nurse of the Mad invokes reference to the pragmatics of casting, the theme of maternity in the work is also used to convey the idea that making art involves pain. Bolts mark the umbilicus and pudendum of the larger figure, suggesting that giving birth to concept, idea, or form requires a wrench to the womb.


While the body had formed the subject matter for paintings and drawings that Cruise produced in the 1960s, it became her specific focus only in 1990, when she first began making life-sized ceramic figures. The first of these, There is No Father (fig. 2), is armless, and the partial figure has featured frequently in her art since then. However, an impetus to not simply crop the arms of a figure, for example, but instead to focus specifically on only a small section of the body would seem to date from 1995, when Cruise showed Fractures (fig. 3), an installation of fragments of the female torso, at the First Johannesburg Biennale. This installation provided a precedent for The Nurse of the Mad as well as Hysteria Suspended, made in 2001, the two works that are the focus of my attention in this paper.


Apart from focusing on the body, many of Cruise’s works made since 1990 have been directed toward examining female experience as well as engaging with and upsetting conventions and norms that have featured historically in Western images of the female body. Born in 1945, Cruise is, Marion Arnold notes, conscious that she belongs

to a generation of South African women whose identities were acquired in a conservative patriarchy, and who now have to recognise conflicts between self-awareness and social expectations.2

I will suggest that The Nurse of the Mad and Hysteria Suspended are key examples of this consciousness and recognition, and that Cruise’s treatment of the fragment in these works serves a feminist purpose. In diametric opposition to a tradition of representing the female as a passive object of desire, Cruise constructs the female as a desiring subject. Refusing to be amenable to a possessive gaze, the fragments of bodies she depicts become instead sites of resistance and transgression.

Cruise’s sculptures are often displayed as installations, and, as Arnold notes, the various works she includes in a solo show will normally be set up in dialogue with one another.3 Furthermore, she often displays her works in conjunction with poetry or written phrases. When she exhibited The Nurse of the Mad at the Millennium Gallery in Pretoria in 2001, for example, Cruise printed passages of a poem she had written in 1996 (as well as passages lifted from some of her other writings) on strips of paper which were attached to the wall behind the chairs. The poem featured the words ‘The Nurse of the Mad’ 4 that Cruise had chosen for the title of the work:

The Nurse of the Mad is dead
alone/lonely/in loneliness
she gave birth
she was mid wife and mother
all is spent now.

Julia Kristeva saw transgressive or radical creative activity as a resistance against the logical and easily readable, and occurring at those moments when, as Elizabeth Grosz states succinctly, ‘the semiotic overflows its Symbolic containment’.5 The ribbons of text shown in conjunction with The Nurse of the Mad complied with this idea. A tangle of alliteration and cadences, they seemed somehow markers of desires and needs struggling to find expression within, but also simultaneously rebelling against, the rules of language.

Defying the ‘gaze’

While the torsos in The Nurse of the Mad are evocative of antique fragments, they are in ironical contrast with classicist renditions of the human body. Gravity-bound, indeed clumsily corporeal, they seem not only renditions of parts of the body, but also samples of raw matter: the ‘daughter’, for example, is almost dough-like. What one in fact finds here is not simply an emphasis on the materiality of the forms but, in addition, an insistence that they are somehow mutable, indefinite, and still in the process of being constituted into objects. Images of the body that are implied to be forms in process or in states of becoming and that convey a sense of their own materiality are likely to be viewed rather differently from those that are implied to be complete and which blot out signs of their making. Of importance in this regard are theories about the ‘gaze’ – ideas that were initially developed outside the discipline of art history.

