Visibility of the Concealed – Essay by Curator Robert Ekholm

"Rough to Smooth" was the title of the exhibition which took place at the end of my residency. It was open for three weeks and attracted an estimated 3800 people, with coverage in TimeOut and The Times.

Nine other artists exhibited alongside me, including Alexander Debenham, Lizet DingmansSofia Welch, Jack Ford, Nicholas Chaundy and Elika Bo.

The following essay was written for curator Robert Ekholm, curator at MOCA London, for the "Rough to Smooth" exhibition, and sums up the exhibition very well.

United Grand Lodge of England’s Artist in Residence for 2017

Visibility of the Concealed –  Essay by Curator Robert Ekholm

Freemasonry has a history of being seen as a mysterious organisation.

On the occasion of its tercentenary, the United Grand Lodge of England invited Jacques Viljoen to be their first artist in residence. Viljoen has spent four months at Freemasons’ Hall, the headquarters of the United Grand Lodge researching many different aspects of Freemasonry. He has been given unprecedented access to objects and spaces in the building. To become a Freemason is to start a process of a personal journey, a rite of passage. Through initiation ceremonies, Freemasons experience various states of enlightenment. Viljoen has made a series of paintings capturing parts of the masonic journey: a portrait of a father and son tells us about brotherhood, a set-up of a lodge room, and a masonic still life.

His still life titled The Craft is composed of objects which have a direct relation to Freemasonry: the processional sword of the Supreme Grand Chapter, the candlestick used in the Grand Temple, a master's collar with enamelled badge to commemorate the 250th anniversary of English Freemasonry, the maul (stone mason's mallet) that was used to carve the arms on the tower of Freemasons' Hall London, and the perfect ashlar (cubic stone) that represents the complete Freemason. Many of the historic masonic artists in their collection, and some of the young invited artists for the exhibition, use the sight-size painting technique which is to paint exactly what you see. Looking at the still life and the other paintings it is not their mimetic quality that intrigues us, but the selection of objects or the room that is being captured. It is what we do not see that draws us in; it both intrigues us to explore the hidden parts of Freemasonry and makes us aware we cannot find all the answers.

Here symbols and objects are not just used in a classical way of reading a still life, but they tell of a journey filled with ritual, ceremonies and codes only Freemasons can decipher. Looking at these paintings we get a glimpse of the world behind the closed doors, but it also tells of a multi-layered narrative of Freemasons. The works in the exhibition are placed around the building and some of Viljoen’s works are displayed in the Library and Museum amongst the historic collection.

On a selection of books used for Masonic ceremonies, Viljoen has painted objects on the covers. At first look, they seem to be the original book covers but, on a closer inspection, we realise they have been painted on. Here the book becomes a painting and the painting becomes an object. As we look at these books, the painted cover acts as a key to both the meaning of the book and the object itself. The objects refer to the books and specific parts of Freemasonry. In a display cabinet, on the cover of one book Rules and Regulations, there is a ballot box painted; on the shelf underneath on The Master Mason a Master apron has been painted, and at the bottom on The Past Master, a Past Master’s collar for Composite Lodge. The books are placed next to the objects, not to display their likeness in reproduction, but to suggest a dialogue between the history of the objects, the significance of the book, and their contemporary relevance.

The display tells us of a passing of time and process to become a Mason. Some of the books presented throughout the library and museum are opened on specific pages, and some are closed. There is a play between enclosed and disclosed, to invite you to engage but to remind you of the complexities of the Freemason’s journey.

Viljoen invited nine other artists to take part in the exhibition. The artists have taken it upon themselves to portray or capture Masonic elements. Alexander Debenham's Room 6 at Freemasons' Hall, painted from life, presents a room set up for a Royal Arch chapter meeting. Ensigns, objects and plinths are organised in a ritualistic and symbolical structure. Debenham has painted the scene exactly as a Freemason set it up for him. We are again given a peek into the order; the room is filled with pageantry and symbolism. Here the artist's painting becomes the window to look in, but he leaves us with no clues, suggestions, or answers to what it means or what the meetings entail. Sofia Welch's Eye of Providence is open and looks out at us from a void. The reflective pupil suggests both an inquisitive and a self-reflective gaze, much as Freemasonry has opened up as it moves into its next 300 years. Many layers of meaning and journeys are gesticulated throughout the exhibition. The rough to perfect ashlar is the source of knowledge in Jack Ford's The Creation of Brotherhood. Painted from his imagination, Ford presents a symbol of transition from a rough stone to a perfectly smooth polished one. This is the moral and spiritual life to be achieved by living according to Masonic principles.

From the time Freemasonry began, to the present, our ways of seeing have changed. What was once relevant, as in the search for purity and the divine, has different meanings for today's younger generation. In Lizet Dingemans’ Fallen Dove, the dove has become a pigeon; it lies on the ground, it looks partly fallen or rested. Playing on the symbolism of "the dove and olive branch" Fallen Dove speaks of changes in time. History is very present at the United Grand Lodge but as time changes so are the messages.

