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.