Andrew Verster at the KZNSA Gallery
By Carol Brown
A major travelling show of Andrew Verster's work from the last ten years has been planned to open in Grahamstown next year, a glimpse of which is afforded to us in 'Now and Then' at the KZNSA, which heralds the artist's 70th birthday. Here we see two aspects of his production: firstly his incredible versatility, and secondly his prodigious output.
We are allowed a view into his versatility courtesy of the many process works for larger commissions on show. One of Verster's most recent public commissions was the work he did for the Constitutional Court Building in Johannesburg. Designed by Durban architects Janina Masojada and Andrew Makin, the building has become one of the country's iconic structures. Verster's works are one of the elements which bring an extraordinary aesthetic quality to the project. The large wooden entrance doors were his brainchild and the exhibition of the original clay maquettes for this structure was a fascinating glimpse into the trajectory of a work from inception to completion. The original maquettes, here laid out on the gallery floor, grew into a pair of large wooden doors carved by a group of artists working at the then Natal Technikon under the direction of sculptor Andries Botha.
Then there were submissions for steel doors leading to the judges' chambers. These models were made with a Japanese-inspired sensitivity. The pristine white paper models folded with origami precision relate closely to the artist's designs for beaded jewellery which has subsequently been produced by groups of women in workshops at Durban's African Art Centre. These have given a new impetus to the tradition of Zulu beadwork, adapting a well practiced technique, passed through generations, to contemporary styling and colours. Looking at these particular maquettes made one notice the intersections between art and everyday objects, and how Verster's creative vision has had the power to infiltrate different aspects of South African cultural expression. Elsewhere on the show theatre costumes vied with knitted scarves to add even more wonder to the gallery's upper level. This led into the artist's latest paintings from the Bodyworks series.
These larger than life, vibrant figures reminded me of work which he made in the late 80s which was included in Sue Williamson's book Resistance Art where she suggested that a political statement was implicit in these 'clumsily proportioned, blank faces and bald heads' (to quote Dan Cook in the catalogue for Mapping Terra Incognita 1997). It is telling that almost 20 years later Verster should return to painting these giant figures but with such a difference in approach.
He has commented that the country's 1996 Constitution has given him a new feeling of freedom particularly in its removal of prejudice against same-sex relationships. There is a sense of liberation and power in these figures, both in the depiction of their body-beautiful and also in the bold colours which shout out and attract attention. Their decorative markings, while linking with many of Verster's previous themes such as history and Indian decorations, also pay homage to the body as a canvas and refer to street culture where tattoos have become a declaration of one's liberty and a common facet of self-expression. They also serve as markers that, despite Verster's many forays into different techniques and forms of creative expression, there is something fundamental about painting to which his creativity always returns. The glow of the figures set the gallery alight.
We were also given a preview of some of his wax works which will be seen in greater numbers at the forthcoming Sasol Wax Art exhibition in which Verster is one of the finalists.
What is it that distinguishes Verster's work from others'? For me one of his strongest characteristics is his curiosity, an endless and enthusiastic need to know more about every aspect of life. This sometimes naïve curiosity permeates his work and gives it an undeniable freshness. Many artists with long and prodigious careers go through phases of repetition and produce work which feels tired. This has never happened with Verster, there is always a new and exciting development which nonetheless contains a thread which we can trace back to his earliest work. Continuity with change is a hallmark of his production and this exhibition has whet our appetites for the major showing next year.
Opens: June 19
Closes: July 8
The KZNSA Gallery
166 Bulwer Road, Glenwood, Durban
Tel: (031) 202 3686
Fax: (031) 201 8051
Hours: Tue - Fri 10am - 5pm, Sat - Sun 10am - 4pm