The Impact of Hannelie Coetzee’s Art Resonates in Jozi Buildings and Skylines

Nzunza people
First sight of the Ndzundza/Nzunza Portrait by Hannelie Coetzee On Woman’s Day. Picture City Property


To have two major artworks unveiled in a week in a world city is quite extraordinary and contemporary African artist Hannelie Coetzee is excited that her adopted and much-loved city Johannesburg is recognising the value of public art.

And she likes to make her mark – spectacularly.

The most visible is the recently unveiled (on Woman’s Day on Thursday August 9) The Ndzundza/Nzunza Portrait (the alternative spelling is inclusive of differing views from the community) commissioned by City Property bringing her historic hair-inspired 10-storey South African artwork to 28 Melle Street in Braamfontein. “I’m grateful to people in the property market who have become patrons of the arts,” she says.

All her projects start with research and she was thrilled that this one came at a time at the end of the year when the building world comes to a standstill, giving her some time to play around with what she wanted to do on such a huge scale. She started scratching around in the area and wider to discover what had happened in this neck of the woods in the past, her richest vein of source material.

When reading what she says about herself on her website, Coetzee explains that she questions the purpose of art as a mere commentary on societal ills and prefers using art to participate in life, solving problems, connecting people and igniting dialogues.

When you talk to her, she describes her modus operandi as partnership orientated as she teams up with either scientists or architects or anyone in a specific field that might help with her enquiries, but then her own personal narrative also filters through the artworks on a specific level.

Having scratched around in her own family history a while back to find her own place in the world and where she was heading, she realised that the Ndzundza/Nzunza Ndebele that she was featuring in this work lived in the Highveld at the same time that the first Coetzee arrived in the Cape – navigating origins and cultures along the way.

But to get to the heart and soul of creating the work, she discovered a young architect, Ndzundza/Nzunza Portrait, who thinks and works differently especially with cities and her ideas around that. “It’s all about making cities healthier,” she notes and that is a big priority for this artist who taps into the historical ecology of the city to find possible solutions for some of the problems of today. She actively creates her partnerships to enhance the insight into eco-systems and hopefully resulting changes will follow. Or at least an awareness. But she also finds people who answers her questions in a way that to her makes sense and dovetails with what might be a specific mission.

Two things happened around Coetzee’s research. The architect had done a master thesis that dealt with hair salon designs in the Joburg CBD and informed her how they would impact the environment. At the same time, Coetzee’s wife Réney Warrington (a curator, novelist and film critic amongst other things), gave her a book Forgotten World by Alex Schoeman et al, because she knew where Coetzee’s head was at.

Nzunza.Ndzundza portrait 2018 by Hannelie Coetzee b
The Ndzundza/Nzunza Portrait at dusk. Picture Hannelie Coetzee

The reason for the use of ceramics in this work is the historical traces discovered on pottery that dated from that time, hence the astonishing use of the colourful ceramic plates to create a picture that will be seen from a distance as well as speak to the community who live there.

What she discovered in Forgotten World was that Swazi and Basotho patterns were found in the Ndzundza/Nzunza pottery patterns. Schoeman and his co-authors had found that in pottery remnants and through oral history which all points to the Ndzundza/Nzunza embrace of a cultural diversity which included other ethnic groups. “Much like Johannesburg today,” she says and one of the reasons she has found her place and lost her heart to Jozi.

Mavhunga also brought a group of Instagrammers to her attention. Their influence on trendy hairstyles inspired her to research old and new hairstyles resulting in a collage of many different styles to show how the old inspires the new. It’s the way she works, to underline how history influences modern trends.

Samantha at Rosebank Firestation Artist Hannelie Coetzee 2018
Samantha at Rosebank Fire Station, artist and photographer Hannelie Coetzee

In similar vein Samantha who was originally exhibited at the 2017 Joburg Art Fair has now been positioned in the foyer of the new Rosebank Fire Station in Baker Street at the behest of ARC architects. Coetzee first encountered Samantha (Mamiled) during walkabouts to the Ferndale stream in Johannesburg as part of her investigation of the city’s water structure then and now. “I study and explore the old ecology on which the city is built and in the process, amongst other things, I discover not only the beauty of nature but interesting people.”

Engaging with her, she discovered that Mamiled frequently visits the stream, on her own and with friends and she would sometimes wash here. That specifically reconnected her with her grandmother who used to take her to a stream as a child. “It’s about memories and moments,” says the artist who also finds pleasure that this work should find a home in a fire station.

Some of the wood used in the artwork comes from the old Rissik Street Post Office that burnt down and the desk that functions as a plinth was part of a castoffs found in an old building she was working in at the time in the Maboneng district. “I often work in these neglected buildings just before they are flipped because of what I find there,” she explains, and it all becomes part of her regenerating mindset.

Samantha made from parquet tiles, shelves and the desk, all salvaged by Coetzee, is 3.2m high and was especially insightful at the Art Fair because one has to stand at some distance to recognise her features. But what she represents and the fact that this fire station had to be built around and in context of the original station which is the second oldest building in Rosebank, all ties into the Coetzee ethos, including that she often works with natural industry waste such as wood and mining core.

With these two insightful Hannelie Coetzee artworks happening quite by chance simultaneously, the visual impact will resonate with vigour and eloquence sharing impactful stories.