Keith Dietrich has certainly earned his stripes in the art world. Alongside his career in academia since the 1970s, he has shown in over 60 group exhibitions here and abroad, working in the general sphere of descriptive painting with a bent for realism.
Dietrich could be considered a kind of artist/ explorer, with a fascination for history and research informing his work and often triggering new ideas. Besides his teaching and creating, he has also been actively involved in community and outreach projects.
Dietrich's interests have led him to travel widely overseas and extensively within South Africa, Swaziland, Botswana and Namibia. He takes a special interest in areas of artistic, historical, archaeological and anthropological significance.
Dietrich's work takes as its starting point the banal: everyday objects and ordinary people. He extends his contemplation into a Zen-like artistic approach that places unusual emphasis on time and effort in creative endeavour.
Through his artistic investigations, a number of themes repeat themselves. The tension between chance and order recurs, as does the duality between fact and fiction, reality and appearance. His explorations often have a scientific rigour which he employs to create works layered with multiple references and rooted in extensive research.
Technology is a more recent fascination. Dietrich says technology is a kind of metaphor for understanding and seeing the world: "Our view is always mediated - we understand through glass, through lenses and apertures." Dietrich comments upon this by intervening and mediating his own work with technology. He builds it into the work rather than generating images with digital technology alone.
Dietrich is also influenced by the idea of illustration, as it straddles both Fine Art and Design. The importance of images, with their power to inform, as a way of understanding the world, is a central motif in his work. Dietrich says: "I like describing the world. I use mostly watercolour because I can paint more realistically and describe best; other mediums sit upon the surface and read as an object".
The titles of Dietrich's works are often long and obscure, with a humorous twist. They do not describe the works but include references to them, such as How Dr Gustav Fritsch might or might not have ordered wild and formless worlds.
On inspiration: "The objects with which people surround themselves have provided me with an endless source of material and ideas for paintings. Not only can objects be used to express aspects of the thinking and behavioural patterns of individuals or societies, but collections of objects also reveal the range and diversity of human histories and cultures.
"Within the dominant Western-oriented cultural environment in South Africa, 'cultural refinement' is understood as conforming to Western bourgeois aesthetic values and ideals to the exclusion of other cultural or class values.
"Most of my paintings are characterised by the depiction of objects focusing on aspects of a proletarian aesthetic as an antitype of bourgeois aesthetic values: domestic furniture, ornaments, consumable products, and bric-a-brac from trading stores that cater mostly for recently urbanised and economically disadvantaged people. My specific choice and juxtaposition of objects read as powerful expressions which challenge the notion of 'cultural refinement' as a powerful ideological structure."
On depicting people: "My interest in depicting people has been largely motivated by a desire to challenge dominant Western-based canons concerning the body beautiful. Largely informed by Classical Greek and post-Renaissance aesthetic conventions regarding the ideal or Adamic prototype of physiological perfection and nineteenth-century racial ideologies, these canons are still prevalent in Western thinking, and in particular in the advertising, fashion and beauty industries."
On landscape: "I believe that nature is an 'idea' created by humans and in Western thinking has been an integral part of an urban discourse since Plato and Aristotle. As ideas of nature in Western thinking have generally tended to be formulated from the perspective of the city or polis, it is difficult (perhaps impossible) to separate these notions from a political discourse.
On influences: "Apart from in the early 1980s when I was influenced by American Photorealists, my work has not been influenced by any artists or artworks in particular."
"With Dietrich we are in the world of history, and specifically the world of culture in its broadest sense. All the items depicted by Dietrich can be situated within a cultural context. Dietrich encourages us to think of the journey as both literal and metaphorical... The work and the responses it evokes become part of a journey that never ends."
Joe Dolby, 'Calculated tiptoeing: A Small Miscalculation in Sir Frances Galton's eugenics theory by Keith Dietrich', A Decade of Democracy (Double Storey Books: 2004, Cape Town), p. 44.
"Dietrich's noses pierced with rubies are not necessarily Indian, and his beaded, braided hairstyles are not necessarily black. An element of peek-a-boo enters this disquisition on cultural crossover: we itch to assign identities to the artist's sitters, but he withholds the full picture and frustrates any such attempt."
Lloyd Pollack, 'Redefining our Notion of African Art', www.artthrob.co.za July 2003.
