Prof Karen von Veh: The Artist as Collector

The collector collects things in his own image…his collection serves as a mirror, and is in many ways a discourse of the embodied self (Melissa Tan 2010:4).

I first met Jaco Van Schalkwyk in 2015 when he was part of the South African exhibition that I, and my co-curators from UJ, took to the Beijing Biennale. Van Schalkwyk was given an award, by the exhibition spon- sor, to accompany us to Beijing and that trip became his introduction to Eastern cultures and the notion of ‘the exotic other’. It was not only the obvious differ- ence of culture and artifact in China that raised his awareness of otherness, however. One of our cura- torial team, Shonisani, became an object of wonder to the Chinese in Beijing. Wherever we went there was a small entourage of fascinated observers follow- ing us and trying to get close enough to touch her black skin or the long braids of her hair. The boldest even asked to have their photographs taken with her. When newspaper photographers were sent to doc- ument our exhibition for the press they quickly for- got their official duties and spent time photographing Shoni, asking her to pose in front of the artworks and to turn her head so her braids were visible (much to her irritation). For Van Schalkwyk, this identification of Shonisani as an ‘exotic other’ was a reminder of his own othering as a child. He was brought up in a se- cluded religious community, Jatniel, where the wom- en wore blue dresses and the community eschewed many of the modern conveniences of secular life. His first interaction with the world outside this community was when he went to primary school. He felt alienat- ed and was bullied by other pupils because of his and his family’s ‘otherness’ and this experience, along with Shoni’s experience in China, has made him particularly

aware of the sensitivities involved in displaying or re- cording the ‘exotic other’.

Van Schalkwyk is an avid photographer of life around him including people, landscapes, oddments and things that he encounters. He is a collector of such visual material, partly physical objects but mostly through photography and it is from the results of these col- lections that his latest exhibition has emerged. It is a collection of note, a Wunderkammer, A ‘Curiosity Cabinet’ of oddments and items gathered on his trav- els, but they are not just presented as trophies. These items and images have been carefully considered, re- configured and manipulated, either in painted or phys- ical juxtapositions, to create a ‘Teatro Mundi’ – a theat- rical reimagining of his experiences as both omniscient recorder and subjective participant.

There is a long history of collecting and displaying difference – from Renaissance interests displayed in Medici studiolo, to items taken from voyages of dis- covery and colonialism seen in Hapsburg Wunder- kamen. In 1594 Francis Bacon extolled the merits of a collection of both crafted objects and natural won- ders as a necessity for the educated gentleman. This later led to a veritable mania for collecting particular- ly in Britain, with examples such as Sir Hans Sloane’s prodigious collection from the 17th Century, which ultimately became the basis for the British Museum, or the 19th Century collection of General Pitt Rivers, now a museum in Oxford. Historic collections have come under critical scrutiny in contemporary scholar- ship with questions raised about the self-promotion and cultural superiority displayed by the collectors, particularly those gathered and exhibited during the years of Europe’s rapid colonialism. Van Schalkwyk is justifiably concerned with the problematic nature of consuming and displaying another culture and to avoid exploitation he has attempted to level the playing field (so to speak) by inserting some evidence of himself into many of the works. Sometimes he is there as a reflection or shadow barely discerned. If you look very carefully, for example, at the glass box contain- ing a scale, there is a painting of a man (Tumi) peer- ing out of the box, taken from a photograph of Tumi looking through a window at the Sylt Foundation in Johannesburg. Overlaid on the image, from the origi- nal reflection on the window, you can just make out a shadowy outline of Van Schalkwyk holding his mobile phone while taking the original photograph. Tumi has been freed from being an exotic specimen inside the museum/gallery because he is the source of the gaze. He is outside looking into a window, perhaps at a mu- seum display, and in this image Van Schalkwyk is there with him, looking through the glass box and out at the gallery visitors. Sometimes Van Schalkwyk appears as the main subject, as seen in his self-portrait where he is ironically holding up a frame within a frame, or his disembodied eye in a smaller work, referring to the gaze and questioning who is gazing at whom. Some- times his presence is on display metaphorically, identi- fied in his obvious interventions with source material. Through Van Schalkwyk’s manipulation of his photo- graphic sources and with each of the subsequent iter- ations, his presence is manifest and he becomes both the gazer and the subject of the gaze, the collector and the object of collection.

