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Archive: Issue No. 39, November 2000

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Jeremy Wafer

Horizon, 2000
Resin and wax
Length: 200 cm

Jeremy Wafer

Stones (Detail from !Xoe2� Site Specific
(Nieu Bethesda in situ)) 2000
Dimensions variable

Jeremy Wafer

Anthill (detail), 1995
Photographs, earth, plaster frames
Dimensions variable

Jeremy Wafer

Low Wax Wall, 1987
2m long
wax, cement

Jeremy Wafer

Red Oval, 1998
Fibreglass and polish
Ht: 50 cm

Jeremy Wafer

Red Square, 1997
Wood, resin, oxide
100cm x 100cm

Jeremy Wafer

Estate, 1996
Photographs, plaster frames, red oxide
90 frames
Dimensions variable

Jeremy Wafer

Red Disc, 1994
Red earth on wood
Diameter: 200cm

A feature on an artist in the public eye.

Life Sciences: Jeremy Wafer
by Kathryn Smith

Modus operandi:

Jeremy Wafer may be the brightest and most consistent light on the Durban art scene. Where other compatriots have relocated to Johannesburg and beyond, Wafer has involved himself in every aspect of the arts in Durban, serving on the board of the NSA Gallery, teaching at the Natal Technikon for 17 years and showing widely both locally and internationally to critical acclaim. His work, which straddles sculpture, photography, painting and video, is concerned with a systematic, empirical cataloguing of shape, form and quantity, whether in objects constructed, cast, drawn or found. The notion of 'process' forms an intrinsic aspect of his working method, but it is based more in the conceptualising of the work than in the production of 'ephemeral objects'. On the contrary, Wafer's objects have a compelling presence, seeking out what he terms "fundamental forms" and "non-unique objects" in series that are made unique by subtle shifting of surface textures and edges. While his works exist as 'autonomous' objects in themselves, his interest in African art forms and cultures, philosophy and a deep knowledge of art historical and contemporary precedents result in work that one never seems to get to the bottom of. As a student, he produced a series of photographs of himself deliberately positioned in the landscape, which seems to echo back and forth in work he has produced of man-made and natural forms in similar spaces.

The grid, both as a formal hanging or framing device, as well as a loaded art historical concept, is a common motif that recurs in his works. The references like ants and termites, buildings, books, African art objects, fields of colour and industrial forms are incidental to their reformulation as metaphors of edges and borders, structured as 'typologies' of form and content. An interesting tension exists between the flawless formal aesthetics and deeply embedded, complex content of the works, and the relationship between the 'natural' and the 'structured'. Drawing on earth art, minimalism and the post-minimalists in his very early work, he is interested in the liminal or interstitial spaces between what he calls "clean process" (empirical 'measuring', whether this is surveying, observing, documenting) and a more physical working with materials and notions of embodiment. His work is often the physical manifestation of the spaces "slipping in-between meaning" - binary spaces where meaning is constantly being produced.


'Open Circuit', the first conference and exhibition of the annual Pulse project supported by the Rijksakademie International Network, is currently on at the NSA Gallery in Durban, and presents two new works by Wafer based on a Xhosa staff. Two elongated cylindrical forms, with wax surfaces activated by bumps are mounted on the wall horizontally. The works extend his very successful body of sculptures shown at the Goodman Gallery in 1998, and newer pieces like Horizon, where the vertical installation of the ovals has shifted to horizontal capsule forms. The oval shapes shown on that exhibition have been stretched to extend their reference from 'body' to 'landscape', without relinquishing their rich and multi-layered references to African art forms and Wafer's exquisite attention to formal properties. Wafer is also one of the artists selected for A.R.E.A. 2000 (Art Region End of Africa), curated by Gavin Younge, that is taking place in Iceland at the Museum of Art, Reykjavik this month. He is presenting a three-hour video piece tracking the activities of an ant hill, a 'moving image' continuation of a series of earlier photographs that systematically documented termite and ant nests at the point where they rise out of the earth. 2000 saw him participating in 'Unplugged 5' at the Market Theatre Galleries, Johannesburg; '!Xoe2 Site Specific' in Nieu Bethesda and Grahamstown; 'Suitcase' at the NSA Gallery, Durban, 'Outpost' at the Association of Arts Pretoria, where he showed a series of documented fence posts in Mexico; and presenting a solo exhibition at Art First in London, sharing the space with Karel Nel. His work for '!Xoe' extended the fence post images, documenting stones in the landscape and hanging one back-to-back image every ten meters for a kilometer in the Karoo desert.

Before that:

