WITH YOUR FEET ON THE AIR
In conversation with artist Schalk van der Merwe
On making art, darkness, and the divine
BY KATHRYN CARTER
It’s strange to mourn a blossom that is yet to bloom. Even so, that’s what it feels like sometimes. In the shadow of the canvas, you avert your eyes from internal afflictions that have arisen, as if to actualise the promise of significant, albeit uncertain, things. Alone in the presence of his paintings you are unknowingly arrested by a newfound faith, one that may not have existed if it weren’t for his portraits’ insinuations to, and eradication of, seemingly harmless and yet equally hazardous expectations. At once immersed in a piercing silence, you are seized by a pure potential that would not be there had you not first experienced, and endured, an immeasurable pain. An awakening to atrocities still to be slain by ruthless authenticity.
As I gaze at the anonymous subjects painted by Schalk van der Merwe, I take comfort in the quietness of their confrontation, feeling entangled in intimate, predestined collisions that feel aggressively loving and inexplicably important. Savouring the feeling—sans any definitive knowing—that each work has burgeoned not from seeds of sentimentality, but from a soulful place that is far more sincere.
‘In order to rise from its own ashes,’ American author Octavia Butler once wrote, ‘a phoenix first must burn.’
Beyond layers of paint, charcoal, and turpentine, the portraits of van der Merwe appear to be enduring a similar fate. In an eternal state of becoming, born from a fertile inner place that had to first burn before it could be. Risen from their own divine ruin, magnetised by their metamorphic nature, emanating a meaningful melancholia. One that is as brutal as it is beautiful, as romantic as it is revolutionary.
KATHRYN CARTER: Where were you born and raised?
SCHALK VAN DER MERWE: Cape Town, South Africa.
Were you quite creative as a child?
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been involved in some form of creativity. From acting in school plays, singing in choirs, to drawing and painting, I’ve always found a way to express myself. Growing up in a conservative neighbourhood in apartheid South Africa, creativity wasn’t always the most celebrated activity, but my parents realised early on that I had different ideas, and fortunately for me, they only encouraged me and never stood in my way.
What is your earliest memory of painting?
I remember starting with stick-men drawings, probably around the age of five. My brother and I would spend hours entertaining ourselves and creating our own worlds. At that time, television hadn’t arrived in South Africa yet, so we had to actually use our own imagination to create our worlds and stories. My mother insists that, somehow, my stick men had loads of energy and lives of their own. Her objectivity might be questionable, but I’ll take the compliment.
You studied graphic design at Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) before entering the world of advertising. Fifteen years later, you left the industry as an international award-winning creative director to pursue your art. What was it that drew you away from the world of advertising—which can be quite a glamorous realm—to the often uncertain world of art?
After a very successful 15-year career in advertising, it became stale, frustrating, and predictable. In 2012, I realised that I had to find a new way to showcase my creativity, one that allowed me to express my truth in a brutally honest, uncompromising way. [But] I’m eternally grateful for my time in advertising. All of the years and experiences helped, shaping me into the artist I am today.
Do you feel the urge to create every day?
I do. I have a very strong work ethic; it’s a product of my working-class upbringing. I was taught that to achieve anything in life, you have to put in the effort. Apathy is the biggest enemy of creativity. Some of my best work has come from times when I didn’t particularly feel like being creative.
You once said that you often wonder what the outcome will be when you start a piece, what will be manifested on the canvas or paper. Nine times out of ten, you admit to being wrong in your expectations. Do you think you always inherently knew how to let your truth unfold in your work unimpeded, or was trusting in the process, letting go, so to speak, something you had to learn?
It’s something I had to learn. After 15 years of working on client briefs—where often the outcome is very calculated and dictated—it took me a few months to surrender to the [artistic] process. To let the work unfold and reveal itself. [In those first days,] I created a piece I would later call Amnesia. I went into the studio, and for the first time I stepped away from the canvas and couldn’t remember painting the piece. That was the turning point. While painting that piece, I wasn’t thinking about the outcome, the technique; nothing. I simply allowed myself to be truly present in the moment, without any expectations. Ultimately, I’m not in control. Never was and never will be. I’m just the vessel.
Tell me about your studio space. How much does the energy of your environment impact your work?
It’s a humble space. Quite dark and intimate, but scattered with personal items to give it character. I agree that the space one creates in has an impact; whatever emotions you experience in your space will translate and reflect in your work. This energy is often captured in the piece and transferred to the eventual viewer. I’m currently looking to expand my studio. My works are getting bigger, and from a purely practical point of view, more space would be fantastic and hopefully influence my work in new and exciting ways.
In your work, you employ materials such as paint, charcoal, and turpentine, working with expressive brushstrokes and often the physical DNA from your fingertips. Do you consider your art to be an extension of your being? Or are the paintings entities unto themselves, destined to narrate their own stories?
