MATTERS OF OBSESSION
The Unpacking of Janjaweed (devils on horseback), a sculptural assemblage by Kevin Brand
We expect the arts to be littered with anarchic acts of artists destroying their artwork from time to time. While all are provocative, some are in serious service to ideology, while others are in the equally serious game of marketing and keeping a brand fresh.
Four years ago, British graffiti artist Banksy sold a copy of the famous image of a girl releasing a red balloon which self-destructed minutes after it was sold. This is nothing new. Already in the Sixties artist Gustav Metzger was creating a self-destructing painting from acid and plastic in protest against nuclear warfare. The first “axe” smashed on a stage was by the lank-haired, long-faced rock star Pete Townshend to the primal roar of delighted fans also in the Sixties. And from Proust to Kafka many writers have burnt their work, although less as an anarchic act and more as a form of self-protection.
But when a group of exhibition-goers gathered on a Saturday morning at the Association for Visual Arts Gallery (AVA) to watch sculptor Kevin Brand “dissemble” his wooden sculpture Janjaweed, there was no rampant fiery destruction, just the soft nudge of a wooden mallet when a piece was unwilling to release and a crowbar at the ready. But for the most part the pieces came apart easily, revealing their blood-red interiors as they were gently and quietly laid to rest on the floor. An understated, almost careful, deeply soulful anarchy was in the air. Unlike Banksy’s or Metzger’s complete annihilation, the pieces that make up Janjaweed are eternally fixed in a never-ending cycle of assemble and disassemble, as if decreed by some giant Meccano god.
Spool back with me to what came before the dissemble.
For many artists, it begins with a sketch. Their own. Brand’s Janjaweed sculptures began with a sketch. But not his own. A child’s sketch, a Sudanese refugee child’s sketch. When you look at the sketch reproduction you can almost hear the strokes of the blue wax crayon, feel the crayon clutched in the hand of Doa, the child on the cusp of adolescence, as it rasped its resistant way across a scrap of paper.
That such a page, an ordered, sober universe of graph paper, could hold an image of such violence at the hands of the Janjaweed, the Arab militia active in Darfur. Doa’s drawing shows the Janjaweed on camels attacking a village. He drew a woman flinging her arms into the air as she is singled out for rape or killing. There’s a soldier taking a woman away to be raped. In her hand she has a cellphone and “wants to call the agencies for help”. Such remarkable recall, such specificity from a child in such harrowing circumstances.
The drawing has been referred to as a child’s version of Picasso’s Guernica. But it could just as well be a child’s version of Goya’s Third of May, a child’s version of Dali’s Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War). Whatever the echo, it’s a view of humankind’s inhumanity to itself through the eyes of a child, a scene no child should ever have to witness.
It was as if the universe had been peeled back and cracked open like a sinister Kinder egg and the toys of horror and its sweet chocolate centre tumbled out. That this young child could retrieve with such clarity a year-old memory and give expression to it with such vividness and schematic accuracy, is remarkable. That it could be used as supporting evidence in the International Criminal Court in The Hague is truly remarkable.
But then the journey to the realisation of Brand’s Janjaweed sculpture is also remarkable, dogged with both resistance and the unusual.
Doa’s drawing was done in 2005, when Human Rights Watch investigators travelled to refugee camps along the Chad-Sudan border housing refugees from Darfur. To keep them occupied the investigators gave children paper and crayons while they gathered testimony from their parents and caregivers. Doa’s drawing was among the images of violence.
As chance and a confluence of conspiring elements would have it, Doa’s drawing was one of those published in a local South African newspaper along with several Sudanese children’s drawings illustrating the country’s conflict. Mary Shepherd, Brand’s mother-in-law, cut out Doa’s drawing and gave it to Brand, thinking he might be interested in it. He left it on his table and forgot about it, and it marinated for a couple of years before taking hold and dictating to the artist exactly how it was to unfold. “I literally woke up one night,” he said “and I literally saw the whole thing. And I’m not spiritual and I don’t believe in magic. But I can’t explain it.”
I first saw Janjaweed (meaning “devils on horseback” in Arabic) four years ago at the Jewish Museum where it was appropriately placed near drawings done by children in concentration camps. In that same year, Guernica commemorated its 80th year. The timing of this current exhibition is also interesting. This year marks the first trial in the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague dealing with the Darfur conflict in which, according to the United Nations, about 300,000 people were killed and 2.5 million displaced.
