As a fine artist, how are you contributing to the Good Good Good collection at the SA Menswear Week?
About three months ago I was approached by Daniel Sher of Good Good Good. He had seen an exhibition of mine that I had recently opened at the Hazard Gallery in Johannesburg. Inspired by the “snake abstract” motifs I was then exploring in screen prints, stained glass sculpture and mural work, he asked me if I would be interested in creating a capsule collection to premier at SA Menswear Week. I created an all over printed fabric that has been made into shirts, shirts and trousers, created hand-painted fabric for parka jackets, and graphic t-shirts inspired by the life and archive of my late grandfather, one of South Africa’s top snake catchers and reptile experts.
How has your experience working on a clothing line been?
In my years as student at Michaelis School of Fine Art, I was fascinated by the symbolic power of fabric. I made many artworks out of various kinds of material - particularly the old South African flag - from things like Apartheid-era army uniforms and vaalkomberse. It has been incredible to pick up on that line of exploration again. I have really enjoyed the process of taking a the “snake abstract” motif and transforming it into something that can be worn, not just hung on a wall. The first time I walked into the factory where the Good Good Good garments are made I was hit by a great feeling of awe and surprise. This was combined with a sudden, deep appreciation and magic affinity for the enormous collaborative process that it takes to produce just one item of clothing.
Why the snakes? And has it been important for you to establish a strong and recognisable visual language with the snakes?
My grandfather John Wood was one of South Africa’s most prominent reptile experts, snake catchers and snake show-men. Over a period of sixty years he caught thousands of snakes, spiders, scorpions, lizards and frogs for both medical research and the development of snake and spider antivenoms. Wood was a prolific poet, photographer and filmmaker, and shared his great passion for reptiles through these mediums as well as with his traveling snake show, which toured the country from the 1950ies to the 1970ies.
The snake motif was something that first occurred in linocuts for an exhibition that I made in homage to the life of my grandfather held at SMITH Gallery at the end of 2015.
Are you interested/planning on any other themes?
With each creative project that I take on, my methods of working and the appearance of the art naturally alter. This is something that is seldom pre-planned. I am currently working on a series of large-scale sculptures made from carbon fibre. At the end of March this year I will make my debut in theatre as the writer and director of “Song of the Sea”, a musical performance commemorating the 100th year anniversary of the sinking of the SS Mendi. The SS Mendi was a troop carrier in WW1 transporting members of the Native Labour Contingent to Europe, dispatched to aid the Allied war effort on the Western Front. En route to France their ship sank in the English Channel in February 1917, killing 646 of the men on board - 607 black troops, 29 crew and 10 white officers - the greatest loss of life through accident in South African naval history.
Good Good Good is extremely excited to have showcased its first runway collection at the recent Lexus SA Menswear Week AW17 Collection. The collection features a standalone Good Good Good collection as well as a collaborative capsule with the very talented Cape Town artist, David Brits.
For the collaboration, Brits created a series of all-over prints and graphics inspired by snakes and reptiles. A large portion of Brits’ recent body of art revolves around exploring the life of his late grandfather, John Wood, who was one of South Africa’s most prominent reptile experts, snake catchers and snake show-men. Over a period of sixty years Wood caught thousands of snakes, spiders, scorpions, lizards and frogs for both medical research and the development of snake and spider anti venoms.
“After I received the call to showcase at SA Menswear Week, I decided that part of my collection should involve collaboration with a South African artist,” said Daniel Sher, Founder and Creative Director of Good Good Good. “ Even though we had not yet met, I had been admiring David Brits’ work for some time. Then after David’s solo exhibition at The Hazard Gallery in Johannesburg, I reached out to the director of The Cosmopolitan, Jonathan Freemantle, who very kindly put us in touch. David was instantly enthusiastic to collaborate on the capsule and he has maintained this attitude throughout our period of working together. It’s been inspiring to collaborate very closely with someone who is so passionate and hard working, and it amazes me that he does this all while wearing a big and genuine smile.”
To download the images please visit: http://ramp.sdr.co.za/
For more information on GOOD GOOD GOOD please visit: http://goodgoodgood.co.za/
A recent collaboration I did with BLAC Designs. See the full series at www.shopblac.com
This project takes inspiration from an artistic method that South African multi-media artist David Brits first explored whilst in residence at the St Moritz Art Academy, Switzerland. Here the artist was mentored by renowned contemporary artists, Danielle Buetti and Marcel van Eeden.
Encouraged to engage with the impressive mountains and natural splendour of the surrounding area of St Moritz, Brits was struck by the beauty of the alpine flowers that he encountered on his daily walks. He began a collection of mountain plants and started to make high-resolution scans of them in his studio. A scanner, he discovered, was a marvellous tool for making pictures of three-dimensional objects. The results were both magical and surprising.
This method of working was further explored in the Slough Series (2015), ghostly images of snake skins, that were exhibited as part of Snake Man, the artists’ third solo show held at SMITH Gallery, Cape Town.
In Brits’ collaboration with BLAC, each image features one of BLAC’s Edition 6 bags superimposed within scenes of mystical foliage. BLAC founder and creative director Hamzeh Al Farahneh and David wanted to combine their two disciplines in a creative and novel way. The result is a series of beautiful images showcasing the Edition 6 bags and bringing them to life with great depth and detail.
“I’ve been a fan of David’s work for a very long time and it is a great honour for me to work with him on the first instalment of BLAC’s artist collaborations for 2017,” said Hamzeh Alfarahneh, Founder and Creative Director BLAC. “With these projects, we aim to align BLAC with artists and expand our footprint in the arts community. I have always seen BLAC as a brand that is an outlet for artistic expression and not a typical fashion label. We only work on a project basis and don’t follow the fashion calendar.”
