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SA artist Chris Swift creates artworks to change perceptions

Chris Swift is not a conventional artist, if such a thing as a conventional artist even exists. His studio is a huge space, filled with all manner of objects. Enormous lengths of corroded fencing, spades, metal school chairs, buckets, ladders, and wooden doors torn off their hinges, are stacked in corners and the innards of a spring mattress, its coils rusted and lame, hangs on the wall. What ‘art’ can someone create with such apparent ‘junk’?

Without being a political artist, Chris sees himself as an organic part of South Africa. What role does he play in South Africa? “I am a construct of my country, and an apartheid education system”. But “it’s made a good man. It’s made a person who wants to be constructive to this country.”

Although trained in print-making, Chris specialises in creating artworks from found materials, usually discarded. Collecting these scavenged materials is not based on uninformed, capricious decisions, but on the way that they speak to him, and the environment in which they exist. His works are not arbitrary objects strung together for the sake of ‘art’ – they invite important commentary. For example, four spades create a crucifix – an interesting commentary on the relationship between religion and manpower. A heap of rejected school chairs comments on a past schooling system not being able to fit into a new culture and paradigm of society.

The gravitas of his art is about a raised consciousness. Chris does not expect artists to have the same kind of power in a country as the political and corporate sectors.  But he sees an importance in art that cannot be fulfilled through any other role other than the artist’s. “It [art] can change your perceptions”, he says. “It’s an agent”.

“Installation art is more of a movement of our generation”, he says. His process of creating art is through collecting things. In particular, he collects the things that society has discarded. That in itself doesn’t sound like much, but it’s actually very descriptive of the society that’s discarded it. There is an interesting side to investigating these discarded objects, and then interpreting them through an artwork. For example, his piece that was exhibited at the Spier Contemporary Exhibition this year, for which he won the Spier Contemporary Award (he is also the winner of the Michaelis Prize 2009), was made up of 4000 black condoms. Out of context, one might wonder what the artwork is saying, but when you start investigating it, there are many connections – they were linked to an arms deal around which there was a hype of media spin-doctoring. After putting it in context, suddenly the artwork becomes very relevant.

Nelson’s Column is a well-known work of Chris’. It is a tower, consisting of 214 pieces of fencing from Robben Island. The Robben Island fencing represents such a huge amount, even though it’s just rusty fencing. It represents a tolerated thinking of white supremacy that finally came to an end. It represents a huge struggle. And it represents a change of consciousness. It represents not only Nelson Mandela’s release from prison, but a change of consciousness.

Chris believes that art should not be didactic, and neither should it only speak to an elite class of artists. When an artist creates art for the general public to view, that general public should be able to draw their own conclusions from it. Calling the artwork Nelson’s Column of course refers to Nelson Mandela, but it also directly refers to the original Nelson’s Column, and Lord Admiral Nelson. Chris also points out that Mandela’s name – Nelson – was given to him on his first day of education. “All of these things start pinning together”, he says. “Contemporary art has to have that a-ha moment. I think it does require that audience to complete it”.

The Great Escape is another of his works and was recently exhibited at a festival. It relies on the famous story and the movie from the Second World War, and is a piece made up of several old wooden school desks, which have been crafted to form a vaulting horse. It talks about escaping something, but through the use of educational implements.

There is a name and telephone number scribbled onto the leather seat of the vaulting horse in black permanent marker. Instead of succumbing to anger, actions like these make Chris think deeper as an artwork. “As a purist, I’m going to let it be. I guess that incidents like that, aside from making me mad, also add a realness to the artwork. I’m at peace with it. I put a lot of effort into making that, but the vigilante scribbling speaks of the truth. I can’t appreciate the work of street artists and then be offended when that graffiti comes into my own personal space”.

As an artist, Chris doesn’t speak about politics or social issues specifically. But he ignites discourse around important issues by creating art that can speak directly to its viewer. “I don’t want to tell people that they’ve had the wool pulled over their eyes”, he says. “I want to bring up some discourse, look at old paradigms, and then let the viewer complete the work”.

As well as working as an artist, Chris teaches at a school in Cape Town. “Art for me”, he says, “is just a way of seeing, and that’s what I’m trying to teach the kids. It’s that basic. In fact, you don’t even have to teach that. I just have to stop it from being untaught. I think all kids are creative, and we just have the creativity taught out of us as we get older. We get used to the paradigms of our society. So in a way, I’m just there to kind of stem the tide.”

As for being a white male artist in South Africa, Chris is refreshingly honest – “I’m out of vogue. But that doesn’t discount me. I am an artist who has purpose and moves”.

To find out more about Chris and see his work, go to www.chrisswift.co.za

Photo 1: Dreamcatcher made of 4000 black condoms (photo courtesy artist)
Photo 2: Nelson’s Column (photo courtesy artist)
Photo 3: 2010 sculpture (photo courtesy artist)
Photo 4: Chris Swift and assistant, Justic Ncube, showing mini ‘Africas’ crafted from Robben Island fencing.
Photo 5: Vigilante scribbles of Swift’s work – ‘The Great Escape’
Photo 6: Swift’s studio space
Photo 7: SA artist, Chris Swift

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