A significant part of our navigation and understanding of the contemporary built environment are formed through physical acts – commuting, by way of car, bus, taxi, or on foot, through the bustling or barren reaches of the city, the suburbs, or stretches of highway. Similarly, the physical reality of these spaces – houses, factories, businesses, bridges, streets, alleys and more – help us to make sense of the relationship between routine and infrastructure in our daily lives.
When we are no longer able to navigate these environments, we rely on conceptual interpretations or representations of these spaces instead. While this sort of speculative work is most often the task of town planners, architects, engineers, and urbanists, it is also through the works of artists that we can begin to make sense of the built environment in the relative absence of mobility and routine.
By turning to the works of South African artists Sitaara Stodel, Themba Khumalo, and MJ Lourens, one is able to both traverse and view spatial environments such as the residential neighbourhood, the inner-city, and the sparse, industrial city limits, in new and speculative ways.
While Stodel, Khumalo, and Lourens are vastly different artists, and certainly not the only artists to work with, or take inspiration from, landscapes, cityscapes and the built environment, they are the artists I find myself gravitating toward in order to orientate myself during this new (albeit impermanent) way of navigating public space. Viewed in succession, and through the pixels of a laptop screen, they can provide a brief and abstract tour through the outside world.
The city by way of Themba Khumalo
Themba Khumalo makes charcoal drawings and prints, often depicting cityscapes and landscapes in muted, atmospheric colour palettes. While his depictions of roadside landscapes in the Vaal – sparse, dry grasslands, towering pylons, telephone poles, and moody skies – are some of his best-known works, much of Khumalo’s early work grew out of a fascination with the Johannesburg inner-city. Growing up in Orange Farm and travelling through the Vaal to Joburg’s Artist Proof studios during his years as a student printmaker, Khumalo became deeply inspired by the movement and structure of inner-city spaces. Much like the animated and anthropomorphised pylons in his landscape works, Khumalo’s cityscapes are populated with animated vehicles and streetlights, lining the streets and casting a still, pale glow on otherwise dark and frenetic stretches of pavement.
More recently, the artist has taken to casting humans in these roles, often highlighting their wide, white eyes peering out above facemasks as they gather around storefronts and street corners, bearing witness to the changing choreography of the city. Dogs become an enduring metaphor in his works, too. Arched, backs, sloping shoulders, and bowed heads characterise these dark silhouettes while sharp white or yellow eyes stare out at the viewer and serve as a warning of sorts – linger at your peril.
These cityscapes, always charcoal-heavy with bustling line-work and smoggy smudges of white and yellow, allow viewers to experience the city at street-level, at once aware of the towering infrastructure and the constant presence of cars, people, rubble and more. They offer an interpretation of the city by night and day, as well as the politics of placemaking in an inner-city as can be seen in the busy and dramatic work, Residents Kill Red Ant. Finally, as with all of Khumalo’s works, his cityscapes express a constant desire or yearning for human connectivity, and a constant tension between states of stillness and chaos, seclusion and exposure, clarity and confusion. Often, he’s able to reconcile all of these things through the gentle lean of a streetlight watching over a passing car.
The neighbourhood by way of Sitaara Stodel
The works of Cape Town-based artist Sitaara Stodel are comprised primarily of the fragmented image. Stodel, whose younger years involved a great deal of moving from house to house, is largely concerned with placemaking, memory, and the futility of pursuing the dream home or perfect domestic space. Using collage, video, and assemblage, Stodel’s exploration of these themes sees her creating intricately layered abstract interpretations of the residential neighbourhood.
In many of Stodel’s works, tightly-packed houses and the various trappings of domestic life – lawns, garden plants, living room furniture, fences, family cars, and more – are layered and lumped together, while in other works they are a loosely tethered collection of suburban life. Both forms hint at the strange, muted modes of communication and human rhythms that come about as a result of the spatial and architectural realities of neighbourhoods. Rows of houses may be stacked on top of one another, but whatever space they do have to themselves is guarded, fiercely. Silhouettes appear, but the people that formed them are nowhere to be found in the frame. Viewing these works, now, when our social and physical worlds are equal parts detached and overwhelmed, Stodel’s works provide a certain salve or, at the very least, a visual interpretation for the emotionally dissonant times we find ourselves in.
Another exploration of the fragmented and found image by Stodel is through her engagement with collage as a photographic set or stage. ‘A house is not a home’, a 2017 work by the artist, sees a sleeping collection of houses, quietly and cozily tucked beneath the night sky together. The piece reads something like a pop-up story book and, with each sharp line and flattened image illuminated by a manufactured light, carries all of the whimsical artifices of a fairytale. Similarly, a 2017 video piece by Stodel titled Unsettled1https://www.instagram.com/p/B21b7nnnMCw/ sees whole lawns and rooftops being ripped away from their foundations and packed into the boot of an idling car, ready to begin the process of uprooting one’s life – a new house in another neighbourhood – and starting all over again. In short: These residential structures, whether palatial estates or ramshackle facades, may employ a certain architectural vernacular to give us the illusion of permanence, community, or refuge in uncertain times, but they are never a place to build a home.
The city limits by way of MJ Lourens
I discovered the Pretoria-born, Cape Town-based painter MJ Lourens while trawling through images of South African graffiti on Instagram. Lourens is well known for his detailed and distinctive local landscapes, as well as the various visual interruptions he employs inside of these landscapes. Graffiti, for example, is a regular occurrence in his works, sometimes on a vibracrete wall or a billboard, and other times behind these walls or billboards, where they have no rational place being. In paintings such as The pros and cons of distance and Ode to chemistry, both made in 2018, he introduces graffiti as a rogue collection of flexed, colourful letters gathered together in the bottom corner of an otherwise quiet frame. Encountering Lourens through these works is a useful primer to his practice – a surreal and playful take on place and memory through the South African landscape.
Lourens’ landscapes comprise industrial scenes full of cranes, smoke stacks, and half-constructed buildings. They document low, unremarkable stretches of land, punctuated by mine dumps, scraggly trees, and vast, bulky stretches of concrete in the form of nondescript offramps and highway bridges. Often, they are liminal scenes that are viewed in passing, through the window of a bus or car and en route to someplace more exciting. By focusing on these landscapes, Lourens allows us to linger on that which we often ignore or gloss over. The visual interruptions he employs – the graffiti, factories, smoke stacks – serve as a call to look beyond the surface of these works, to embrace the stillness and the surrealness of the image and to inscribe our own memories or narratives onto the landscape. Ruptures in high wire fencing, pixelated clouds and tufts of smoke, or whole strips of sky that have been removed from the frame are a few of the ways that Lourens plays with perception. In this way, it’s easy to look at one of the artist’s works and feel as if the world is veering off its axis, that something is slightly out of step, disrupting whatever notions of time, place, memory, and familiarity, we may hold.
While the works of Lourens, Stodel, and Khumalo may be disparate in their style and media, each artist mines a particular element of the built environment, and our perceptions and navigations of each environment, through their representations of these spaces. Whether it’s the rigid, routinised infrastructure of the residential neighbourhood, the restless energy of the city at ground level, or the still, surreal landscapes of the city-limits, it is through the abstract documentation of this collective built environment that we can find alternative ways of viewing and accessing the outside world. And it’s useful, perhaps, to have these breaks from the built environment. To embrace a pause or a rupture in our ways of navigating public space so that when we return, we can do so with a more playful, considered, or even sceptical approach.