It is the playfulness, the sense of joy in artist Marinda du Toit’s work that first captures the imagination. But there’s much more than just laughter involved in what she describes as sculptures. They’re unusual, have a life of their own and if you listen carefully, they will tell you a story. DIANE DE BEER takes a closer look:

A colourful bunch

I lost my heart to Marinda du Toit’s sculptures the first time I saw them. She started three- dimensional work 17 years ago and I have always known her work would evolve.

There have been small changes along the way, and my most recent addition was a big one, an   installation of a kind which features in my kitchen and brings me great joy.

Since she moved to the Cape a few years back with Covid thrown in-between, she has been missing from our galleries for some time. But she’s back with So gemaak en so gelaat staan (loosely translated as Was made like this, so stays like this) at the Association of Arts, Pretoria from tomorrow (Saturday, April 22) until May 6.

She describes the latest work as a stripped figure which can still read as a character, but it becomes a tree or a branch which is still in the process of growth.

“In 2019 I had an exhibition of heads and dolls (Poppe en Koppe). In my studio, I have a cupboard with drawers and in the one drawer, I keep the heads of dolls. I rarely use these heads, because there’s such a clichéd meaning to it with the Chucky dolls and the Walt Disney movies, but I kept them nevertheless.”

And she had a lot of sticks outside, because she is constantly making fences, working with sticks or harvesting sticks in Simonsberg amongst the alien growth. So she had a lot of sticks in stock.

She wanted something different (“go a little bit mad”, she says), so she put a lot of heads on sticks. “Some people thought it was extremely weird and some people loved it.”

 And personally, she started falling in love with the stripped figure and the stick in hand that becomes something else; a weapon, a symbol, a crutch or anything you want to imagine. “We use sticks all our life, daily – think of brooms,” she explains.

So she started exploring the stick stories.

The magic of Marinda du Toit’s work (Artistic Photography)

She had to develop a way of presenting them neatly, standing upright, but how to assemble them, how to transport them, all became part of the puzzle. After many tries with cement and other  methods, she developed the Escher-like leaf base, which also represents growth, or mulch and getting rid of aliens, and leaving it in the ground for new growth, “all these different metaphors,” she says.

“I can’t actually say what these sculptures mean, I just love them. I think it’s an ode to old toys, the era of plastic that’s gone, but we sit with it now, so let’s play. It’s playful, it’s a parade, a performance dance and celebration. It’s simply play, play, play!

Marinda wearing her heart on her sleeve (Picture: Artistic Photography)

“I just want to have fun and joy, there’s so much trouble and sadness.”

The new work differs from her previous, mostly individual pieces in that the pieces are stripped with no arms and legs, no recognisable figure, and she views it as much more of an installation than before, as well as more abstract.

The use of multiple colours is new and vibrant and personally I feel it has a stronger fairy-tale quality than before. It draws you into a narrative with storytelling becoming an active invitation.

She explains her desire to be joyous. “It happened within myself after recovering from cancer, many issues followed by therapy, troubles, a rocky road and healing. Then came Covid and no money.”

The pandemic was a major turning point for her. She and fellow artist Diek Grobler commented on  the first 100 days of lockdown with postcards and multimedia, which was fun and gave them a voice. They found a way to engage the support of people who still buy and love art. And, she feels their success also followed because what they did was accessible and affordable.

Those first 100 postcards saved her life. “I then used all my savings, did one or two commissions, had fantastic clients who took care of me, and that was when all the paraphernalia and the fluff got stripped from my work.”

She discovered the essence of living and the essence of her art, which was how it manifested in the new work.

“It was all about being simplistic, being honest, being playful, being stripped, being real.”

She was also bored with the “poppe” which she felt she was almost turning into a mass-producing exercise and she became dissatisfied with the quality of her work. She felt driven by her monthly budget, what she needed to sell rather than inspiration.
 “Then you become flat, there’s no meaning, you’re just a machine.” It’s something I think every artist has to battle, with Covid heightening that kind of hysteria.

Pocket-sized poppets. (Artistic Photography)

Her response was to challenge herself with other projects and proposals and her work again started growing and evolving, but it was a difficult time.

Now she’s lost her heart and she can’t wait to show the new work. “It creates a challenge to look differently at objects and find new meaning in objects I selected or adapted,” she notes.

What she did was change the application rather than the object, which means she had to find meaningful objects.

And voilà!

 It’s not as if fans of her work will not recognise and find some familiar figures at the exhibition. They can still construct and put together their own stories as they gather the Du Toit characters in a way that makes sense individually.

Who can resist an invitation to have fun?