by Kim Gurney (September, 2005)
Sanell Aggenbach lives and works as a full-time artist in Cape Town. Her major artistic concerns pivot around issues of cultural heritage and the process of nostalgia or historical myth-making. A gentle humour runs through much of her production, providing a sugar coat to the bitter pill of satire and soft parody.
This playful element reels viewers in - only to reveal a darker underbelly. Aggenbach says she enjoys art with a certain kind of absurdity to hook viewers and this is often evident in her work. She says: 'I find many of my most effective works... introduce something that is quite playful and disarming, and then something unexpected.'
Aggenbach is skilled in various media, from painting through print-making and sculpture. She has the required patience to experiment with new media and enjoys the inevitable learning curve: 'I am quite curious about how things work - maybe I get it from my father, who is an engineer. The different processes then become part of the artwork. It starts quite rigid and turns into an organic process, like a mathematical puzzle for which you have to work out problems. I love the problem-solving.'
The artist is a visual social commentator and heritage is one target of her playful arrows. Although she deals with aspects of Afrikaner identity, she does not claim to be any kind of spokesperson for Afrikaans youth. Rather, what interests Aggenbach about her cultural identity is the sense of 'growing up in a bubble', with a concomitant lack of awareness about a broader social context. She often explores the impact of the past and how it is recalled and interpreted, sometimes using nostalgia as a trigger. The process of recall is particularly important - as are its reasons.
Aggenbach was trained as a painter but frequently fuses a passion for classical painting with sculptural elements in order to bring about a change of context. This fusion began with a 1996 painting project of acquaintances on life-size cut-outs and the technique extends into her most recent work.
Aggenbach turned her back on painting for a while in 2001 but has since returned to the medium, picking up her brushes again last year. She says: 'I was fighting painting for a while but I'm definitely going back to it... I feel there is a lot that can be done still.'
Aggenbach starts off in her production with a specific story-line or concept and sets her sights on well made, considered works with technical expertise to which the viewer can still relate.
'I am definitely object-inspired - by the physical objects around me,' she says, 'and look for something that can resonate with different types of interpretations. I try to introduce that and create small narratives and circumstances. The technical aspects of the work and the materiality of the work are very important to me - things must be tactile, not flat and cold. I prefer to work with different materials... and a slight sense of humour, referring to things in a subtle manner rather than in overtly straight-forward statement.
Feminine techniques like sewing and tapestry, with their 'labour-intensive, docile and meditative' aspects, are often incorporated into her works. Aggenbach regards tapestry as an extension of painting. For her 2003 solo exhibition 'Blank', she made a conceptual link between a flock of black sheep constructed from fake fur and Pierneef-inspired paintings by using wool to turn the latter into tapestries.
As influences and mentors, Aggenbach names Brett Murray and Lisa Brice who both taught her at one stage. She also takes inspiration from Kevin Brand as much for his passion as his playfulness.
Aggenbach draws inspiration for her work from a variety of sources. She says: 'I am however ultimately intrigued by the impact of memory and social history. My intention is to create subtle paradoxes which suggest, rather than state, social commentaries and private narratives.' At the same time, she likes to leave the interpretation of her work open to the viewer rather than be too prescriptive.
Aggenbach says she is drawn to unconventional sculpture - somewhere between outsider art and satirical works. She often uses surprising materials. These have included hydroponically-grown grass, bent wood, plush fur and bridal veiling. She adds, 'Physicality is an important aspect of my work.'
'Aggenbach has used the symbolic language of white leisure and suburbia and made a piece that is both humorous and politically astute.'
-Andrew Lamprecht in Art South Africa, Vol. 2, Issue 3, Autumn 2004: p. 67
'In her installation Bleak, Aggenbach creates relationships that set in motion sharp and interesting possibilities of interpretation.'
-Brenton Maart in Art South Africa, Vol. 2, Issue 1, Spring 2003: p. 14
'... the work is exquisitely crafted and produced. It represents a major change of tack for the artist, whose last show comprised large figurative paintings, demonstrating a remarkable agility and versatility.'
-Paul Edmunds in Art Throb, June 2003
Aggenbach is busy with the final preparations of her forthcoming show 'Fool's Gold' at Bell-Roberts (see Up Next, below). She has just completed an entry for the Brett Kebble Art Awards called Travelogue.
Earlier this year, Aggenbach held a solo called 'Hoogwater/ High Tide' at Oudtshoorn's Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees. It explored the Atlantic trade route and family-related issues using Dutch maritime scenes and Pierneef-inspired landscapes as inspiration. The results included a tapestry Rise and Fall, a fleet of delicate and fragile porcelain ships Souvenirs, which refer back to childhood and innocence, and a large sculptural installation of laminated wood called North by Northwest.
Aggenbach also curated and participated in a group show at Bell-Roberts in February 2005 called 'Sweet Nothings' which represented her first foray into photography.
Aggenbach was a lecturer at Cape College from mid-2000 until February 2004. During 2004, she spent a few months in Paris for the Cité des Arts residency programme as part of the Absa L'Atelier Award.
