Judith Mason

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Judith Mason and squirrel monkey October 1980

Judith Mason born Judith Seelander Menge (10 October 1938 Pretoria – 28 December 2016 White River) was a South African artist who worked in oil, pencil, printmaking and mixed media. Her work is rich in symbolism and mythology, displaying a rare technical virtuosity.

About the Artist

Self-portrait at 90

Judith Mason was born in Pretoria; South Africa, in 1938. She matriculated at the Pretoria High School for Girls in 1956. In 1960, she was awarded a BA Degree in Fine Arts at the University of the Witwatersrand. She taught painting at the University of the Witwatersrand, the University of Pretoria, the Michaelis School of Fine Art in Cape Town, Scuola Lorenzo de' Medici in Florence, Italy from 1989 to 1991 and acted as external examiner for under-graduate and post-graduate degrees at Pretoria, Potchefstroom, Natal, Stellenbosch and Cape Town Universities. Several of Mason's works deal with the atrocities uncovered by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.[1] Mason died in White River 28 December 2016.[2]


Judith Mason10.jpg

Mason was politically aware and was motivated by a strong social conscience. Her work is informed by people, creatures, events and sometimes works of poetry, that touched or deeply disturbed her. Her images run the gamut from expressionist through representational, humorous and starkly symbolic. The history, mythology and ritual of Christianity and the eastern religions provided a fertile fund of inspiration for her work. Mason felt that formalised theology has destroyed the spiritually-nourishing mythological character of primitive religion.

"Mason's pieces are sometimes imbued with lyrical and poetic overtones, and sometimes informed by the poetry of Christopher Smart and Wilfred Owen, another important feature of her work is the synthesis she established between beauty and ugliness. A beautifully drawn or painted face often gives way to a gaping, snarling monster ... The beauty/ugliness, or abjection, dichotomy in Mason's work is no other than an expression of how awful pain is. Mason also stated that "All the arts are forms of play."

"The Man Who Sang and The Woman Who Kept Silent' (colloquially known as 'The Blue Dress'); comprising three paintings and a mixed media sculpture, have together come to constitute the signature piece of the Constitutional Court's collection. Justice Albie Sachs considers Judith Mason's "The Man Who Sang and the Woman Who Kept Silent" (1998) to be "one of the great pieces of art in the world of the late 20th century"

This piece was inspired by two stories Mason heard on the radio at the time of the Truth and Reconciliation hearings. They told of the execution of two liberation movement cadres by the security police. One was Harold Sefola, who as Mason relates, "asked permission to sing Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika" before he was electrocuted; the other was Phila NdwandWe, "who was tortured and kept naked for ten days" and then assassinated in a kneeling position. As the TRC found, before NdwandWe was killed, she "fashioned a pair of panties for herself out of a scrap of blue plastic." This moved Mason to make a dress of blue plastic bags, inscribed with text beginning: "Sister, a plastic bag may not be the whole armour of God, but you were wrestling with flesh and blood, and against powers, against the rulers of darkness …"

"I paint in order to make sense of my life, to manipulate various chaotic fragments of information and impulse into some sort of order, through which I can glimpse a hint of meaning. I am an agnostic humanist possessed of religious curiosity who regards making artworks as akin to alchemy. To use inert matter on an inert surface to convey real energy and presence seems to me a magical and privileged way of living out my days". Judith Mason, 2004

"Hyenas like artists, are scavengers prowling on the edge of society. I love hyaenas because of their other-worldly whooping, their ungainliness and their "bad hair" (I share the latter two characteristics). I also regard the animal as a very apt image of the 'id' in opposition to the ego and the super-ego, the monkey on my back. In the three lithographs I have depicted The Muse by Day as a Hyaena in guinea fowl's clothing, the spots as disguise or drag to celebrate the gift of mimicry. In the Muse by Night I have concentrated on the animal as far-seeing, seer-like with the coat of spots as shaman's eyes. In Muse Amused I have tried to celebrate a generally despised animal having an existential guffaw." Judith Mason, 2006


Major retrospective: Judith Mason 'A Prospect of Icons' Standard Bank Gallery 2 – – 6 October December 2008 and Sasol Art Museum, University of Stellenbosch 14 January to March 2009. Catalogue published in conjunction with the exhibition. Mason's artist's books were showcased in Washington DC at the National Museum for African Art for the 'Artists' Books and Africa' exhibition ended 11 September 2016. 'Undiscovered Animals' June 2016 was her final exhibition.

Mason exhibited frequently in South Africa, with works in all the major South African art collections as well as in private and public collections in Europe and the United States. Exhibitions of her work have been held in Greece, Italy, The Netherlands, Belgium, Chile, Germany, Switzerland, New York and Miami.