Brand’s artistic development predates Google and the internet, when, in his experience, the accessible art books were often hopelessly out of date. And yet he would spend hours studying the images and those of the stained glass windows of his childhood church, trying to work out how they were constructed. His love of Meccano sets and a fascination with how things get put together like puzzles, underlie the way he conceives of and puts sculpture together.
Brand is one of those artists who don’t like being put in a box. “I’m just someone going through life trying to understand what it’s about. It just so happens to me that it gets manifested in work,” he explains. Instead, he prefers to see himself as someone who makes things.
In the past Brand made many sculptures which he refers to as “statement-type things”. This mindset is very present in sculptures like 19 Boys Running, a response to the 1985 Uitenhage massacre where police opened fire on a crowd of people, many of whom were en route to a funeral. You may remember back in the Nineties the massive blue and white amphora-shaped Vessel which bobbed in the moat outside the Castle of Good Hope for some time. This was Brand’s comment on the colonial reach of the Dutch East India Company, symbolised through Delft pottery. But he has shifted gears and is currently “far more interested in doing far more intimate things”.
Brand’s Janjaweed sculpture is not so much a copy of Doa’s drawing as an evocation of the frenetic feeling that it generated in the artist. In keeping with the integrity of the original, he has kept the eight human figures: some on camels, a soldier-type figure on a horse armed with an assault rifle, two figures engaged in an altercation and two further figures. Brand is not only conceptually powerful, he is also a master craftsman. And Janjaweed is beautifully crafted from wood oddments sourced from discarded student work ready for the skip whose fragments helped the artist visualise the various sculptural elements. One recognises the odd table leg. Oddments or not, Janjaweed is a piece of superb, understated craftsmanship. Surfaces are sanded down and pitted to give the feeling of immediacy and urgency that the drawing carries and placed on a base of scuffed squares which Brand said took four months to mimic the graph paper on which the drawing was done. He realised the paper was just as much part of the drawing and as important. The base of the sculpture or drawing paper is always placed at an angle to the floor, suggesting that it is separate from both floor and room.
Here’s the strangest thing. While the sculpture provokes such powerful feelings, Brand admits almost sheepishly in his straightforward, guileless way that “a large reason for making the work was purely aesthetic”. It’s as if the focus on aesthetics has liberated him from the constraints of causes and ideologies and opened a space for the breath of feeling to be ushered in.
With Janjaweed Brand has created a sculptural pop-up book where at the pull of a string the flat page of a child’s drawing magically transforms into a life-size three-dimensional environment. Except that this pop-up isn’t a fairytale Disney castle, but a child’s nightmare made incarnate. Fellow sculptor and close friend Brett Murray spoke about the ethos of Brand’s work as a combination of innocence with violence. It is the combination that drives the feel of this work.
Brand conceived Janjaweed over 14 months and in two iterations: the sculpture as a whole and the sculpture deconstructed. While both iterations are meant to be seen, in the first exhibition viewers could only experience the first stage, with the occasional hint of its dissembling in the flash of a red underside. In the recent exhibition, however, the viewer could not only see the sculpture aerially for the first time, but was also invited to bear witness to its deconstruction where the blue exteriors were dismantled to reveal the screaming arterial red gullets of dismemberment, their scattering across the floor resembling the carnage of a littered battlefield.
Janjaweed occupies one of the sweet spots in my career as an arts writer, one whose impact has lodged deeply in my psyche. I feel very privileged to have seen this work of the uber-talented, reserved taciturn South African artist who has produced some of the most powerful work of our times. Its impact has a far greater reach than just another artwork. And it would sit very comfortably next to Picasso’s Guernica and Goya’s Third of May.
I am surprised that a work of this calibre, reach and pertinence has not been snatched up by an international museum or gallery or, even more appropriately, the United Nations or the International Criminal Court at the Hague, so that it receives the global exposure and recognition it so richly deserves. As a well-known South African artist commented, “if I had produced just one work like that in my lifetime, I would die happy”. He’s right.
Brand has also included three miniature bronze, limited-edition takeaway versions which come in a dinky kit form.
We look forward to Brand’s mini gallery where once a month he will showcase his new miniature bronze works, his little “objects of desire”, that we can take home to love and hold. DM/ML
In case you missed it, also read How to read a Rothko painting: Up, close and personal
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