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.
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.
Please can you tell us a little about your journey as an artist thus far?
It is an eternal pilgrimage, a sometimes hard but always beautiful one. For me, it is an act of worship to oneself and the world, and a natural flowing. I’ve wanted to give up a few times, and have even stopped journeying for periods, but the art, like a wellspring, emerges out of oneself spontaneously. You cannot control it. To use a literary comparison, novelists often say they feel like they have a book inside them, and it is just a matter of writing it. I think the same is true for art. If it is inside you, it will find a way to get out into the world.
Can you tell us a little about your creative process and approach?
Mostly, the themes and images I am drawn towards are from the past, often from a time before I was born. I grew up in a Cape Dutch Homestead that has been in my family for 7 generations, so a love for history has really been woven into the fabric of who I am. I often start my creative process by looking at old photographs, books, letters, etc. from my family archive, selecting images I am drawn towards and begin work from there. By working with themes and material closer to me, it feels a truer, perhaps more authentic response to the world.
How would you describe your work?
Diverse. Artworks seem to emerge in a variety of styles and mediums, based mostly on their source material. Often I invent ways of art making as opposed to sticking in one tradition – say oil painting or etching. I am not very good at any one thing in particular, and it keeps things interesting and fresh when one has to be constantly inventive. Few things are worse than the feeling of being unoriginal, and my process seems to push me to be inventive in the way I work.
What informs your choice of subject matter?
Again, I think this arises naturally. Over and over again, like a magnet, my eye seems drawn to subjects of portraiture, the navy, masculinity, cadets, boy school, the military, World War II. These themes and my source images are mostly drawn from my family archive; books, photo albums, documents, heirlooms, and inspired by the men in my family and their personal experiences in those arenas.
When you’re not making art, what are you likely to spend your time doing?
Working on design, painting murals, taking photographs, and making illustrations. I find that doing ‘commercial’ work in fields closely related to ‘fine art’ allows me to hone my skills as a creative person. Recently, a musician friend of mine was asked how often he practiced, to which he replied, “I don’t, I practice as I work.” Right now, where I am in my working life, that’s how it feels. The more I work, the better I get. One field informs the other. They all are interrelated.
What is your favourite city and why?
I have three. Rome, Havana and Varanasi.
Rome because of the churches. Churches combine all the highest forms of art; architecture, sculpture, painting, the decorative arts and music. No-where in the world is this done to the degree that it has been done in Rome.
Havana because of the culture. Habaneros, like all Cubans, are dirt poor. But oddly, this is a city with a richness in culture like no other. Because surgeons earn just as much as ballet dancers, from a young age people are encouraged to pursue excellence in their fields without the pressure of financial success. I have never seen dance or heard music like I have in Havana.
Varanasi because of its shimmering humanity. As is well known, in Hinduism to be cremated on the banks of the Ganges River ensures escape from the cycle of incarnation, and deliverance to heaven. Hindus, literally by their hundreds of thousands, go to Varanasi to die. Witnessing the ancient, arcane rituals and cycles of life and death in that place is moving in a way that very few things are. It changes you, deeply.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
In late 2013 I packed up my life and embarked on a mighty 42 day, 6000 nautical mile sailing trip across the Atlantic from Cape Town to St Martin, a little island in the Caribbean. Almost all the men in my family have sailed across the Atlantic, and so it was a rite of passage in every sense. Having never really sailed before, it felt far more an initiation than a sailing trip, and was one of the most remarkable things I have ever undertaken. It was as much an inner voyage it was an outer one. The sea beguiled me with her beauty – my skin tasted of salt and my ears rang in the silence. The Atlantic showed my deepest fears and my greatest strengths, and for that I couldn’t be more grateful.
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.
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.
- Selected Works
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