As viewers of these works we are also complicit in the power of the gaze. In an attempt to raise awareness

of the power play involved between observer and observed, Van Schalkwyk has included many works with mirrors or glass surfaces where our reflection becomes part of the image and we look back at our- selves through the framework of another culture. The ethnographic gaze is thus inverted,creating a“reflexive awareness that the extraordinary is ever present in the familiar” (Davison 2004:15). An example of this can be seen in the small jewellery box, containing a painting of Barong (a Balinese god) that can only be viewed as a reflection in the mirror that has been inserted inside the lid. When we open the lid to look inside, both viewer and painting are visible in the mirror simulta- neously. There is sense of active voyeurism in this and other boxed works into which one must peep. These works reference the voyeurism of the world traveller who is looking into other cultures, taking photographs of their environments, their homes, or their temples. The photographs of these encounters become tro- phies to bring home and the camera, or these days the mobile phone, becomes a contemporary portable Wunderkammer in which these trophies are displayed for viewing. Like many curiosity cabinets the objects to be viewed appear eclectic and this too is mirrored in the exhibition where there is no attempt to retain cultural exclusivity in the objects. The jewellery box is a fairly common object from China, the painting inside is sourced from Bali, then you include the polyglot of viewers… These overlapping cultures exist through- out the exhibition as paintings of Myanmar scenes are framed in carved wood from Bali, or a sculpture reflecting African mythical beliefs by Credo Mutwa is reproduced as a painting within a box from the old Republic of South Africa. The conversations set up be- tween different cultures and different historic periods

are as interesting and thought provoking as the visual conversations set up by the encyclopaedic juxtaposi- tion of landscapes, people, artefacts, curios, arbitrary objects and furniture.

Many of Van Schalkwyk’s photographs are printed and enlarged and then lie around in his studio, so the op- por tunities for unusual visual conjunctions constantly abound. These provide inspiration for the layering of different realities and the interesting way one culture is able to respond to the materiality of another. It is also a by-product of the nature of travel photogra- phy which Van Schalkwyk believes might be seen as a destructive process. When you take a photograph the verb ‘take’ is an indication that you are in some respect removing something or someone from their context. It is similar to the collector taking a specimen and then presenting it in another country, or removing a ‘useful’ object from one culture and presenting it as an art piece in another. This process of decontextual- izing objects and images is far from destructive in Van Schakwyk’s work, however, as it is the catalyst for new connections that allow us to engage with the world and the things around us in a different, more inclusive way. He deliberately manipulates his sources with the intention of prompting us to enquire how the meaning of an object might be altered through this process. He also approaches these underlying issues in a nuanced, self-reflexive manner that demonstrates his awareness of the cultural sensitivities that arise due to his meth- ods.

Cameras and photographic recording have always been central to Van Schalkwyk’s work, from his earli- est documentation of the community at Jatniel which

provided the source material for his first exhibition Just a Matter of Time (2012). This exhibition was about capturing the essence of the community in which he grew up and recording their lifestyle in a manner that evoked their values and the sense of safety he felt in that setting. The serenity that permeates these works is absent from later exhibitions, perhaps mirroring Van Schalkwyk’s own journey from a secluded, protected life to the world traveler that he has now become. With his second show, I, John, am the one who heard and saw these things… (2013) he intervened more actively in his imagery by fashioning a scene, directing the subjects/actors and creating a dramatic event that he then photographed for his reference material.Van Schalkwyk included props such as castings of animals, people, and objects that allowed for a certain amount of spontaneity in his orchestrated dramas as his prin- cipal ‘actors’ could interact and engage with them. In composition and style the works exude emotion through dramatic poses and chiaroscuro, inspired by 17th Century Baroque painters such as Rembrandt and Caravaggio, or Delacroix’s 18th Century French Romanticism. Arbitrary found objects (such as toys, a scale, an egg beater) have been gilded and glued to- gether as frames for the paintings, thus revoking their mundane functional roles and becoming splendid and precious in an exaggeration of Baroque’s excessive grandeur. At the same time they are a commentary on modern consumerism and the relentless striving for opulence in a world where displaying wealth through the acquisition of things appears to have become a new religion. This is a very critical look at the con- temporary trajectory of religion and appears almost apocalyptic in nature. The melodramatic theatrical imagery, which was inspired by religious iconography,

is now framed by a demonstration of the absurdity of contemporary longings. It is dramatically different from the somewhat idealized, perhaps nostalgic nature of the first exhibition.

