Hentie van der Merwe’s figuring II: Heiseb Exhibition at Goodman Gallery

Written by: Tiisetso Tlelima
Film stills and computer graphics by RGD & Alpha

Winner of 2008 Sasol Wax Art competition and best visual artist award at the BIG Torino 2002 International Biennale of Young Art, Hentie van der Merwe exhibits his work once again at the Cape Town Goodman Gallery until 12 September. Sexual and identity politics; masculinity and violence; and issues around gay identity have always featured prominently in his work. In this exhibition titled figuring II: Heiseb, he continues to explore ideas such as the body, violence, power and history. The exhibition explores an archive of Nama (Khoi) folktales he recently discovered in Germany and investigates the overlap between Nama and Afrikaans folktales. We speak to Hentie to find out more about this intriguing exhibition.

Who is Hentie van der Merwe?
“I am a senior lecturer in visual arts at the University of Stellenbosch. I was born in Windhoek, Namibia in 1972 and studied fine arts at the University of the Witwatersrand where I obtained both my bachelors and masters degrees. Between 2000 and 2002 I attended the Higher Institute for Fine Arts (HISK) in Antwerp and in 2001 the prestigious Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine, USA.”

In your earlier work you worked exclusively with photography. What was your obsession with your photography?
“I never really had an obsession with photography. I have always used a variety of mediums to explore the ideas central to my art practice, such as those indicated above. My very first exhibition at the Goodman Gallery (Johannesburg, 2000) I did however focus exclusively on the medium of photography, but before then, and since I have worked in a diverse range of media; mixed media installations, sculpture, drawing and, of late, increasingly in printmaking, both etching and silkscreen printmaking.”

In this exhibition you use film as a medium. Why?
“The medium of film is new to me. Last year, for my entry for the Sasol Wax Art competition, I used for the first time the medium of video, but in a rather rudimentary way. The film I made for the current exhibition, I did in collaboration with the film director Amanda Evans. The choice of film as a medium for the work currently on display was largely based on my current interest in the telling of stories, in narrative, and in this case the re-telling of an ancient Nama folktale about the creation of the world. In the current exhibition there are also sculptures and prints.”

What is your exhibition, figuring II: Heiseb really about?
“As with most artworks (in my view) my work is really about myself… an exploration of my own being…my own personal history, together with the history of the country of my birth and youth: Namibia.”

What do you want people to learn from it, if anything?
“My work doesn’t really contain a ‘message’, rather it is meant to be evocative. I try to create an aesthetic experience that is both poetic but also, I hope, an experience that will encourage people to intellectually engage in the nature of our contemporary existence.”

Who are the Nama people?
“The Nama – today living mainly in Namibia – are the last branch of the Khoekhoen. Europeans called them “Hottentots”. In earlier centuries the Cape Khoen moved around southern Africa with their big herds of cattle, sheep and goats. When in 1652 the Dutch fort was founded at the Cape, their decline began. They not only gradually lost their wealth and their freedom, but formerly unknown epidemics which the Europeans had introduced raged among them and decimated their numbers considerably. Many groups moved north to escape from the White rule, and we meet them again in Namibia during the first half of the 19th century as so-called Oorlam Nama.”

Nama and Afrikaans folktales. What is the connection?
“Due to the interaction between the Nama and Afrikaans people during the course of history one finds a lot of cross-population of cultures taking place. This resulted in many Afrikaans folklore containing tales with a Nama/Khoi origin. At the same time you find Nama folklore containing tales with a European origin, and it is this cross-populated space between these two cultures that I am keen to explore in my work.”

Your ideas for this exhibition were also shaped by the figure of the German emperor Wilhelm II. How so?
“Yes, due to the ongoing thematic interests in my art practice I came to be fascinated by the figure of Wilhelm II, who was very important in the colonial history of Namibia. He was the emperor of Germany during the time of the colonization of Namibia. Wilhelm II suffered from birth complications that left his left arm withered and useless, a defect which contributed to a strongly narcissistic personality with complex psychological and sexual drives. In the current exhibition these interests of mine are maybe less overt though.”

What kind of music is used in this exhibition and why?
“I have recently started collaborating with composer Philip Miller for a project I am developing for the stage. The film currently on show at the Goodman Cape will also form part of this larger project. The choice of Miller as composer was thus self-evident. As an artist I am drawn to the work of Philip Miller due to my own current interest in the audio/sound archive of Nama folktales I recently discovered in Germany. Miller is known for his sampling techniques whereby he would incorporate existing audio recordings into his compositions, and I was very much interested in him doing something similar for the film. For the film soundtrack Miller sampled from the original recording of the Nama folktale on which the film is based, together with sounds of animals and a number of other recordings. This all added to the richness and evocative nature of the soundtrack.”

figuring II: Heiseb is on at Cape Town’s Goodman Gallery until 12 September.