GREAT WISDOM AND subversive whimsy were central to the thinking, writing and art of Ingrid (Muffin) Stevens, who was fascinated by the meaning and histories of decoration. Deemed a matriarch of the South African art world in terms of the reach of her influence, the straight-talking toughness (but never harshness) of her teaching and criticism and the generosity of her conviviality, Stevens passed away on 22 December 2019, having succumbed to complications after cardiac surgery. She was 67.
Imbued with a fascination as to how simple decorative energy could convert an ordinary domestic object into something magical, and also how the device of landscape is an historical one, Stevens was born on 4 October 1952 in Pretoria, the second of three children, and went to school in that city.
She began her academic education at Stellenbosch University, where she studied Fine Arts. She switched to the then Pretoria Technikon (Tshwane University of Technology) where she was able to continue developing her passion for theory and research, art and craft and the snow globes she had loved as a child. Rising through the echelons at TUT, Stevens retired as professor in the Fine Arts department in 2017, having been committed to the department and the institution for a period of 36 years. She was then deemed professor emeritus and continued to contribute to the department and the industry, until her death.
Stevens’s D Tech degree focused on sustainability in craft projects and her masters dissertation investigated contemporary art criticism. During the trajectory of her long career, she became hooked by the medium of ceramics and the cultural meaning of patterning.
Nicknamed ‘Muffin’ as a child, Stevens allowed the name to stick; it became a cipher for her sense of the naughty. Stevens taught and wrote prolifically and exhibited widely. A long-standing member of the editorial committee of the University of South Africa’s Art History journal De Arte, she hosted her final exhibition What I Saw in 2019, at the Association of Arts gallery in Pretoria.
The exhibition, comprising paintings and ceramic plates, represented her re-emergence as a painter and reflected on things she had experienced in Paris and Morocco on a recent trip, since her retirement. “Bits of what caught my attention, now altered, juxtaposed or combined through the filter of memory, are used to attempt to create a kind of magic or mood through memory, and using a play of colours,” she wrote in her gallery statement, adding her belief that “all works are ultimately images of the interior of the artist and of the human condition.”
Artist Carl Jeppe, in opening this exhibition, described the freshness and directness of her approach. “After so many years with your nose in books and masters proposals, where do you start painting again?” he pondered in his speech. “What is painting about? Well, it’s about paint, colour and telling stories. Being a practical person, Muffin decided to go back to basics, and what could be more basic than the rainbow? The whole exhibition is therefore arranged just so: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet.”
While to all accounts, Stevens was a heavy-weight in the industry, she was celebrated by peers, colleagues and students as a fun-loving person with an astute eye. She was direct in her criticism, but quick to laugh, loved being in good company and had a penchant for rock concerts, boasting something of a groupie status for the band The Black Cat Bones. She leaves her son Dylan, partner Jean Blignaut and siblings, Karen Ashley and Philip Weideman, as well as generations of thousands of former students, friends and colleagues in the art industry.
- A celebration of Muffin Stevens’s life will be held at the Pretoria Arts Association in Mackie Street, Bailey’s Muckleneuk in Pretoria at 2pm on Friday January 24. Call 012 346 3100.