This intriguing print is divided into two sections. The top half depicts a near-photographic image of an empty forest bathed in early morning light, while the bottom half depicts three subterraneous layers of roots, rocks and cracked brown clay. It is unclear whether this work is intended to reflect any of the artist’s environmental concerns, although Hilda Bernstein was a political activist who campaigned in particular against apartheid and for women’s rights.
Some of Bernstein’s mainly graphic work does portray the horrors that she saw directly in South Africa during the1950s and 1960s. She eventually fled South Africa in 1964 to escape arrest for her anti-apartheid activities. Settling in London, she started to make etchings, wanting to show people the beauty of the South African landscape (in contrast to the ignominious way in which the regime treated its people) and also made views of London and other specific places in Europe.
The daughter of the Russian Ambassador to the UK, Hilda Bernstein was born in London and emigrated to South Africa at the age of 18 to work in journalism. She became active in politics and had a long association with the African National Congress (ANC) and, in particular the ANC’s Women’s League. She married fellow activist Lionel ‘Rusty’ Bernstein in March 1941.
Her career as an artist only really began in London in exile. After 1972 her etchings, drawings and paintings were exhibited at the Royal Academy and featured in many solo and group exhibitions in the United Kingdom and South Africa.
She returned to South Africa with her husband for the installation of President Nelson Mandela in 1994, but she did not return to live in the country until after husband’s death in 2002.
A multi-talented woman, she also wrote several books including For Their Triumphs and For Their Tears (1975), a study of women under apartheid, and Death is Part of the Process (1983), a prize-winning novel based on the early days of the ANC's armed struggle which became a two-part BBC television film (1986).
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