In her essay ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, first published in 1975, Laura Mulvey argued that visual conventions that construct the female body as an object of pleasurable scrutiny do so by obfuscating the workings of the medium itself.6 In her analysis of Hollywood films Mulvey uses psychoanalytical theory, most particularly the writings of Freud and Lacan, to suggest ways in which the conventions of mainstream films are structured to facilitate the workings of the gaze. According to Mulvey, a woman in patriarchal society connotes ‘to-be-looked-at-ness’, and she evokes pleasure for the spectator of the film by becoming an object of both voyeuristic and fetishistic scrutiny.7 For Mulvey, the attainment of this pleasure occurs through a blotting out of any sense of the workings of the medium itself; it is dependent on an elimination of signs of the production process that would interrupt the illusion. She points to the ways in which an effacement of the camera’s presence has the effect of dispelling a sense of the passage of time prior to the viewing moment.8 The film is implied to emerge fully formed rather than being subject to a process of decision-making and exploration.

Mulvey’s work provided a precedent for arguments about viewing via the ‘gaze’ versus the ‘glance’ which Norman Bryson developed in his book Vision and Painting: the Logic of the Gaze, published in 1983.9 While Bryson’s focus is on paintings and drawings rather than sculpture, his ideas provide a useful theoretical tool for understanding the transgressions manifest in Cruise’s treatment of the fragment. According to Bryson, paintings or drawings which expose transitions and shifts that have occurred during the production process encourage viewing via the ‘glance’. The glance, he argues,

addresses vision in the durational temporality of the viewing subject; it does not seek to bracket out the process of viewing, nor in its own techniques does it exclude the traces of the body in labour.10

In contrast, works that obliterate signs of the production process – which, for example, use pigment to erase evidence of changes in the work – invite access via the gaze. For Bryson, this leaning toward an elimination of signs of process is pronounced in the Western art-making tradition, and it results in works that encourage a ‘synchronic instant of viewing which will eclipse the body, and the glance, in an infinitely extended Gaze of the image as pure idea’.11

The fragments of female bodies that Cruise represents in The Nurse of the Mad resist the controlled and possessive form of viewing that Bryson associated with the ‘gaze’, and instead encourage the more episodic and erratic form of looking he associated with the ‘glance’. If the work alludes to creativity by invoking the metaphor of birth, its two torsos reveal explicitly that one has been produced from the other: the ‘mother’ is not simply a torso but also a mould for the ‘daughter’. Also, the modulations on the surface of this torso assert the fact that it is a handmade object and the product of the ‘labour’ of the artist, while the torso of the ‘daughter’, likewise, speaks directly of the material substance, the matter, from which it is made. Hence rather than operating as mimetic renditions of bodies that blot out traces of the processes by which they were constituted, they encourage the viewer to recognize that they are constructed objects and to trace their making over time. In a sense, Cruise’s exposure and emphasis on process and materials functions as a sculptural parallel to what Mulvey termed the ‘intrusive camera presence’ 12 which Hollywood cinema seeks to eliminate in the interests of retaining the pre-eminence of a mastering gaze.

Hysteria and transgression

A year after making The Nurse of the Mad, Cruise produced another work that included fragments of the female body. The three torsos in Hysteria Suspended (fig. 4) are attached to wire via metal hooks, enabling them to be suspended from the ceiling, and the title of the work actually refers rather less to a pause in the hysteric process than to a quite literal suspension of bodies in poses associated with hysteria. When exhibited in the Millennium Gallery in 2001 the figures were hung over a large table that had been placed in the centre of the space, and statements about hysteria were handwritten in chalk on the surrounding black walls. The work was also extended to include a series of drawings, made at the same time as the sculpture, based on Cruise’s studies of her own face.13


The torsos are composed of body casts. But rather than being cast off a single sitter, each is a composite of two different bodies. While their backs were formed from body casts of a young woman, their fronts were made of casts taken off a middle-aged sitter, and the artist notes that she ‘took these two casts and pummelled them to fit each other’.14 In addition to enacting movements associated with hysteria, their lack of coherence conveys a sense that these are bodies in states of disunity, disjuncture, and unease.