"Dietrich's maps are the space of the unconsciousness, a gentleman's cabinet of curiosities, Pandora's box of miracles and nightmares. They plot the limits of the cogita to expose scientific deduction as irrational causality. They show us that there will never be a one-to-one correspondence between language and the world. Like quantum physics, they show us that the closer we get to the truth, the further it recedes from us."
Lize van Robbroeck, Introduction to 'Horizons of Babel', artist's book, 2004.
Dietrich's work is this month on show at Stellenbosch University Art Gallery in a show called 'Horizons of Babel'. The exhibition comprises 64 double-page spread maps, stretching from Cape Columbine to Cape Agulhas, and seven panorama aquarelle paintings.
The project is framed against the background of a fascination with the topography of the country that dominated the interests of both amateur and professional artists from the colonial period to the present.
'Horizons of Babel' is to a large degree informed by the concept of the disembodied panorama, and the particular relationship between the panorama and panopticon. It also investigates tension between the centre and the periphery.
This relates to a broader concern of Dietrich's, which extends to the impact of globalisation upon South Africa and other countries challenging the central force of the First World.
His work is also currently on show at two other Western Cape exhibitions: 'Decade of Democracy' at the SANG and '40 Years, 40 Artists' at the Sasol Art Gallery in Stellenbosch.
Dietrich relocated from Johannesburg to Cape Town in 2000. This move precipitated his geographical explorations that in turn resulted in 'Horizons of Babel'. Up to this point, he had spent 17 years teaching at Unisa while also creating art.
Between 2000 and 2002, he researched an exhibition and publication for the Anthropological Museum at the University of Zurich. For this project, he produced a body of watercolour fragments intended for installation at the museum.
It was based on Dietrich's responses to his journeys between Kuruman and Lake Ngami that centred on the trade and hunting travel routes. It also included his responses to a series of /Xam drawings and watercolours executed under the guidance of linguists Wilhelm Bleek and Lucy Lloyd in the late 19th century.
From 1993 to 1997, Dietrich made a number of journeys into the Kalahari Desert that resulted in a body of 34 works, some comprising up to 55 sections. They were informed by colonial travel literature and images. These journeys into the desert retraced migratory and trade routes used for centuries and also followed by European travellers and explorers.
An important turning point in terms of pictorial space occurred in his work in about 1996. Dietrich began to depict objects separately on torn fragments, which relinquished his control over the fixed viewpoint. Dietrich says: "The viewer will bring his or her own world and ideology along as a foundation to work from and interpret along with clues and cues."
This departure was repeated in later works like 'Bodies, Traces, Identities', exhibited in Cape Town and Johannesburg in 2000. This is a body of nine works, some comprising up to 63 sections, informed by contemporary debates around the visual representation of the human body. Eventually, Dietrich would abandon the frame format altogether.
According to Michael Stevenson, Dietrich gained prominence as an artist during the 1980s with still-lifes and portraits in oils, watercolour and pastel in a New Realist style (Stevenson, 1999. 'Southern African Art: 1850-1990', catalogue no. 5 (2): BCI Fine Art).
During this decade, he created a highly regarded series of portraits of black people. His interest in the problems of representing the body, which recurs in his work, was later formally investigated by his Doctoral thesis on how indigenous people were depicted in colonial travel illustration.
Dietrich also exhibited widely, with paintings selected for every Cape Town Triennial between 1982 and 1991. His work was also included in the 1985 exhibition 'Tributaries'. The show was widely applauded for breaking new ground in the presentation of South African art.
In 1987, he was one of five artists representing South Africa at the Valparaiso Biennial. He was also artist-in-residence at the SANG during 1989.
Dietrich is passionate about his work. An enquiry about new projects gets an enthusiastic response. He is busy working on a project based on photographs and etchings by traveller Dr Gustav Fritsch made between 1863 and 1866. Dietrich recently travelled to Germany to source hundreds of these images. He is awaiting funding for completion of the project, which will take the form of a book, with a view to curating an exhibition in the Sasol Gallery at Stellenbosch University.
Dietrich also continues work in progress, such as Fourteen Stations of the Cross: From Klaarwater to Kolobeng. It is an artist's book of 14 sections informed by the colonial mission enterprise along the mission route between Griquastad and Kolobeng (Livingstone's mission station in Botswana).
