Let’s talk about growing up in South Africa in the 1980s?
I grew up in the east of Pretoria, you could say the suburbs. Growing up was quite relaxed. In the Apartheid years, you were quite protected, so in a sense, you didn’t know about the complexities of where you were or what was going on. I, like most white youngsters, was a bit naïve. In retrospect, I can think back to childhood memories and it was a bit like growing up in the countryside. You had a certain freedom where you could just jump on your bicycle and ride around the neighbourhood without knowing the atrocities that were taking place around you.
What led you to being an artist?
I enjoyed doing arts at school but I had more interest in music. I was always thinking I was going to become a Radio Announcer/DJ.
I was enrolled at the University in Johannesburg to study communication with the aim of becoming a Radio Announcer but then I got a call-up to go to the Air Force. At the time there was a two-year National Compulsory Service and to get summoned to go to the Air Force was a rarity because you would normally get called up to go to some Battalion where you would end up on the Angolan border. Also, Pretoria was where you would do the basic training. I thought, well, that’s quite easy, because at some point you have to do it and this was the norm, especially in the Afrikaans social set-up, that would be the next thing to do. You get it done, then it’s finished, but you’re quite naïve about what the situation is.
I heard from a friend that one could become an ‘Air Load Master’. In total they had 16 places where you could be working on the airplane and be responsible for hydraulic systems, loading the aircraft, working on balance sheets or working on the flight engine. I thought that could be nice, but at the same time it was very naïve of me to think I could just become an Air Load Master, as it was rather coveted by most cadets doing National Service in the Air Force. I did the basic training and I gave an indication of what I would like to do. That [Air Load Master] was my first and last choice.
So I got it and it was rather exciting. In the late 1980s the ‘South African Border War’ was still raging and I would travel to the Namibia and Angola perimeters and also around South Africa. During this time I became enlightened in a way. I was thinking, something is weird here, what’s going on? Then gradually it dawned on me what segregation was, what Apartheid meant, and I was really angry about it all. But at the same time, it was announced that Nelson Mandela was going to be released, so everything started changing very fast. At the end of my military time I was starting to think about what I wanted to do next. Somehow the idea of going to art school emerged.
After Art School you became one of the Assistant Curators at The First Johannesburg Biennale (1995). How did that come about?
When I finished Art School the city of Johannesburg was busy planning the First Johannesburg Biennale. They invited all the art schools from around the country to nominate potential participants to do this curator’s course. Nationally they choose thirteen people and I was nominated. So, I did that for two years.
The curator’s course was fantastic because all of a sudden we were thirteen guys and girls from around the country, black and white. Art school at that time was also pretty white. I didn’t have any fellow black students, maybe in the drama department, but it was mainly white kids. And the curator’s course was mainly young black artists, poets and people from around the country. So you got to know a whole other side of the country. The Biennale was fascinating because they invited many curators from around the world to come and make a pre-Biennale tour, travelling to the main centers of South Africa to meet with artists. Overseas curators were invited to work with South Africans in an open-ended way. Fifteen of the overseas curators volunteered to take on a local trainee curator, acting as a bridge between the organisers and the ‘community’.
I ended up becoming the Assistant Curator for the Danish Pavilion. In the Danish Pavilion there was a former South African artist who moved to Denmark called Doris Bloom. She left South Africa at the height of Apartheid and studied at the Royal Danish Academy in Copenhagen. When this Biennale came she got invited to be the Danish artist and chose to collaborate with William Kentridge. I was the assistant curator and coordinator for that project. Denmark was my entry into Europe and completely the opposite of South Africa. I remember being in Copenhagen and being surprised at seeing floods of white people in the city center.
The impact of The First Johannesburg Biennale must have been quite pivotal for the presentation of contemporary art in South Africa.
Before the Biennale we were only exposed to local artists and then all of a sudden we were exposed to how international art was being presented. We were also only experiencing international art through magazines such as Flash Art and Art in America and the impact of a piece on a person is quite different to experiencing it on a page. In South Africa because we were isolated culturally we had a very limited gallery system and few arts’ associations. Before the Biennale we had a system of national competitions that would tour the country and they normally printed a small booklet or catalogue, horribly done, that you could use as a reference. I thought this was quite good, that there was some sense of an artists’ community and one was relatively well informed with regards to each other’s practice. But then all of a sudden we were introduced into a Biennale system that opened up internationally.
We were curating shows for the local museum and also doing exhibitions in empty shops. It was really an exciting time the mid-1990s. It opened a lot of doors for many people. There were also a lot of empty shops and shopping malls because all of a sudden, shops were closing and people were moving out of some areas because they were afraid of the influx of black people into cities. In terms of the art, it was quite special in a way. Artists did things everywhere. I don’t know how we did it with no budgets, mostly working for nothing.
At the end of Apartheid many people were scared not knowing what was going to happen. The youth were more optimistic, but the older generation was scared because now the 'enemy' was taking over – the 'enemy' was supposedly the communists and the ANC. The ANC dropped communism very fast. It is clear if we look at South Africa today there are hardly any signs of the former Communist Party allegiance.
In your opinion what happened to The Second Johannesburg Biennale?
I think they overspent the budget pretty fast and they wanted to close it down. People at the institution managed, with great difficulty, to keep it open. After The Second Johannesburg Biennale the whole structure collapsed. The person who was the Director of Art and Culture in Johannesburg wasn’t the director anymore, and the next Director didn’t share the same vision. Which wasn’t all that bad as it made way for artists and creative workers to come up with new strategies and ideas.
While teaching at the Tshwane University of Technology in Pretoria you converted a projection booth into a gallery space and invited international artists to exhibit. Tell me how that space happened?