My art is definitely an extension of my being. My Visceral Portraits are inspired by the world we live in today—a world [that is] vastly different to the one I knew as a child. One where instant gratification is the order of the day, and everything seems accelerated, impermanent, and often meaningless. It feels chaotic, and I find myself strongly influenced by this. To reflect this current state of being, I work with materials like spray paint, charcoal, pencils, turpentine, and acrylics. All of these materials can dry within minutes, which allows me the opportunity to change images at the drop of a hat. It also allows me to work fast. I don’t think; I just do.
In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche writes, ‘I am a forest, and a night of dark trees: but he who is not afraid of my darkness, will find banks full of roses under my cypresses.’ Do you feel as though your process involves a subconscious foraging for, and flirtation with, the beautiful and barbaric?
Absolutely. I’ve always been drawn to that which lurks in the shadows. I’m not scared to walk towards and embrace that darkness that resides inside me. I find it incredibly cathartic. After all, it lives and breathes in all of us. For me, the challenge has always been to take that shadow part of the human condition, to bring it into consciousness and transform it into a beautiful piece of expression. Hopefully this will trigger a visceral response from the viewer, or expose them to a particular truth that they either don’t want to acknowledge or that they never even knew existed within them.
French novelist Émile Zola once said, ‘If you ask me what I came to do in this world, I, an artist, will answer you: I am here to live out loud.’ Do you ever think about what you came to do in this world?
I do, often, and I think the answer will keep evolving and changing as I grow older. We’re all on our own journey for a short period of (and in) time. Hopefully my work will inspire people to allow themselves to be honest, happy, vulnerable, fragile, and to seek out their true path and follow it unapologetically, with absolute joy in their hearts.
Your portraits are not about realism, perfection, gender, or race. Rather, they explore and attempt to capture those qualities and emotions often hidden from view. Do you feel as though the portrayal of what people may be too afraid to show is a part of your purpose as an artist?
I strongly believe that [our] modern-day consensus thinking doesn’t encourage truthful expression. Society expects us to remain ordered and has little tolerance for those who embrace and celebrate the natural ebb and flow of human emotions. As a result, these emotions often become filtered or remain hidden away in dark corners of the subconscious, never to be explored, discussed, or expressed in any way. If my work can liberate just one person from the shackles that society has placed on us, I’ve done more than I can ever ask for.
Just to that point, in the past you’ve worked on projects that deal with the damages that are caused by dogmatic and destructive religious belief systems. What do you think compelled you to explore these issues?
I don’t think my story is unique. Millions of people around the world are affected by dogmatic belief systems on a daily basis. I personally cannot condone an ideology based in fear and control. I believe that as humans we’re supposed to question everything, and by doing so hopefully discover our own path to spiritual evolution—some form of enlightenment and happiness.
I agree wholeheartedly. Do you feel as though art can act as an antidote to the often repressive ideologies—religious and/or other—of contemporary culture?
All I’m trying to do is to question and challenge the relevance of these oppressive and repressive ideologies. They’ve been around for centuries and seem to create more division between people and cultures than [they do to] encourage states of compassion, tolerance, and understanding. Can my art change what has come before? Probably not, and I’m not trying to [do so] either. But by creating awareness, hopefully it will start a conversation.
Your work explores the concept of taking the mind out of the creative process to allow for a more honest expression. Do you feel that disengaging from thought allows one to more closely align with, and surrender to, the desires of the soul?
My work is not reliant on a cognitive process. I believe overthinking can destroy originality. This doesn’t mean I don’t think about my work; I reflect about my work all the time. But when I’m physically in the process of creating, applying materials to the canvas, there’s no place for the mind. Ultimately, I’m not in control—not in the process nor in the outcome. I truly believe that creativity should never be held hostage to expectations. The ideas are there; they always have been and always will be. All I have to do is surrender.
Your portraits have been described as delicate, melancholic expressions that are created with a coarse and visceral application of paint. How would you describe your style?
Brutally honest expressions of the human condition.
Do you think you ever really know what you are trying to say with your work? Or does it take on a life of its own?
I think the paintings take on a life and meaning of their own. Whatever I’m influenced by at the time, I paint. Whatever emotional state I’m in, I express. Whatever the viewer experiences when they interact with my work, that is real. I hate to dictate or explain their meanings and how people should experience them. I paint the world the way I feel it, not the way I see it. I want people to feel into my work, not try to understand it.
Yoko Ono once said, ‘Use your blood to paint. Keep painting until you faint. Keep painting until you die.’ Although provocative, her words do speak to the often all-consuming nature of passion, particularly in the arts. Do you yourself feel like painting is something that you have to do?
Yes. This is my life. It’s not a hobby, not a phase. It drives me, frustrates me, fulfils me, and gives me purpose. Without it, there would be emptiness.
In your own words, what is art?
Art is whatever you need it to be at that specific moment of engagement.