Matthew: I was thinking about your use of marble in ‘Hide’ and why you chose to use it. It seems to bring something very different to your work, perhaps even a new voice. What do you think it brings and have you ever thought of using it before?
Brett: I have been wanting to make works that are more personal and empathetic for quite a while. To shift the focus from an accusatory one…where there are obvious targets of my vitriol… to a more private and intimate internal focus. Although I feel I am always embedded in my 3-dimensional works…as you pointed out in your essay…where my sculptures are short and squat…like me…and this shared presence ambiguously presents me as being both satirist and satirised…the materiality needed a shift. I had produced a series of original sculptures to cast into bronze…these originals are light grey in colour…and was wondering how I could marry the different visceral tone that the lightness brings to my forms and figures by introducing a different material. My dark black and often sinister bronzes, where the material and patina are hopefully effective in counterbalancing the playful forms and irreverent subject matter, needed to be displaced and reconsidered. I was considering casting in white bronze or aluminium…or using a light alabaster stone. Sanell’s studio (Editor’s note: Brett’s wife) is next door to mine. She intuitively suggested marble. Otto du Plessis…who owns Bronze Age and has been casting my work for about 20 years …he has a studio nearby as well … also popped in for a visit. He texted me later that night and also said I should consider resolving the new works in stone. It made sense as the warmth and intimacy of a lightly veined stone could bring the kind of tonality I was looking for. So, I jumped into the unknown and sourced a few studios in Carrara and Pietrasanta in Italy and innocently inquired about producing my works in white marble. All treated me very gently and pointed out that there are literally dozens of different white marbles. So, I had to visit the studios and quarries of the region. Which was an unbelievable experience. I also couldn’t help myself with the first collaboration. We produced a large marble, commingling this exquisite, noble and possibly pious material with a monument to an immoveable redundancy: The White Elephant.
M: Before Covid-19 restrictions set in I went to a talk on Ernest Mancoba and how he and his wife, who was a sculptor, interacted artistically. His estate also uncovered audio tapes of his young son asking him hundreds of questions about his life and work. This family interaction seems to have been a large influence on his later production. Do you think perhaps the same is true of your work now? That is, do you think that your family life is more and more influencing your artist thinking and what influence has this had on your more overtly political themes?
B: Definitely. With children you start to wrestle with the contradictions of a macro and a micro vision. If you know what I mean? The larger global picture…climate change…violence…wars… the rise of right-wing fascism… identity politics and an embedded uncertainty…these are now experienced through the lens of a parent…in granular detail. Things shift from the bravado of an angry young man shouting at the world…to that of a protector. Public vs private. Your concerns are the same…but the impact is more intimate. It’s about The Family. The title piece Hide was born out of ideas of privacy, protection, sanctuary and concealment. I had wanted to clothe my two kids in ghost like sheets…and take reference photos for that work…but they are hooligans and wouldn’t have stood still … so I draped the cloths over paint tins instead. The marble work Solace is basically a portrait of Sanell and I seeking comfort with each other, embracing as the world unravels while trying to bring up our children. This might have resulted in a Cardies-like sentimentality…but I am hoping that the sculpture resonates with others empathetically. But at this stage of my life I really don’t care! The politics of the day is still never far away though. The need to hunker down is a direct response to the unfolding local and global dramas. Hopefully I describe two conjoined tales…reflecting what is happening both out there…and in here… simultaneously.
M: That’s interesting. I have been sitting trying to think of other examples of contemporary art that that are influenced by the emotions of solace and compassion. So much of the last fifty years of South African art, in particular, has been about protest and so little about reaching out and connecting. Perhaps it is, as you say, seen to be Cardies-like, perhaps even self-indulgent. But I am reminded of the last moments of art historian Kenneth Clark’s now very unwoke series ‘Civilization’. There he offers his personal views, stating that he is sure ‘that human sympathy is more valuable than ideology’. We seem to be back in a period where people place ideology before sympathy, that sympathy is, in some cases, deemed offensive. That is, that being woke is far more important to online activists than trying to communicate and understand. What are your feelings about this and do you think your work is now beginning to swim in the opposite direction to this developing culture? It seems like a strange question to formulate, but do you think your more intimate sympathetic work now might be deemed as ‘offensive’ to woke culture, as your political was to some people? Is it a kind of protest against protest?
