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.