Tuesday, 10 January 2006 06:37

An interview with Vivian by Caroline Hooper-Box

By  Caroline Hooper-Box
Vivian van der Merwe Vivian van der Merwe

HB: How did you meet Francois?
vdM: He was a student of Fine Art, and I was a lecturer in Fine Art. That was 20 years ago, in Port Elizabeth, and from the very first moment, he made a big impression on me. I those early years Francois spoke in a very distinctive Kakamas Afrikaans that is impossible to translate; even into mainstream Afrikaans! Even as a young art student he brought some really intriguing and idiosyncratic values to visual art and art discourses. I also immediately became aware that Francois had that unique Namaqua-Afrikaner gift for social and cultural narrative.

HB: What sort of work was Francois doing when you met him?
vdM: Typically, as a young art student, he was experimenting with various media, approaches and visual idioms. His work ranged between interdisciplinary multi-media constructions and more conventional figurative painting and drawing. From the beginning, Francois' work demonstrated high levels of technical and perceptual virtuosity, but the thing that intrigued me most of all, was an underlying visual intelligence that you seldom find among young art students, even among the most talented. Francois' work was always charged with a complex uneasiness that is difficult to describe. I saw it as a kind of intense, uncompromising, sometimes dark, and visually compelling iconography that increasingly expressed a highly sophisticated visual sensibility. His obsession with questioning current conventions and trends in visual art often resulted in studio debates that were very lively, often extremely heated, always intelligent, and inevitably affirmed new and constructive insights. I believe that Francois' intense struggles during those years, yielded the first evidence of the mythography and visual eloquence that distinguishes his best work now. Those certainly were very memorable years.

HB: Why do you think you sustained your relationship?
vdM: With students of Francois' calibre you quickly realise that you're dealing with a potential peer or younger equal, something that happens very rarely. You never talk "down" to someone like that, since that would be insulting and condescending. Also, studiowork tuition is based on a one-on-one dialogue, and therefore becomes highly individual, which means that you often get to know your students intimately. Art history contains many stories of life-long artistic friendships that have developed between teachers and their former students. Thankfully, artistic dialogues such as these outgrow their institutional confines, or origins, very quickly. I suspect that we also share something when it comes to some of the deeper or tougher issues relating to South African colonialism and progressive Afrikaner identity. And we both have much in common when it comes to the nature-culture debates.

HB: How do you experience Francois as a person?
vdM: Francois is an intensely creative person, and he is driven by interesting passions and aversions. His origins are in a much misunderstood and maligned Afrikaner sub-culture. There is a distinctive linguistic-social paradigm that's often referred to in the popular media as that of the Namaqualanders. If you don't understand South Africa and Afrikaans really well, you'll never fully appreciate the complex depth, richness, subtlety and contradictions that Francois not only brings to his art, but also to his incredible sense of humour. Along with Francois, there comes a Namaqualand ethos and pathos that is almost impossible to explain or contextualise in English. Beyond the art, there's something quite formidable about Francois' sense of humour and his ability to tell stories.

HB: Do you have anything in common as artists? Are there very clear points at which you diverge? (conceptually)
vdM: I sense that we both believe, as artists, that formal/technical integrity is non-negotiable, or to put it simply: that "how well" an artwork is conceived is of primary importance. Regardless of style, intent, content, medium, or context, an artwork should be well conceived and well executed. This does not mean that one is subscribing to a formalist or academic aesthetic, it simply suggests that the artwork is a visual manifestation of visual intelligence and therefore cannot be conceived around conceptual-semantics alone. When Francois speaks about the "integrity" or "dignity" of an artwork, I am sure that he's referring to this fact. After all, there is no doubt that Francois' best works stand, without needing any annotations or justification, as autonomous and fully independent works of art. Nevertheless, given the media context/environment, the prescriptive subject matter, the content, Francois obviously works with visual narratives. His art has to include this. To what extent these narratives merely become subject matter (like still-life objects become subject matter to some painters) is a very complex question. I don't think one can merely substitute the one with the other. Our art differs in many fundamental respects, formally, technically and conceptually. But we've always had great mutual respect for each other's work.

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