A few grey clouds threaten an otherwise clear day in Johannesburg, and in Lorentzville, a growing community of artists, traders, and environmentalists are busy making the most of an afternoon outdoors at the Victoria Yards complex. At the far side of the complex, where a construction team are hard at work, the front doors of Hannelie Coetzee’s studio remain open to the noise and the commotion of the day. Inside, Coetzee’s busy manipulating thin twists of metal for one of her Wildebeest and Swarm sculptures.
‘I’m just finishing up here,’ she says, tools in hand. ‘Why don’t you take a seat so long?’
Coetzee, whose work has been sporadically and temporarily occupying Johannesburg’s public spaces for the past decade, moved into her new Victoria Yards studio at the start of 2020. The space is filled with sculptures and prints, and dotted with rogue succulents – some with tangles of watery roots in glass jars, others taking up residence on the wall. The latter are Coetzee’s ‘Wild Wall tiles’ – small planters designed for vertical succulent gardens that, when installed en-masse in Sandton in early 2020, became a large-scale pixelated portrait titled Muse II, Wild Wall I.
Outside, near the door, are a few tonnes of sandstone slabs Coetzee found discarded at Freedom Park some years ago. Originally piled into a small dwelling that occupied a bit of public space at the Johannesburg Art Gallery and titled Uitpak/Unpacking (2010), the stones have recently been relocated to Victoria Yards and now invite the viewer to enter and engage with the open-top semi-circle sculpture.
These two works, Uitpak/Unpacking and Muse II, Wild Walls, are useful markers of progress in Coetzee’s career. For more than a decade now, Coetzee’s been creating art that’s both for installation in public space and inspired by these spaces themselves. Back in 2009, when she was working out of fellow artist and early collaborator Usha Seejarim’s studio in the South of Johannesburg, Coetzee was just beginning to experiment with a hands-on approach to art, having worked as a photographer in the years prior.
‘I was just going to stay for three months and try it out. I was still a photographer then and it was during the financial recession when I didn’t have any work coming in. It was a similar lull to this [pandemic], actually,’ she says.
For most of 2009, Coetzee busied herself with what would become Oumagrootjie (2010) a public mosaic piece after Coetzee’s great grandmother’s image. It was also during this time that the artist was making sense of her relationship with art, with the city, and with her own personal history.
‘I started asking questions. I came out from behind the camera…being naturally curious about the stuff that I was picking up. I’ve always collected stone when travelling, looked at stone in the landscape, but I never actually worked with the material, physically, I just photographed it. I was at arm’s length with life in a sense,’ she says.
This move to a more material-based practice led to Coetzee exploring the city on a deeper level. She reinvented herself as an artist working in public space – sculptures, mosaics, gravures and more began to occupy the city in varying levels of scale, location and impermanence – and in later years, a studio in Maboneng during its ‘hey-days’ complimented her proximity to the ebb and flow of the city. Through working with these materials and mapping the city in this way, Coetzee was also making sense of her place in the world. Deep dives into notions of identity and belonging took the form of what Coetzee calls ‘digging’.
‘When I started working through my family issues and my ancestry and identity, I was digging,’ says Coetzee. ‘I was in therapy, I was sorting my head out, trying to figure out life, and at the time the digging was the making sense of life and family history. I just didn’t stop digging and I got through the concrete in the city and hit the next layer – the ecology was just sort of the next thing.’
An MSc at the Wits Animal, Plants, and Environmental Science School with an interest in honing science as a medium in artworks that connect people, is one of Coetzee’s latest steps toward this new layer, as is the NPO Water for the Future that she’s co-founded with activists Romy Stander and Paul Mackenzie. One of the main projects currently being driven by Water for the Future is a clean-up of the Jukskei River, part of which runs through Victoria Yards itself, as well as building up plant walls along the corridors of the river, using indigenous and endangered plantlife as a means of water purification and sustainability.
It’s through this marriage of visual art, materiality, public space, ecology, and conservation, that Coetzee’s practice has found a home. A proclivity towards recycled or discarded organic materials such as wood, stone, and metal (plastic once, but ‘never again’ says the artist) has long seen Coetzee working with the notions of sustainability and humankind’s relationship to the environment, be it in the city, the forest, or the veld. Her recent project, Die Noute/The Narrowing (2019) is a profound, large-scale public installation that makes use of white granite from the Kalahari and places it in the city in order to provoke a number of questions about nature and humanity alike. Situated at the Sandton Gate Precinct, Die Noute/The Narrowing is a series of 90 granite pillars that mirror the widening and narrowing of the land from which it’s taken. The work prompts its audience to view through the act of walking, providing a stark yet contemplative journey through its stretch of raw, natural material transplanted into the bustling city. Relationships between natural and built environments, as well as our own engagements with these environments, are some of the more overt provocations that come with walking through the work.
‘When you walk through The Narrowing you are almost held. The city is outside of you, but the sound changes, the light changes because of the white stone around you. It’s these little enclaves that create levels of comfort and discomfort,’ explains Coetzee.
Along with Muse II, the artwork is one of a series of large-scale public works set to be installed at the publicly accessible Sandton Gate Precinct in a project that seeks to both weave together the walkways that run through the Precinct and provide a series of artworks for public engagement.
As we wrap up the interview, Coetzee invites me to take a look at Water for the Future’s ‘outdoor office’ – a small, open area between two studios with a gate that leads out to the Jukskei catchment area. We exit through the gate and stop on a small bridge, watching the water flow below with the occasional plastic bottle and chip packet caught up in its stream. Coetzee talks about her recent journey below the city, following the subterranean tunnels of the Jukskei in search of the eye of the river. She talks about the NGO’s plans to elevate the eye, purify the river, study its contents and make all of this information publicly accessible.
Listening to Coetzee talk, I’m reminded of the importance of art in the broader social, economic, and ecological systems and structures of society. Similarly, of the need for play and experimentation across these disciplines and systems in order to find new ways of tackling the increasingly urgent issues we face in the contemporary world. Because what would happen if creative methodologies were introduced to the practice of spatial planning, or if artists, mathematicians, and philosophers were invited to apply their minds to the climate crisis? For artists like Coetzee, who prize curiosity and solutions-based ways of working, the questions never really stop. There is much to be done, yes, but hardly anything that cannot be achieved through a committed and collaborative effort. The trick, it seems, is to keep digging.