A specifically female malady, the word ‘hysteria’ comes from the Greek word hysteros, which means ‘womb’.15 Argued to be a neurological disease by the nineteenth-century doctor, Charcot, it was redefined as a psychological illness by Freud, who believed that its cause was sexual disturbance. Despite all the efforts of Charcot and Freud, however, hysteria eluded definitive explanation, and it was eliminated from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1952.16 Although no longer a recognized clinical disorder, hysteria is of interest to a number of contemporary women artists who, in their re-examinations of the condition, find in it an assertion of female subjectivity. Instead of viewing the (female) hysteric as victim of a pathology that awaits discovery and articulation by the (male) clinician, feminist artists have found in her enactments the expression of rebellion against patriarchy.

Penny Siopis is a well-known South African artist who has worked with the theme of hysteria.17 She spent seven months in Paris in 1986 and during this period became fascinated by Dora (Ida Bauer), a hysteric whom Freud had analysed. In her pastel drawing Dora and the Other Woman of 1988 (fig. 5) Siopis cast herself in the role of Dora (or Ida Bauer), and, in keeping with feminists who re-read Dora’s case, Siopis found in the hysteria of Freud’s famous patient the visualization of resistance and rebellion against patriarchy, and the expression of what she termed ‘dis-ease’ rather than ‘disease’.18


The ‘Other Woman’ in the title of the work is on one level a reference to the ways in which hysteria was presented as a symptom of the ‘otherness’ of woman in ‘scientific’ studies of the disorder. Simultaneously, however, it refers to Sarah Baartman, a Khoisan woman shipped from South Africa to Europe in 1810, toured as a sideshow spectacle in England and France, and whose body was dissected by the French anatomist, Cuvier, after her premature death on 1 January 1816.19 In Siopis’s drawing, various caricatures of Baartman that appeared in the popular press in England and France are pinned to Dora’s drape or scattered on the floor. Fascinating to Europeans because she manifested the condition of steatopygea (enlarged buttocks) and because of the formation of her genitals known as the ‘Hottentot apron’ or tablier, Baartman could be likened to Dora: if nineteenth-century Europeans interpreted Baartman’s physiognomy as a sign of her primitive sexuality, they viewed Dora’s hysteria as a marker of dark primal urges awaiting discovery by the intrepid explorer/scientist. As Siopis says, ‘Freud’s comment about female sexuality being “the dark continent” of psychology connects Dora and Saartjie [Sarah].’ 20

When Wilma Cruise made her first freestanding figure in 1990, she paid homage to Siopis’s pastel work from two years earlier.21 In Venus after Dora (fig. 6) Cruise too has made a self-portrait in which she takes on the identity of the hysteric. Also, as in Siopis’s drawing, she relates Dora to Sarah Baartman – in this instance combining both targets of ‘othering’ in a single figure. Venus after Dora in turn provided a precedent for Hysteria Suspended, made over a decade later: Venus after Dora invokes the theme of hysteria and does so through a partial figure (while the figure has arms, the legs and pudendum are simply drawn on the darkened block of clay that stands in for legs). More particularly, Cruise has here – as in Hysteria Suspended – conflated separate bodies in a single torso.

A further important precedent for Hysteria Suspended was a large-scale installation by the American-born artist, Mary Kelly. Kelly’s Interim (1984-9), which consists of multiple components, includes in its first section – entitled ‘Corpus’ – fifteen photographs of items of clothing alongside handwritten scripts that are suspended in plexiglass.22 Organized into five sets, each photograph is labelled with a term Charcot had devised to describe a passionate attitude adopted by a female subject during hysteria. In terms of its overall theme, Interim explores a crisis of identity experienced by post-menopausal women. As Margaret Iversen observes:

In our culture, the female body is supposed to pass from a state of virginal girlhood to one of mature, maternal femininity. These clearly articulated positions are followed by one that has no name and apparently no use. While an excess of discourse surrounds the young woman and the mother, the ‘middle-aged’ woman is excluded from discourse – unspoken, invisible, uneasy.23