B: Short answers to your three questions. Don’t know. Don’t know and No. But it seems like these are speculative insights rather than questions. And interesting ones to develop at that. My work has often pushed up against prevailing ideologies…and ironically in so doing has presented itself as coming from a particular ideological position. I’m too conflicted and too confused to work out what that ideology might be…and then to deny it…just don’t tell me what I can and can’t do. It’s anyone’s guess what work might or might not be offensive… and to whom. Inevitably, someone somewhere will be offended… the woke or the dead…so I just carry on as I see fit. Beyond this Hide exhibition …I am wanting to continue to make intimate works…more so as we are currently in the throes of a global pandemic…not as a protest against anything…. rather because it feels right for me now. I am reminded of work that was done in the 80’s by friends and artists who embraced a more personal and intimate narrative…going against the protest canon of what should and must be expressed…you had to reflect the violence and brutality of the Apartheid regime…something I chose to do…and only now, almost 40 years later, do I understand the impulse to focus and embody the private and personal within the cacophony of upheaval. Anyway…this is how I feel now…this Monday morning… this could change tomorrow. At heart I remain a stone thrower…
M: I wanted to ask you about the 80s and where your practice came from. I know that Bruce Arnott was your teacher/mentor. How did your work develop from his, what were your other influences and how has it been changing over the years? I also wanted to know about your text pieces. Who influenced those and how do you formulate them? Do you sit down and write a whole lot out or do they just pop into your head while you are doing other things?
B: Yes, Bruce was a significant influence on my work. I studied under his guidance while doing my Master’s degree in the late 80’s. He set up the bronze casting unit while we were there…and that certainly hooked me into bronze making. He employed me from time to time during university breaks as his assistant. I got to file, fettle and sandpaper his roughly cast bronzes to a mirror finish. Exhilarating and tough. He was old school…no electric machinery touched his works…so his forms are deeply imbedded in my muscle memory. I’m surprised the callouses on my hands have healed! He re-introduced me to Brancusi and Botero as well. Other work I was looking at was the German art of the Weimar period between the two world wars…particularly George Grosz…the Dada movement and John Heartfield’s anti -Nazi collages amongst others. This period seemed pertinent to the South African context…the rise of fascism…decadence…and resistance.
I looked at a lot of West and Central African figurative sculptures as well. Baule work from Côte d’Ivoire and the Makonde masks from southern Tanzania and northern Mozambique caught my attention. But particularly the painted wooden “Colon” sculptures of West Africa. These figurative sculptures portray colonial civil servants with pith helmets, in police and army uniforms, on bicycles, nurses and doctors and the like and are brightly painted. They are deceptively simple and elegant caricatures of colonial life in Africa and resonated strongly with me then, and still do now. I had also come across the Japanese Netsuke utilitarian kimono fasteners as well. Deliciously refined and paired down decorative mini-sculptures carved in stone, wood or ivory. Sometimes cast into metals and mostly of animals. These were some of the formal influences. The content of my work was driven by the last violent twitches… (we didn’t know it at the time) …of the Apartheid regime. The barbarity of the state, the militarised nation guided by a supposedly God ordained doctrine of divide and rule were all targets of my discourse. More so as I was supposed to be conscripted into the States armed forces as part of the brutal suppression of legitimate forces for changes. Studying bought me 9 years of freedom… I eventually had to leave the country. So, it was for me a fight against an illegitimate state…but also…a personal battle for my own freedom. Much of my artwork in the 80’s within the academic arena reflected on this struggle. One thread linking my work from then until today is this merging of the personal with the political.
Regarding the text works…it seems I have never not used text in my work! Trying to recall so far back I am sure it was the influence of Pop art and advertising in general, the work of Barbara Kruger, Jenny Holzer and Ed Ruscha. Roget’s Thesaurus was also my friend then. The first text works I produced parodied suburban house signage. The vernacular and pithy celebrations of parochial comfort such as” Kani-Klani” and” Lekker By Die See”. To this day my studio remains littered with words and statements. Sentences clog my head as potential one-liners. These to enhance my more layered and nuanced works and themes. Recently the curator/artist Karel Nel said to me that my bronzes and marbles are where my strengths lie…and that the other wall works are “mere sub-titles” to these. I went to my naughty corner and had a cry…as he had virtually knee-capped a large chunk of my practice.
I’m still trying to win him over…one word at a time.
M: One of the elements of our new age of political correctness is to do with language and the restriction of certain words and ways of expression. Do you ever think of a text piece or a work now and think that you just can’t say that, that it would cause too much trouble? Your work in ‘Hide’ is in part to do with pushing against political correctness but do you feel it is also restricting you?