The Apocalyptic theme and its religious connotations are continued in Van Schalkwyk’s subsequent exhibi- tion, Eden (2015), which consists of a series of emotive landscapes. As befits an Eden after the fall there are no people in these images, merely the implied aftermath of our exploitation and carelessness. This is the world exhibiting the wages of sin. Nature either appears to display rampant entropy or is bleak, eroded and bereft. Most images are deliberately monochromatic, as if not only life but colour has been siphoned away though neglect and decay. There is a feeling of suspended an- imation in these works, a suspicion that if we watch long enough perhaps small leaves might begin to grow and reclaim the lifeless land or, alternatively, an escha- tological view where darkness seeps in like the spirals of black smoke painted across one of the images sug- gesting that fire will eventually consume what is left, leaving only ash. Ultimately the end result is up to us. One particular smoky landscape was created by lighting the edges of the photograph with a match and then digitally re-capturing the smoldering image with smoky wisps drifting across it. In -arium a later version of the same landscape, now almost completely con- sumed by the fire, provides the source for the image in an elaborately carved oval frame that is part of the Curios From the City of Gold collection of works. The landscape is indeed apocalyptically destroyed here but its demise provides the substance for a new beginning, a new artwork, and thus comments on the death/life dichotomy of the uncertain future evoked by Eden.

It is clear that the current exhibition, -arium, appears to encompass many of the themes, content and physical items from previous exhibitions, befitting the eclectic nature of a curiosity cabinet. We can find here refer- ence to landscapes, both exotic and apocalyptic, Ba- roque dramatic lighting and scenes or people fromVan Schalkwyk’s childhood at Jatniel. Earlier content is now juxtaposed, however, with an intriguing collection of both mundane and exotic oddments presented in var- ious modes, from painting to assemblages to sculpture and digital media. The underlying thread that gives this eclecticism some coherence in -arium is the notion of the photograph as an object. Van Schalkwyk says he wanted to create a ‘still life’ exhibition. To this end the photographs themselves are the still-life objects which he paints, rather than the items captured in the images. One can sometimes see the edges of a photograph set into another scene, or identify the reflections that would appear on the surface of the photograph, or shadows falling onto the photograph when it has been placed next to other items or images. All these ‘clues’ would not have been present in the original scene as it was being shot. This is particularly evident in the large images of exotic ferns and plants where one can see overlapping edges of the different source images, or one photograph inserted into the landscape of an- other, aler ting the viewer to the ar tist’s inter vention in these apparently natural scenes. For Pteridomania Van Schalkwyk recounts how he took a photograph on his mobile phone of a natural forest scene in Viet- nam, then took the printed photograph into his own garden and photographed it again in situ. By doing this he identifies how the ‘exotic’ is so often assimilated and normalized in our lives. Johannesburg suburban gardens are often recreations of ‘exotic locations’ as they include rain forest vegetation, ferns or palm trees that are alien to the indigenous Highveld landscape. The subject matter in the first image now has real plants, very similar to the forest vegetation depicted, which surround and overlap the photograph and cast shadows onto it. These shadows are recorded in the second photo which then provides the reference for the painting. A trompe l’oeil effect can be discerned in the obvious fabrication of these images, or in the re- flections on photographs that are painted into scenes as if they are part of reality. Trompe l’oeil is not about attempting to mislead the viewer into accepting the ‘reality’ of these images but is instead revealing the trickery involved in the production of each simulation. Ultimately the painting is a record of a constructed re- ality where the manipulations are visible to the viewer.

The layers of alteration, de-contextualization and re-contextualization do not end with the works on display in this exhibition. The objects were originally three dimensional, then they are photographs, then the photographs are printed and manipulated as objects, then photographed again as the source material for works. The painted images are then inserted into or combined with found objects and again become three dimensional. A metamorphic continuum is thus cre- ated that is perpetuated by visitors to the exhibition who might take further photographs and display them elsewhere on their mobile phones. The open ended sense of incompletion that ensues is, according to Jean Baudrillard (1994:9),“the hallmark of any true collec- tion”. The corollary to this is that an exhibition like -arium invites all of us not only to look but to active- ly participate because, as Patricia Davison (2004:14) explains with reference to curiosity collections: “The

enchantment of the object…lies in its physical pres- ence and its promise of revelation. But the unknown is revealed only through human engagement and inter- pretation – ideas and artefacts are inseparable.”


Baudrillard,Jean.1994.“Thesystemofcollecting.”In JohnElsnerandRogerCardinal(Eds.). The Cultures of Collecting. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. p.7-24.
Davidson, Patricia. 2004. Things of Enchantment. In Pippa Skotness, Gwen van Embden and FrithaLangerman.Curiosity,CLXVV:APaperCabinet. CapeTown:LLAREC:SeriesinVisual Histor y.
Tan, Melissa. 2010. The World at Home: Curiosity Collecting in the First Age of Globalisation, c. 1550-1750. M.A. Dissertation in Global History, University of Warwick.