Inking an end to 2020

Trans-disciplinary artist Sue Pam-Grant, 58, has a new tattoo.

It states: “All of The Gone 31.12.2020”.

She says: “It is my first tattoo. I was inked on the last day of an unprecedented year, a year of years, a year of no years.”

The former anti-apartheid, anti-conscription, UCT theatre and performance graduate and mother of two, became a full-time artist in 1984, while still writing and performing.

“I have always been an inter-disciplinary artist, but my visual work started more formally and intensively in 2005.

Pam-Grant, who lived in Johannesburg for decades, found herself caught up in a lock down dream, in her home The Bauhaus in Kalk Bay, Cape Town, this year.

This is the magnificent home she and husband DJ Grant bought two years ago.

Grant, who grew up in East London, is an arts graduate, and a municipal bus driver in London and PE., where he was detained for his work in the End Conscription Campaign ECC). He is the executive creative director of long-standing communications company Blue Moon in Johannesburg.

Pam-Grant said: “I arrived here in Kalk Bay to live but also relocated my studio, which I set up in Muizenberg’s old Hillcott Hotel, now a space for rent. I occupy the original kosher kitchen – it was owned by a Jewish woman, and has had many women owners since. In November, also opened a large solo exhibition at the Nel Gallery in Long Street titled ‘All of the Gone’, a string of words emerged in the very dark place of lock down when we were in level 5 and 4. I was sneaking into my studio in Jo’burg to find a place to breath – to do that, I had to continue making work and I was very prolific – it was all I could do. “My work is so intrinsically connected to text and writing that I was working with different words and phrases which seemed to reflect these unknown times. This phrase – all of the gone – ­popped up, along with other text lines, but the line stayed with me. It felt authentic and right to express what I was experiencing as an artist responding to this time.

“The phrase suddenly became unique to me. I had other phrases, such as ‘all of the sad’ and it felt pretty obvious to me what it meant though it was not that obvious to others. It was the way I expressed myself. ‘Gone’ was not enough, ‘sad’ was not enough, it had to be all of it, because it felt that large, the loss triggered was so huge.

“It expressed what was currently happening. Everything was going. Metaphorically speaking it was a death of a time, it triggered for me huge areas of loss in my life. I could not understand why I was feeling so sad, but on reflection and working through the pieces, I realised this Covid, living in the time of corona, was much more complex than the actual disease. It was triggering a melancholia that was profoundly primal.

“So this idea of ‘the gone’ became a very prevalent and intrinsic theme for the work being made, but it was actually accessing or triggering my whole human narrative, as an artist. We all have our narrative, our pattern, our story.

“Superficially, my story is ‘All of The Gone’, that is my narrative and why I felt deeply affected. I was experiencing it as deep, deep loss. Sadly, since then I have actually lost a lot of people, some to Covid, others because of other reasons. The ‘gone’ is close, just under the surface in my story and the way I experience it.”

And the tattoo?

“In my studio building in Muizenberg, I suddenly saw a new tattoo shop had opened and as much as I was in the narrative of all of the gone, the flip side, the other side, is the shape of the new. My thinking, my philosophy, is we can’t enter the shape of the new until we have acknowledged or mourned all of the gone. I am very excited about the shape of the narrative of the The New, I use capital letters because it becomes an object, a noun for me, as opposed to the verb. We are responding to that object, that thing called The Gone and that thing called The New. Now that I am embracing the new, because I believe in it, I am in a curious space in my life and have made a private promise to try and find something new each day, something never seen before on my walks, or do something differently. So when the tattoo studio appeared, I thought ‘you will never manage the pain. It’s not your sort of thing’.

“Actually, I had been exploring the history of the artistry of the tattoo, or ‘getting inked’, as I had been writing a piece of theatre about this with a friend a few years back. I also happened to be working with a lot of ink, and was approaching new work using traditional Xuan paper, the Chinese name for rice paper. So I had been exploring ink and rice paper. My studio is full of it and it it bears testimony to the idea that when you make (work) and do so prolifically and are in the zone, you are never sure and never conscious of what it is, where it is coming from. You are just playing. Especially after coming off a big solo show, so the work emerging from this play were these unconscious worlds, big landscapes, big dreamscapes, quite hallucinogenic, very complex indices of the mark, the brush of ink on paper. Unconsciously I was entering something, laying a foundation for getting inked, it was coming from my hand to the paper, external, but the landscapes were very dreamlike and big surprises to me, not my usual work. I believe the imminent inking was about to happen.”