I was chosen as the featured artist for the most recent edition of Jackie Burger's Salon 58, held at the very beautiful P.J. Olivier Art Centre in Stellenbosch. I created a large-scale mural during the event.
1K 5.0 (Fifth Edition) is a limited, itinerant point of sale. During 1K, established artists sell purpose-made work for R1000.00 in order to identify a new generation of collectors and inject liquidity into the market. 1K is not a gallery or a space. It is not a company or business. It is the limited appearance and disappearance of a set price point on street level for one hour.
The fifth 1K event will occur in front of City Guns, 57 Hout street between Long and Loop from 6 to 7pm during First Thursday, 3 November 2016.
Work for sale by Igshaan Adams, David Brits, Jared Ginsburg, Dan Halter, Unathi Mkonto, Kyle Morland, Jacob van Schalkwyk and Gerda Scheepers.
Works will only be on sale at the event for 1 hour.
I am very honoured to have been chosen as a "young South African artist to watch" in the November issue of the SA Art Times.
I was recently interviewed by Roberta Thatcher of Sunday Times Home. See the full interview below:
How would you describe your work?
My art explores what it means to be a young man living in South Africa today. I work across a diverse range of media, including printmaking, drawing and painting. I work in both abstraction and figurative art, and sometimes both at the same time.
What informs your choice of subject matter?
As a person growing up as a young white man in a new, democratic society, I have often felt the need to work through the complex history I inherited. I see making art as a tool for “working through” and this “working through” has taken different forms with each subject that I approach. Past projects addressed themes that span both my personal and inherited histories - including masculinity, my ancestry, the ‘Border War’ in Angola, and pre-democratic South African history.
Where do you source your archival images?
Each body of work I approached has been underscored by in-depth research, which stems from both a lively interest in history itself, and my professional experience as an archivist. Archival material is drawn from from sources as wide-ranging as family photograph albums and ancestral records, to second-hand books and the Internet. My most recent exhibition, Snake Man (2015), — for instance — was heavily based on a scrap book of newspaper articles kept by my late grandfather, John Wood, one of South Africa’s foremost reptile experts and snake showmen.
In your experience, what's the best thing about making art?
The best part about making art is getting to use my talent each day. That I get to spend my time doing what I am able to do best is a rare and wonderful gift. Not many people get to do that, even if their talents are obvious to them.
And the worst?
The hardest part about following the path of an artist is learning to trust. I often wake up on a Monday morning not quite knowing what the week will bring, and all I can do is trust that there are opportunities around the corner, even though I cannot see them. Luckily, each day is better than the next, and I am continually and genuinely surprised by what life serves up.
What are you currently working on?
I am currently working on my fourth solo exhibition set to open at Hazard Gallery in Johannesburg in September this year. I am also planning my debut as a theatre director (alongside Chad Spence) in early 2017, with a musical performance commemorating the 100th year anniversary of the sinking of the SS Mendi, a troop ship that sank on her way to France during WW1. 646 people were killed, most of whom were black troops of the South African Native Labour Corps. The play will include performances by traditional Xhosa Isicathamiya and Cape Malay choirs, and will take place at the South African Slave Church Museum in Cape Town on 21 February 2017.
I believe that in 2013 you sailed 6000 nautical miles, having never sailed before. Are you prone to crazy adventures?
Yes, one could certainly say I have an adventurous spirit. Throughout my life I have been drawn to and undertaken multiple rites of passage and pilgrimages. I have walked the Camino de Santiago for 900km in northern Spain, backpacked around the world for a year, have been to India five times, and — as you mentioned — sailed across the Atlantic Ocean. Such journeys have allowed me to work through the deepest aspects of myself — making me a truer, better human being and therefore a more honest artist.
Three South African artists whose work you'd love to own?
A drawing by Unathi Mkonto, a collaged portrait by Khehla Chepape Makgato, and an etching or painting by the late Colin Richards.
Where can we buy your work?
Smith Gallery regularly exhibits my work in Cape Town; Hazard Gallery in Johannesburg will be hosting my upcoming one-man show from 8 September - 2 October. I also have a limited edition screen print launching on Black River Studio’s 50ty-50ty platform in September.
Mural executed during a mini-residency in Johannesburg. Commission for a public building in the Maboneng Precinct. Painted over four days. "Artefact of Perception". Roof tile paint on terrazza tile. 560x220x460cm. Images of the artist by Jake Michael Singer.
The Snake Abstract print portfolio is a box-set of six limited edition screen prints, made in collaboration with master printer, Jan Phillip Raath, at the Michaelis School of Fine Art Press. The prints are an in an edition size of 15 + 2AP and are printed on Zerkall Litho paper in archival pigment-based ink. There are two sets in the series. Each set of six works is housed in a custom designed portfolio box, with a white foiled detail on the lid, and laid between tissue paper. Prints are 38 x 26,75 cm in size.
The sets retail at R6000. For inquiries please contact the artist at firstname.lastname@example.org.
David Brits (b.1987) is a multidisciplinary artist who incorporates printmaking, drawing and painting in his practice. His work explores his identity and context as a young, white man living in present-day South Africa; his art making a way to process the complex history that he has inherited. Brits’ 50ty/50ty artwork speaks to earlier bodies of work – both his Snake Manseries and military-themed works – but also signals a departure of sorts from his predominantly monochromatic output, with the introduction of colour. Interestingly, Brits is red-green colour blind; thus the mechanical CMYK layering of the screen printing process offers an alternative approach to exploring the colour spectrum.
HAZARD Gallery presents David Brits’ Sketches for the Cathedral of Johannesburg. This is Brits’ fourth solo exhibition and the artist’s first with the gallery.