Recently, Wafer has also been involved in several public commissions in sculpture and glass work. In 1999, he took up a residency at the Thami Mnyele Foundation in Amsterdam and participated in Hilton Judin's acclaimed architectural extravanganza exhibition 'blank_Architecture, Apartheid and after', currently on at MuseuMAfricA in Johannesburg. His 1998 exhibition at the Goodman Gallery, comprising pocked, pitted and bumped ovoid sculptures, paintings on glass, and photographs of ant hills, introduced Wafer to a wave of new audiences. The ovoid pieces, while referencing African ritual bodily scarification in rich earth tones, carried through a formal interest in ellipses that is about "an intrapolation of the form itself and the system that produced it" - Wafer tells of Medieval stone masons who used a notched stick as a kind of 'compass' to produce a rounded form. His paintings on glass re-present a spindle and circular shape with varied edges, such that the repeated shapes appear to pulsate optically, all the while ensconced under a smooth, impenetrable cover of glass. The 'Squares' series, of which Red Square is an example, was a body of work that looked ar triad of relationships between red, black and white as recurring colour values in traditional healing practices. Wafer is self-critical when it comes of issues of 'appropriation' of 'ethnicized' objects - while the textures of these works do hark back to Zulu pottery and headrests, they also refigure painting in a very challenging way: the 'edges' don't create an edge, but curve round, and the textures give the surface of the works an intense charge. In 1997, Wafer was selected for the 2nd Johannesburg Biennale's flagship show, 'Alternating Currents' and the New Delhi Triennale, preceded by 'Earth and Everything' in Bristol, and 'Ground Swell' at the Mermaid Theatre in the U.K. in 1996. His work for the Biennale was a piece entitled Estate, as series of framed black and white photographs of council housing nameplates in England, named after colonial sites in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Southern Africa. Wafer found the omission of places in India, Nigeria and other particular colonised zones rather telling. The 90 frames are a combination of these and red oxide 'punctuation' frames, the order of which gives the work a strategic, almost, mathematical quality, but the inconsistency in arrangement lends an emotive edge.

And before that:

Jeremy Wafer won the now-defunct Standard Bank National Drawing Competition in 1987 and was represented in most major national competition exhibitions, including the Cape Town Triennial in 1991 and the Vita awards in 1994 and 1995. Well-known for sculptural pieces that references military and industrial structures, issues of power, ownership and agency located the works in a particular political context without being overt. Low Wax Wall is such a piece that attempts to refigure the monolithic impenetrability of such structures with the introduction of wax, which is malleable and somehow more 'human'. Encyclopaedia and Austerville carried these concerns through to drawings that are reminiscent of 'stereoscopic' images - placed side by side, they should read three-dimensionally. Wafer ruptures this system, by producing two apparently identical drawings, shown as a pair. In these two separate works, a row of architectonic books, as 'building blocks of knowledge', reference institutional or council architecture. Isandhlwana re-presents a famous battle as a series of nine frames, picking up on the ellipse device again, and multiple framings. Red oxide is behind glass, with a central image depicting the 'koppie' (hill) of the battle site taken from a history book. The formal devices recall the images of South African sights seen on old trains, Victorian vignettes and the red of the earth, both literal and figurative.

Next up:

Wafer is one of three artists selected for a first series of monographs sponsored by the MTN Art Institute, The French Institute and Pro Helvetia, and edited by Brenda Atkinson. The publication is due out in June 2001, which will hopefully coincide with a planned solo exhibition at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg.

Selected Curriculum vitae:

Jeremy Wafer was born in 1953 and currently lives and works in Durban. He completed his undergraduate degree in Fine Arts at the University of Natal Pietermaritzburg in 1979, an Honours in Art History (1980) and a Masters degree in Fine Arts at the University of the Witwatersrand (1987). He is currently a Senior Lecturer at the Technikon Natal where he has taught since 1983. In 1996, he served as a visiting lecturer at Cheltenham and Gloucester College in the U.K.

Selected Exhibitions:
1987: Standard Bank National Drawing Competition (1st prize)
1989: Volkskas Exhibition (merit)
1991: 'Il Sud del Mondo', Galleria Civica del Arte, Masala, Italy
Cape Town Triennial, SANG
1993: Solo exhibition, Goodman Gallery
Critic's Choice, ICA Gallery, Johannesburg
1994: 'Contemporary Art from South Africa', Paris, France
'Places of Power', Newtown Galleries, Johannesburg
'Images of Metal', Grahamstown Festival (touring)
'Vita Awards', Johannesburg Art Gallery
1995: 'Edwards, Muyai, Wafer', Newtown Galleries, Johannesburg
'Barry, Allen, Wafer', Market Theatre Galleries, Johannesburg
'Vita Awards', Johannesburg Art Gallery
'Panoramas of Passage', Meridian Foundation, Washington, USA (touring)
1996: 'Earth and Everything', Arnolfini, Bristol, CCA, Glasgow (touring UK)
'Ground Swell', Mermaid Theatre, London, U.K.
Solo exhibition, Cheltenham College of Art, UK.
'Jeremy Wafer', Artfirst, London
1997: 'Unplugged 2', Market Theatre Gallery, Johannesburg
'Alternating Currents', 2nd Johannesburg Biennale
New Delhi Triennale, New Delhi, India
1998: Solo exhibition, Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg
'30 S 30 E', Lipschitz Gallery, Cape Town
1999: 'blank_Architecture, Apartheid and after', NIA, Rotterdam and MuseuMAfricA, Johannesburg
2000: 'Unplugged 5', Market Theatre Gallery, Johannesburg
Solo exhibition, Artfirst, London
'Suitcase', NSA Gallery, Durban
'!Xoe2 site specific', Nieu Bethesda and Grahamstown
'AREA 2000', Reykjavik, Iceland
'Open Circuit', NSA Gallery, Durban


The Smithsonian Institute, Washington, USA
The Library of Congress, Washington, USA
The South African National Gallery
The Johannesburg Art Gallery
The Durban Art Gallery
The Tatham Art Gallery
The Pretoria Art Museum
The University of the Witwatersrand Collection
The Natal Technikon Collection
The Gencor Collection

1997: Sculpture and glass work for the Poynton Chapel in Botha's Hill, with Sarkin and Jain Architects.
1999-2000: Sculpture and glass for the Ecumenical Trust Building, Durban, and a new library and community hall in Cato Crest, Durban.