view from the studio - 2001
From the windows of Robert Slingsby's studio in a fold of the mountains above the harbour town of Hout Bay, there is a seductively expansive view. Through a 180-degree arc one's eye picks up the peaks of the
Karbonkelberg, Klein Leeukoppie and the back of the Twelve Apostles. Beyond lies the Atlantic. If one were to follow the coastline in an easterly direction one would reach Table Bay and Milnerton beach. To the north, a few miles offshore, lies Robben Island.
All of these elements, the mountain with its bluegum trees, the bay with its tides that deposit flotsam on the beach, and the beach itself, have a bearing on the activities of Slingsby's studio. The studio, generously proportioned, is built from the timber of the gum trees that back on to it. The studio's posts and beams are hand-adzed; the hands are
He is a maker. He makes structures and he makes marks. The marks are layered. The processes of marking, layering and making are the DNA code of his work.
The raw stuff of Slingsby's current work is stacked in the studio in baskets. Their contents are bits of driftwood and plastic that have been brought in by the tide, covered by the sand, and dug up by the artist. More about them later.
As to the Island, international icon and heritage site, it's enough to say that it impinges, one way or another, on the consciousness of all South Africans, not least our artists. It's a situation not without its irony. As one drives into Hout Bay the principal road junction offers you a choice of three directions. The one dead ahead of you is a broad new boulevard that leads straight into a squatter camp. The road is named N R Mandela.
In the locust years of apartheid, when the man was locked up on the island, and both were meant to be shoved away from national consciousness, South African artists responded to the political situation in various ways. Some were overt; some were covert; most proved to be ineffectual in terms of
realpolitik. But they produced significant pointers to inevitable change.
Slingsby, like many others of his generation, made paintings of a socially critical kind. One of them made in 1979 when he was in his early twenties as a student at the Vrije Akademie in Holland hangs in his studio today. It's a key work, which marks a rite of passage. He calls it 'The Acrobats of Crete'. It shows a black and white Friesland cow that fills the picture plane monumentally, in the way that Table Mountain fills a traditional view of the Cape. In place of the bull-dancing acrobats are two rounded figures
(Slingsby calls them his 'Ballmen') attached to the cow - like succubi. The cow's head is turned to knock one succubus off its back. The other, underneath the belly is actually in the act of drawing the animal.
In Slingsby's terms the cow is a symbol of Cape Town, the Ballmen gluttonous figures that feed off her. The sand underneath carries marks of
hoofprints; the cowpats alongside are gold. The cow's rump is spattered with gold excrement.
I said the work marks a rite of passage. In a post apartheid South Africa artists have had to move on to new subject matter. The clear divisions of the apartheid years, the divisions between Them and Us, the bad guys and the good, have been blurred. Politicians puff on about a renaissance but the country stews in corruption. The succubi and the incubi may well still be with us, but in different guises.
Slingsby, as an artist must, has moved on. He has turned his prodigious energy to other makings, older markings, to the rock engravings of Africa. He has compiled a serious library of files of petroglyphs that he has studied and photographed. He sees in them connections and meanings that are both ancient and predictive. Their forms and energies have been appropriated into his work. In a sense they are the progenitors of new
ballmen, but benign omens now, archetypal makings that spiral, coil and sunburst through his work.
It's as if those earlier hoofprints in the sand have yielded to further excavations. The sands of Milnerton beach in Table Bay have been sifted through to provide Slingsby with material for his current series of works. These were in the process of being assembled when I visited his studio. They have a uniform format: framed boxes 350 mm square. The framed outer surface area is covered with a vinyl plaster that carries Slingsby's trademark incisions - the spirals, loops, sunbursts and ladders that provide continuity with his earlier work.
Set into the surface are recessed boxes of geometric and free form shapes. And placed into these are the forms that fill the boxes in the venerable tradition of the objet
trouvé: the flotsam of the found object, the detritus of a throw-away culture scoured by the tide, pounded into thumb-sized fragments. A random sampling would include all in plastic - bobbins, detonators left over from marine earthworks, tags, seals, impellers, pegs, filters, bottle caps, and fragments of children's toys.
One in particular catches my eye: It is the rear end of a small horse that puts me in mind of a different kind of plasticity, the clay horses of archaic Greece. So there are curious continuities (I recall that the 1979 cow painting is titled 'The Acrobats of Crete'). Prominent in the stock-pile are variously coloured fluorescent glow sticks - originally attached to fishing lines - which now will angle for another kind of fish.
Slingsby is open to discussion about the format of his work. I express the thought that the boxes polychrome and jewel-like provide formal interest from the rear as well as the front and might well be slotted into developments of the ladder-like structures that he has used in former work. These are archetypal forms he has drawn on in the past, which derive from the Nama petroglyphs from the
Richtersveld, the moon landscape south of the Orange River.
He seems to like the idea. We will see how he develops it. There is also talk of fibre optical cable. Robert Slingsby is a protean maker, and the work I am writing about is work in progress.
When the Dutch colonised the Cape they gave the name Strandloper to the original inhabitants of Table Bay. It means literally (and in its 17th century colonial context, a touch disparagingly) beach walker. At the start of the 21st century, we see these things differently. One might see Robert Slingsby as extending the concept: a new millennial
Strandloper, a free spirit, combing the beach, marking and marking, transferring meaning from detritus to jewel box.
The view from the studio gives on to mountains. The view inside points to the past and to the future and the continuities that bind them.
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