The exhibition runs from 9 September to 2 October 2016.
In this show, Brits presents a set of designs for a fictional basilica in South Africa’s economic capital. These include sketches and maquettes of stained glass windows and chasubles, the embroidered robes worn by priests. Works are in the form of large silkscreen prints and glass wall hangings. The series is a synthesis of two modes of working. Here Brits blends his signature use of abstract snake forms and of halftone pattern. Born with partial colour blindness, it is the first time the artist exhibits works using colour.
Sketches for the Cathedral of Johannesburg takes inspiration from a number of aesthetic traditions – from the pre-Columbian art of Central America, to serpent carvings found in Hindu temples of Northern India. In particular, it draws from encounters with great cathedrals in cities such as Rome and Cologne, and the interventions therein by old and modern masters; a line that runs from Michelangelo and Bernini, up through Henri Matisse and more recently, Gerhard Richter.
This body of work is deeply conscious of its own futility – an experimental draft for a grand architectural project that will never be realized. Yet for Brits it is an opportunity to do what only the greatest artists of their time get invited to do; dream up images for a building dedicated to divinity. In this show, Brits contemplates the role of the artist, not only as a translator of personal and inherited history, but as a custodian of the tradition of art itself.
This series will be exhibited alongside two films from the archive of Brits’ late maternal grandfather – John Wood. Wood was one of South Africa’s most prominent reptile experts, snake catchers and snake show-men. Over a period of sixty years Wood caught thousands of snakes, spiders, scorpions, lizards and frogs for both medical research and the development of snake and spider anti venoms. He was a prolific poet, photographer and filmmaker.
During the exhibition, Brits will utilise one of the gallery’s rooms as a studio in which to work and to execute a series of murals.
Excited to have been featured on Kyknet's arts and culture series, FLITS. The short was filmed to showcase Black River Studio's 50ty/50ty project, and I happened to be in the studio that day, working on a collaborative screenprint.
Watch the link on Youtube here.
I was very fortunate to have been asked a few questions in the latest issue of House & Garden South Africa.
50ty/50ty is an online collection of limited edition screen prints, created in collaboration with local artists, illustrators and designers. Representing the best of both established and emerging talent, each work is hand printed on archival paper and available for purchase on www.fiftyfifty.co.za/
The brainchild of Black River Studio, the initiative is named 50ty/50ty after the collaborative process between artist and printmaker in the creation of a fine art print. The name also references the number to which each print edition is limited. The initiative is wonderfully symbiotic: Artists are offered the opportunity to explore the captivating medium of screen printing in an expert environment, and collectors gain access to the work of high-calibre artists. 50ty/50ty launched with the talents of Michael Taylor and Mia Chaplin, and each month following will see the release of a new artwork by a different artist.
Wim and Jeanne Legrand are the artist duo behind the Black River Studio – a production space for hand-pulled, fine art screen printing that caters specifically to the needs of professional artists, designers and illustrators. 50ty/50ty serves to showcase the studio’s artisan approach to screen printing and the exciting physical process involved.
Bring Your Own Beamer is a project started by artist Rafaël Rozeldaal. It works on a first-come-first-serve basis. Participants bring their own projectors (AKA “beamer”) or light source. They show their work on any available spot they can find. The result is a great visual mash-up of light-based work. BYOBs are held all around the world, giving artists a chance to have fun with the medium. This Cape Town edition, organised by Matty Roodt, will be held as part of the Creative Exchange at The Watershed as part of the V&A Waterfront's edition of Museum Night. Showcasing the young, experimental, and, anyone for that matter.
My work was recently featured on the cover of the May 2016 issue of House & Leisure.
Snake Abstract 4.2. 2015. Linocut on Zerkall Litho Paper. 110x76cm
On Thursday 2 June I will be participating in the third Cape Town edition of Bring Your Own Beamer, curated by Matty Roodt. I will be showing two films: the first a snake film by my grandfather, John Wood, and the other a short piece I made while sailing across the Atlantic Ocean in 2013. Gallery Momo, 6pm, 2 June 2016.
Bring Your Own Beamer is a project started by artist Rafaël Rozeldaal. It works on a first-come-first-serve basis. Participants bring their own projectors (AKA “beamer”) or light source. They show their work on any available spot they can find. The result is a great visual mash-up of light-based work. BYOBs are held all around the world, giving artists a chance to have fun with the medium. This Cape Town edition, organised by Matty Roodt, will be held in the Gallery MoMo parking garage. Showcasing the young, experimental, and, anyone for that matter.
Event details here: https://www.facebook.com/events/1721676761433572/1724636341137614/?notif_t=admin_plan_mall_activity¬if_id=1464680176293344
Excited to be participating in 1k - 4.0 tomorrow. An hour-long exhibition held outside City Guns on Hout Street, you'll find one-off artworks for R1000 by a bunch of great artists including Dan Halter, Jonathan Freemantle, Jaco van Schalkwyk, Unathi Mkonto, Rodan Kane Hart and myself. 57 Hout Street, from 6-7pm. Bring your cheque book.
From 31 May - 25 June, I'll be participating in 'From Whence They Came' is a collaborative group show between SMITH and Kalashnikovv. Artists from SMITH alongside artists from Kalashnikovv showcasing the two distinct styles emerging form both galleries. From painting to drawing, printmaking to installation and sculpture this is wonderful platform for Cape Town based artists to show alongside Johannesburg artists. See more information here.
