CV Jan van der Merwe

In the past few years I have been producing art works in which I incorporate found objects images, junk materials – objects inherited, bought, picked up. The desire to work with these materials, their shapes and textures, coupled with the images, memories and sentiments that they evoke serve as the starting point of the art making process.

In a solo exhibition held at the African Window Museum in May 1998 (the practical component of a Master’s degree study at the Technikon Pretoria), war and soldier images were conspicuous. The soldier is a metaphor for the artist, who uses his personal memories, history and survival skills in the art making process. The war theme is also a tool through which personal demons could be exorcised: during the 1980’s I worked as an artist in the shows and exhibitions section of the then SADF, where I was exposed to a lot of visual material pertaining to the defense force, which I had to exhibit for propaganda purposes, along with posters and pamphlets designed by a team of artists. Some of these images where re-contextualized in art works in an ironic comment on my previous activities, also on the entire system, for example in the work ‘Final Inspection’ (1997). In this work a collage of fragmented war images is painted and pasted on to my old army coat. The coat is thus completely transformed into a landscape of war. The coat is something personal and individual, which also serves to transform the civilian human being into the soldier, where a new collective identity is assumed. There is a play between the private and the public role, which is sustained in other works. In this work there is also a ‘war’ between the tactile, concrete quality of the coat and the ‘illusionism’ of the images on it.

This series of works culminated in four final sculptures in which the war theme is still prevalent but the images have become universal. The works are stripped of the excess of collaged images and layers of materials of the previous series and each sculpture projects one essential image. To me, these works really speak of ‘the end of the world as we know it’, because they consist of banal household structures and objects; a chair and jacket, an ironing board with a man’s shirt, a clothes horse with ironed trousers, a made-up soldier’s bed (ready for inspection) – but these objects are completely covered in rusted tins picked up on junk heaps. Thus they take on an archaeological quality and become relics of a way of life, a civilization degenerated and fossilized though time and rust. The ‘open’ quality of the sculpture constructions also refers to formal innovation on the terrain of sculpture in this century.

The clothes are those of a civilian man, or a soldier (the ‘rusted’ clothes might evoke the idea of an end of the era of male dominance), but ironically they are in a domestic context, they were handled, prepared (ironed, folded) which suggests feminine domestic activity. The irony is sustained further by the idea of the macho soldier who also has to perform these domestic tasks as part of army life.

Furthermore, the ‘feminine’ material, the clothes, the cotton cloth, woolen blankets, towels, soap are ‘appropriated’ by the male artist, who transforms these materials into rusted tin through which they are ‘masculinized’. The tin shirt and trousers also suggest an association with the armoured clothing of the medieval soldier knight. These works do not only comment on that which has come to rest, but hint at the conception of something new.

The tin cans are ordinarily used for preservation. The fragile rusted tins in these works become metaphors for waste, loss and consumerism. Their use may be seen as an attempt to “preserve” something transient and vulnerable. The reference to recycling raises an important focus of our time – that of healing and the re-establishment of cyclical rhythm. Ecological issues pertinent to the last century were dragged along as baggage into the new millennium.

The four works, ‘Soldier’s Bed’, ‘Ironing Board’, ‘Clothes Horse’ and ‘Chair and Jacket’, became part of the healing process quite literally, when they were selected by the Angolan – born artist and curator, Fernando Alvim, for a touring exhibition of art works entitled ‘Memórias Intimas Marcas’ (traces of intimate memory) that deals with the South African/Angolan War. In this exhibition , Angolan, Cuban and South African artists combine their efforts. The focus on issues of war serves as an attempt at healing the former conflict through pointing at history, but also healing on a personal level, through art and co-operation. The selection of works has already been exhibited once in South Africa in 1998 (Pretoria), and also in Lisbon, Portugal (October 1998). It moved on to the Mukha Museum in Antwerp, Belgium in Feb 2002 and is currently taken up in the Memórias Intimas Marcas collection.

Artworks in the SAFFCA Collection