OPENING SPEECH BY JUDITH MASON:
Last Sunday I was reading an interview with pop star Britney Spears in the teenybopper section of a newspaper. I quote, exactly, from the last two items “what are your hobbies?” she was asked. “I like shopping, sleeping and talking to my friends on the ‘phone’”, she replied. “What are your ambitions?” was the final question. ‘To live life to the full” she said. This monument to the comedy of the unexamined life, or at least the unexplored ironies of pop interviews reminded me, by contrast, with the work of Natasja de Wet.
Natasja invites us to explore the examined life. She delineates for us the graffiti on the insides of our skulls and hearts. She gives us the flic-flac between portrait details- the exterior, in some ways extraneous information set against a layered palimpsest of messages at once obvious and discreet, which we read like manuscripts floating under water with interfering reflections superimposed. Paint, etched lines, Perspex and collage are used like currents behind which meaning ebbs and flows. Her technique is to sometimes suggest, sometimes explain, sometimes tease with a bit of gossip; sometimes confuse. Looking at her work is like being tuned to a number of frequencies simultaneously. These works although physically static have a sort of kinetic energy. Light picks out or blurs bits of information and sometimes our reflections are superimposed on the images as if we are eavesdroppers on the lives she explores so much as invited to share in the intimate process. They are perpetual works in progress, this whole exhibition is a work in progress, and it helps to remember that she is currently studying for a higher degree. Some of the work on display is entirely resolved; some leaves me feeling hungry for resolution. Aside from giving us many desirable single images which we can carry away as trophies she is providing us with a larger metaphor – that our lives and relationships and our place in society itself are ceaseless works in progress. That the making of artworks, or defining life’s meaning, or the practice of ubuntu are not quickly completed chores but the accumulation of layers of experience and the strata thus laid down have an irrational beauty. This work is for me a sort of archaeology of human being, seen in arbitrary cross-section. The elements are mundane – corrugated iron, screws, fragments of mirror, hinges – as are the elements which make up our own bodies – water, potassium, tranquilizers, take-aways, diesel fumes, calcium, whatever. Yet here we all are, a roomful of unique private worlds, rejoicing in the fact that we, like the work before us, are so much greater than the sum of our parts.
We are privileged tonight to see the first solo exhibition of an important young artist. I am delighted to say that even before the exhibition opened people were queuing to buy Natasja’s very modestly priced work. They are to be congratulated, not just for being the shrewd possessors of life-enhancing objects but because they are part of the creative equation in a society which talks about renaissance without doing enough to enable new artists to live and work.
Coming from Johannesburg I have two stories to share with you. One is about the rash of Witkoppon-Tuscan and Trade Centre-Roman nonsense with which the casino industry is infesting the Highveld. Instead of allowing rising young artists to provide genuinely African renascent images we have what one commentator referred to as “renaissance with its eyes put out”. One of these kitsch-traps has copies of David, which, as a spokesman for the decorators explained with pride, have been computer corrected (or “enhanced’). The original hobbledehoy hands and feet of Michelangelo’s heroic adolescent now conform to the proportions of a mid-thirties, gym-going yuppie. This sort of thing is surreal - patronage as debauchery of great images of long ago and far away.
Then there is the story of a friend who runs a workshop for unemployed people. She told me that a young man with artistic potential showed up at her studio a couple of months ago. He had just been released from jail where he had served seven years for hijacking. She has enabled him to print linocuts which could grace any wall with their naïve charm and integrity. They sell for a mere R50.00 each. Last week he came to her and told her quite frankly that he was thinking of returning to his friends at Orange Farm and their reprehensible trade. Nobody cares about his artwork; he lives in a garage shared with four other men while his criminal comrades get the girls, the cars (naturally), the status and the excitement. The patronage of a few people could mean the difference between life and death for himself and for his potential victims.
Natasja, of course, does not need patronage at this elementary (or elemental) level, but our society needs artists of her gifts, and patrons who have the wit to recognize them, if we are to avoid the cultural chaos which threatens to engulf us.
* government and Cosimo de Medici. Natasja’s work reminds us that we possess soul and poetry and vision and that we are not just consumers of regurgitated rubbish. I am already looking forward to her next exhibition and hazard a guess that her baby, ominously present with us tonight, will appear as part of the text. To this infant I would like to say – be generous little guy. Your mommy needs her sleep and we need her skill and insight. We are so grateful for what she has given us tonight and look forward to a great deal more.