News about the death of one of South Africa’s foremost sculptors, Bruce Arnott (b.1938), sent me straight to a public sculpture to bid farewell. His Alma Mater is an elegant and moving tribute to knowledge that is fittingly installed on the campus of UCT. It depicts a goddess-like Caryatid figure atop a tall column; she holds symbols of learning in her hands and bears a weighted headdress with dignified aplomb. But the telling detail – and in Arnott’s work, there is always a telling detail – is the chameleon perched triumphantly atop her headdress and its compatriot that stealthily climbs the side of the column towards the regal figure. Its beady eyes and curled tail signal a sly mischief that cuts to the heart of Arnott’s work: the redemptive gesture. There is always something in his artworks to hold onto – a hopefulness that the future may still turn out better or, at the least, that a wry sense of humour about our fraught predicament as human beings might just be our saving grace. The playful chameleon is everything. And without it, Alma Mater would be an altogether different entity, more imperious and less appealing. It is the liberatory potential, however tenuous, of the chameleon’s disruption of power norms that Arnott leaves us in his own wake.
It is this kind of attention to telling detail that Arnott also helped instill in his students at UCT’s Michaelis School of Fine Art. He joined the teaching staff in 1978, when Conceptual art was on the rise, to reaffirm technical artfulness and established the school’s bronze foundry. He later became the institution’s Director (1989-93) and ultimately Professor Emeritus of Fine Art. He retired from teaching after 25 years in 2003. Before this, Arnott worked at the South African National Gallery (SANG), where he curated important shows like African Art in Metal (1970).
Arnott’s singular aesthetic was anchored upon a perfectionist’s eye that shared the chameleon’s stereoscopic vision. A single withering look could fell a bad idea. The same eye profoundly cared about the kind of forms that were to be released into the world, and Arnott brought every consideration into his own works until they embodied what he was articulating with a precise and transporting visual economy. This sought-after fusion of form and content is where Arnott excelled, and its elegance leant his artworks an accessibility. But that was also due to an uncanny ability to communicate in imagery drawn from a collective intellectual pool stretching back to a more primordial time. This pool synthesises what he called ‘a notional submerged mainstream’ in Western European art with its roots in the prehistoric, ancient, tribal and folkloristic. His Green Man is a good example, drawing as it does from Western Druidic traditions, Jungian archetypes, Sufism and alchemy; but also Ivory Coast pendant masks and Zimbabwean San painted figures.
In this Afro-European synthesis, Arnott taps into a less linear kind of awareness to which any viewer can readily respond, leavened by what he called the inspirational comedic energy of the pre-Renaissance carnivalesque. He preferred to let his artworks speak for themselves and they do so in a timbre that is surprisingly clear considering the impressive arc of historical, mythological and literary references they describe. These range from the Neolithic age to pre-Classical Greek and African synthesist sculpture, from notions of the prophetic in cultures as diverse as Celtic, San and Greek to engagement with contemporary artists. The articulations between these references function as interfaces – in the artist’s description, ‘interfaces between myth and history and between history and the present.’ It is a respectful articulation that takes a certain licence with the past but mindful of its original context, to hybridise a poetic myth that time-travels.
Arnott’s oeuvre has yet to be fully appreciated, owing partly to a self-effacing and skeptical manner that first and foremost sought to serve the artwork rather than the vagaries of the broader artworld. After he retired from UCT, Arnott continued to produce art from his Cape Town studio until his death from illness, late on Thursday 19 July 2018. He is survived by his wife, Mari, their children Matthew and Ariane, his daughter Dinah and his son, Stephen.