During this French sojourn, Aggenbach decided to make her peace with painting. The end result was a six-panel work of her body, Degrees of Separation, inspired by her family history. The skin tone of each consecutive panel became darker and the spaces between the panels become an integral part of the work.
The previous year was a busy one. Aside from winning the L'Atelier Award, Aggenbach participated in 'YDEsire' at the Cape Town Castle where she combined myths of the haunted castle with the idea of an elusive longing. She began to explore personal issues of social commentary with 'Blank' at the AVA, using the metaphor of black sheep in The Collective. Aggenbach also began looking at found objects that evoke memory and her sculpture called Exit earned her a place as a finalist on the Brett Kebble Art Awards.
After graduating from Stellenbosch University with her Fine Art degree in 1997, Aggenbach held her first exhibition the following year - 'The Imitator' at the AVA. From 1999-2000, she lived in London before returning to Cape Town and winning the Unesco-Aschberg residency in New Delhi, India. This five-month trip was instrumental: the Mogul architecture of Arab and Moorish influence and bright colours and patterns of the region affected her own production.
Aggenbach said it was an inspiring time of freedom: 'There was no external pressure to produce anything - I think that was the most important element. It was all just about getting into the process and enjoying what you do.' This experience informed her 2001 Bell-Roberts exhibition, 'From a Netherworld' , which comprised a series of figurative paintings. After this exhibition, she turned away from painting for a while.
Aggenbach participated the following year in the first Spier Sculpture Biennial with an artwork that used hydroponically grown grass sheets. She participated again two years later with a work called Lemmings. She took a group of steel garden bucket chairs, popular in 1970s and 1980s South African suburbia, and elongated their legs, installing them crossing the estate's Eersterivier in a mockery of group mentality, conformity and a false sense of security.
Aggenbach has a solo show next month [October] at Bell-Roberts Contemporary called 'Fool's Gold'. The exhibition is described as an amalgamation of historic references with private narratives. The body of work is an extension of 'Hoogwater/ High Tide', which opened at the KKNK in April 2005.
The artworks were in part inspired by a visit to the Muse&EACUTE; National de la Marine in Paris. Aggenbach says in her artist's statement: 'It is a fascination with the early explorers, the idea of perilous travel and discovery that inspired the imagery for the works. Even more intriguing was the uncertainty and fear that captured the sailor's imagination when embarking on these explorations.'
She will also include a version of one of her recent works, Familia, on the exhibition. It refers to the display of precious objects - as did Souvenirs - but using illusion. It is inspired by inherited artifacts and other intangible aspects handed down over time through families.
In April 2006, Aggenbach will exhibit 'Blue & White' at Art On Paper in Johannesburg. She is also looking at the possibility of more public projects in Cape Town for 2006, working on installations with other artists.
1997: B.A. Fine Art at the University of Stellenbosch
2005: Currently full-time artist
June 2000- March 2004: Lectured at the Cape College in Graphic Processes, Two-Dimensional Design and Drawing
2005: 'Hoogwater/High Tide', KKNK, Oudtshoorn (SA)
2003: 'Blank', AVA, Cape Town (SA)
2001: 'From a Netherworld', Bell-Roberts, Cape Town
2000: 'Northern Ladies', Art Konsult, New Delhi, India
1998: 'The Imitator', AVA, Cape Town
2005: Curator and participant 'Sweet Nothings', Bell-Roberts, Cape Town
2004: '40 Years', University of Stellenbosch, Sasol Art Museum
2004: '2nd Spier Outdoor Sculpture Biennial', Stellenbosch
2003: 'Picnic', Bell-Roberts, Cape Town
2003: Brett Kebble Art Awards finalist
2003: 'ABSA L'Atelier', Johannesburg
2003: 'YDESIRE', Castle of Good Hope, Cape Town
2002: 'Autogeographie', Millennium Gallery, Johannesburg
2002: 'Spier Outdoor Sculpture Biennial', Jan Marais Nature Reserve, Stellenbosch
2001: 'Micro/Macro', South African Printmakers at the Xchanges Gallery, Victoria, British Columbia (Canada)
2001: 'ABSA L'Atelier', Johannesburg
2001: 'Aarsel/ Waver', KKNK, Oudtshoorn
1998: Shortlisted for the '15th Royal Overseas League Annual Open Exhibition', UK
2005: Nominated for a Kanna award: best visual art exhibition for Hoogwater/ HighTide, KKNK festival, Oudtshoorn
2005: Curator: 'Sweet Nothings', Bell-Roberts, Cape Town
2004: April - Sept: Cité des Arts Residency, Paris
2003: Winner in the Anglo Gold Riches of Africa Design Competition (merit award for most original design)
2003: Winner of the 2003 ABSA L'Atelier
2003: Finalist in the first Brett Kebble Art Awards
2000: Winner in the 'New Signatures Exhibition', Bellville Art Centre
2000: UNESCO-Aschberg Residency programme at the Sanskriti Kendra, New Delhi, India
Various private collections locally and abroad.
Corporate collections include:
-Anglo Gold South Africa
-Sasol Art Museum (pending)