1968: Matriculated at Roosevelt High School, Johannesburg
1974: Completed BA in Visual Art at the University of Stellenbosch
1977: Completed two years of postgraduate study in painting at the Nationale Hoger Instituut voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp, Belgium
1983: Completed MA in Fine Arts (cum laude), Unisa. Title of dissertation: The ordinary and mysterious painted image
1993: Completed D Litt et Phil in History of Art, Unisa. Title of thesis: Of salvation and civilisation: The image of aboriginal southern Africans in travel illustration from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries
1975: Designer, National Magazines, Cape Town
1975: Freelance designer for HAUM
1978-80: Lecturer, Department of Fine Arts, University of Pretoria
1981-88: Lecturer, Department of History of Art and Fine Arts, Unisa
1989-94: Senior lecturer, Department of History of Art and Fine Arts, Unisa
1994-97: Co-ordinator of Fine Arts, Unisa
1995-97: Associate Professor, Department of History of Art and Fine Arts, Unisa
1996-97: Acting Head, Department of History of Art and Fine Arts, Unisa
1997: Art consultant and full-time artist
1996: Senior Lecturer, Stellenbosch University
2001: Associate Professor, Stellenbosch University
SELECTED SOLO EXHIBITIONS
1983: Guest Artist, University Gallery, University of Stellenbosch
1983: Guest Artist, Tatham Gallery, Pietermaritzburg
1983: Ivan Solomon Gallery, Pretoria Technikon
1983: Guest Artist, University Gallery, University of Stellenbosch
1986: Guest Artist, SA Association of Arts, Cape Town
1988: With Johannes Maswanganyi, Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg
1990: With Leon De Bliquy, Laverington Hall, Cape Town
1991: With Johannes Segogela, Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg
1992:With Guy du Toit, Stegman Gallery, University of the Free State, Bloemfontein
1995: With Elfriede Pretorius, Centurion Art Gallery, Centurion
1997:Artist-in-residence, Standard Bank National Arts Festival, Albany Museum, Grahamstown
1998: Guest artist, South African National Gallery, Cape Town
1998: Standard Bank Gallery, Johannesburg
1999: Artist-in-residence, MTN, Sandton
2000: Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg
2001: Open Window Art Gallery, Pretoria
2003: Stellenbosch University Gallery
SELECTED GROUP EXHIBITIONS
1977-1997: Participated in over sixty group exhibitions in Belgium, Botswana, Chile, Egypt, Germany, Italy, Namibia, the Netherlands, Sweden, the United Kingdom and South Africa. These include the following:
1976: International Exhibition of Book Design, Munich, Germany
1977: 'Klub van XII', Koninklike Akademie voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp, Belgium
1979: 'UP Art Lecturers', South African Association of Arts, Pretoria
1979: 'UP Art Lecturers', University Gallery, Potchefstroom University for Christian Higher Education
1979: 'UP Art Lecturers', South African Association of Arts, Windhoek
1982: 'Art toward social development: an exhibition of South African art', National Museum and Art Gallery, Gaborone, Botswana
1982: 'Cape Town Triennial', South African National Gallery (national tour)
1983: 'Contemporary South African Realists', Pretoria Art Museum (national tour)
1985: 'Cape Town Triennial', South African National Gallery (national tour)
1985: 'BMW Tributaries', Africana Museum in progress, Johannesburg
1986: 'BMW Tributaries', BMW Art Gallery, Munich, Germany
1986: 'Unisa Art Lecturers', Pretoria Art Museum
1986: 'Four Unisa Lecturers', Stegman Gallery, University of the Free State, Bloemfontein
1987: 'VIII Biennial of Art', Valparaiso, Chile
1987: Market Gallery Advisory Board Show, Market Gallery, Johannesburg
1988: 'Cape Town Triennial' (merit award), South African National Gallery (national tour)
1988: 'Detainees' Parents Support Exhibition', Market Gallery, Johannesburg
1989: 'Vita Awards', Johannesburg Art Gallery
1990: 'Looking at Faith; Looking at Art', Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg
1991: 'Cape Town Triennial', South African National Gallery (national tour)
1992: 'Vita Awards', Johannesburg Art Gallery