The refusal of the post-menopausal woman to accept this exclusion from discourse is interpreted by Kelly as a form of hysterical enactment. The older woman, Iverson notes, ‘makes muffled protests with her body analogous to the symptoms of hysteria’.24

In Hysteria Suspended Cruise is also commenting on the condition of the post-menopausal woman specifically, and the bodily gestures she represents, like those Kelly invoked in Interim, could be interpreted as signifiers of the older woman’s refusal to become unspoken and invisible. Furthermore, Cruise’s uncomfortable conjunction of casts taken from the bodies of both a youthful and a middle-aged sitter suggests that, in the absence of alternatives, the subject endeavours to define herself in terms of a series of discourses surrounding a much younger woman. These refuse to ‘fit’, however, and the subject’s hysterical body exposes this lack of identification.

Contesting boundaries – asserting materiality

But Cruise’s work contrasts with Kelly’s in a significant way. Rather than being represented directly, the body in the component of Kelly’s installation entitled ‘Corpus’ is invoked via clothes that have been photographed in postures evocative of the emotional states of their absent wearers. For Kelly, avoidance of any direct representation of the female body is a necessary mechanism for disturbing a form of looking based on voyeuristic or fetishistic drives. For Cruise, however, resistance is manifest not through the exclusion of the body, but instead through a disruption of visual conventions that have worked to manage the female form and make it amenable to possessive scrutiny.

As in The Nurse of the Mad, the fragments of bodies included in Hysteria Suspended may remind the viewer of remnants of idealized figures that were made in ancient Greece. In Hysteria Suspended, however, the female torsos are strung up in the manner of carcasses of beef in an abattoir – an association suggested through their reddened, seemingly ‘bloody’ hue. Furthermore, in contrast to figures from classical and Hellenistic Greece, Cruise’s treatment of the surfaces of her fragments defies an understanding of skin as a definitive boundary to the body. What appear to be slashes or wounds to flesh create a sense that the bodies she represents are ‘seeping’ and inchoate.

Complicating an understanding of the boundaries of the body is a transgressive strategy. For the anthropologist Mary Douglas ‘all margins are dangerous’,25 and this is the reason for taboos on matter issuing from the orifices of the body, such as urine or blood. In her book Purity and Danger, first published in 1966, she argued that prohibitions against marginal matter cannot be explained as the outcome of a horror of dirt and contagion per se, but rather in terms of their potential threat to social structures to which the body is intrinsically linked. As she says,

The mistake is to treat bodily margins in isolation from other margins. There is no reason to assume any primacy for the individual’s attitude to his own bodily and emotional experience, any more than for his cultural and social experience.26

Douglas’s work provided an underpinning for Julia Kristeva’s ‘Powers of Horror: an Essay on Abjection’, translated into English in 1982,27 which has exerted a powerful influence on contemporary artists. In keeping with Douglas’s interpretation, the abject is not taboo simply because it is dirty but rather because it is intricately tied to a subversion of social rules and regulatory principles. As Kristeva says, abjection is that which ‘disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite’.28

Interpreted in this light Cruise’s fragmented bodies are ‘abject’ not only in the popular sense of the word – that is, ‘debased’ or ‘suffering’ – but also in the sense that they defy the imposition of a system of order on the body. One might argue that the figures she depicts are in a condition of rebellion, and they work to challenge not merely norms concerning proper bodily management, but also, by implication, the social structures and belief systems that underpin those norms.

As in The Nurse of the Mad, Cruise’s treatment of fragments in Hysteria Suspended sets up a resistance to a possessive form of looking that Bryson associated with the gaze. The textured surfaces of the torsos in the work provide traces of their construction over time. The viewer notices, for example, various crevices and ridges that are the outcome of the two sections of the cast being forcibly joined. The eye does not glide over each torso, but is diverted by the various modulations, discolouring, and fractures on its surface. These ruptures prevent each torso from being perceived as a composite whole, and details of the represented bodies are instead grasped in instalments. Hence, rather than lending itself to sustained scrutiny, Hysteria Suspended encourages a process of viewing which is episodic and fragmented. Furthermore, those aspects of the torsos that encourage them to be viewed episodically also emphasize the fact that they are the product of the act of representation: here, as in The Nurse of the Mad, the making process is foregrounded rather than blotted out.


