Making time for ourselves for quiet self-reflection is something we all do from time to time. Being forced into isolation is a different experience altogether. Humans are social by nature. We have an innate need to relate our experiences with others, and fulfilling this need is crucial to our existence. It is then no wonder that the national lockdown at the beginning of 2020 had devastating effects on the psychological and emotional well-being of so many South Africans. It has long been known that long periods of isolation negatively affect psychological well-being in a variety of ways: higher levels of stress-hormones and blood pressure, an increased propensity toward depression, and an increased risk of suicide to name a few. Several South Africans during the national lockdown expressed feeling suicidal. And illustrating the result of this, Health Minister Zweli Mkhize revealed that nearly 1800 people in the country had committed suicide in the four months following the announcement of the lockdown in March 2020. Although there may be many reasons for this, loneliness from social isolation stands out in lieu of 2020.
The events of that year have taken their toll on many, myself included. The absence of human companionship lent itself to my growing fears. I can attest that the angst, feelings of misery, and health complications caused by isolation are not helped by bipolar disorder. I started to eat less and consume more alcohol than usual, despite the detrimental effects. My birthday approached, and with no sign of an end to the isolation, I began feeling much lonelier.As loneliness turned into depression, thoughts of suicide became more frequent. In the face of this, my dogs were my saving grace.
Dogs have long become attuned to communication with their owners. Our dogs’ ability to read human body language and expressions, and show us empathy, have been verified by several studies. The empathy that our beloved hounds show us when we are in pain attests to that. Pets have even been shown to delay suicidal actions by demanding the attention of their owners. In my own experience, even when deeply depressed and unproductive, needing to care for my pets regularly brought me back to the present.
In Loving Memory of Loekie, and all the others includes 28 pen sketched portraits of all the loving dogs that have protected and supported me from childhood to adulthood. A white shelf containing chewed shoes is symbolic of my dog Jack’s love for me. Shoes frequently offer comfort to our dogs as they smell distinctly of their owner. The act of mastication adds to this. A natural, instinctive way for dogs to discharge stress, when dogs masticate their brains release endorphins, leaving them feeling happier. The exhibition includes a stop-frame animation of 2613 frames exhibited in a life size cubicle which can only be occupied by one person per viewing. This functions as a device meant to emulate the isolation I experienced during lockdown.The animation’s title is Diaphragms. In a symbolic sense, I came to the realise that my dogs function as my diaphragm – whenever I am too weak to take a ‘breath’, they create a vacuum effect that pulls the air right back into my lungs. The animation presents life-threatening scenarios through which my canines continuously rescue me. One particular canine, named Loekie, appears frequently to save me. Each event symbolises a potential tragedy and, in the artwork, it becomes evident that the canines not only act as best friends but also as a critical component of my mental stability and recovery from loneliness induced trauma.
The title of the exhibition is dedicated to my canine friend Loekie who sadly passed away after the lockdown. He stayed alive to protect me and after I was once again safe, he took his final breath. He served me for eleven years as protector and mental compass. The exhibition includes his shrine in a small-scale cubicle with a peeping slit, with Loekie’s ashes covering the cubicles surface. Within the cubicle a tiny, white ceramic house, a miniature ceramic statue of him, and videos as tribute to his life make up the shrine of my guardian, and old friend.