Christaan Conradie’s ‘Against A Narrow Heart’ stood out to me in the quaint contemporary space. As you step into the door 131 A Gallery in Woodstock, you are immediately greeted with bright large super-realist oil painting portraiture of old white men. No creed or kin was presented upon reading the rationale with regards to the nationality of these painted figures but I instinctively interpreted them as Afrikaans figures, especially after taking into consideration the nationality of the artist. Conradie can also be said to have been influenced by his relocation to Mexico through his use of colour and other elements within the paintings such as the pompoms and lights. The works showed expression and textured use of mixed media such as wool thread, plastics and colourful fabric balls while the sections of hyperrealist painting technique in Conradie’s work, is heavily and beautifully juxtaposed by other sections where the paint is loosely applied in an expressive and almost childlike manor.
When taking a closer look the eyes of each of the subjects seem full of light and history despite the many straight faced and intimidating stares directed at the viewer. Each painting depicted elderly bodies with experience and complexity showcased within their faces. The representation of the bodies in the work are textured and weathered and appear to have experienced life more-so than many of the young bodies viewing the work in the gallery. Age, as Conradie reminds us is not a negative progression. Instead, the lines on our skin map the stories of our lives. Ashraf Jamal, a Cape Town based cultural theorist, confirms Conradie’s message and writes that,”he reminds us that we are not the victims of this age of anger [and the politics of our time but Conradie reminds us] that love, care, compassion [and] understanding, still thrive”. Conradie disassociates the politics and complexities of the Afrikaner identity within his subjects through use of their environments and their composition. Instead, Conradie’s use of floral elements, bright colours and mixed media to portray a separate message of softness and empathy in a fantasy space where identity is non-synonymous with history and context. Instead, Conradie re-evaluates our perceptions and provides new meaning and insight into the politics of vilified identities.
This concept of age, the aged and the politics of the ‘age’ we live in where old white men are often vilified intrigued me. Conradie has managed to create an entire alternate reality for the bodies of these white, old Afrikaans members of society, an identity most often stereotypically associated with our apartheid history in South Africa. Conradie’s creation of a fantasy world where a carnival -like atmosphere and almost child-like playfulness shifts the viewer’s perspective of the aged, white, male, Afrikaner body through a lens of empathy and understanding.
As Jamal put it, “old bodies don’t care for young ideas, they say. And yet, this is what Conradie has chosen to do – to embrace the aged and make them anew.” Conradie counteracts the triggers of a hegemonic Afrikaner identity within the South African landscape. He revises and reimagines zones that implicate the Afrikaner identity specific to present day representation and performance of personal identity. This reimagining is made even deeper after discovering that the people presented within the portraits are members of his family.
Conradie often compares his technique of creating and making to the experience of performing CPR. He states that “the moment I feel like I’ve breathed enough life into a piece, I leave it to live on its own.” His works are created through rebirth and the reimagining of an identity. Similarly, Conradie also invites the viewer to breathe their own life into his work. He provokes spectators to interpret the works and to complete what the works hint at. Conradie’s use of super realist portraiture, almost surrealist backing, and expressionist techniques showcase the beauty of the aged, white male body and weathered skin and pose the question of what could be.