Artefact of Perception I: Anima. 2016. Enamel on glass. 50x70cm
Artefact of Perception II: Animus. 2016. Enamel on glass. 50x70cm
A statement regarding the work:
“Every creative person is a duality or a synthesis of contradictory aptitudes. On the one side he is a human being with a personal life, while on the other side he is an impersonal, creative process...The artist is not a person endowed with free will who seeks his own ends, but one who allows art to realize its purposes through him. As a human being he may have moods and a will and personal aims, but as an artist he is ‘man’ in a higher sense--he is ‘collective man’--one who carries and shapes the unconscious, psychic life of mankind. To perform this difficult office it is sometimes necessary for him to sacrifice happiness and everything that makes life worth living for the ordinary human being.” (Jung 1961)
These works have their basis in ongoing spontaneous artistic experiments that I conduct as part of my studio practice. Drawings are produced on black paper using hand-made drawing tools. The negative space within these drawings is then cut out. Out of the scores of paper cut-outs produced, the most successful are chosen and made into artworks of various mediums, which have so far included linocuts and sculpture. This is the first time these images have been made into reverse glass paintings, a technique mostly used in traditional sign writing.
During the process of making, I am often left with a heightened awareness that the artistic endeavor is something outside of the realm of personal control. I get the feeling that the images that I draw are derived not from my conscious mind, but rather some previously unexplored recesses of my psyche. In Jungian terminology, this would be referred to as an “encounter” with the unconscious mind. Startling and inexplicable, the results of this “encounter” are a spontaneous arising of ideas and creative impulses that seem to come from a realm beyond the reach of rational thought.
The anima and animus, in Carl Jung's school of analytical psychology, are the two primary anthropomorphicarchetypes of the unconscious mind, The anima and animus are described by Jung as elements of his theory of thecollective unconscious, a domain of the unconscious that transcends the personal psyche. In the unconscious of a man, this archetype finds expression as a feminine inner personality: anima; equivalently, in the unconscious of a woman it is expressed as a masculine inner personality: animus.
C. G. Jung. 1961. Modern Man in Search of a Soul,Brace & World, Inc., New York. Pp. 168-171.
I am very honoured to be featured on My Day With, a project by French photographer and filmmaker, Bony Ska, and writer and photographer, Catherine Rudolph. My Day With, Catherine and Bony spend a day in the life of a person they choose. They follow them around, documenting the process using writing, film photography and video. The results are an in-depth article about the chosen character, a series of images and an accompanying short film.
For my My Day With, I took Bony and Catherine to the house where I grew up near Kommetjie, then my studio in the Cape Town CBD.
You can see the full article, images and video here.
In the past few years, David has had three exhibitions in which he drew on his own family history to explore the faux pas of white masculinity. As he says, being a young white male in South Africa today comes with a heavy cultural inheritance. In both society and the media, the white male is often – and not unjustly – characterised as the oppressor, the supremacist. While history holds much evidence for these labels, if one happens to be a young white man in South Africa, it is a dark cloud that can hang over one’s head. So David began a quest to “make peace with being a man.”
Left: Maj H . J. Van Der Merwe (Good Service Medal), 2013. Indian Ink on Fabriano Rosaspina. 59 X 41 cm.
Right: Maj F. J. van Deventer (Good Service Medal), 2013. Indian Ink on Fabriano Rosaspina. 59 X 41 cm.
A discussion on work my on the war in Angola has been included in an essay by historian, Afonso Dias Ramos, in the University College of London's (UCL) History of Art Department’s postgraduate journal, Object 17. Titled, 'Imageless in Angola: Appropriating Photography', the paper deals with the relationship between political violence and photography in contemporary art, particularly within the transnational context surrounding the liberation and the civil conflict in Angola (1961-2002). This piece form is part of a wider body of research towards Ramos' PhD dissertation, Imageless in Angola: Living through the aftermath of war. Reinventing the photographic medium in a transnational age. See the full article on the UCL website, here.
David Brits produced SADF Facebook Series [in] 2011. These are also pictures of conscripts in the Border War but in this case purloined by Brits from veteran groups online, which in the absence of official public fora, have allowed for images to be shared. Indeed, as Rory Bester reminds us, ‘The dead remains of this era of South African history are scattered in photo albums, hidden in clothes cupboards, mostly forgotten,often forsaken’. The image typifies such portraits of soldiers stiffly posed alongside weaponry in a display of male bravado. But Brits’ intervention mars the figure’s identity. The soldier’s face is blackened out with ink and scratched off violently, ripping the pigments off the paper. Similar strategies of defacement are brought to bear on the other photographs downloaded for this series, whose mundane visions only show soldiers posing theatrically, playing football or swimming together.
[...] Brits disrupt[s] the implied secrecy of the pictures intended as keepsakes to be shared among fellow troops. Opposing state policies to confined war to the domestic lens of the family rather than as public event, these artists open up the private snapshots as political. They bring the war home by literally forcing it out of it, but cognisant that the repressive mechanisms which conditioned the production and consumption of images also prescribe what lies within their frame. The Portuguese were not allowed to capture sensitive areas on film. South Africans faced jail if caught with a camera. Our vision of the events in Angola is therefore largely reliant on portraits of, by, and among friends, and even these were censored since undesirable negatives were confiscated from studios by the authorities: ‘Photos were dropped at civilian central labs, and ultimately everything was censored. [. . .] None of the photos I took of bodies came back. I only received photos of damaged buildings and burnt-out vehicles – non-offensive and non-sensitive stuff’. Although hard to find today, such trophy photographs did circulate, as necessary doubles to the innocuous portraits that rule our visual imagination. Barroca himself considers the most haunting aspect about his album to be one image of a black man beaten to death he found hidden behind the banal snapshots, snapping into relief such complex relays of visibility and invisibility.
