The fragmented language of collage

The Art of Performance is a monthly column written by Dave Mann, an editor and award-winning arts journalist.

The collage forms an important, but often overlooked role in the realms of visual art. It’s provided a longstanding metaphor for the advents of mass-production and consumption, as well as notions of the readymade, the fragmented, in our daily lives.
     The writer, academic and theatremaker Jane Taylor recently highlighted to me, South Africa’s particular preoccupation with archival information, explaining that this is partly due to our desires to fill in the gaps, or correct the skewed versions of history created by colonial and apartheid legacies. But we also hold a distrust for the archive, and in this way, the archive can be seen as something that’s taken in fragments – picked apart and rectified, or used for only its more vital parts.
     Technology, the internet, and social media have also played their part in these fragmentary and disproportionate access points to information. Not in the way of an information overload, because the world’s libraries were just as rich and full before we gained the internet, but more so how we engage with that information. Social networks allow anyone with an internet connection to access or add to information archives, contributing their own narratives or ways of understanding to a particular history or narrative in a way that’s faster and more accessible than ever before. But there are also factors that can limit our access to a broader consumption of information, such as self-curated timelines or invisible algorithms that collect our reading or viewing patterns before processing and feeding them back to us in the form of adverts, suggested links, or even AI-generated prompts in our Gmail accounts.

language of collage
Billie Zagewa Stolen moments, 2017. Silk tapestry, 119cm x 138 cm. Courtesy of the artist and blank projects

     All of this considered, I think collage can be seen as a medium that’s crucial to our understanding of history, fragmented realities and experiences, and the ways in which we engage with various forms and streams of information. Collage art in South Africa ranges from traditional cut-and-paste techniques, to the increasingly prevalent digital collage art. Many of these artists explore notions of history, memory, identity, consumption, performance, and more through their work.
     Cape Town-based artist Jody Paulsen employs felt in his works, many of which have been exhibited both locally and abroad. Paulsen’s work is also a stunning example of collage as a direct response and resolution to the notions of consumerism, identity, and mass-production. Through the use of felt, which Paulsen says complements his love for play, craft, and hobby, the artist makes use of various pop-culture iconography, logos, and advertising clichés to deliver a simultaneously wry and flamboyant collage technique. Paulsen’s work also includes various fonts, often taken from fashion and fast food brands. When I interviewed the artist in 2016, he explained how his work is a result of his daily thoughts, observations and interactions with contemporary media and society. Once resolving or condensing these thoughts, he said, the work would begin to take shape.
     ‘I tend to have obsessive thoughts, which I record quite meticulously in my diary every day. I collage these thoughts into a text similar to the way one would write a poem. Once I have resolved the text in my diary, I start recreating the text in felt. I give the text another edit and then I start sourcing imagery that resonates with my text. Once I have all of these elements, the work becomes a puzzle.’
     Another artist who takes a fascinating approach to collage is Cape Town-based Sitaara Stodel. Stodel has a background in photography and her relationship with the medium is evident in her collage works. ‘I tend to make collages about my memories, and memories are often blurred into each other, or fabricated from a photograph you saw or a dream you had,’ the artist explains in a 10and5 article about her work. ‘So for me, the surrealist nature of collage lends to the work I create around memory.’

language of collage
Jody Paulsen, Emotional Ninja, 2015. Felt Collage. 250 x 236 cm

     Stodel’s collages make use of repurposed and manipulated photographs – some found, others her own – and can even be said to veer into the realms of assemblage through her use of layered, 3D pieces and fragmented imagery. Some works stand out like pop-up books, while others resemble terrains and topographies. Perhaps my favourite thing about Stodel’s work is the way in which it lends a strong textural and seemingly tangible element to something as intangible as memory, melancholy, or whimsy.
     Olatunji Sanusi is another artist who works with collage techniques to brilliant ends. Known for his large-scale works of African cultural icons, Sanusi uses multi-coloured pieces of paper sourced from magazines and other printed media to create intricate portraits. ‘I don’t think I go a day without pasting paper onto canvas,’ the artist explains in a Creative Feel interview earlier this year. ‘Even on the weekends, if it’s just for five or ten minutes, I’ll be working with paper.’ While Sanusi’s work doesn’t feature much of the composition of traditional collage works, close viewings of his works reveal an impromptu cohesion between the readymade, the free-spirited process of cut-and-paste techniques, and the written word. In one of his works, strips of paper used to form a woman’s shirt collar, for example, feature the words ‘heritage’ and ‘inspirational’.
     ‘A lot of the time that comes about naturally,’ he explains. ‘I don’t go out looking for specific words or phrases, but they’ll present themselves to me.’
     Before 2018 FNB JoburgArtFair Featured Artist Billie Zangewa began creating her signature silk collage pieces, she experimented with printmaking and sculpture, the influences of which are evident in her work today. Zangewa’s collages deal with the introspective gaze and often look at the effects of technology in daily human interactions, as well as performativity in city and urban spaces.
     Digital artist Tabita Rezaire draws on collage techniques in her videographic and printed works, many of which result in a kaleidoscope of identity, wellness, technology, spirituality, and history. Rezaire’s videos can, at times, feel like a brief and overwhelming trip to the far corners of the internet, or perhaps the mind of a contemporary internet-user.
     Above all else, I enjoy the medium of collage for its sense of play, as well as its accessibility, both to those who view it and those who practice it. Now, in the times of fake news, sponsored posts, pop-up ads, and the same fascination and curiosity with history that’s always been around, collage may be a medium that’s more vital than ever.