Tracing the Historical

Printmaker, award-winning visual artist, Ampersand Fellow and the Arts & Culture Trust’s ImpACT Award winner for 2015, Bevan de Wet spoke to Creative Feel’s Nondumiso Msimanga about the origins of his art.

Reading the skin like a topographical map and mapping landscape as a permeable signifier space, Bevan de Wet creates a world assembled from the snippets of memory. The self-proclaimed compulsive collector of artefacts of history is also fascinated by projections of the future. In his artwork, the printmaker manifests a matrix of images that come from the discarded pieces of memory found in objects like his family’s coat of arms and a simultaneous recollection of the imagined sci-fi universes from childhood films. ‘I’m starting with signifiers,’ he says. He is etching the fragments of memory that pervade his memory and ‘creating my own story from these.’ Since studying Fine Art at Rhodes University, he has worked with tracing the historical. He found it necessary to piece together the shards that he found on the floors of Grahamstown so that he could construct a narrative for the broken pieces; that would envision a history and a future where the objet d’art lived. As a Johannesburg bred South African, now working in his studio in the Central Business District (CBD), he sees his preoccupation as a result of living in a country where ‘everyone has more and more elements of different cultures.’
‘We’re all constantly drawing from different things and also from different times,’ de Wet says. It is necessary to deconstruct the story that makes South Africans who they are, to become aware of the signifiers in order to create a new narrative. Because stories are so ephemeral and memory so fragile, the process of archiving is significant to de Wet’s artistic practice; where a print has to be cut up to ensure that it cannot be reproduced. His signifier stories are of anthropomorphic figures that are spliced at parts. Artistically, de Wet has manufactured a novel mythology that mixes human and animal characteristics with past and future imagery. In Homo Melanoleuca the figure of a Homo genus that does not yet exist, and perhaps may have existed in an imagined past, is a patchwork of lines in linocut. The figure appears to be wearing a mask to shield the face of melancholy underneath and she is gingerly reaching out to share her emotion. Her legs are bandaged with lines in the shapes of flags from the past that are unraveling. Her body is a landscape so the portrait is devoid of background.
Now, the Ampersand Foundation Fellow (2013), ImpACT Award (2014) and L’Atelier Merit Award (2014) winner is finding himself at a ‘Transition point: First time I’m creating a landscape format.’ True to form, his new landscape work is still deconstructed and ‘they are a lot of signifiers’ but the key difference is the shift from portraits without context to landscapes without the content; of the personas. After going to New York as part of his Ampersand Foundation Fellowship in the winter of 2013 he was reminded of how small and insular South Africa is. The shift was that he created a kind of retrospective that was much larger in scale than anything he had printed before. The four metre works included about 120 pieces each and became a ‘kind of closing a chapter’. He had spent four days going through the massive Natural History Museum immersed in the ‘way of collecting and categorising artefacts. De Wet was inspired by the ImpACT Award’s perspective of awarding five young artists and five lifetime achievers toward focusing on the future. The future is where his works are heading now.
‘I like to think of it as futurist,’ he says. His landscapes are a matrix of journeys from the Vaal to Johannesburg and around the world. He says, ‘I think of it like a computer! When you download from a computer you are actually downloading little bits from a lot of people, and it kind of assembles as a new picture.’ But he is aware of the absence in the picture. His is empty of people or animals, or his unique animal-people. He feels as though he is moving backwards in time to fill in the background that his portraits were without. For him, this is not unsettling but a fitting way to work in historical time.
Time is always shifting backwards and forwards as new inventions are made. ‘I don’t know if we’re ever really in the NOW,’ he ruminates as he touches one of the pieces he is working on; calming the computer-paced-reeling of his mind. What he does know is that he is at home, in studio, in Johannesburg.

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