When architect Pieter Mathews gathered his coterie of Pretoria artists to stage a typical Cool Capital guerrilla exhibition in the basement of his firm, Mathews and Associates Architects’, most high-profile building to date, the Javett Art Centre at UP, they all leapt to participate. He shares the excitement of the event with DIANE DE BEER who encourages those visiting the Centre, which again reopens on Heritage Day (September 24), to also check what’s left of the glorious art in the basement parking area:
“A basement is an underground space…the humblest of spaces specifically in the Javett: UP”, writes Pieter Mathews in the explanatory notes of The Sample Workshop, the catalogue documenting the guerrilla exhibition. The exhibition took place under the radar of the conventional gallery space above. Many factors including the transient nature of art, the way art is viewed in the world and the fact that the artisans who participated in construction of the gallery would possibly never see the actual art, were the driving force behind The Sample Workshop.
The project initially grew from a practical need to test samples of ideas and patterns to be used in the building. It however evolved into a project in its own right which allowed Mathews to specifically honour Pretoria artists. It all started forming in his mind when the temporary building site offices, constructed from drywall, had to be shifted to the basement and while he was looking for possible sandblasting options for certain parts of the building. This space, a wet basement which is largely naturally ventilated and to some extent vulnerable to nature’s elements receives unique light through the voids.
As the white boxes (of the art centre) above ground offers opportunities for the often elite art afficionados and students to enjoy exhibitions made possible by curators, he believed that in the spirit of ‘art for the people’ it would be appropriate for an underground exhibition to be held in the area that only the construction team had access to.
He wanted to show temporary artworks by some of South Africa’s foremost artists from Diane Victor, Gordon Froud, Malose Pete, Dr Jan van der Merwe, Annette Pretorius (2019 runner up of the Sanlam Portrait award), Guy du Toit, Carl Jeppe, Eric Du Plan, Heidi Fourie & Alain Lang (2019 Ampersand fellows) as well as some of the hottest new kids on the block like Cowmash (2019 PPC Imaginarium winner), Keneilwe Mokoena, Nazirite Tam and Helena Uambembe (2019 recipient of the David Koloane Award).
As the instigator of Cool Capital, described as the “world’s first uncurated, DIY, guerrilla biennale which explores the possibility of creative expression that Pretoria has to offer”, he knew that the artists would understand the concept and buy into the transient nature of what they were creating.
In essence, they were going to create art in a building site which was at that stage of the process, under the custodianship of the main contractor. This meant each artist had to be inducted according to the health and safety act. It created huge excitement amongst the construction workforce who by the very nature of their work seldom have anything to do with the finished project.
This was going to be a joint project and the workers were also asked to contribute and nominate someone whose art would be representative of the group. The artistic individual, Lukhanyo Dyasi, is a crane driver guide who was personally involved in the construction of the basement, created an apt site-specific artwork of an excavator hand.
Excavator in hand played with the idea of his hand resembling the bucket of the machine simply stating that he and his co-workers “had a hand in its creation”.
Their contribution was further enhanced by the photographs (also seen here) of Alet Pretorius who was archiving the process of the building, but for this particular exhibition, did portraits of the construction workers and put them up on a temporary drywall a part of this gift economy. All of the workers who recognised their picture, got their own copy (of art) to keep as a memory.
All of these interventions blurred the lines of what is seen as a traditional art and artists which included all the different issues floating around this almost clandestine artistic endeavour on a site that was soon to become an art haven in the capital city.
For his own interpretation of art, Mathews played with the construction site and found material and give a nod to similar work by Kendell Geers. “He was my inspiration,” explains Mathews, who took photographs of a composition of tyres and danger signage he discovered by accident on the site. In similar fashion, he paid homage to collaborating Swiss artists Fischilli/Weiss with a found composition of fire pipes scattered around the building site.
Another fascinating aspect of the experimental exhibition is what artists do when they know their work will probably disappear sooner rather than later. Artist extraordinaire Carl Jeppe has been drawing large imaginary landscapes these past few years. His challenge was to find a way to do something larger than he’s ever done and in only one day. “Instead of my usual ‘Mythical’ landscape, I decided to draw from memory some of the iconic buildings that we see around Pretoria realizing that the Javett: UP will soon be regarded as iconic as well!” He was also intrigued by the notion that the work itself was not permanent but would remain on record as an event that took place.
Playing with that impermanence, Allen Laing’s work titled Fossil of Pedagogosaurus Defunctus, crushed under its own weight (wood found on site, olive wood, screw and nails) dealt with a fossil that was “discovered in 2018 by the acclaimed and highly esteemed Mr Allen Laing (MTech, BA, matric, etc.) at a depth of 10 meters below ground in Brooklyn, Pretoria. Although rivals and detractors of Laing’s career have claimed that the fossil is falsified, Laing’s outstanding academic credentials seem to solidly counteract these claims”.
Hong Kong based artist, Nazirite Tam (UP Alumnus) decided to go fake Pierneef (a la station panels). Tam carved moulds, then melted sheets of plastic to make a permanent impression of the Pierneef moulds. Tam created five different panels for The Sample Workshop. The work is titled Station panel rip off (1-5), proudly proclaiming that a Chinese artist created fakes of Pierneef’s works.
Keneilwe Mokoena created a mural by stretching pvc tape on drywall. Her artwork creatively explored a single point in space-time, which is connected to everyone and everything else that exists and will ever exist.
Well known artist Gordon Froud created a piece related to his 2018 Standard Bank exhibition entitled Harmonia, Sacred geometry, the pattern of existence. This exhibition and the piece Metaron’s cube in bronze, silver and gold, investigated the platonic shapes as well as ancient geometries – through these he explored the interconnectedness of all things and how our perspective changes the way we see or interpret the world around us.
There are of course many more while these artists were seriously having fun as they allowed their imaginations to take flight in the spirit of the exhibition which was always tongue in cheek with the art establishment firmly in their sight.
But there was also a serious side with The Sample Workshop addressing some of the inequalities prevalent in a world that is constantly struggling with ‘us’ and ‘them’ on so many different levels.
For architect/artist Pieter Mathews it was a way of bringing many worlds together and of adding the artistic to the architecture in a fundamental way. The Javett Art Centre at the University of Pretoria opened to the public on heritage day 24 September last year and again reopens to the public this Heritage Day 2020.
While there are still remnants of art visible when you park in the basement at the Javett Art Centre at UP, the full body of work can be seen in The Sample Workshop catalogue available on ISSUU:
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