I was frustrated at the University. It was an Art School and they used to have a gallery but then they didn’t have a gallery, instead there was a sewing machine museum. There was some crazy story about someone donating a bunch of sewing machines to the University and the space, which could have been a gallery, but was occupied by old sewing machines. It was a bit bizarre, but the Dean accepted it. So I said I wanted this small projector room that was at the back of an old school hall. Literally a projector room of about 3.5 meters by 3.5 meters – a little cube perfect for putting forward a plethora of ideas on a low budget.
In 2005 you initiated Modern Art Projects (MAP) – South Africa by partnering with an art collector to exhibit works in unexpected places. The project has now expanded to include a residency for artists in the Karoo desert. How did that partnership occur?
In 2004 collector Harrie Siertsema bought a piece of mine. He has a hotel that also has a gallery space in Graskop, which isn’t too far from Kruger National Park. He always had some pieces of his collection at his small chain of restaurants called Harrie’s Pancakes, which are in Pretoria, and in the smaller more touristy towns of Cullinan, Dullstroom and Graskop. I went to install the piece at the Graskop Hotel and we started chatting. We discussed that he wanted to do exhibitions not only in his gallery but also in his restaurants. I said, “Well, as artists, I don’t necessary want to exhibit in a restaurant because it’s basically decorating for your restaurant. However, on the other hand, it is a nice way to open the work up to the public”. The architecture in the spaces is normally quite nice and there are always big walls for some nice sized pieces. And I said, “Why don’t we develop a project where the artists also get the benefit of a small publication, whether that is a book or a z-fold, so that the artist could use this printed matter”. We eventually decided on a small square publication for each artist that goes on the tables, the artists also receive an amount. One hundred are stamped and numbered as well as signed by the artists, which is then presented to collectors and curators. The idea was that we would develop this project and I would coordinate and curate it for him. I’m still doing it from here and since 2005 to date we have done 63 publications.
This is just one of the projects that you are working on that is based in South Africa, but there are more. What was the catalyst for your move to Berlin?
I met Ella Ziegler when I was doing a residency in Sierre, Switzerland and she was doing a fellowship at the same institution. She moved to South Africa to be with me and our children were then born there. There are many stories about living in South Africa that could horrify any human being. I was hijacked at gunpoint in 2002 and I also lost all my equipment three times over. Also a mid-wife with whom we were in contact with, was raped with her child next to her while her husband was locked up in the bathroom, that kind of thing. So for Ella, who prior to us meeting in Switzerland, was based in Berlin, this was outrageous. One of my assistants would go and help her at times and they would walk the streets pushing the pram and the local men on the corner would speak to my assistant in the local language and tell her, “You must be careful, you can’t be walking the same routes, people will notice”. So that sort of fear was installed. Eventually we came home one evening and our security door and gate was standing open. All our equipment was gone, and Ella was completely in a state, so I said, “Let’s just move”, because the option was there. We could have stayed there and she could have lived in fear the whole time, but it wasn’t necessary.
You recently returned back to South Africa. Did you also go back this time for your own work?
When I go to South Africa, usually two to three times per year, one aspect is to work on Modern Art Projects – South Africa, which we recently registered as a non-profit organisation. I work on various aspects, whether that is to plan or install exhibitions, or on building a stronger focus on our residency program in the Karoo town of Richmond. I also use these times to continue collecting images. I constantly collect images, whether it is specifically traveling to South Africa, or another country or whether that’s on a holiday. I somehow have to use opportunities or possibilities or situations when they happen. I can’t just go on a three-week trip to Namibia, which would be fantastic to do. I don’t have that luxury at the moment because I have a family. If I take ten days to go to South African to meet with collectors, my gallerist, other artists or publishers, I often have to make images in those in-between moments. I may have half-an-hour in-between doing something or meeting someone and I can walk down the street and look at something. Sometimes it’s also looking at the history of a place afterwards. I want to say that I prefer doing that. It’s nice to be informed, but sometimes, it’s nicer to have a raw experience. You see something, sometimes it’s just a scratch on the wall, and you make the picture. But then later you discover, say with my pictures of Lisbon that it was actually a communist area. So you start joining the dots and see how it links up. Maybe for example photographs that I took ten or fifteen years ago traveling in Mozambique might link up to pictures that I am taking now. So it’s interesting for me to discover the histories that took place without my even knowing.
In one of my earlier works I photographed an area on the periphery of Pretoria and the street that runs between the informal and the formal settlements. One day I found these chairs broken in the sun, the aftermath of some accident. At first, I didn’t know what the accident was about. I was just attracted to the visual element, the ambiguity, the white plastic pieces lying about and the soil. I found out that these chairs flew off the back of some event company truck and broke from the impact. I also found out that it is at this point people cross between the settlements and that there is no traffic light. So people start speeding from either direction, and sometimes get killed. But that is not why I took those pictures. I quite like not always knowing immediately the situation. I like the idea of discovering. I like the idea of more one-on-one sharing of stories, as opposed to me stating that this is it. So in a sense you have to make your own connections. It’s also how we experience the world around us in a way.
With your images you always include the location in the title, so although sometimes the images are quite abstract they are rooted in reality.
It’s a constant battle with myself, whether I should put them in or not and I do like the ambiguity between fiction and reality. But it’s important for me to point out a specific place so that the viewer can make a connection. Or the viewer could say, “Oh, that’s what it looks like there”, or “That looks very similar to where I’m from”, etc. Sometimes it’s like that. For that reason, I like to make that note that it is this place, somehow taking it away from fiction. It is real. It is a document. It’s a photo documentary like a [David] Goldblatt except that Goldblatt sees my work as being obscure. In conversation Goldblatt told me that he likes the word Oblique, referring to my publication with the same title, remarking in the same breath that he finds my photos obscure. In reply I said “I take it as a compliment thank you”.
Interview Berlin 2015