After creating a body of work with over fifty pieces, respected contemporary artist Christiaan Diedericks sits down with Masego Panyane to chat about his latest exhibition, "In Search of a New King," that will be on at the Melrose Gallery from May 10 to June 9. He shares his thoughts on the state of contemporary arts and his feelings on it, the exhibition itself and the relationship between the arts and ordinary South Africans.
The title of the exhibition is quite poignant. Please tell me how it came about?
Music is my daily companion and an inspiration in my studio, I cannot work without listening to music. In doing so and loving the music of both Ismael Lo and Marianne Faithful, the song Without Blame by these two artists borrowed the title for my upcoming solo exhibition In search of a new King. Without Blame was written by: Roger Waters, Ismael Lo and Etienne Roda-Gil in 1996.
Over the past few years I became acutely aware that since the colonialists arrived in South Africa our country battled with proper leadership on various levels, we have experience as a nation slavery, colonisation by not only the British, then the horrific years of Apartheid followed, and currently, after becoming a democracy in 1994, we are dealing with unfathomable corruption by our current government and the grim reality of Xenophobia. Crime and racism is out of hand. All people are free and have equal rights but did anything really change for the poor? We have been without a good, fair, honest "king" (or queen) for far to long. We seem to still battle poverty, racism, inequality and hence in my opinion have no alternative but to "search for a new king" (or queen!). Madiba could have been exactly that, had he not been in prison for 27 years. I personally believe the TRC was a mere band-aid on an open wound and people are currently more angry than before. Is the countrywide protests at this very moment, the recent student uprisings at various universities and a general mood of unrest in South Africa not testament to the latter?
I then started reading, I myself went "in search of a new king". I researched the actual history of our continent, not the one-sided nonsense we were fed in school during the Apartheid years and discovered many truly amazing facts such as the commonly peddled myth that exists in the minds of most – that being the one relating to the primitive and savage Africa that the colonising Europeans “discovered”, civilised and then developed. Of course, much of this commonly accepted those same colonialists have written history, but the truth is that large portions of Africa were not that far behind Europe at the time that Europeans began arriving.
One of the themes that is said to be recurring in this body of work is the question: What is wrong with Africa today. In grappling with this question, how did this influence your work?
Just a thought before I answer this question: This body of work comes from a very true and honest place – my journey was rather difficult and challenging but hugely rewarding. I rid myself of so much (white) guilt, opened my heart and grew at the speed of light!
After recently deciphering Colonialism and Neocolonialism by the French author Jean-Paul Sartre (a complex text), I felt compelled to investigate and visually comment on the terrible legacy of Colonialism and Post-colonialism in my latest body of work. By doing so, I have come to the unfortunate realisation that many white South Africans do not want to be confronted by and/or engage in any honest debate about Colonialism and or Apartheid. The most common answer simply seems to be: "it is not my fault, I am not to blame, it was my forefathers". This angers me, I believe we all have a collective responsibility for the past, present and future. The song Without Blame, the spark for the exhibition title, is therefore even more poignant in this context.
The author Frantz Fanon, also known as Ibrahim Frantz Fanon, was a French West Indian psychiatrist, philosopher, revolutionary, and writer from the French colony of Martinique, whose works are influential in the fields of post-colonial studies, critical theory, and Marxism had a massive impact on my thinking, especially after reading his book: The Wretched of the earth.
Furthermore, as a meta-narrative in my work, and since I almost always interlace more than one narrative in my work; In search of a new King also investigates other, more contemporary understandings/interpretations of colonisation as such. In many of these works, I slyly comment on the colonisation of a person/people’s mind, body, intellect, gender, sexuality, race, etc. The truth is the world continues to involve relations of domination and exploitation, under new names such as “globalisation”, "tribalism" and “difference” for example.
In the simplest way possible, how could you describe the art work? What materials and what medium is it?
There is a wide variety of work on this exhibition: oil paintings, mixed media works, printmaking and ceramics. I get bored very easily and keep my muse entertained by switching rather comfortably between media. My work is normally densely layered with many possible readings, narratives and concepts interwoven into a single work. Some works, such as my ceramics on this exhibition is deceptive. These works are beautiful at first glance, but that beauty is devious, every single ceramic work is an urgent reminder, warning or reprimand – pure poison disguised in an alluring flask. I can draw, and solid drawing skills will always excite me.
My solid drawing skill is evident in all my works on this solo. However, I am currently fascinated with the monotype as medium. I enjoy the freedom of mark-making and this medium affords me a looser approach to my image-making and helps me to overcome my OCD when it comes to perfection and drawing ability. This technique made me realise that there can be such beauty in an unplanned spontaneous drawing/brush-mark too. I have witnessed exactly the opposite in the contemporary art world over the last few years and especially at the last Venice Biennale (and other international art platforms) for example. "Bad drawing/painting" seems to be en vogue at present. I have often been accused of being an "illustrator", as if we have not surpassed the "clear category boundaries" many moons ago. I am quite frankly in awe by the work of the "illustrators" in graphic novels.
