Escape into the visual world of artists

by Diane de Beer
Exhibition: Various
Photos: Pierre Rommelaere, Natalie Gabriels, Henk Oets, Emma Wiemahn and provided

One of the many blessings of art festivals are the art exhibitions and everything attached to them like studio visits, workshops, interviews with the artists and daily walkabouts – most of it free.

When meeting up first thing as I entered the Stellenbosch University Museum, where the festival artist Wilma Cruise was exhibiting with one of her voluptuous sculptures, a generously rounded horse greeted me, and I realised how much I missed and love her work.

And once upstairs and confronted with the full body of her work, I’m excited about the generosity of the offering on display. She has doodled and dabbled with sketches and words, and quotes, some serious, others silly, but always thought-provoking as she shares what’s on her mind.

There are two more soul-catching horses, her familiar hulking men and adorable sheep. But also larger paintings that show especially the co-existence of humans and animals, but in a specific Cruise idiom. And it’s not that all her work makes you smile, but for me, her creativity evokes joy.

Wilma Cruise exhibition talk in the SU museum. PHOTO: HENK OETS
Wilma Cruise

From there you can enter the world of Anton Kannemeyer who had me giggling throughout. In a later talk the Bitterkomix gang (Kannemeyer and Conrad Botes) were discussing the world of woke and how Kannemeyer’s most precious commodity is freedom of speech which, depending on the current curve of society, can become precarious. But I think they’re navigating the new world with their usual finesse.

Some of the Kannemeyer bubbles: “I don’t know why people expect art to make sense when they accept the fact that life doesn’t make sense.” And  “To Donald Trump I say: Every wall is a canvas.”

The Bitterkomix exhibition down the street, in-between two coffee shops (ring the bell and go up the stairs) needs more time than I had at that moment, so I will be back. It’s more intense, in their typical style and they don’t hold back. But why would you want them to. That’s their brand and that’s why we love them. If you can’t deal with their irreverence, it’s just not your thing.

Speaking to their former lecturer (Greg Carr, head of the fine arts department, Stellenbosch University), both of them talked about the quality of the department at that time. For them it felt like home and they had found their community of like-minded people.

It probably also encouraged the creativity between the two friends to flourish in what we now know as the cult comic series Bitterkomix.

John Hogg and David Kramer at the Karoo Kitaar Blues exhibition PHOTO: NATALIE GABRIELS

But back to the Stellenbosch Museum on the ground floor where you enter, the combination of exhibitions is mind-blowing. On the one side there’s Lilian Young’s Wanted: Runaways from the series The Problem with Archives: A Portrait is Worth Our Word. Young confronts the limited scope of historical archives to truly represent the lived experiences of individuals living under oppression: In this instance the history of slavery in the US. The exhibition is a representation from a series of 100 oil and ink portraits that depict freedom seekers based on the descriptions provided by enslavers in runaway ads. Specific details like scars and predominant facial features are painted realistically while surrounded by the actual words from the ads to describe each figure. The work is ongoing as the artist feels strongly that we need to confront these difficult histories.

In similar fashion and almost as a companion exhibition, Fugitive is an ongoing series of paired digital facial compositions and graphic text panels representing individuals who escaped forms of servitude in the Cape Colony in the period leading up to and just after emancipation (1 December 1838). We know of these people from the archives of two magazines where slave owners or masters advertised for their recapture. Dr Kathryn Smith (chair, SU Visual Arts) and Pearl Mamathuba (PhD candidate in Visual Arts) are artists and forensic facial imaging specialists who are using these adverts as eye-witness accounts to capture a more realistic image of the individuals.

These two similar exhibitions point to the importance of revisionist histories because of the inaccuracies that occurred in the past due to the dismissive attitude towards especially certain races and classes. It’s worth investigating.

Evaluasies with Strauss & Co PHOTO: PIERRE ROMMELAERE
US Museum Photo: Emma Wiehman

Finally it was the turn of yet another hidden community if not for the exposure by David Kramer with his Karoo Kitaar Blues series in the early 2000’s. He introduced a group of musicians with their music to the world and for many of us, the names Tokas Lodewyk, the Mouers family and Hannes Coetzee were heard for the first time.

As their success grew and touring with David Kramer and the show, arts photographer John Hogg knew he wanted to document this historic event. He understood that the authenticity of this group of musicians was rare and if someone didn’t do something to record and archive it, the community would yet again disappear. “I would for example have loved to hear their parents play music,” says Hogg as he points to the origins of a very specific local sound which was at the centre of Karoo Kitaar Blues.

He regards the photographs as some of his most memorable work and when you see them, you can see why. He works with an artistic eye that captures the soul.

Many of the exhibitions have walkabouts and I popped in to one in the City Hall (12 Oct at 10 am) which is also the venue for the auction (12 Oct at 6pm). It’s a bonus to have a specialist take you through an exhibition while talking about the artists and their work and gives you the tools to view the individual works. It’s a treat and often at no cost.

Similarly the studio visits, which have also been introduced this year, is a brainwave. This time I travelled to Jamestown where the popular Marié Stander talked about her very successful career with many of her sketches (charcoal based) concentrate on the community and especially the children where she lives.

For her it is all about the stories and getting to know her subjects before she starts a painting. Her style is recognisable and it was fascinating to hear her talk about the business side of her career as a painter. She offers workshops as well as classes.

But there are many artists to visit. Check the information and find the work that most excites you. 

All the exhibitions will run until the end of the festival. It’s like visiting another country, don’t miss this glorious journey.

  • Art Auction
    12 October 18:00
    City Hall
  • 7 – 15 October 
  • Ongoing at different venues throughout Stellenbosch