Painter, writer, playwright, and lecturer Andrew Verster passed away on Sunday, February 16 2020. Clive van den Berg delivered this eulogy at the memorial service for Verster held in Durban on Tuesday, February 25.
I met Andrew when I was a student and he a guest lecturer at the University of Natal, so I start my eulogy in praise of Andrew the teacher. He had the most agile intelligence. This made him a fantastic teacher, the most energizing presence to be around and such was his insight that he figured out what you were really interested in way before you yourself were able to give words to it.
Of course he was way too wise and responsible to give you the answers but a well judged series of prompts, references and, if necessary, a good natured rebuke would aid the work of self-discovery. But what also made him the best kind of teacher was that he was profoundly interested in the originality of others, rather than echoes of his own ego. He delighted in the particularities of other artists.
His own energy and output served as example to younger artists.
I seldom saw Andrew sitting down with a sense of ease. Even if you weren’t looking at his eyes you could read the activity of his brain through his bodily movements. Everything was quick and urgent, his limbs a kind of animated mimeograph of his intelligence.
No time to be lost, no time to be wasted.
The only times I remember his body comfortably at rest was after a long day in the studio. He would cross the garden and enter the house as the light faded. Aiden (Walsh) would be waiting with a simple but delicious meal, a quart of beer in hand with more in reserve.
They sat to their meal at the table lit, as always, with candles.
Only then, when he had done his work, he would relax, and in remembering those meals it strikes me that the love and comfort and conversation and conviviality that was 125 Essenwood Road, (Durban) was a kind of reward, a recompense for the labour of the day.
In other words, Andrew was ethical in the use of both his talent and his leisure.
He worked at being an artist fervently, every day, and this fervor directed by his intelligence meant that he worked very quickly. It did not matter whether he was working at a painting or drawing or print or architectural commission or the design for an opera, or indeed a piece of writing – it happened at a pace. His instincts were vigorous and he made no distinction between sensation and idea. They were one and inextricable. This acute sensitivity to sensation meant that he was to use current jargon ‘in the moment’. Yet I always sensed that the present tense was slightly overlaid by the future, seldom the past. He always looked forward. The past was rarely useful to him. Such was his optimism and sense of anticipation for life.
Even in his last years when his hands would no longer do what for decades they had done without command, he was happy, and he said or rather exclaimed this to me constantly, pretty much every day. That was, I understood, equally the declaration of a fiercely determined will, as it was the benefit of a happy disposition.
For all these qualities and more than this opportunity allows, we must be mindful and thankful and celebratory, but I want to end with what is perhaps Andrew’s most profound legacy.
ANDREW WAS RADICAL.
It is a truism to say that art is about seeing and indeed it is, but this is no simple thing because seeing comes with responsibilities, both for viewer and artist. The primary responsibility for the artist is to be true, not just to the act of seeing but to the feelings, ideas and indeed the politics of seeing. Andrew knew this, and when he felt desire and love for men, he did not censor that recognition, nor clothe it in innuendo or code. He declared and lived and imaged it, and thus bequeathed to us who follow him a language and a political framework of looking.
He was, I believe our first OUT artist, the first artist to represent same sex desire with pride. And he did this very beautifully. Andrew could draw like few others. This attentiveness to his subject is at the core of all his work, but when beauty of representation is applied to a heavily tabooed subject this, beauty is both homage and defiance.
Such is the grace of his hand that he makes this looks easy, but as Aiden might have said ‘it were never’.
It is not easy now as our world is still full of prejudice, but in 1970’s South Africa it was dangerous.
Apartheid spawned many toxicities and one of the most fiercely enforced was that of a narrowly defined idea of masculinity. Andrew in his art and his life celebrated a more generous conception of love and association, and this is, I think, his great contribution to our cultural history.
He was man blessed with great intelligence and skill, but so are many others.
What makes him truly distinguished was his sense of responsibility, a recognition that the benefits of birth are to be used with care and fidelity to the needs of both self and community.