Porky Hefer’s Animal Farm has been running since the late 2000s. Now his first solo exhibition has been extended by popular demand. Meet the artist and designer who has learnt much of what he knows from weaver birds and transformed an entire gallery into the inside of a fish tank. By MARELISE VAN DER MERWE.
Walk into Monstera Deliciosa Volume I, Porky Hefer’s first solo exhibition, and you’re walking into what at first appears to be a giant fishbowl. When the exhibition opened, he explains, there were the sound effects to match: speakers that filtered the sound so that it sounded as though visitors were under the sea, alongside a soundtrack from Finding Nemo. A final touch for the observant is the choice of plant at the bottom of the “tank”: a Swiss Cheese plant, a.k.a. monstera deliciosa.
Because Hefer’s work is nothing if not playful. “This bird is naughty,” he explains of the inspiration for one of his works, something between a bed and a bird (he can’t decide which, he says), a structure one uses a ladder to climb up. The bird is a white-browed sparrow weaver. Its roosting nest has a back entrance; when it visits the mate of another bird, it’s able to escape quickly.
“They’re fantastical,” Hefer says of his designs. “Sometimes design takes itself too seriously.”
He and his father were avid birdwatchers from Hefer’s early days. “This is what I’m traditionally known for, cane work,” he says. “It’s also about suspension rather than erection, using existing structures. Erection is where we do the most damage, we use the most cement. Can we not just borrow structures?”
Photo: Pelicanus Iris (Photo: Adriaan Louw)
In addition to being inspired by nature, Hefer’s work is about keeping its footprint light. The exhibition is entirely suspended, which changes the perspective of the person experiencing the design too.
“That is where my obsession with suspension came from. Suspension is about birds and about safety, but it’s also about a strange experience where you are not on solid ground. When you are here you get the impression of being in the womb again.”
Hefer found that by observing the birds closely, he noticed similarities with a technique that also worked well for human weavers who were visually impaired and needed to work very closely with the cane, relying on touch and being very close, physically, to the materials. Hefer works frequently with Cape Town cane craftsman Ismael Bey, who has trained weavers at the Cape Town Society for the Blind, producing a number of Hefer’s designs.
Photo: M.Heloise (Photo: Justin Patrick)
Hefer’s Animal Farm collective began with nests, experimenting with different materials. Weaver birds were an inspiration from the start, and it’s perhaps not difficult to see why: there are well over 50 species of weaver birds, and each has its own elaborate way of weaving its nest in an attempt to woo the female. They are also highly adaptive birds, incorporating the materials they have available, using what’s there. As more and more man-made materials have made their way into the birds’ habitat, so they have also made their way into the birds’ nests.
A similar ethos applies to Animal Farm: many of the works on display at Monstera Deliciosa, for example, have been made from leather offcuts that were originally the remains of brake pads. The leftovers of truck tyres have also been used. “That’s exactly what a bird would do,” says Hefer.
He’s since used leftover stainless steel, which is considered too expensive for yachting, but fairly cheap if the leftovers are used for art. “It’s an appropriate conversation between environment and object,” he explains. But it’s also a conversation of appropriation.
Photo: Crocodylus Eugenie (Photo: Justin Patrick)
Not that the materials are junk. Hefer is a craftsman, big on using the good stuff. Many of the designs are made of boot leather and sheepskin. But, he says, he’s also one of the fortunate ones. He has a longstanding relationship with the Southern Guild gallery, which gave him security to do what he needed to do. Others are not so lucky.
“South Africa is such an insecure labour environment. In a corporate environment, people tend to toe the line and fit in, otherwise they lose the party,” he says. “Southern Guild gave me the security to go mental.
“Why is the private sector not getting involved in South African design? They are not putting their money where their mouth is. They talk about South African design, but they don’t invest in South African design. We need the security to show what South African designers can do. This has really blown people’s minds.”
Photo: Joyce (Photo: Adriaan Louw)
A major issue is a certain prejudice that local designers don’t deserve to be paid well, and in a sense it is more cost-effective to buy locally, but this belief is also paralysing, believes Hefer. “If you want to get something similar from a European guy it’s going to cost you much more,” he says. “Strangely people are prepared to pay R120,000, but not for a South African design. They will pay it for a European design. But in that case, will the materials and workmanship be as good?”
Even if you don’t know Hefer’s animal-inspired work, you’ve probably seen some of his other designs: when he was in the advertising industry, he worked on well-known brands including BMW, American Express, Nike, Coca-Cola and Durex, and he’s responsible for some of Cape Town’s more recent icons: the Coca-Cola man and Table Mountain’s ‘Seven Wonder’ frame.
Now he’s branched out from birds into other aspects of the animal kingdom: the underwater theme includes an angler fish, complete with sparkling light and bared teeth (and, in the publicity photo, a helpless model caught in its devilishly appealing jaws); hippo; crocodile; puffer fish; manta ray; and a pelican that allows one to curl up in its expanded lower beak. He’ll be experimenting with designs at different angles and moving beyond animals next, he says.
Photo: Dora Esca (Photo: Adriaan Louw)
It’s not just about the sensory experience, though. One gets the impression Hefer has an overall desire to decrease the distance between human and environment; to drive a return to the tactile, tangible and available. He is at pains to explain the need for drawings; the beauty of drawings, and the futility of replacing humans with technology. He draws entirely without a computer, he says, and he has no use for social media. He also finds it deeply ironic that South Africans spend outlandish amounts on foreign designs while foreigners spend outlandish amounts on South African designs. All these seemingly disparate threads add up to one thing: a subtle frustration with all the ways in which human beings fail to see what’s lying in front of them; the simplicity of just using what they already have. Look around you, his work seems to be shouting. Everything you need is right there!
Hefer’s next goal is to complete an eco-friendly house made entirely of thatch, not just outside but also inside. It’s fully insulated, its design based on the sociable weaver’s nest, and Hefer has been working on it for eight years. The double layer of thatch ensures that it’s very cool on hot days and warm on cold nights.
In the meantime, he’s continuing to fight for a return to craftsmanship, so that South African design can truly compete on a global level. It’s going to need courage, he believes, and he hopes investors will be ready to take the leap. “We have to be that brave,” he says. “But we’re not going to get there if we’re trying to save on every screw.” DM
For more of Hefer’s designs visit here. Monstera Deliciosa runs at the Southern Guild Gallery in Woodstock until 16 March 2016.
Main photo: Porky Hefer, Monstera Deliciosa, Volume I (Photo: Adriaan Louw)
While we have your attention...
An increasingly rare commodity, quality independent journalism costs money - though not nearly as much as its absence.
Every article, every day, is our contribution to Defending Truth in South Africa. If you would like to join us on this mission, you could do much worse than support Daily Maverick's quest by becoming a Maverick Insider.
Click here to become a Maverick Insider and get a closer look at the Truth.
"Look for lessons about haunting when there are thousands of ghosts; when entire societies become haunted by terrible deeds that are systematically occurring and are simultaneously denied by every public organ of governance and communication." ~ Avery Gordon