DAVID Brits’ grandfather, John Wood, was a snake man — meaning he was a snake collector, antivenom medical researcher and show man, who had a travelling reptile exhibition in the ’70s. He was also a poet, a film-maker and a photographer. He is the kind of man whose story is begging to be told, which is what Brits attempts in his exhibition at Smith Studio gallery, Cape Town.
Brits has taken the large archive of newspaper cuttings and photographs that feature his grandfather as a starting point for his exhibition, titled Snakeman, which includes ink drawings and linocuts. "For many years I have been writing down and recording his stories, ordering out his photographs and letters for this purpose — archiving his life, so-to-speak."
The death of his grandfather, a larger-than-life persona, inspired Brits to work with this material. They were close. "He was one of my greatest teachers, and he shared his enthusiasm for nature and life with me in a very profound way. He taught me how to write poetry, about history, how to catch a snake, the names of spiders and scorpions, how to be a gentlemen, the best way to cut down a tree and how to shoot a gun."
While the show’s subtitle is "A Memorial Exhibition," the irony is Brits doesn’t so much tell the story of John Wood as think about the vagaries of memory and the tensions between the man remembered and the one depicted in newspapers.
Newspapers can’t print tone, the tone we see is an illusion created by fine dots called a half-tone pattern. Brits has taken specific crops of newspaper photographs, mostly of Wood’s hands holding snakes, and enlarged them to a massive scale.
He has then redrawn them in India ink. Up close one can only see the abstraction of the dots; the complete image can’t be detected. As one steps further away, the picture hidden in the medium emerges.
Snake Man in the press, this time featured in the Fish Hoek Echo. This is the local newspaper of the valley in which my grandfather became an important local figure. He was well known as 'John Wood the Snake Man' and for forty years he was the one you called when there was a puff adder or Cape cobra in the garden.
Snake Man is featured in the Arts section of the Sunday Argus, 22 November 2015.
My grandfather John Wood was one of South Africa’s most prominent reptile experts, snake catchers and snake show-men. Over a period of sixty years he caught thousands of snakes, spiders, scorpions, lizards and frogs for both medical research and the development of snake and spider antivenoms. Wood was a prolific poet, photographer and filmmaker, and shared his great passion for reptiles through these mediums as well as with his traveling snake show, which toured the country from the 1950-70s.
This film was shot by Wood during the 1950ies and 1960ies, before the introduction of television in South Africa. At the time it was the only footage of its kind and was shown in lecture halls across the country. Medical students, doctors, vets, nature conservationists and interested parties watched with fascination. The purpose of the film was to show how snakes were caught and how antivenoms were produced. View it with this in mind.
It is the first time that the film has been seen publicly in over 30 years, and was recently screened at my recent solo exhibition, SNAKE MAN, which was held at SMITH Gallery from 19 November 2015 - 9 January 2016.
Snake Man – A Memorial Exhibition by David Brits
My first brush with death was with a snake. A puff adder almost bit me one day while I was walking on the mountain with my dog. I was eight, and it was the first time I considered the possibility of dying. I vividly remember the fat black and gold snake lunging at me, jaws protracted, fangs protruding, going for my leg. And missing.
In the shamanic tradition, snake medicine people are considered very rare. Their initiation involves experiencing and living through multiples snakebites. Symbolically, this is said to allow them to transmute all poisons, be they mental, physical, emotional or spiritual. For the shaman, the power of snake medicine is the power of creation, for it embodies sexuality, psychic energy, alchemy, reproduction and immortality. 1
My grandfather was certainly a man of snake medicine. In his long career in the field of herpetology, he survived being bitten by Cape cobras on four separate occasions. His name was John Wood, and he was one of South Africa’s most prominent reptile experts, snake catchers and snake showmen. Over a period of sixty years he caught thousands of snakes, spiders, scorpions, lizards and frogs for both medical research and the development of snake and spider antivenoms. He was a prolific poet, photographer and filmmaker, and shared his great passion for reptiles through these mediums as well as with his traveling snake show, which toured the country from 1950ies to 1970ies.
The artworks in this exhibition take their inspiration from the large archive of photographs, films, newspaper cuttings, letters, poems, and priceless books that I inherited from my grandfather. Keeping most of the archive at my studio, looking through the material remnants of his life, I was presented with an almost endless source of visual material with which to engage. A number of discrete series have emerged in this body of work – linocuts, dot-matrix drawings and lithographs.
Some were mediums encountered before in my production, but the art in this exhibition was made in a manner I had never previously experienced. As research and experimentation lead to production, increasingly I felt more and more a witness to the creative process than its agent. I was constantly surprised by the previously unimagined ideas and ways of working that became revealed. The creative spirit moved like a tide in me. Sometimes in fits and starts, other times as a prolonged creative engagement, in the form of deep concentration and long hours of working. There was a deepened awareness of the artistic endeavour as something outside of the realm of personal control. I began, I think, to understand what Patañjali meant when he wrote in the 4th Century: “When you are inspired by some great purpose, some extraordinary project, all your thoughts break their bonds. Your mind transcends limitations… dormant forces, faculties and talents become alive…” 2
Snake Man takes place one year after John Wood’s passing. It is a love letter from me to him, from a grandson to a grandfather, a final farewell from the here-now to the here-after; a meditation on paternal love, legacy and the medicine of the snake.
1 Sams, J. and Carson, D. 1999. Medicine Cards: Revised, Expanded Edition. St Martin’s Press, New York. Pg 61.
2 Eaton, R.W. 2009. The Sootras of Patanjali Yog Darshan: Concise Rendition. Createspace, Vancouver. Pg 85.
Photographs by Kate Mcluckie
Recently I chatted with Gabriella Pinto from Between10and5 - a conversation which became an article which you can read on their website here:
Below is the full length interview.
