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An interview with Dan Halter

Dan Halter at Sandton Convention Centre

By Michael Smith
07 November - 07 November. 0 Comment(s)
The Ears of the Hippo

Dan Halter
The Ears of the Hippo, 2013. black springstone and serpentine, found plastic-mesh bag and custom-made tartan fabric by Johnstons of Elgin dimensions variable.

Artist and quiet provocateur Dan Halter was one of the artists to present a special project at the 2013 FNB Joburg Art Fair. Away from the noise and fuss at the diagonally opposite end of the Sandton Convention Centre’s ground floor exhibition hall, Halter’s show, titled ‘Heartland’, provided an interesting counterpoint to Ayanda Mabulu’s daubing on the Marikana massacre that gained more column inches than all of the rest of the Fair put together. Halter’s new body of work, by contrast, revealed him to be in a pensive mood, undertaking a deepened exploration of the diasporic psyche from the point of view of a Zimbabwean in South Africa. He spoke to ArtThrob about tartan, blue dots and nostalgia’s inevitable failure.

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Michael Smith: Your new work seems to incorporate a deeper sense of African diaspora and social dissolution begun in previous bodies of work. References to key African literary works like Tsitsi Dangarembga's Nervous Conditions and Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart guide our grasp of your project. Is this an attempt to understand Zimbabwean political and social fallout against a more complex backdrop?

Dan Halter: Yes. Over time there has been a shift in my work from dealing more specifically with issues pertaining to Zimbabwe, to a broader context of migration, and the legacy of migration, around the world. This has coincided with my family leaving Zimbabwe in a form of self-imposed exile not long after being attacked there.

I think the issues facing Zimbabwe and Zimbabwean migrants are not just relevant to Africa, but touch on global concerns. The focus of my work is expanding to encompass more of the world as I grapple to understand it. Perhaps like zooming out with a camera lens to get an overview. Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot at one extreme, which I refer to in one of my works, suggests an image of the earth seen from the edge of our solar system, 6 billion kilometres away.

Pale Blue Dot

Dan Halter
Pale Blue Dot
2013
woven archival Inkjet print on Ivory Enigma paper
150 × 110cm
Image courtesy the artist

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MS: The action of cutting into strips and then reweaving inkjet prints of ID documents, photos of the Limpopo River, and the no-mans-land between the Zimbabwean and South African border fences seems an excessively laborious way to present an image that one began with in the first place.

DH: Weaving is a traditional craft widely practised in Zimbabwe and woven baskets sometimes have witticisms on them, woven out of different coloured reeds.

I like to work with concepts, materials and labour. I have worked with refugees on several projects, and in the case of the woven pieces, I have been working with Bienco Ikete a refugee from the Congo, for 8 years now. The excessive labour that goes into something like weaving the South African identity document in New Identity, can be seen as a metaphor for the process of getting one in real life, and it is no coincidence that Bienco, as a dispossessed refugee, is making this work.

These are objects of intense contemplation. They are meticulously taken apart and then laboriously reconstructed. One digital copy is made into two physical ones, which are then wrought together in an attempt to form some kind of memory of the original, a 3-dimensional, torn and mended, textured version, with a patina of human labour. The word ‘fabricate’ can mean to construct something honestly, or to deliberately deceive.

New Identity

Dan Halter
New Identity
2013
woven archival Inkjet print on Ivory Enigma paper
100 x 74cm
Image courtesy the artist

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MS: The springstone sculptures of the partially submerged crocodile and hippo are rather sardonic combinations of the Zimbabwean tourist trade in 'traditional' sculpture, and the very real dangers faced by refugees attempting to cross the Limpopo River into SA. How do these two elements tie up conceptually?

DH: The sculptures making up the installation were made by Faro, a Zimbabwean sculptor who works selling stone carvings typically to tourists in Cape Town. He is one of many Zimbabweans who have come to ply the same trade in South Africa. Many of these are illegal immigrants that waded across the Limpopo. But their typical subject matter is not usually political; rather, the sculptors find they have to pander to the clichéd tastes of the tourists. Using this language of craft, the woman in my installation is making her way with her baby at some peril, the same way those sculptors came with their sculptures to seek better fortune in South Africa.

Zimbabwe is famous for its Shona stone sculptures, but there is often a fluid line between what is considered art and what is curio. Often a successful sculpture will be copied until it is in the realm of curio. It would be interesting to see these works inspire such process.

The great grey-green Limpopo River

Dan Halter
The great grey-green Limpopo River
2013
woven archival Inkjet print on Ivory Enigma paper
100 x 73cm
Image courtesy the artist

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MS: In Matthew Blackman's catalogue text for your recent body of work, he mentions Albert Camus's state of nostalgia, a state of longing for a return to a home that no longer exists. Is this your experience of Zimbabwe? Do recall it in any sort of halcyon sense?

DH: There is a sense of nostalgia when I look back at my youth, and I think that is normal for anyone who has had a happy childhood. I think I was very naïve growing up though, and I was not exposed to the realities of my privileged situation. Most of the people that I knew had a fairly narrow, conservative and often racist world-view. I left Zimbabwe at the age of 18 and got a culture shock in Switzerland, and I have been trying to broaden my horizons since.

But it is strange that the country I was born in no longer exists, and the one I grew up in is no longer recognisable to me. I don’t see this in a negative way, at least not any more, because I see now that that life was a lie to begin with. I did not have deep roots there, and I while I do feel some guilt for the advantage I had early in my life, I am not burdened by it now. Rather I feel that I am in a unique position to tell an interesting story. I used John Cheever’s text from The Swimmer in a work recently because I think it is a beautiful allegory for how I feel about the experience of growing up in Zimbabwe. Although Cheever’s narrative is set in North American suburbia, it is an allegory that I think fits especially well into this southern African context. And while there are no race relations in the story, that is also partly the point. The story is a blend of realism and surrealism, which explores themes of loss, the inevitable passage of time and self-deception, all in a drunken haze. Such is the corrupt nature of memory.

MS: In The Ears of the Hippo you seem to have found and researched the exact source of one of the tartans most commonly used in the tough woven bags used by economic refugees to return goods purchased in SA to Zimbabwe. Could you describe the process?

DH: I did a residency at the Glenfiddich Distillery in Dufftown, Scotland in 2010, and there I commissioned Johnston’s of Elgin to custom-make me a tartan based on that bag pattern.

Those bags, cheap Chinese-made plastic-weave bags have become synonymous with refugees all over the world. Frequently named after an immigrant demographic, they are colloquially dubbed things like: ‘Ghana Must Go’ bags in Nigeria, ‘Türken Koffer’ or ‘Polen Tasche’ in Germany, ‘Guyanese Samsonite’ in the Caribbean, ‘Bangladeshi Bag’ in the UK, and ‘Shangaan or Zimbabwe Bag’ in South Africa. They are commonly made from different coloured plastic woven together to form a tartan-like pattern.

Johnston’s of Elgin is a high-end producer of cashmere and fine woollen cloth, and dealing with them was not easy. After agreeing to make a section of fabric for the date of my exhibition there, they reneged just weeks before the deadline. Luckily with the clout of Glenfiddich behind me, they stuck to the original deal. The woollen weave that Johnston’s produced is a tartan for the refugee clans of the world. While in Dufftown I modelled some of this fabric myself in the form of a great kilt, as part of a work called ‘Furryboots ye fae?’ which in the local dialect means ‘Whereabouts are you from?’

Vote with your Feet

Dan Halter
Vote with your Feet
2013
woven archival Inkjet print on Ivory Enigma paper
68 × 29cm
Image courtesy the artist

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