The sublime in ecology: An ecofeminist theological interpretation of an Eastern Cape artist’s ecological vision, spirituality and identity

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Meeting Heleen

The researcher met the artist Heleen du Preez and had an interview with her on 23 January 2006, with a previous research trip through the Eastern Cape. Heleen introduced the researcher to her Essences series of art works which she had painted between 2002 and 2005 and exhibited at the Grahamstown National Art Festival in 2005. The researcher and artist subsequently became friends and stayed in regular contact until Heleen passed away on 1 August 2018 after a short struggle against cancer. Now, 13 years after the initial meeting, the researcher is once again exploring the Essences series, as guided by Heleen’s explanation of the artworks’ meaning. In this endeavour she uses an interpretative approach to open up the intersubjective worlds of meaning of the artist and the researcher.

In this article, the following questions are explored: 

  • How can an ecofeminist theological researcher resonate with the artistic exploration of the sublime in nature?
  • What can an ecofeminist theologian learn from Heleen’s engagement with the holy in ecology? How can a researcher’s interpretations of these experiences lead to ecospiritual reflection and writing?
  • Which metatheoretical framework and ecofeminist and ecofeminist theological themes are suitable to explore Heleen’s art and vision?
  • How can Heleen’s art work help the researcher to relate to the people (settler and indigenous), the land and the ecology of the Eastern Cape in order to find hope amidst its painful history?

Ecofeminist theoretical framework

To understand the researcher’s ecofeminist theoretical framework which influenced her interpretation of Heleen’s art work, a section on ecofeminism and ecofeminist theology and ecofeminist spirituality in a postcolonial cultural world is included. Although the researcher could not determine after Heleen’s death whether Heleen had been an ecofeminist or not, she could still conclude, from the artist’s strong views on the renewing impetus of nature, the global impact of profit-driven capitalism on the destruction of the ecology, and her ethics of care, that Heleen would have been comfortable within the space of Rosa Braidotti’s (2013) posthumanist, geocentric philosophy and ecofeminist spirituality. 

To make the connections between ecology, ecological consciousness, ecofeminism, theology and, eventually, art, is an all-encompassing task. It has been done by theologians and theorists such as Karen Warren, Rosemary Radford Ruether, Heather Eaton, Anne Primavesi, Sallie McFague, Suzi Gablik, and others. In this article, these topics are introduced and briefly investigated.


Rosemary Radford Ruether (2000:97) defined ecofeminism as follows: 

Ecofeminism, or ecological feminism, examines the interconnections between the domination of women and the domination of nature. It aims at strategies and worldviews to liberate or heal these interconnected dominations through a better understanding of their etiology and enforcement.

The aim and strategy of ecofeminism is to radically transform how humans live in relation to the environment. We are interdependent with everything that forms the natural world. This shift needs to lead to action which may mitigate the processes of ecological destruction and global warming – as far as that is still possible – and new ways of caring for the environment and the earth.

Ecofeminist theology

Ruether (2000) and others criticise classical Christian theology, which has for many centuries dealt with the salvation of humanity from earthly conditions into supernatural or heavenly conditions. She exposes a theological system which is based on the desire to escape the real and finite conditions of human life on earth, to extract wealth from and conquer the earth and thereby to escape from the human body and earth. In the process women, the poor and marginalised and the earth are oppressed by patriarchal and exploitative socio-economic systems. Eaton (2000) proposes that for theology and religion to be turned around and brought back to earth, they need to be studied within the framework of the evolution of the cosmos, earth and ecology, so that the revelatory dimensions of the earth and cosmos can be detected. This will fundamentally challenge the dysfunctional cosmologies in which patriarchal religious traditions are immersed. The works of Anne Primavesi (2000) and Sallie McFague (1993), two ecofeminist theologians who fit within this earth systems paradigm, are also analysed briefly in this article.

Cultural framework: postmodern and postcolonial movements in ecofeminist spirituality and art

The work of ecofeminist theologians has an impact on ecofeminist spiritualities and contemporary spiritualities that are becoming increasingly important within various cultural discourses. Heleen’s ecospirituality as it is expressed in her ecological art can be placed within the matrix of contemporary spiritualities as it is portrayed in art. Spirituality concerns the feelings stirred or probed by art that may prompt viewers to reflect on the meaning of life, often in terms of existential questions such as: Why are we here? What are we doing? A sense of the spiritual also makes people aware that they are part of a larger whole, a larger network and a larger power than the self.