“So in my curious space, practising the shape of the new, I decided to pop into to the tattoo studio and introduce myself under the pretence of being the artist from the kitchen studio upstairs, and by the way, just because I am curious, how long does a new tattoo take to heal? I ask the owner. He says it depends on skin type, and the kind of tattoo. I say let us get down to brass tacks. Can you swim with a new tattoo? He said, no, not for 15 days.

“I am in a ritual of swimming every morning, evening and sometimes at midday. I am obsessed with the ocean, I am in Heaven, I am living my dream, I am entering the ocean every day and his answer immediately answered my curiosity that this was not the right time to be inked. I would think about it maybe for winter.

“He said: You will know when the time is right, and why you would want that tattoo, what it is and where it will be on your body. I liked all of those things, it spoke to me. The idea was pushed out of the foremost part of my brain, and I have a very sensitive, reactive skin to all sorts of things in the ocean, blue bottles, jelly fish, it was becoming unlikely. However, the problem with me is if something is seeded, it never goes away. It plonks itself in the waiting room in me. It hangs out there until it decides to show its head again.

“Christmas came and next thing, Cyril has made his speech. The beaches are closed and it triggers the loss, the gone part of myself and the melancholy of losing the feeling of the ocean on my skin every day. All I want to do is swim. I don’t make the connection with the waiting room where the ink head sits patiently.

“After three days of mourning and sneaking in I nearly got arrested by the lovely officer William* I had got to know from the previous lock down days, who came up to me and said: ‘Sue, please, it will break my heart if I have to arrest you.’ So I had to let the swimming go and replaced it with walking, but as close to the ocean as possible to feel the water, its essence spraying over me.

“Now, it is the last day of the year, and I want to cycle early from Kalk Bay to the studio, but can’t get the lock on the bicycle undone so I decide to walk. I am walking on the St James walkway thinking on this final day, God what a year it has been. I am reflecting on it all, it hits me clear as a bell, I realise that I like to mark things, it’s how I operate. This day, this year, really needs marking and suddenly the waiting room ink head pops out. It is my time, it says. Of course I can get the inking now, because I cant swim! That’s it I have to get it done today.

“I have to get the tattoo. Today, 31st of the 12th, 2020 but what is the image going to be? My dog? Then another epiphany. I need to ink in my text, which is my drawing. The numbering is part of the text, and the line, it is part of my expanded practice as an artist. Those will be the words, those are the numbers which will go onto my body and it will make sense to me and I won’t discuss it with another soul until the deed is done. That is how I work when there is something quite risky or unknown to me.

“I arrived at my studio, and the medium in front of my eyes was my little bowl of ink and brush so I made the drawing of the tattoo on newsprint, did it a few times, played with size, in my handwriting, the way I draw in my writing form, and I photographed it. I was desperate for the tattoo artist couple to arrive to open their shop, so I could run down and ask them to fit me in. I thought they would be very busy as everybody wanted to mark this horrendous and astonishing year. I was so antsi, I wanted it done in this building to mark this time and place. If it is not done today I won’t do it.

“I went down and there they were, the studio was open. I had measured out the length of the the sentence and had it against my upper arm from my shoulder. I had played with some formats, across or down? I decided to let it run downwards. I asked can you do me? We can right now, they said. I showed them the photograph of my text and they said, no, that is not the place and showed me the appropriate place. I said OK, I love the place they recommended. I have recently discovered this other side of my forearm, which as a dancer – I dance all over the place — is defined. You can see the skeletal structure clearly and it was the bed of the canvas. It made total sense.

They asked what font, but I said, no it must be in my handwriting, through my hand. I ran up to get the actual work, I had a cup of tea, came down with the artwork. They and made a negative and did a transfer onto the place and the procedure started. That’s how I got it exactly in my handwriting.

“The act itself, was done by a woman, who was very holding and encouraging and excited about the idea of making the mark through my hand, an act done through her, and back onto my skin. An act of transference. Her partner documented the process and I lay on the bed and I got relaxed. She said Look the first five minutes could be intense. I said, OK, I had no idea of what it would feel like, the pain. She said get into the breathing, get into the zone and the experience of it. I did that, but did say what if I flinch at the first moment.? She said if I am in tune with you, I will lift up and move away. There was no flinching. There was a total submission, submergence into what was indeed a full experience of the marking. It was so right for me, I had no questions about who, what or where, all the frames came together and held me, I trusted that. It was intense but not unbearable. It was exactly what I needed it to be.”

“She said my skin just soaked up the ink as if it was waiting for it to enter. There has been no redness as if it has always been here.”

You are invited to Pam-Grant’s work All of The Gone, at The Kitchen Studio in Muizenberg. Call 082 896 7112, or email

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