B: How long have you got?! As a result of my Spear painting saga that saw attempts being made to censor my work by the state, the President and the ruling party, where bullying and death threats abounded… I will always look at political correctness and censorship with a keen, if not jaundiced, eye. That the state’s legal case fell apart spectacularly gives hope… I suppose. Dogma ate their homework…
It is up to each artist, playwright, poet, stand -up comic and the like to determine how far they want to push the envelope. It is not up to political parties, factions, religious groupings and tribal elders to determine who can and what can be made, written or thought. I spoke about this a few years ago at the launch of a book of my work in the context of the Spear debacle:
“ Oddly enough, and tellingly I think, artists do reflect and change their minds and grow and fine-tune. Ironically, there were two works that were on the original Hail to The Thief show in Cape Town that, after putting the works up and listening to various responses to them, seemed to me to fail in tone and were ineffective in reflecting what I was trying to articulate. The first was directly aimed at Zuma and after considerations came across to me as a cheap shot about education and culture. This is ironic in light of the unfolding events. The second work could be read as misdirected and metaphorically over reached musings on venality. These were, in hindsight, failed works, so I decided not to show them in Joburg on the show that caused all the problems. This is the natural way to hone your craft. To present and to reflect and to cull and to shift. To pull the various threads together, and to tighten. Like a stand -up comic’s routine, my own assessments and presentation of my work is always shifting and changing. This remains the privilege and sanctuary of the artist producing the work, and the potential cullings and distillations that these reflections might effect must be the exclusive domain of the artist, certainly not that of government organs and institutions or current political parties or factions.”
A position I still firmly hold.
The current Facebook Fascists and Twitter Nostras are acting as self-appointed cultural arbiters and McCarthy-lite determiners of what can and can’t be said, made, filmed and joked about and are attempting to further silence and censor. The past is being “cleansed”, Gone With The Wind is no longer being streamed because it apparently “celebrates slavery” …Faulty Towers, Monty Python and Little Britain…the genre shifting comedy programmes… are being censored and cut…sombreros are only allowed to be worn by Mexicans …and eating sushi is perpetrating racism and cultural imperialism… one mouthful at a time. White people wearing corn braids is now deeply offensive…a position I reject intellectually…but in my heart of hearts …it is wrong on so many levels…but each to his, her or their own I say. Musical explorations and hybrid collaborations fly in the face of these trumpeted postulations of the evils of cultural appropriations. For me these attempts to sanitise and separate culture smacks of a balkanised view of the world. This is an apartheid-like exclusivity and return to ideas of “separate development” , a project that thankfully and inevitably failed in South Africa. It’s an insanity to think you can tell culture to sit still and behave in a policed echo-chamber of sameness.
In these current narrow and short- sighted prerequisites would Ry Cooder be allowed to hook up with Ali Farke Toure, the Malian multi- instrumentalist, for fear of accusations of exploitation? Cooder’s travels to Cuba resulting in the formation of the incredible ensemble of Cuban musicians …The Buena Vista Social Club…would today be seen by the newly woke as culturally arrogant and offensive. David Byrne’s first post Talking Heads project…the lithe and goofy South American flavoured Rei Momo album would be dead in the water. And inversely, can Benin born singer Angelique Kidjo re-invent the entire Talking Heads album Remain In Light, which she has recently done with stunning effect? Billy Holiday would not have sung the haunting song Strange Fruit, now referred to as “a declaration of war” and “the beginning of the civil rights movement” in America, a song based on an Abel Meerpol’s moving poem against the violent inhumanity of racism…because the poet was a white middle class man…and apparently should have no right dabbling with the experiences of “others”. According to the later day cultural commissars, preferring, as they do, a protected, ethnically cleansed and pure vision of the world…this is now all verboten.
I am all for hybrid views and cross cultural reflections and interventions. Everyone can make, think, write and do anything about anything and anyone. You will succeed or fail depending on how effective you are in articulating yourself. How this is received will be determined by your skill, craft, your empathy, your humanity and conscience. Your work might also reflect a rude, brutal, taboo ignoring, hurtful and abrasive in your- face vision. That’s the nature of the rough and tumble world of satire, comedy and social reflections. There are, thankfully, no sacred cows. Salman Rushdie has insisted: “ The freedom of expression includes the freedom to insult.” He should know. Take it or leave it. Go next door if you don’t like what you see. It’s as simple as that. In any case the freedom of expression includes the freedom to fail. That’s how you learn and refine. Make mistakes…and take the criticism. Not through proscription and censoring. What is demanded now is pre-censorship. A kind of institutionalised monitoring of ideas that lock in and insist on an industrial strength self-censorship, resulting in the slow death of transgression and the flattening of satire. Being restricted by these sanctimonious self- anointed enforcers who insist that artists and writers etc. be allowed to reflect on and have as their subject matter people only who look like themselves will collapse imagination into a closed, bleached and humourless narcissistic enterprise. It also assumes that everyone who looks like you thinks like you. Thank god that’s not the case…believe me. Lionel Shriver, the author and cultural critic, has said that this insistence on a patrolled and strangled inventiveness would be the death of fiction.
This is not a world I want to live in… because it is not the world I live in.
Nick Cave, the lanky singer and writer, has reflected: ”Humour is the merciful oxygen that can envelope seriousness and prevent it from becoming a grim contagion that infects ourselves and those around us. True humour is the antidote to dogmatism and fanaticism, and we must be cautious of the humourless who cannot take a joke.”
Amen to that…