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