The snake is central to this body of work and in many cultures has mythological significance. What can say of its perennial power?
The snake has been used as a symbol in cultures across the world for millennia. Certainly it is an animal that has captured the collective imagination of man since the beginning of our species. But its meaning is not fixed. The snake can simultaneously be a symbol for healing and fertility, immorality and evil. It was the asp that killed Cleopatra, and the serpent who tempted Eve into Sin. In the Eastern traditions, the snake represents the body’s Kundalini energy centre, a symbol which has been adapted by Western medicine, and is now a universal symbol of healthcare.
The snake therefore, cannot be said to mean one thing. As a symbol and an animal, it has become repository for the projected beliefs (both of anxiety and aspiration) of humanity since time immemorial. The snake has both the power to entice and invoke great fear; to symbolise healing and renewal, or sin and death. As long as the snake exists as an animal on earth, surely man will make meaning from him.
Snakes are widely feared animals, and probably for good reason. Rare is it to have an affinity for such creatures. My grandfather had the rare quality of being deeply intrigued by snakes rather than being repulsed by them.
Growing up around my grandfather's Snake Farm, snakes (spiders, scorpions, lizards and other reptiles) always had an air of wonder and were the source of endless fascination for me. I caught them in the garden and kept them as pets. They were the central characters of my grandfather’s stories, the subject matter of his photographs and films, the topics of his books, the content of his letters. He made his life from snakes, and in a way, they also shaped mine.
Much of the inspiration for your work draws on familial history and archival objects. How does your process create or dispel mythologies you have about your personal and the greater collective history of South Africa?
For many years my art dealt with the burden of my inherited history. Looking back, that earlier work centered around one question: what does it mean to be a young white man growing up in post-Apartheid South Africa. For that I looked to the time before I was born - specifically conscription and the Border Wars - to try unpick the complexities of the privileged body I was born into. I did not like what I found out. Dealing with those topics was heavy business (reading soldier's memoirs of the Angolan border before bed, for instance left me quite disturbed). Yet by mining those arenas of history, inadvertently the questions answered themselves. The work has now seemed to move to a less political spheres, and it feels more fitting for where I am at now.
What provoked you to create this body of work?
The death of my grandfather.
Throughout my adult life I have had the sense that I would one day write a book about my grandfather. An anthology of his poems or a compilation of memoirs, I thought. For many years I have been collecting his stories, writing them down, recording them by dictaphone, sorting out his photographs and letters – archiving his life, so-to-speak. But I always knew that it would be easier to do something more concrete when he was no longer around. Celestial distance brings with it creative license for the biographer.
In the wake of his passing, after a long absence from making, I felt ambition to create art again. Finally, I had a subject worthy of the tremendous effort and emotional investment required to make a new solo show. To use a literary comparison, writers sometimes say that they feel like they have a book inside of them, and they just need to write it. So too, after a year-long creative break, I felt like I had an exhibition inside of me. It was just a matter of making it.
In previous work such as 1969, you examined your paternal grandfather’s history as a departure point to explore themes related to white masculinity. Snake Man is a commemoration of your maternal grandfather. Does this work expand on those themes or highlight something completely different?
Good question. I think perhaps inadvertently, but those themes are not the focus – or at least not the questions I was posing to myself - in this show. The 1969 works were a continuation of the theme of investigating my privileged inheritance as a young white South African man. In a way, my paternal grandfather (the subject of 1969), a commodore in the Apartheid Navy, represented to me an ancestor that somehow informed that history, who had participated in it in an overt and tangible way.
I could have, say, focused on my maternal grandfather’s naval background (he came to South Africa fighting in WW2), but the topic of his relationship to snakes was far more unusual, more compelling and mysterious. Sure, it is not hard to draw associations between the snake and masculinity, but I think that is a more subtle theme in this show.
How would you compare the processes between Snake Man and 1969?
The works in this show were created in a far more intuitive way. And with much more time to engage with the creative process. The 1969 series was quite a mechanical affair, where I had come up with a technique for the series, and it was just a case of working hard to execute the works in time (the dot-matrix drawings can take 15 hours to make). It was tough and quite excruciating to draw for so many hours on end.
The art in this Snake Man was made in a manner I had never previously experienced. As research and experimentation lead to production, increasingly I felt more and more a witness to the creative process than its agent. I was constantly surprised by the previously unimagined ideas and ways of working that became revealed. The creative spirit moved like a tide in me. Sometimes in fits and starts, other times as prolonged creative engagement, in the form of deep concentration and long hours of working. There was a deepened awareness of the artistic endeavour as something outside of the realm of personal control. I began, I think, to understand what Patañjali meant when he wrote in the 4th Century: “When you are inspired by some great purpose, some extraordinary project, all your thoughts break their bonds. Your mind transcends limitations… dormant forces, faculties and talents become alive…”
What were some of the challenges and triumphs of this process?
The triumph was the deepened inner awareness that I gained during the last months. There were challenges, but they seem quite irrelevant now; like evaporated mist. The show came together rather easily.
You’ve worked across a variety of mediums for this body of work. What informed this decision?
When I set out to make this show, I had only one medium that I had already decided on: the dot-matrix drawings. This was because I planned to make drawings based on press photographs from my grandfather’s scrap book, a collection of about 100 newspaper cuttings collected during his career as a snake man. The dot-matrix drawings take their lead from the thousands of dots that these press images are printed in, as a result of the lithographic printing process.
The other modes of working came from experiments I had made while in residence at the St Mortiz Art Academy in Switzerland last year, under mentorship of Daniele Buetti and Marcel van Eeden. The first were a number of images I made by making high resolution scans of alpine flowers; the second was a series of snakey paper cut-outs which were made by drawing with two pencils taped to a wooden block. These experiments were the ancestors of the Slough and Snake Abstract series.
