Who is South African artist Wilma Cruise? by Lillian Gray


Wilma Cruise is a South African female artist. She is well known for her life-size human and animal figures. Large drawings or prints often accompany her sculpture exhibitions.  A number of her ceramic sculptures have been successfully translated into bronze sculptures.

Wilma Cruise

The life of Wilma Cruise

Wilma Cruise was born in 1945 in Johannesburg, just as South Africa was on the brink of adopting the Apartheid policy. For 45 years, she lived under this oppressive regime that separated people according to colour. Globally it was also a time of unrest –  with the tension surrounding the Cold War and a looming fear of Communism.

There was the constant threat of total world annihilation – a nuclear holocaust. There was also a bombardment of anti-communist propaganda during the Ronald Reagan era that resulted in various atrocities. This, together with the South African Apartheid Regime, created an atmosphere filled with anxiety, tension, and the constant threat of disaster looming. Cruise often recreates this atmosphere in her artworks.  

Wilma was raised in an atheist home during an era of Christian National education in South Africa. Her parents taught her to question everything as a child and to not trust the government, religion, and authority in general. This has led her to question her beliefs, values, and identity often.    

Animals have always played a large and important role in Cruise’s life, from her dog Lulu which was given to her on her ninth birthday, to her first horse. She has a deep and invested interest in working with and training animals, especially horses. She is also fascinated by baboons and the current baboon wars in Cape Town. Baboons are dangerous animals with sharp teeth, claws, and even sharper minds. Humans’ relationships with animals have profoundly influenced Wilma Cruises’ art. 

Wilma was raised in a house filled with books. Her father sparked her interest in psychology. He gave her books on Freudian psychology to read. She was so drawn to psychology that she studied it after school and completed her degree in it. (1965) She often refers to her love and knowledge of Psychology in her artworks. She regularly depicts humans’ internal conflicts. Humans tend to project a certain image to the outside world that isn’t entirely truthful and consistent with their inner worlds.  

Cruise is well known for being a pioneer of large figurative sculptures during the eighties. Wilma Cruise was one of the first South African artists to create life-size sculptures out of clay. It is a complex process she has refined over many years. 

 In 1997 just after Apartheid ended in South Africa, Cruise completed her Masters’s Degree in Fine Art. She completed her Doctorate in Visual Arts at The University of Stellenbosch.

Now that you are familiar with her life let’s delve into some of the key themes found in her work. You will quickly see how her life experiences have influenced her art. 

Themes in Wilma Cruises’ artworks 


The looming disaster hanging over the human race currently is global warming. We are destroying our planet at an alarming rate. We are raising the Earth’s temperature by releasing too many greenhouse gasses. We are polluting water sources, groundwater, and our oceans. We are destroying forests, habitats, and biodiversity. Many animal species are now endangered due to our careless actions. It is time that we as humans take responsibility for our impact on our planet and change our ways. 

Global Warming is connected to our relationship with animals. Did you know that cows are to blame for large amounts of greenhouse gasses? Yes, cow farts! It is a real problem. cow farts and poops produce large quantities of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. It accounts for nearly 60% of all greenhouse gas emissions.  So we need to change the way we consume meat or how we source meat. 

Wilma’s artworks often warn us about climate change. It often inverts the relationship between humans and animals and flips it on its head. This leads me to the next theme in Wilma Cruises’ art. 


Speciesism? What on earth is that? We know what’s Racism and Feminism buts what Speciesism? According to artist Wilma Cruise, it is the last -ism. It is how we relate to animals, our relationship with them, and how we treat them. 

Some of you might shrug your shoulders and say, “But Lillian, I LOVE ANIMALS” This isn’t an issue for me. Well, yes, who doesn’t love cute bunnies and kittens? But do you truly love animals? Do you treat all animals the same? As humans, we tend to value some animals more than others. Let me ask you this. Do you eat chicken? Do you enjoy a nice barbeque or grill? Do you wear make-up or use eye drops? Well, many of these products harm animals. 

What is the difference between throwing away a sack of kittens in the cold and killing chickens and cows at a mass scale? Why do we treat dogs so much better than cows? Why do we have more empathy for animals that look like us, for example, monkeys, than we have for animals that are super different? For example, Jellyfish.  We treat pigs as though their well-being is unimportant, but we adore horses and consider their well-being very important. However, their awareness and mental capacities are similar.

How do we reconcile the strong feelings many of us have about certain animals – mainly the cute ones, like puppies and kittens – with how we use animals in our everyday lives? Most think nothing of using animals for meat, milk, or skins.

We don’t just use animals; we harm them. Bunnies are used to test cosmetics and eye drops. New products are used on their eyes and left there for a while. Then it’s rinsed out, and they are inspected for any side effects. Most of the time, this process is extremely painful and can blind the bunnies. Rabbits are used for this because they don’t have tear ducts.

They can’t flush the product out of their eyes by themselves. Once they go blind, they are no longer needed and are killed. We had to set up large factory farms to keep up with humans’ insatiable demand for chicken eggs. These farms keep chickens in tiny, tiny spaces.  Their beaks are often cut down to keep them from pecking each other. Once they no longer lay enough eggs, they’re killed. These are just a couple of examples of the conditions animals experience for our own personal gain. We’d never dream of using another human in these ways, but we think nothing of doing it to animals. How do we let ourselves do that?

We use all kinds of arguments to justify our actions. Some see humans as clearly superior to animals. Since humans are currently at the top, well, that means that we’re the best, so we can do pretty much what we want to other beings. Another rationale is that this is the way it’s always been. And it’s true: Humans have dominated non-human animals for a long time. But the fact that something has been a certain way for a long time says nothing about whether it’s good. 

Still, one of the strongest arguments for using non-human animals is the argument of need. Most people believe that we’re justified in doing what it takes to survive. This argument doesn’t justify using animals for non-necessary things like cosmetics testing, but eating is necessary, so there’s nothing wrong with eating animals. Right? The problem is we know humans can be perfectly healthy without eating animals. So yes, you need to eat, but you don’t need to eat animals. 

There was a time in history when it was common for one group to dominate and own others. Now we look back at this with horror and shame. Well, Contemporary Australian philosopher Peter Singer predicts that there will be a time when our descendants look back on us and our treatment of non-human animals with the same reaction. In a nutshell, Singer says, if it’s not ok to do it to a human, it’s not ok to do it to an animal. 

So speciesism gives us strong reasons to re-evaluate our treatment of non-human animals.

But you still might be thinking, “Why should I care?” What if I don’t care that I’m a speciesist? I like eating meat and feel no shame because everyone I know eats it too. The thing is: Philosophers want you to be consistent with your beliefs. They want you to think about why you think it would be wrong to eat Fluffy, yet you have no problem eating bacon. Dogs and pigs have the same level of cognition and awareness. Philosophers want you to be consistent in your thinking. 

Artist Wilma Cruise’s work places importance on the existence and lives of animals.  It confronts us with our prejudices towards animals. She forces as to ask, are we truly smarter than them? Are we more important? Wilma shows us that we are not really at the top of the food chain as is seen with the destruction of our planet, but instead, we are part of a carefully designed eco-system, and we have a big responsibility towards it.

Common animals featured in her artworks include monkeys, baboons, sheep, horses and dogs. 


Liminality is a term used to describe the psychological process of transitioning across boundaries and borders. The term “limen” comes from the Latin for threshold; it is the threshold separating one space from another. It is the place in the wall where people move from one room to another.

Wilma often sets her artworks in a space she calls the in-between world. The threshold boundary line between humans and animals. According to her, it is space where being human is not super important. Where human language doesn’t work, and logic no longer provides us with safety. 

Her art also explores the space between our inner and outer worlds. An example of this is the artwork known as The All-knowing Pig. 2015. Drypoint and Chine-Colle. 43cm x 45cm. 

The pig is anthropomorphised, acting like a human. He was standing on its back legs and wearing a ribbon necktie. The pig is not making direct eye contact, yet it feels like it is aware of us looking at it. The pig is an outsider who seems to observe life knowingly.  It is almost smirking as if it is complicit in some hidden joke. He or she stands on the outside looking in but seems to possess some special power, like it’s able to predict the future or affect the outcome of events. The Pig appears to be between the human and animals world, standing with one leg on either side on the threshold between the rational and the emotional.  