In The Nurse of the Mad and Hysteria Suspended Cruise explores the ways in which transgressions and rebellions might write themselves on, or speak through, the female body. I have invoked Bryson’s ideas to suggest that Cruise’s works resist a process of looking that is possessive and controlling; instead, by encouraging the viewer to recognize that her works are the product of labour, they invite a form of viewing that is episodic. I have also suggested that, in addition to representing fragments and in this sense implicitly ‘dismembering’ her figures, Cruise often defies an understanding of skin as a definitive boundary for the body. If examined in terms of the ideas of Douglas and Kristeva, this violation of the boundaries of the body might be understood to be intricately linked to a questioning of social boundaries, social norms. Whether they invoke the maternal or the hysterical body, the female torsos that Cruise represents defy a tradition of refusing women subjectivity.

Brenda Schmahmann is Professor and Head of the Fine Art Department at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa.


  1. Wilma Cruise completed a BA degree at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg in 1969. She studied ceramic science at the Witwatersrand Technical College in Johannesburg in 1984 and 1985, before graduating with BA (fine arts) and Master of Fine Arts degrees from the University of South Africa in Pretoria. A prolific sculptor who has had a number of solo exhibitions, she is also the co-author (with Doreen Hemp) of Contemporary Ceramics in South Africa, Cape Town, Struik Winchester, 1991. back to text
  2. Marion Arnold, Women and Art in South Africa, Cape Town and Johannesburg, David Philip Press, 1996, p.11. back to text
  3. Arnold, Women and Art, p. 11. back to text
  4. In unpublished e-mail correspondence with me conducted in 2001, Cruise commented on her choice of ‘The Nurse of the Mad’ for the title of the work: ‘I saw the phrase when I was trawling through some books in 1995/6. The books, I think, belonged to my friend Regi Bardavid and they were probably on some arcane new age subject – I can’t really remember.’ back to text
  5. Elizabeth Grosz, ‘Kristeva, Julia’, in Elizabeth Wright (ed), Feminism and Psychoanalysis, Oxford and Cambridge, Blackwell Publishers, 1992, p.197. back to text
  6. Laura Mulvey, ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, in Visual and Other Pleasures, London, Macmillan, 1989, pp.14-26. First published in Screen, vol.16, no.3, autumn 1975, pp.6-18. back to text
  7. Mulvey, ‘Visual Pleasure’, suggests that voyeurism, which involves a sadistic affirmation of the depicted woman’s powerlessness, subjugation, and otherness, is deployed through the workings of the film’s narrative, and encourages a collusion between the male protagonist and the spectator. Fetishism, in contrast, exists in the framing of the woman’s body as a spectacle through such devices as fragmentation and a limitation of the spatial field. Rather than relying on the mechanics of the narrative and the activities of the male protagonist to convey a sense of the represented body as an object for erotic contemplation, fetishism involves a direct engagement between the spectator and the displayed female form. back to text
  8. Mulvey, ‘Visual Pleasure’, p. 25, explains this as follows: ‘There are three different looks associated with the cinema: that of the camera as it records the pro-filmic event, that of the audience as it watches the final product, and that of the characters at each other within the screen illusion. The conventions of narrative film deny the first two and subordinate them to the third, the conscious aim being always to eliminate intrusive camera presence and prevent a distancing awareness of the audience.’ back to text
  9. Norman Bryson, Vision and Painting: the Logic of the Gaze, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1983. back to text
  10. Bryson, Vision and Painting, p.94. back to text