Do you think your style of work has evolved since your last exhibition? If so, in what ways?
Yes. I have developed new techniques of working. But again, it is the way of working, the way I feel while working that has changed. There is now a deep trust in the creative process, where before there was a deep fear of not succeeding. I think this new manner of making art, in many ways, has lead to new styles in my work. There has been a freedom to move into new areas, a movement to abstraction, and photographic-based images. It has been wonderful to explore new territory and mediums.
How has exploring family history shaped your thoughts around notions of legacy?
I was very lucky to have grown up in a house that has been in my family for 6 generations - a 265 year old Cape Dutch homestead that is filled with heirlooms, bibles, old furniture, precious documents, and old things (it also has a family grave yard). Perhaps as wine acquires the flavour of oak from the barrel, a sense of legacy is something I have imbibed from a young age. If it is there to choose, one’s ancestral inheritance is a wonderful thing to embrace. And certainly something that inspires me in my creative life.
Snake Man was very fortunate to be featured by Between10and5, a webiste dedicated to showcasing South Africa's talent.
Read the full article here:
Snake Man was featured in the Cape Times' Arts section on 16 November 2015. The day also marks one year since the passing of my grandfather, John Wood. The exhibition, which honours his unusual and adventure-filled life, opens at SMITH Gallery at 17h00 this Thursday 19 November.
Snake Man. A memorial exhibition by David Brits.
Snake Man commemorates the life of John Wood, David Brits’ late maternal grandfather. Wood was one of South Africa’s most prominent reptile experts, snake catchers and snake showmen. Over a period of sixty years he caught thousands of snakes, spiders, scorpions, lizards and frogs for both medical research and the development of snake and spider antivenoms. Wood was a prolific poet, photographer and filmmaker, and shared his great passion for reptiles through these mediums as well as with his traveling snake show, which toured the country from the 1950-70s.
Brits’ artworks take their inspiration from the large archive of photographs, films, newspaper cuttings, letters, poems, and priceless books that Wood left behind. Working across a wide range of media including drawing, linocuts and prints, in Snake Man, Brits contemplates the life of his grandfather, his legacy, and the perennial power of the snake.
Opening: Thursday 19th November 2015 at 5.30
19th November 2015 - 9 January 2016
SMITH Gallery. 56 Church Street, Cape Town. email@example.com 021 442 0814
I teamed up with printmaster, Jan Philip Raath, to execute the prints in the Snake Abstract series. This was the day we proofed the linocuts in a studio in Observatory.
Really looking forward to being part of my first show at SMITH Studio. CURRENT runs from 6 to 26 May 2015.
I am very excited to be participating in Kindergeburtstag 2015, an exhibition curated by German conceptual artist and sculptor, René Haustein. Cité Internationale des Arts, Paris.
David Brits is currently on a journey that has taken him across the Atlantic on a sailing boat, and backbacking through central America and the Caribbean. He is currently travelling through Europe.
Atlantic Crossing 2013
Cape Town, South Africa to St Martin, Dutch Antilles, Caribbean.
6000 Nautical Miles, 42 Days.
Skipper: Justin de Toranto
First Mate: Alex Willemse
Deck-hand: David Brits
Coinciding with my current exhibition, 1969, I recently got to chat to the editor of Between 10and5, Alix-Rose Cowie. We talk art classes, archiving, conscription and colour-blindness. Read the full interview here
David Brits is a young South African artist who graduated from Michaelis in 2010. In the three short years since he has participated in a number of group shows and two solo exhibitions; an exploration of conscription during the Apartheid era titled VICTOR VICTOR at Brundyn + Gonsalves in 2011, and 1969 currently showing at Grande Provence Gallery in Franschoek. The show’s title marks the year that his grandfather led a rescue mission to the most remotely inhabited place in the world, Gough Island.
In 2012 David curated Not My War, a group exhibition held at the Michaelis Galleries, UCT. The show featured works by local artists reflecting on South Africa’s involvement in the border wars in Namibia and Angola during the 1960s to 1980s.
David grew up in a 265 year old Cape Dutch Homestead that has been in his family – the de Stadlers – for 7 generations. This has provided him with both his love for history and the inspiration for his printed stationery line, De Stadler Hall. The images on the notebooks, prints and cards that he produces are derived from an illustrated dictionary once belonging to his grandfather and published in 1930.
David’s background also includes audiovisual and photographic archiving and graphic design and illustration which he freelances in. With 1969 mid-show (the exhibition runs till 28 August) we found out more about his art, influences and ardent curiosity with the past.
Our Greenpoint apartment is featured in Elle Deco online. See the full story here.
In conversation with Berlin blogger LCVH. We talk art, family history and books.
What is the essence of your art practice and your stationery company De Stadler Hall in two sentences?
De Stadler Hall a brand of quality, locally produced stationery inspired by the Cape of Good Hope. My art deals with what it means to be a young white man living in South Africa today.
How does that essence translate/is embodied through the workspace you occupy?
Most of the objects, books and photographs in my studio relate in some way to the past – which is the main themes that runs through both my work as both an artist and designer. You could probably put these in two overlapping categories: they either relate to my family history (a great influence on the designs of De Stadler Hall) or the history of South Arica more broadly (the main inspiration for my art).