How many pieces are in the exhibition?
There are more than fifty works on this solo exhibition. I would comfortably say that it is my most important exhibition to date.
I am slowly growing into my skin and am obsessed with finding ways to "be in the moment" life is very unpredictable and the only constant is change.
I am trying to live a mindful life, make every day count and leave a soft footprint on our planet. My entire studio is already non-toxic and even my oils paints and etching are are water-soluble and hence environmentally friendly. I slowly transformed my studio into a more healthy workspace after attending a conference and workshops in non-toxic printmaking presented by Prof. Keith Howard at the Grande Prairie Regional College in Alberta, Canada in 1998.
In the entire exhibition do you have a piece that speaks to you more than the others? If yes, what is it called and why?
I obviously like all the work on this exhibition, they are my creations. The full collection took nearly two years of very hard work to complete and curate. However, the centre-piece These bones will rise again a massive monotype in three panels (in one frame) more than two metres wide is one of the biggest and the most ambitious monotypes I have ever made. The title for this work was inspired by a book with the same title by Zimbabwean born author Panache Chigumadzi.
You worked with Melissa Goba on curating the exhibition. What was that experience like?
We are only chatting at this point and she is still in the process of writing her curatorial essay for the catalogue and planning the curation of my exhibition. However, although busy, Mel is friendly, approachable and hugely private just like me, I like that! I believe her curatorial strategy will spark new debates and fresh valid points of entry to the reading of my conceptual intent for In search of a new King. This exites me, I believe that any artwork should always remain open to new input and interpretation, the latter adds to the conceptual richness of the visual text. The artist’s intent or meaning in my opinion is only one perspective or reading. Her curatorial strategy at this point will focus on the importance of peripheral voices such as my own who have a vested interest in the future of our country and our world-class constitution protecting the rights of all peoples, especially now, just before the elections.
Art in SA is often relegated to being something for only certain people. How do we, in your opinion change this perception?
I do not think this will ever change Masego, there are many "art worlds" in our country and globally, it is up to people (and artists) to place themselves wherever they feel comfortable (E.g Conceptual -, contemporary -, traditional -, academic -, street -, commercial art). People will attend and view whatever is of interest to them. For example, a housekeeper might be interested in street art, a doctor in commercial art and a small business owner in very conceptual art etc. Tastes differ, intellects differ, interests differ, we can never be all the same, can we? White people might buy work by black artists, black collectors buy from white artists and so on.
Not all art will ever interest everyone, we are all different, is that not the beauty of the human race? Also, mediocre artist’s might become super famous and rich and the most talented artists poor and unknown. Furthermore, the world is fuelled by the media (especially social media these days), perception, fashion, fakery and the majority of people buy into that, only a hand full of people globally. Art is often also the playground of the rich, while poor people just worry about a next meal. I often say to my friends: philosophy is a luxury for the privileged. Also the human race is incapable of Utopia but that will not stop me as an artist to speak up and attempt to make the world a little better by getting people to think, ask questions, debate and come together united as one race: the human race, irrespective of race, gender, class, sexual orientation, social standing, etc.
However, if I am totally honest I have to admit that I feel rather clueless at present about the "contemporary art world". I sometimes look at a little heap of rubbish in the corner of a "white cube gallery" and think: WTF! (do not print this! Hahahaha) what the heck? I do not believe making art can ever be a competition, there are a myriad of strong varying voices in the contemporary South African art landscape and they are all valid. I really just want to make my work to the very best of my OWN ability and make the "best" work I possibly can. Anybody can be an artist and the question or imposed "good/bad" value system does not carry any longer. "Good/bad" according to whom? Taste? Popularity? Price? Really expensive art is immediately perceived as "good" by many educated academics and collectors – go figure!
– For people who wouldn’t traditionally go to a gallery to experience this work, what could you say to them by way of encouraging them to go through and see it?
Art undoubtedly influences society (us) by changing opinions, instilling values and translating experiences across space and time. Resistance Art during Apartheid in South Africa is a brilliant example. Research has shown art affects the fundamental sense of self. Painting, sculpture, music, literature and the other arts are often considered to be the repository of a society’s collective memory and purpose.
Lastly a civilisation is a complex culture in which large numbers of human beings share a number of common elements. Historians have identified the basic characteristics of civilizations. Six of the most important characteristics are: cities, government, religion, social structure, writing and art. The appreciation of art and culture hence makes us civilised.
* In Search of a New King will show at the Melrose Gallery from May 9 to June 9. Visit the gallery’s website here.