1993: 'Incroci del Sud', XLV Venice Biennial, Venice, Italy
1993: 'Affinities', Sala 1, Rome, Italy
1993: 'Southern Cross', Stedelike Museum, Amsterdam, the Netherlands
1994: 'Contemporary art from South Africa', Deutsche Aerospace, Ottobrunn, Germany
1995: 'The Union Buildings Revisited', ABSA Gallery, Johannesburg (Africus 1st Johannesburg Biennale)
1995: Kempton Park/ Thembisa Fine Arts Award exhibition (First prize), Kempton Park
1996: 'Groundswell', Mermaid Theatre Gallery, London, UK
1996: 'VI Cairo Biennale', Cairo, Egypt
1996: 'North goes South', Civic Gallery, Johannesburg
1997: 'Lifetimes', Aktionsforum, Praterinsel, Munich, Germany
1997: 'Contemporary South African Art 1985-1995' from the South African National Gallery Permanent Collection, SANG, Cape Town
1998: 'The art of observation', Open Window Gallery, Pretoria
1999: 'Emergence', Standard Bank National Arts Festival, Grahamstown
2000: 'Works on paper' (curated by Peter Sch�tz), Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg
2000: 'Stained Paper: South African images in watercolour', Standard Bank Gallery, Johannesburg
2000: 'Stained Paper: South African images in watercolour', Albany Museum, Grahamstown
2000: 'Structures and scarifications', Gallery on the Square, Sandton
2000: 'That was the millenium that was', Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg
2001: 'Head North: Views from the South African National Gallery's Permanent Collection', BildMuseet, Umea, Sweden
2001: 'Paas', Dorp Street Gallery, Stellenbosch
2001: 'Passages of Time', Sandton Civic Gallery, Sandton
2002: 'Photo Art', University of Stellenbosch Art Museum, Stellenbosch
2002: 'Der Mond als Schuh: Zeichnungen der San' V�lkerkundemuseum, University of Z�rich, Switzerland
1978: 'Media 1978' (Painting Techniques, Equipment and Materials), Art Gallery, Dept Fine Arts, University of Pretoria
1986: 'Relief Printmaking' (with Clementina van der Walt), Market Gallery, Johannesburg
1987: 'Postbox Exhibition' (with Michael Goldberg and Suzette Munnick), Market Gallery, Johannesburg
1990: 'Unisa Fine Arts student exhibition, University Gallery, Unisa
2000: 'Stained paper: South African images in watercolour' (With Prof Karin Skawran), Standard Bank Galleries, Johannesburg
PRIZES & SCHOLARSHIPS
1972-74: Won several student awards and bursaries, which include the Eeufees study grant, the Argus/ Crown Cebestos painting competition, the Boland Bank Design competition and the Henry Lidchi book prize
1975: Maggie Laubser scholarship for overseas study
1976: Maggie Laubser scholarship for overseas study
1977: Karel Verlat prize for painting, Antwerp, Belgium
1982: HSRC grant for MA study
1984: Doctoral Exhibition award, Unisa
1986: HSRC grant for doctoral study
1988: Merit Award winner, Cape Town Triennial
1991: Robin Aldwinckle award for Doctoral research, Unisa
1993: Senior travel grant, Unisa
1995: First prize, Kempton Park Thembisa Fine Arts Award
1996: Senior travel grant, Unisa
South African National Gallery; Johannesburg Art Gallery; Pretoria Art Museum; King George VI Gallery; William Humphreys Gallery, Kimberley; Tatham Art Gallery, Pietermaritzburg; Durban Art Gallery; Sandton Civic Gallery; Nelspruit Municipal Collection; Carnegie Gallery, Newcastle; University of South Africa, Pretoria; University of the Orange Free State, Bloemfontein; University of Stellenbosch; University of Pretoria; Gertrude Posel Gallery, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg; Faculty of Dentistry, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg; Technikon Pretoria; Gauteng Legislature, Johannesburg; Human Sciences Research Council, Pretoria; Fedsure Holdings, Johannesburg; SANLAM collection, Belville; SASOL Collection, Johannesburg; Anglo-American Corporation, Johannesburg; South African Broadcasting Corporation, Johannesburg; Head Interiors, Johannesburg; Citibank, Johannesburg; MTN Collection, Johannesburg; Telkom Collection, Pretoria; Wella South Africa, Cape Town; Rembrandt Art Foundation, Stellenbosch; South African Embassy, Bonn, Germany; Daimler-Benz, Stuttgart, Germany; Gibb Architects, Reading, United Kingdom; First Rand, Johannesburg