Things that relate to my family include my dad’s school books from the 1960s, my grandfather’s scope magazines, an album of press cuttings from my oupa’s time in the SA Navy, and scores of scans of family photos (the originals are too precious to be kept in my studio). Objects in my studio that relate to the history of South Africa are a series of cigarette collecting albums from the 1950s, dozens of books on the Border War and the SADF, books on Ginger Beer bottle collecting, a compendium of silversmith marks, two volumes of the Who’s Who of South Africa (my dad appeared in this in 1990 and 1991), natural history books, and a few framed pictures of Cape Town at the turn of the last century.
You are essentially resuscitating almost a century of family history. How did you come to work with your family’s heritage to create a modern product – did you always have your family heirlooms in the back of your mind for future projects?
I think my love of books combined and an innate affinity for history have contributed greatly to my sensibilities as an artist and designer.
From an early age I was surrounded by a great sense of history. Growing up in a Cape Dutch farmhouse that been in my family for 7 generations was quite an incredible experience. The Old Homestead, as it is now called, was originally the hunting cottage Groot Constantia – the official residence of the Governor of the Cape back in the 18th Century. The house is over 250 years old and having been in my family for so long, it is filled with heirlooms, pieces of Cape furniture, instruments, family bibles, maps and old photographs. So it wasn’t long before I began to take a great interest in things from the past.
My grandfather, who lived on the farm next door to where I grew up, also had a big influence on me. He was one of South Africa’s top herpetologists and snake catchers, a filmmaker, great storyteller and a poet. As a child, he would often regale me with tales of growing up in pre-war England, his time as an aircraft mechanic in WW2 and his many adventures being a snake man. He had a great collection of interesting books on reptiles, steam engines and history and which I would page through for hours on end. Nowdays I am somewhat of a bibliophile.
Tell me about your studio: how did you find it; how do you keep it ordered; how important is this space in keeping you motivated?
Oddly enough, good studio spaces in Cape Town with a great group of artists are hard to come by. Many of the artists that my share the studio space and have other studios in the building studied with me at the Michaelis School of Fine Art, or I know them through the art scene. One of the best things about this studio is the proximity to the Cape Town CBD. Most days I get on my bike and take a ride around town to run errands, grab lunch or buy art supplies. It is quite incredible for me to have a studio right in the centre of one of the most spectacular cities in the world. So when I need inspiration, I go for a cycle.
How long have you been based in this studio; how many people work in this space?
I have been in this studio for just under a year, and there are 4 others that I share the space with – Daniella Mooney, Michael Linders, Natalie Pierrera and Pierre Fouche.
How important are the artists and designers whom you share a space with; does their work and work ethic have an influence on your work?
Yes, I would certainly say so. In contrast, working on my own would be very hard for me. My studio mates firstly are artists – and it is a special thing to work in a space with a group of people that I look up to and whose work I am inspired by. Pep-talks, technical advice, lending a hand, sharing music, borrowing equipment and giving second opinions are the order of the day here. And without the daily contributions of my studio mates, being an artist and designer would be a much harder and far lonelier experience.
What lies in the immediate future for yourself as an artists as well as for De Stadler Hall?
Art-wise, my second solo exhibition had just opened at Grande Provance Gallery in Franschhoek, and I am busy working on a submission for the upcoming National Portrait Award. I also have a few group shows lined up towards the end of the year and will be in Turkey in September for the Istanbul Biennale. With regards to De Stadler Hall, I am currently broadening my range and modifying my packing design. With ‘safari season’ around the corner, in the coming months I aim to expand into the luxury hotel and game lodge arena.
Working with a wide range of mediums, Brits’ work focuses on the ideas of masculinity, whiteness, the South African military under apartheid and the implications of being a young white male in South Africa today. To create his pieces, David sources archival images from books that have been handed down, old family photographs and the internet.
In this new exhibition, the artist presents a collection of drawings based on family photographs and newspaper clippings related to a rescue operation that caused a media frenzy and captured the country’s imagination. In 1969 Brit’s grandfather, a commander in the South African Navy, was dispatched to the recently inhabited Gough Island to rescue two missing South African meteorologists. Although the men were found having already died of exposure, the rescue mission became evidence of the country’s Naval strength in the strategic Cape Sea Route region at the height of the Cold War.
Grande Provance is pleased to present David Brits’ second solo exhibition, 1969. The show’s title marks the year that Brits’ grandfather led a rescue mission to the most remotely inhabited place in the world, Gough Island. A rocky landmass jutting out of the south Atlantic Ocean, South Africa has maintained a weather station there since 1956.
As commander of what was then the only helicopter equipped vessel in the South African Navy – the SAS van der Stel – his ship was dispatched from Cape Town on a mission to find two missing South African meteorologists. The men had gone on a hike hours before the island was hit by an unexpected and violent storm. Enduring high seas and foul winds, the SAS van der Stel’s journey to the island lasted almost two weeks. After days of searching Gough’s unforgiving terrain, the bodies of the weathermen were eventually found – they had died of exposure several days before.
Taking place at the height of the Cold War, the rescue was a subtle, yet important display of South Africa’s naval capabilities within the strategic Cape Sea Route. In an era of state-controlled media, the Rescue to Gough Island became a media sensation, and in many ways captured South Africa’s collective imagination.
A series of drawings based on a small family archive of personal photographs and newspaper clippings relating to that time, 1969 offers both a window into an unusual event from the past, as well as a glimpse into the life of Brits’ grandfather - a man he hardly knew.
The exhibition will run concurrently to the group show arranged by Gordon Froud titled ‘Tom Waits for No Man’. A preview dinner will take place on Saturday evening 15 June 2013 in The Gallery with the artists Gordon Froud, Diane Victor and David Brits in attendance. For reservations contact Barbara at firstname.lastname@example.org or +27 (0)21 876 8600.
Grande Provance Gallery, Grande Provance Heritage Wine Estate, Main Road, Franschhoek + 27 (0)21 876 8630