Wilma Cruise is also an ardent feminist. Feminism is the belief that women and men should be treated equally. It incorporates the opinion that society tends to prioritise men’s point of view and that women are treated unjustly in some societies. They strive to break free from gender stereotypes.  Feminists are constantly fighting to change and improve female rights. Women’s rights include the right to vote, work, earn equal pay, run for a public office such as a president, own their own house, receive education, enter contracts, have equal rights within a marriage, and maternity leave.   

Cruise’s interest in feminism has been a longstanding theme within her work. She explains that her interests grew in University upon reading the writings of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex during the sixties as a student. 

Her work often includes her own personal views and experiences as a woman. She has depicted her experience as a new mother and the responsibility of nursing and raising a child. 

One of Cruises’ public works can be seen at the “National Monument to the Women of South Africa” at the Union Buildings in Pretoria. The artwork is called Strike the Woman Strike the Rock (wathint’ abafazi wathint’ imbokodo) (2000). It commemorates the march of women on the Union Buildings on 9 August 1956 to protest against the passed laws. The artwork was commissioned by the government to celebrate female rights in South Africa. 

To remember how far the struggle for female rights has come. Wilma incorporates sound and projections of imagery into this sculpture. In the middle of the installation is a imbokoo, a grinding surface for maize. It is the site of sustenance and nurture. A symbol for the role mothers play in families. When you walk towards the stone, you can hear the whispers of the song sung during the protest “Strike the women strike the rock.”

It is quietly repeated in each of the eleven official languages. It is repeated over and over,  as if the women are whispering down the tunnel of history. They provide an exhortation and a reminder that tampering with the women is tampering with the very source of life. The sound is enhanced by the projection into space of some of the resistance phrases used in the 1956 march. These are produced by a state-of-the-art computer-generated light system.

On the risers of the stairs leading up to the vestibule, a section of text is imposed. Extracts from the protest letter, The Demand of the Women of South Africa for the Withdrawal of Passes for Women and the Repeal of the Pass Laws, is applied to the surface of the sandstone in raised brushed stainless steel letters. It is a gentle reminder that history should not repeat itself. 


Wilma is well-read and often includes references to famous books, various literature and mythology in her artworks. The most famous of these is the series of exhibitions known as the Alice Diaries.  Wilma also often includes text and annotations in her artworks.  Her exhibition titled  “1984: Fight or Flight? Recycle, Re-use, Re con(figure)” was inspired by the dystopian novels of George Orwell. Her exhibition, titled the 

The Red Queen was inspired again by Alice in Wonderland. The Red Queen was the villain in the story, often shouting, “Off with her head!” 

‘I love words, and I love text. In all my drawings, in all my prints, the text is often foregrounded …’


Wilma often plays with the concept of power. Who has the power and why are questions she often asks. She depicts various figures as being powerless, mute, and vulnerable. Her figures are always oversimplified, even missing a few limbs. Some lack detail in their faces. They lack identity – they are anonymous and represent the entire human race. Many are renderer mute. Humans are often seen as docile; they appear lazy and lifeless – they fail to act.  They are unaware of their surroundings and the outside world. Wilma simplifies both human and animal forms. However, her animals appear to be more aware and seem more alert. 

Sometimes she depicts women as both armless and mouthless. Leaving them unable to speak. This illustrates their inability to communicate effectively through language. Without hands to gesture and a mouth from which sound emanates, language is useless. Wilma shows us how the human body can be vulnerable and remember the pain. The body tends to store all our desires, traumas, losses, and needs. She explores what it means to be a woman artist in a world where all the old famous artists are men. 


Wilma keeps a visual diary. She scribbles and sketches all her ideas and thoughts in a journal, often jumping back and forth between concepts. Her work is very introspective; she often draws from her life experiences and memories.

Her series, known as the Alice Diaries, consists of an installation of thirty-three pages of preparatory work where the artist has recorded quotes, drawn doodles, and made observations on the novel. She has scribbled all her thoughts and ideas in a simple A3 book. 