Michael Harrison, one of the Masonic artists in the exhibition, depicts both the Masonic process, and the honouring of time. In Do Hereby and Here on and Quarterly Communication, he alludes to the underlying theme of the journey to become a Mason. The paintings In Glad Thanksgiving and The Calling Up depicts a small group of brethren, one at present time facing the memorial window, the other "the fallen". To be a Mason is to understand and honour the passing of time. Similar themes are alluded to in Nicholas Chaundy's In memoriâ, a response to the memory of the 3,225 Freemasons who died in the First World War. Freemasons’ Hall was built in memory of the English Freemasons who died in that war. Buildings are part of the ideology of Freemasons; as an allegory or a metaphor of how we build our lives. Martin Taylor, the second Masonic artist in the exhibition, painted Freemasons' Hall. 60 Great Queen St, London. WC2B 5AZ.  It depicts the building as a powerful and stoic memory of the many craftsmen who built it, but also the present, with a blue hoarding in front of the building, tying it to a specific moment and continuous change around it.

Looking through the art collection in Freemasons’ Hall you can see how the material culture of Freemasonry adheres to traditional designs but are also works that use old symbolism in new ways. They reflect the changes of time and the Masonic artistic expressions in different periods. Elika Bo spent a month looking through Masonic archival materials. Through a process of scanning, painting on glass, and layering of imagery she creates abstracted painterly photographs. Her large-scale photographs, filled with textured layers of imagery and symbols, are both intriguing and mesmerising. To be invited to make art inspired by Freemasonry and to reflect on modern times, thinking and relevance is a challenge. Through concepts and process Bo's work confronts this challenge to decipher the many hidden meanings and at the same time speak to a contemporary audience. Looking at these photographs we are immersed in the richness of symbolism of the Masons as well as intrigued by her artistic language. Her use of today's technology, and contemporary gestures encourages us to explore the Freemason’s history, even if viewers are left without all the answers.

The exhibition Rough to smooth: Art inspired by Freemasonry – past, present and future, invites the public to explore the rich history of the Freemasons through the works of these artists. We are in new times and Freemasons are evolving. In Henrik Uldalen's Placid, he uses classic figurative painting within contemporary language. On the one hand, it is figurative, but with patches of thick textured paint, and the viewer becomes aware of the materiality of the painting. It suggests a journey and a transformation, from brush strokes of pigments to shades of light and colour. As the title Placid suggest it is about letting go, surrendering to find serenity.

These works speak of many challenges ahead for future generations and aim to capture the relevance of Freemasonry today. We might not get all the answers we as outsiders seek, but we have been invited to peek in and to ponder on new ways to be contemporary, while continuing the long story of the brethren.


Roberto Ekholm


Vistitors admiring Elika Bo's work

Vistitors admiring Elika Bo's work

Sofia Welch with her exquisite painting, "The Eye of Providence".

Sofia Welch with her exquisite painting, "The Eye of Providence".

Residency: The United Grand Lodge of England's Tercentenary

Before starting the residency at Freemason’s Hall, I knew very little about the craft. I had the same misconceptions that most outsiders have: that it is a dark, shady and secretive organisation. But this, I was soon to discover, could not be further from the truth.

When I first visited the building I was immediately impressed with the architecture and collection of exquisite paintings. It seemed to be a place that respected the past and traditions of previous generations and yet was incredibly contemporary. This I felt, was similar to the art that I was looking to create, and a place which would inform my practice.  

I paint from life, using as many traditional techniques as possible, but I firmly consider myself a contemporary artist and reject any label such as “classical” or “traditional” as this sets up a power structure within the art world which seeks to separate my peers from the mainstream artworld.  

We are part of a new movement in art, which does not seek to break with the past, or co-opt it; an art that seeks to elevates craft to an equal status with fine art through practice and discipline; an art very much grounded in the present moment, acknowledging that it cannot escape its history and yet, no artist can escape their time either.

All of this can be applied to contemporary freemasonry. While a mason is performing a ritual, he is using the past to create a moment which grounds him in the present. By reciting a text, you are drawing on three hundred years of tradition, and yet here you are, in that particular place, at that particular time, reciting those lines, and by partaking in that ritual, you the mason, have created a unique moment which can never happen ever again.

This is how I approach painting. For me, the act of doing it is more important than the final object that i have created, as doing it adds value to my life. When visiting Freemasons’ Hall, it is easy to assume that masonry is about the ornate clothing, expensive objects and visually impressive ceremonies, but scratch a little deeper and you’ll see that all of this is is not true. All of this merely supports and adds to the experience of freemasonry, enjoyed by thousands of people across the globe, and it is the teaching and values which the craft imparts which are actually most important.