The posthumanist critical theoretician Rosi Braidotti draws on the ecofeminist work of Shiva and Mies (1993) when she says:

The environmental alternative is a new holistic approach that combines cosmology with anthropology and post-secular, mostly feminist spirituality, to assert the need for loving respect for diversity in both its human and non-human forms. Significantly, Shiva and Mies stress the importance of life-sustaining spirituality in this struggle for new concrete forms of universality: a reverence for the sacredness of life, of deeply seated respect for all that lives. (Braidotti 2013:48) 

Here Braidotti brings together various elements of ecofeminist spirituality: She refers to the sacredness at the heart of complex and diverse life forms, to which women relate through attitudes and actions of care, love and respect. Through such a deep awareness of the sacredness of life, women manage to relate to life with care and respect, thereby practically sustaining the networks of the ecology where they are able to do so, in the face of the powers that bring about ecological destruction. 

Heleen’s awareness of the sublime in the ecology and her creation of the Essences series of art works 

A substantial part of this article is devoted to an exploration of Heleen’s art works, their themes and their technical aspects as they relate to her experience and expression of the sublime in ecology. In Heleen’s summary of the exhibition of the Essences art series (2005) she wrote:

In this body of work I explored the visual impact of the physical elements of nature. Living in Lady Grey made me extremely aware of the sensitivity of the environment and how the dramatic interaction of these physical elements creates spectacular beauty. I thus dealt with the sublime in nature. This fragile environment requires special care, and veld fires and overgrazing are human activities that destroy. (From Summary by Heleen du Preez)

The Essences series deals with her understanding of the sublime as that encounter with the physical-spiritual dimension of the ecology which transcends understanding and which leads the artist or viewer to an encounter with the Divine. Through this series Heleen explored the dynamic visual, physical and spiritual interaction between the elements of nature – earth, fire, water and air – as she saw it in the delicate ecology of that region. The researcher endeavours to understand the artist’s exploration of the sublime in nature as it relates to themes like fragility and beauty; transcendence; peace and harmony; destruction, despair and anger; purification and transformation. In the process the researcher is careful to appreciate and correctly interpret the visual and technical elements of the artist’s work.

From the sublime to the transcendent through ecological spirituality 

After exploring the art works, the researcher summarises the contents and meaning of the art works and concludes that the artist had a deep understanding of the earth’s inherent religious dimension and of human ecological spirituality which connects us to the earth. Heleen, by her artistic experience of the sublime in nature, entered into the transcendent and holy dimension of the earth. The holy dimension of nature includes the cyclical processes of death and new life in the ecology. For Heleen, human existence makes sense when it enters into this state of oneness with the earth. Human beings are inextricably part of the complex web of ecology and dependent on it for humanity’s survival. Through her geocentredness and her conviction that the ecology should be cared for and protected by humanity, she became critical of humans who used and abused the ecology in the name of economic prosperity. She shared her understanding of the sublime as connected to an ethics of care, with a movement of contemporary ecofeminist artists who see their role as facilitators and caretakers of ecological recovery as this relates to both nature and humanity.

Heleen’s ecological and social identity 

Furthermore, through her art and in her life, she identified with a more inclusive ecological and social reality and thereby transcended what could have been a limited social identity. Her “enlarged sense of inter-connection between self and others, including the non-human or ‘earth’ others... produces a new way of combining self-interests with the wellbeing of an enlarged community, based on environmental inter-connections”, to use Braidotti’s words (Braidotti 2013:48).

Keywords: art interpretation; ecofeminist theology; ecological spirituality; identity; interaction; interpretation of art elements; ethics of care; the sublime


Lees die volledige artikel in Afrikaans

Die sublieme in die ekologie: ’n Ekofeministiese teologiese interpretasie van ’n Oos-Kaapse kunstenaar se ekologiese visie, spiritualiteit en identiteit

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