Ève – Auguste Rodin

A sculpture that illustrates her use of her own personal life experience and feminist beliefs is Self-portrait 1992. It is the last sculpture from a series Wilma Cruise created. 

This is a series of works consisting of 

  • Nicholas – October 1990, 
  • Durban Pieta (1991 – 1993), 
  • Yellow Christ (1992-1993), 
  • and The Three Shades (1992 – 1993)

However, I would like to focus on how she depicts herself as a woman in the last sculpture. She has turned her back on the audience and tries to find solace in a wall. Her arms are folded over her chest as if she is hunched in pain and sadness, trying to comfort or protect herself. The artwork is about anger, pain, and Wilma Cruise as a female artist.

Cruise explained that as an artist, you have power; you can create and be like a god for a while. Like a god, she confronts evil only in a place where chaos reigns. The sculpture expresses a sense of vulnerability and defeat. Feeling defenceless is rooted in anger. Anger is a complex emotion; it could be a coping mechanism for vulnerability, fear, or pain. 

The famous French sculptor Auguste Rodin’s statue of Eve (1881) inspired Wilma Cruise. Rodin’s sculpture captures Eve expelled from the garden. He head is bowed, and her arms are locked over her upper torso, reflecting shame, self-exposure, and alienation. Wilma’s sculpture is not sexual but a naked, raw self-exposure of emotions. The overly simplified face depicts a loss of identity. Wilma Cruise created these works as a response to the murder of her nephew, Nicolas Cruise, in 1990.  

Her Process 

Wilma started with reading, highlighting some text, rewriting the important parts, and making quick sketches of her initial ideas. For her life-size clay sculptures, she creates hollow forms that are then fired in an oven. Looking closely at Wilma’s sculptures, you will see fingerprints and scrape marks. These statues were sculpted by hand. Her clay sculptures are sometimes used as a mould to create life-size bronze sculptures. 

Creating a bronze sculpture is quite a laborious task. It is also dangerous due to the extreme heat needed to melt the bronze. It has to be made a foundry that has all the special equipment required.

The Bronze Casting Process 

Now that you know how her work is made, let’s move on to some of the most important artworks created by artist Wilma Cruise. 

Seeing Wilma’s art  

There are a few places in South Africa where you can enjoy Wilma Cruises sculptures. There is one in the streets of Stellenbosch, two baboons on a seesaw. Then there are a few in various sculpture gardens in South Africa. One of my favourite places to see Wilma’s art is the Tokara wine farm.  

She has some public and Corporate Collections at various places.

Other Artworks by female artist Wilma Cruise you should know.  

Chanticleer. 2007 Ceramic, 150 x 170 cm.

OK, so what on earth is going on here? We have a rather large chicken, no, sorry, a rooster… standing on top of a dog. The Dog is standing on top of a human, which seems to be a woman, and she has no arms. Sorry, what?  

Here we clearly see Wilma Cruise depicting two of her beloved themes. Famous Literature and Specism. 

First of all, let’s look at the name. What on earth is a Chanticleer? (Pronounced SHON-ti-clear.) 

Chanticleer comes from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. More specifically, he comes from the Nun’s Priest Tale, a story within Canterbury Tales. The Chanticleer is a proud and fierce rooster who dominates the barnyard. For the best description of Chanticleer, we turn to Chaucer’s words. 

“For crowing, there was not his equal in all the land. His voice was merrier than the merry organ that plays in church, and his crowing from his resting place was more trustworthy than a clock. His comb was redder than fine coral and turreted like a castle wall, his bill was black and shone like a jet, and his legs and toes were like azure. His nails were whiter than the lily and his feathers were like burnished gold.” 

With all of his splendour and great looks, Chanticleer is also greatly feared and mightily respected by all.

The sculpture is also based on a fairy tale by the Grimm brothers called The Bremen Town Musicians. In the story, a donkey, a dog, a cat, and a rooster chase off a band of robbers from a cottage in a forest. They do this by standing on top of each other and creating a cacophony of their combined voices. When one of the robbers attempts to retake the cottage, the cat scratches him; the donkey kicks him, the dog bites him, and the cockerel shrieks at him. In the perception of the robbers, the animals appear as a unit and might be a witch or a giant.