  11. Bryson, Vision and Painting, p.94. back to text
  12. Mulvey, ‘Visual Pleasure’, p.25. back to text
  13. Cruise’s drawings invoke reference to the ideas of Sigmund Freud. Freud studied with Charcot in Paris but developed his theory of hysteria in opposition to Charcot’s, arguing that it was a psychological rather than a neurological disease and one that spoke of sexual disturbance. (His approach also shifted from analysis of its visual manifestations to the act of listening.) In her drawings Cruise has downplayed specific signs of her femaleness – perhaps providing a type of ironic engagement with the idea that the hysteric is unable to come to terms with her sexuality. This possible reading would be encouraged through the Freudian explanation for hysteria that Cruise wrote on one of the walls of the room in which Hysteria Suspended and its accompanying drawings were shown: ‘HYSTERIA: physical symptoms of suppressed psychological conflict usually of a sexual nature . . . ’ back to text
  14. Unpublished e-mail correspondence, 2001. back to text
  15. Ellie Ragland-Sullivan, ‘Hysteria’, in Elizabeth Wright, Feminism and Psychoanalysis, Oxford and Cambridge, Blackwell Publishers, 1992, p.163.back to text
  16. Jo Anna Isaak, Feminism and Contemporary Art: the Revolutionary Power of Women’s Laughter, London and New York, Routledge, 1996, p.192. back to text
  17. I discuss Siopis’s use of the theme of hysteria in Brenda Schmahmann, Through the Looking Glass: Representations of Self by South African Women Artists, Johannesburg, David Krut Publishing, 2004, and Brenda Schmahmann, ‘Representing Regulation – Rendering Resistance: Female Bodies in the Art of Penny Siopis’, in Marion Arnold and Brenda Schmahmann (eds.), Between Union and Liberation: Women Artists in South Africa, 1910-1994, Aldershot, Ashgate, 2005. back to text
  18. Penny Siopis, unpublished notes that the artist supplied as reference material for Sue Williamson, Resistance Art in South Africa, Cape Town, David Philip, 1989. back to text
  19. Cuvier produced moulds of components of Baartman’s body that were stored in the Musée de l’Homme in Paris. back to text
  20. Siopis, unpublished notes for Williamson, Resistance Art. Baartman’s remains were returned to South Africa in May 2002, and ceremonially buried in Hankey in the Eastern Cape on 9 August 2002. During the official celebrations in May, Baartman was mostly identified as ‘Saartjie’, but she was called ‘Sarah’ (the name recorded on her certificate when she was baptized in Manchester in 1811) in speeches made at the August ceremony. The name ‘Saartjie’ includes the diminutive ‘jie’ which is considered inappropriate for a woman who has emerged as an icon for South Africans seeking to remedy the injustices of colonialism and apartheid. back to text
  21. Cruise described the work as a ‘homage’ to Siopis’s Dora and the Other Woman in Wilma Cruise, ‘Artist as Subject: Subject as Object’, unpublished MFA dissertation, Pretoria, University of South Africa, 1997, p.31. back to text
  22. Good quality reproductions of the work can be found in Margaret Iversen, Douglas Crimp and Homi K. Bhabha, Mary Kelly, London, Phaidon Press, 1997. back to text
  23. Margaret Iversen, ‘Visualising the Unconscious: Mary Kelly’s Installations’, in Iversen, Crimp and Bhabha, Mary Kelly, p.52. back to text
  24. Iversen, ‘Visualising the Unconscious’, p.52. back to text
  25. Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger, London and New York, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 2002, p. 150. First published in 1966. back to text
  26. Douglas, Purity and Danger, p.150. back to text
  27. Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: an Essay on Abjection, trans. Leon S. Roudiez, New York, Columbia University Press, 1982. Published in French in 1980. back to text
  28. Kristeva, Powers of Horror, p.4. back to text

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Ceramic Sculptures by Wilma Cruise • Issue 8