Her major public commissions include: The Man Who Sang and The Woman Who Kept Silent aka The Blue Dress at the Constitutional Court in Johannesburg, South Africa. Several large tapestries in collaboration with Marguerite Stephens and stained-glass window designs for the Great Park Synagogue in Johannesburg. In 2008, from 2 October to 6 December 2008, the Standard Bank Gallery in Johannesburg, South Africa hosted a major retrospective of paintings, drawings, assemblage, installations, artists books and essays. Sasol Art Museum at the University of Stellenbosch installed the same retrospective titled: A Prospect of Icons from 14 January to 28 March 2009. Her first solo exhibition was at Gallery 101, Johannesburg, in 1964 after winning second prize in the U.A.T competition in 1963. Mason has exhibited regularly in Johannesburg, Cape Town, Pretoria, Stellenbosch, Mpumalanga and George. Goodman Gallery, Chelsea Gallery, Association of Arts Pretoria, Association of Arts Cape Town, Hout Street Gallery, Strydom Gallery, Dorp Street Gallery, Art on Paper, Abalone Gallery, Sasol Art Museum, University of Stellenbosch, Standard Bank Museum, Karen Mackerron Gallery, as well as lithographs, oil paintings and drawings at Ombondi Gallery in New York in 1990 and more recently, tapestries, paintings and drawings at the Deering Estate, Miami Dade, 2016 and lithographs at Art Basel Miami Beach 2010 and 2015. She represented South Africa at the Venice Biennale, 1986, São Paulo Biennale 1973, Brazil, Valparaiso Biennale 1979, Chile and Houston Arts Festival 1980, USA.


  • The Mind's Eye: An Introduction to Making Images (Books & Books Press USA, 2016, 2017) ISBN 978-0-9913271-5-7 Out-of-Print eBook https://read.amazon.com/kp/embed?asin=B076H9J3Y3&preview=newtab&linkCode=kpe&ref_=cm_sw_r_kb_dp_IbgeAb5G0E76D
  • India's Elephants, Introduction Essay. Photographs by Annette Bonnier (Books & Books Press, 2014) ISBN 098-3-9378-8-5
  • Walking With and Away From Dante. Artwork and text by Judith Mason. Edited by Johann de Lange Publisher: Ettienne Koekemoer, Cape Town, South Africa 2011. Signed and numbered.
  • TAXI-015: Paul Stopforth, Essay. Edited Bronwyn Law-Viljoen, publisher, David Krut, Johannesburg, South Africa, 2010
  • Art and Justice: The Art of the Constitutional Court of South Africa. Edited Bronwyn Law-Viljoen David Krut ISBN 9780958497558
  • A Prospect of Icons published on the occasion of her retrospective, Judith Mason: A Prospect of Icons. (Standard Bank of South Africa, 2008) ISBN 978-0-620-41289-6
  • Dante in South Africa By Stephen Watson. Edited Patrick Cullinan. Publisher Center for Creative Writing, University of Cape Town ISBN 0-620-35549-2
  • A Dante Bestiary (Ombondi Editions, NY, 1990) Printed by Bruce Attwood, the Broederstroom Press.
  • Skoenlapper Heuwel, Skoenlapper Vrou illustrated poem by Wilma Stockenstrom (Butterfly Hill, Butterfly Woman Publisher: Ombondi Editions, NY. Printed by Bruce Attwood at the Broederstroom Press, 1988.
  • Selected Poems by Patrick Cullinan, 1992, Artists' Edition printed by Mark Attwood, The Artists' Press.
  • Talking Pictures Essays Printed by Bruce Attwood Broederstroom Press, Publisher Broederstroom Press, Broederstroom, South Africa, 1989.
  • Concordant Silence Mixed Media Portfolio including photolithography, lithography, plate sinking, photography and gilding by hand and gold leaf in collaboration with poet Ted Townsend Signed and numbered. Edition of 75.

Select Collections in South Africa

Select Collections Abroad

  • Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York City
  • Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, Washington DC
  • University of St John, Newfoundland, USA
  • The Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, UK
  • Yale University, USA[3]

Personal life

She was married to Professor Revil John Mason, former head of the Archaeology Department of the University of the Witwatersrand, and raised two daughters, Tamar (1966) and Petra (1970). She was also briefly married to Bruce Attwood of the Broederstroom Press.

External links

  • A Tribute to Judith Mason – Kim Berman
  • Interviews with Judith Mason's daughters
  • Official Artist Site
  • Judith Mason on Facebook
  • Judith Mason – 3 videos on PELMAMA's YouTube Channel


  1. ^ Temin, Christine (1999) "The art of truth and healing after apartheid, South African artists reflect the difficult past and challenging future", Boston Globe, 3 January 1991, p. C3
  2. ^ "Judith Mason 'remained true to her art'". news24.com. Retrieved 31 December 2016.
  3. ^ "Judith Mason – art.co.za – Art in South Africa". art.co.za. Retrieved 31 December 2016.
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