17.03 - 27.03.2023
There is a girl in Montreal wearing a cherry red coat. I imagine this girl, aged seven, dressed like a fairytale in a foreign city I’ve never visited. Each of Jan van Esch’s drawings of donated clothes unravels a story or fantasy. Looking closely at each drawing, I can trace the journey of different fabrics across geographies and cultures. Clothes have the ability to transport us to foreign places and to imagine different traditions and time periods. And yet, we also give them too much power. For many people, the consumption of brands is more than a pastime – it is a form of identity formation. Shopping sits at the centre of leisure and, perhaps more importantly, pleasure.
In his exhibition at the Gallery of the University of Stellenbosch, Dutch artist van Esch shares a collection of recent drawings of clothes on wire hangers. The drawings are meticulously observed and photorealistic. Van Esch represents the shirts, jackets and dresses as they are displayed in the markets of east Africa. In this attention to the details of display, he is also giving us a clue into his thinking. Van Esch is intrigued by the challenge of drawing such detailed items and having to count the number of dots or lines in order to render them as they really are. But ultimately, he is not drawn to realism because of the desire to copy the world around him. Rather, his interest lies in the value we give to things.
On the opening afternoon, passersby were greeted with the sight of the artist elbow deep in a bucket of soapy water, laboriously washing clothes by hand, then rinsing and wringing them out. This domestic spectacle made people pause, ask questions, and then enter the threshold of a building many would simply pass. Van Esch’s practice is centred around the idea of care, of paying attention to discarded things. The act of washing clothes by hand speaks to this care and a preindustrial time when clothes were sewn by hand. Now, we consume and dispose of clothing at a rapid rate.
I followed the artist as he entered the gallery and hung the washed items on drying lines set up in a room adjacent to the main exhibition space. Other damp items exuded the soft scent of washing powder. Questions immediately arose when looking at the main exhibition space and the curatorial decisions taken by curator Mike Mavura. In addition to the drawings on the walls, there were a few shelves mounted on the wall with a small selection of neatly folded items. Further back, there was a rack of clothes. The highly polished floors and a Persian carpet completed the scene. One could be forgiven for thinking this is a pop-up designer shop, given its location in central Stellenbosch with its strings of boutiques. And you would be equally forgiven for walking up and regarding the clothes on the shelves with interest, taking pieces off the rack and holding them at arm’s length. In discussion with the artist, we consider what makes clothes so desirable. What drives us to look, touch and acquire more clothes, even when our cupboards are filled?
All of the clothes in the exhibition are donated items, or else found on the street. Apart from ideas associated with care, van Esch is also concerned with the notion of the gift. He wants us to consider, is a gift still a gift if the receiver doesn’t want it, or if the receiver cannot thank the person who gives? As someone raised in western Europe and living and working in Tanzania for eight years, van Esch is interested in how clothes donations from the west make their way to markets in Africa. He notes that the donations are not given freely in the receiving country; they become commodity goods. There are multiple unintended consequences of this influx. For one thing, it has destroyed local production of clothes in much the same way as cheap Chinese imports have closed textile factories in the context of South Africa. Moreover, many of the donated items are unsold, ending up in landfills on the African continent.
On the Saturday morning after the opening, a second performance took place. About ten individuals arrived in the gallery with their entire wardrobe and began to dress in layers and layers of clothing until they were transformed into outlandish moving human sculptures that left the gallery and walked through the town of Stellenbosch before returning and discarding their clothes in large piles, speaking to the excessive consumption in which many of us participate.
Van Esch is planning to use donated South African items in new drawings that will be shown in the global north. Some of the items given to the artist were acquired second-hand, and there is a certain irony in returning donated items back to the donor in the form of drawings.
Rebecca Solnit argues, “Nonfiction seems to me to be photographic. It poses the same challenge of finding form and pattern in the stuff already there. The same obligation to the subject.” I would argue that van Esch’s carefully rendered realism also responds to the challenge of finding form in the world around us and is linked to his provocation to his viewers to consider their relationship to acquiring and giving within the context of clothes donations and aid more broadly. There is also an interesting relationship between the speed with which we consume the world via images and the speed with which we consume commodities and resources. In choosing to embrace such a painstaking drawing practice, van Esch invites us to slow down and reconsider.