The animals gain access to the cottage where they live happily ever after. Wilma remembers being told this story as a child. This famous story inspired her to create a sculpture about speciesism. Usually, humans are at the top. However, now it seems the animals have teamed up and are standing on top of the human. The human is powerless, with no arms. It seems lazy and even apathetic. Maybe it has surrendered to the fact that it is doomed and is now at the mercy of the animals. 

The dog, a Boston terrier, is looking down at the human, and the human is tilting its head up. In the gaze, they are acknowledging each other ,its is neither friendly nor affectionate. It is a moment in time when both realise the flip of power.  This sculpture makes us question our attitudes towards animals and how we treat them. Ill-treatment of animals will haunt us once our planet is completely destroyed and we can no longer live on earth. We will be rendered useless, powerless like this body lying in the water, almost drowning. 

Poor Horace: Watching The Hours (2009). Acrylic resin and mixed media, 267 x 155 x 80 cm

In this sculpture, we see two horses. Horace is standing with his feet connected to a trolley. He cannot move unless someone pushes him. His doppelganger is upside down, hanging in straps from a crane with a  pulley system being lifted off. Usually, humans celebrate horses for their grace and power. However, Horace is rendered immobile. He is anchored and relies on others to move him around. His movement has been stolen. He doesn’t moan or even make a sound; he bows his head and accepts his fate – he is no longer needed.  

Wilma Cruise is fascinated by horse training. She often references this in her sculptures. For a trainer and horse to truly move as one and respond to each other’s needs, they need to be able to read each other’s body language. It is a form of inter-specie communication. 

The Alice Diaries

For the past couple of years, Wilma Cruise has been consistently working on a series of art exhibitions, drawing inspiration from the same source. 

The book series that have inspired Wilma Cruise the most has been the Alice books by Lewis Carol. The first one was the popular Alice in Wonderland (1865). This book, Alice in Wonderland, was the first book Wilma can remember reading as a child. She has always been over fond of the story. The reason she references these books in her artworks is because of the rich human and animal relationships in them. These fantasy books are filled with strong animal characters. It is a fantasy where humans and animals can speak to each other. 

In the book, the animals have all the knowledge. The roles between humans and animals are completely reversed and flipped on its head. The animals know how wonderland works, and Alice doesn’t. 

In the upside-down rabbit hole world, it is never clear who Alice is. All sense of who she is falls away. Alice represents the entire human race. She is not even sure of her size. ‘Who are you?’ asks the haughty caterpillar, and a little later, the pigeon, who thinks she just might be a serpent, asks, ‘What are you?’ Alice does not have the answer to either question. The caterpillar’s question is significant. Who is Alice?  Who are we? Are we truly superior to animals? Do we deserve our place at the top of the pyramid? 

Wilma Cruise questions the power humans hold over animals.

The various animals also reflect familiar human behaviour back at us. The White Rabbit acts like a modern corporate executive who is forever rushing off somewhere, lamenting his lateness. “Oh, my paws and whiskers,” he cries as he rushes past the bewildered Alice. His task is urgent, but it is never made clear to Alice or to us, her sympathetic co-journeyers, what his urgent business is. 

Alice Diaries. 2012. 

This exhibition was inspired by Alice Through the Looking-Glass (1871), a novel by Lewis Carroll. It is the sequel to Alice’s in Wonderland (1865). Alice again enters a fantastical world, this time by climbing through a mirror into the reflection. There she finds that. For example, she has to run to be able to stay at one please, by walking away from something brings one towards it. In the reflective world, chessmen are alive, and nursery rhyme characters exist. 

Wilma’s Cruises’ exhibition, the Alice Diaries (2012), consists of hundreds of sculpted figures. They almost invade the entire gallery space. Each of these statues is found in the book. The main gallery area is filled with 1000 clay babies scattered around on the floor. Watching over them are a few large animal sculptures.

