A monthly feature on an artist currently in the public eye
Portrait of Hentie van der Merwe by Hannelie Coetzee
Lieutenant Full Dress Tunic, Staatsartillerie van Die Zuid�Afrikaansche
Republiek c. 1895 2000
Cape Town Rifles (Dukes)
Archival Installation at Generator Art Space, Johannesburg 1997
Portrait no. 459 1997
Empty Pool 1996
Portraits from a Grid 1998
Untitled (confessional) 1996-8
In Memory of Two Lovers 1996
Hentie van der Merwe
By Kathryn Smith (March, 200)
Hentie van der Merwe is acutely aware of his identity as a young, white, gay man in post-apartheid South Africa. Minimal but not minimalist, his unmistakably measured, often gridded style is informed by a pared down aesthetic. Currently, he is working exclusively in photography, although the medium has always found its way into his production at some level. Fascinated with how we 'negotiate' and record the world through the camera's eye, he often raids archives for source material and inspiration. His early work adopted the 'material as meaning' maxim quite closely through embroidery on raw calico, pin-and-thread 'drawing' in the style of mapmakers, and subtle, sometimes imperceptible 'wounding' through pin pricks. Stitching repairs and rejoins, and embroidery enhances, but they also scar.
Several basic themes permeate his production, indicated by iconic images and objects, including swimming pools (empty and full, indicating the simultaneous abundances of loss and mourning, pleasure and comfort in gay desire), sewing machines, militaria and archival imagery. Sexual and identity politics; masculinity and violence; and his poignant and intelligent confrontation with issues around gay identity in the face of the AIDS pandemic are quintessential Van der Merwe concerns.
"'Trappings' is my second solo exhibition and consists of a series of photographic works completed over the last twelve months. In it, I continue to explore themes that have been prevalent in my work for some time. The most prominent: the exploration of notions of masculinity - and particularly white masculinity - in a current South African context. Also, I look at how such a notion of maleness is located in a historical sense. Another theme is an exercise in 'making sense' of the violence that is such a prominent part of our society - violence invariably committed by men. Also, how such violent acts are continuously being justified through the manufacturing of ideologies - a point once again (and excellently) illustrated in the numerous TRC testimonies some two years ago. As a result of this interest, for 'Trappings', I chose to focus largely on the costumes and medals housed at the Museum of Military History in Johannesburg. Through this concentration on a public site for the representation of a violent history, there is an investigation of the idea of 'history' and it's various representational guises."
A Vita Arts Award nominee for this year, Van der Merwe will hold a solo show, 'Trappings', at the Goodman Gallery during March. The photographed military uniforms, 'animated' through the use of held-held, slow exposure camera work which blurs the image, become prosthetics for the violent event of war itself. Intrigued with the manner in which violence, in a military context, is dressed up as heroism. Van der Merwe attempts, in his images, to strip the uniforms of their potency and 'realness'. Red costume detailing morphs into wounds and bloodstains.
Curating the successful 'Emotions and Relations' (currently on at the Sandton Civic Gallery) was a chance to further explore interpersonal and spatio-temporal relationships through photography, as he regards these 'trivial' but deep-seated subjective concerns as common to all, and far more interesting than the politically-motivated 'identity' work so en vogue at the moment. Van der Merwe is also currently showing on 'Emergence' at the Standard Bank Gallery and 'Translation/Seduction/Displacement' at the White Box Gallery in Chelsea, New York.
In 1998, the Ampersand Foundation awarded Van der Merwe a coveted Fellowship, which enabled him to live in Manhattan for two months and continue his research on the work of Robert Gober. Later that year, he was invited to produce work for an international conference and exhibition on AIDS, entitled 'AIDS Worlds: Between Resignation and Hope', held in Geneva. For this, Van der Merwe produced an installation, Portraits from a Grid, which he has subsequently donated to Wits University. The acronym GRID (Gay Related Immune Deficiency) was a precursor to what we now better understand as HIV/AIDS. In his piece, images are presented in grid format. For Van der Merwe, the serialisation and repetition stand in for different kinds of loss. At the same time, the grid is a controlling mechanism dating from the 19th century, that in conjunction with photography, was used to reduce the individual body to a series of ethnic, racial and 'moral' anomalies and pathologies. Portraits from a Grid acknowledges that AIDS is no longer a "gay men thing". The artist interviewed as many PWA's as possible and intercut these highly personal testimonies with the characteristically bland commentary gleaned from newspaper reports. Objects that the interviewees considered best represented them and their relation to the disease were photographed, and an invented code recalling systems used in AIDS research, was placed across these objects. By the time he exhibited the installation again one year later, seven of the interviewees had died. Van der Merwe created translucent veils from black tulle and draped their panels. The images and texts are still visible but dulled and shadowed.
And before that:
Van der Merwe's first solo show, held at the AICA Generator Art Space in 1997, did much to establish his artistic identity, as well as his identity as a gay man. The artist felt a review in The Star by Kendell Geers displayed a gross misunderstanding of his work and intentions. His response, an open letter headed The Difference Between Colonisation and Desire, subsequently appeared in the acclaimed compilation, Grey Areas: Representation, Identity and Politics in Contemporary South African Art, edited by Brenda Atkinson and Candice Breitz. The focus of the exhibition was the last space encountered. Lined from floor to ceiling with images of naked soldiers photographed against a gridded background, entrance to the room was prevented by a glass screen. The other work on display arose almost directly from these images, found in the Gay and Lesbian Archives at Wits. Van der Merwe painted lifesize silhouettes of six of the soldiers directly onto the gallery walls, but animated these shadows with lightbox 'hearts' placed at chest-centre, and containing familiar images from his Namibian childhood.
The 1996 group show 4 Young Artists, featuring Van der Merwe, Brendhan Dickerson, James Reed and Alex Trapani at the Newtown Galleries, was a benchmark show for the artist. One work, In Memory of Two Lovers (1996) was purchased by the Johannesburg Art Gallery. A restored sewing machine with hundreds of pins in the pin-holder is encased in a battleship-grey display cabinet, the shape of which closely resembles a tombstone. A swimming pool light, alluding to the propensity of water to cleanse, but also recalling a police siren, is set into the top of the box. The word 'Insatiable' is traced in barely noticeable pin pricks on the paper lining the back of the cabinet. The work is based on a real account of a quarrel between two gay lovers living in Pretoria that ended in murder and suicide. The sewing machine was used as a weapon, as if to 'crush' the outwardly feminine qualities displayed in the act of sewing. It evocatively captures the mourning and memorialisation of lives and a sexuality once denied and now absent.
Hentie van der Merwe also showed on the 1995 container-installation-exhibition 'Springtime in Chile' curated by Wayne Barker and Ernesto Munoz, in Santiago, Chile.
Van der Merwe will hold his first solo show in Cape Town at the Mark Coetzee Fine Art Cabinet in November. He is planning a site-specific installation, extending his exploration of the concepts and subject matter of 'Trappings'.
Hentie van der Merwe can be contacted at: