Thoughts on the making of the sunscreens.
I was first approached by Lewis Levin about working on a maquette for the Constitutional Court while working on mosaics at the New Metro Mall. I was in a grandly optimistic frame of mind at the time but was still taken aback when the maquette was accepted.
The sun screens are made from anodised stainless steel which were constructed in such a way that there is a random angle to the way that each plate hangs. There is also a random element to the colour of each plate, the result of how long each plate was left in a chemical bath in the anodisation process.
All of this I had little to do with. My role in the collaboration came with images on some two hundred plates. These I engraved into the anodised surface using a jeweller’s grinder. I began with a series of “histories”. These were groupings of drawings or etchings that had a common narrative element. Ideas that became musings that had about them an unfolding, comic book sense to them. This obviously helped by the square format of the anodised plates. Like blocks in a comic strip.
I have, throughout my life been an avid reader of comics and around this time I would often make my way to the Alliance Francaise in Parkview to work my way through their incredible collection of bande dessigne. The images that I was seeing in these books definitely informed my early attempts with the plates.
But then we were approached by the architects who asked whether we could, somehow involve the local community in the making of the images. There was concern that the plates would lend themselves to some vandalism. (To date the only vandalism that I have seen is a crudely drawn phallus on one plate. I am inclined to suggest leaving it in place.)
Initially I was not sure how I would involve the local community. I entertained thoughts of running workshops with local schools but it occurred to me that, having been selected, I had a responsibility to produce the work myself. This train of thought led to the idea that I should simply speak to people in the community and draw the material for the narratives directly from these conversations.
So began a series of conversations with people in the streets of Johannesburg. I spoke mostly to those that I felt most comfortable with, the poorer people, those on the margins of society. I realised as I was doing this that perhaps I was not really fulfilling the request of the architects. These were not the people who would be vandalising the screens but I very quickly realised that here I had struck upon a rich vein of narrative, one that I knew I could not ignore.
Before continuing, allow me to narrate a personal anecdote. I was once running a raku workshop at the National School of the Arts in Braamfontein. I had gone to buy something and had to get back into the grounds. I approached the locked gate of the school and banged on it. The guard who came to open was someone I had not met before. He shooed me away and I found myself completely at a loss. Then it struck me that my clothes were somewhat dishevelled, I had a long matted beard and I probably looked just like a vagrant. Only after a lot of persuasion did he open up for me and I realised that this was probably why I find myself at ease amongst the poorer people in the streets. I generally look like I am one of them.
One of the first people that I spoke to, someone called Ephraim, told me a story that was quite epic in scale and drama. He told me of his youth on the streets, mixing with the wrong people altogether and ending up inevitably, in jail. It was here, in his darkest hour that he was visited by a celestial being who told him, in no uncertain terms that he was, is, a prophet. Looking at this ragged man with his intense and piercing though bloodshot eyes, his flailing gestures and his other worldly demeanour, I was almost ready to believe him. As he spoke, images flashed in my mind and these were the images that I would eventually engrave onto the surface of the steel plates. I found myself transported into a world that was totally different to mine. I had the notion that this inner life was perhaps one of the few possessions that Ephrahim had left. Again I was struck by a particularly rich vein that had been uncovered. My doubts about the validity of my artistic voice disappeared as I became then more of an interpreter that a proclaimer.
I did not give up completely on the ruminations that seemed to surface in my own mind. In a series of panels, a city grows from nothing until it is a towering edifice before, inevitably, it collapses and returns to being nothing again. In another series of panels a drop of rain falls onto the ridge that the Constitutional Court is built on. Depending on which side it falls, it flows either into one ocean or incredibly, into another. Such realisations lend a real power to the place.
But over and over I returned to the streets and the conversations that I found there. Someone dying of AIDS who dreamt of being a trapeze artist. Another, whose parents arrived in Hillbrow with three rand to their name to give her life. A life blighted by abuse, from the janitor of the flats the family stayed in to abuse and danger in the streets of Hillbrow. A praying mantis becomes a portal to the ever present inner world.
Images persisted. A ship seen from the shore where the person looking on is unable to help. The ship is on fire and as it passes the flames and smoke pour from the stricken vessel. Did these images arise from the conversations that I was having? It is hard to say. Easy enough to impose meaning and sense but I am loathe to do so. The glance upwards to see, overhead, an airliner float silently past. As an artist it is all there waiting to be claimed and related; memory, voices heard, ideas passed. One becomes a conduit to all of this. A harvester. An interpreter.
So I worked; in the streets talking, back in my studio engraving. Inevitably the voices that have haunted me for my whole life began to be heard. “Why was this taking so long?” “When will you finish?” Even: “If you don’t finish soon, they will tear it all down!” Eventually I did finish. I have long known that my internal clock is set to a far slower time than most people. It is really no surprise to me that I am only now getting an opportunity to show in a gallery like this. Why has this taken so long? I can only answer, truthfully: “I have no idea at all.”
Eventually things do, finally, fall into place.