The babies are missing arms, and some are missing legs. Some of them are busy transforming into animals and have piggy snouts. The large animal figures loom over the babies. Silent. I just sat there and watched. This creates quite an eery feeling.  The human figures on the ground almost seem like shells or fossils; they are no longer alive. The huge animals are silent witnesses to the human condition and its suffering. 

The world of nonsense and imagination found in Carroll’s novel allows Wilma Cruise to comment on the state of society. 

The work comments on Mas production. Overpopulation. The central theme of the Alice project is that the human race is heading towards doom. It creates this anxious awareness of a total loss of our natural environment.  

Wilma’s diaries and this exhibition strive to create meaning. A desire to make sense of an increasingly dangerous and confusing world.  

It becomes clear that Wilma Cruise reread the drawing world of Alice in Wonderland as a nightmare. A threatening madness. Alice’s experience in Wonderland. A raw wasteland of abandoned babies. We are made aware of how vulnerable Alice truly is. She wonders alone through this horrifying reality. 

However, Alice is not always alone in the novel. She is guided through Wonderland by various animals. The babies are also guided through this installation by large animal sculptures. They seem like they are supervising and directing the flow of babies. 

This artwork makes us, the audience, a distant observer of all the madness. We are looking down at the floor of the gallery and not at the walls. We are observing the chaos and devastation from a ‘god-perspective.’ It also leads us to question our dominance. Her work is a parable about human-animal interactions.  Apocalyptic imagery. 

Life can be a dream or nightmare. Our task is to try and make sense of our place in it as we tumble through time together with our co-travellers – the animals whose planet we share. (Wilma Cruise, 2012)

Wilma Cruise feels she has always been an outsider looking in. Observing life from a distance. 

Likewise, the Cheshire Cat appears and disappears, sometimes leaving only his enigmatic smile behind. He knows, but just what he knows remains unclear. Like Derrida’s cat, before whom the philosopher stood naked and ashamed, the Cheshire Cat can unsettle certainty. His god-like presence and his ironic smile confuse us even more instead of creating reassurance. 

Now it is the time to recognise the rights of animals. But now it is time to fight for our world and realise that we are only a small part of the ecosystem and not at the top of the hierarchy as we once thought.

“Who are you?” said the Caterpillar.

This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation. Alice replied, rather shyly, “I—I hardly know, Sir, just at present—at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.”

“What do you mean by that?” said the Caterpillar sternly. “Explain yourself!”

“I can’t explain myself, I’m afraid, Sir,” said Alice, “because I am not myself, you see.”  

Chapter 5, Advice from a Caterpillar

Caterpillar didn’t give advice that was very helpful. 

In her artworks, Wilma Cruise often explores the issues surrounding eating animals’ flesh. The Alice Diaries 2012 has been exhibited next to some of her sculptures. In the book, Wilma scribbled some sentences from Dissertation upon a Roast Pig by Charles Lamb (1775–1834) onto the pages with images of pigs. In her series of exhibitions called The Alice Sequence, Wilma Cruise created a character she calls Hybrid Piglet. It’s a fusion between a human and a pig standing up like a human with arms firmly pressed against its sides.

The Piglet is always positioned outside the group looking in. Unlike most of Wilma’s sculptures, she has arms and mouths open in laughter. As a pig, she is destined for slaughter. However, she has a unique personality. She was laughing at what was happening in front of her in the exhibition space. Hybrid Piglet is not a human nor a pig; she is caught in between.

She also refers to Jacque Derrida’s Cat. Jacques Derrida was a French philosopher who explored how animals and humans look at each other. When humans look at animals, we look at them from a position of privilege. We are the ones naming them, interpreting them, and examining them. We never expect them to examine, analyse and judge us.     

Career and Success

Cruise has had huge success in her art career; she has had over 29 solo exhibitions, curated many others, and has been a part of countless group exhibitions. She has exhibited all throughout South Africa and various places internationally. She is also an award-winning artist who has won and placed in many awards. 


And that’s it for our video on South African female artists Wilma Cruise. I trust this video has challenged you to reconsider your ideas on how we treat animals. 

I am artist Lillian Gray and I love teaching art and art history. Remember to subscribe and ring the bell to get notified when a new video is released. Until next time. 

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