INTERVIEWED BY Cheri Morris
Stephané Conradie is a lecturer in printmaking and a PhD candidate in Visual Arts at Stellenbosch University. Her work is a powerful manifestation of her attempt to make sense of social and economic ‘situatedness’, her own and that of others, within a South African context.
We caught up with her to find out about her renowned bricolages inspired by home décor found in lower and working-class homes in South Africa, the creolised formations of identity that are linked to South Africa’s histories of colonialism, slavery, segregation and apartheid and what South African living rooms can tell us about the lives, now and then, of her people.
Who is Stephané? What drives you? This answer can be work-related and beyond.
I’d like to say that feeling compelled to make a difference and being influenced by my direct social environment propels me to create and teach. But that might be a bit of a superficial response. I am certainly also driven by a fear of not having created enough meaningful work.
Your work is inspired by a fascination with how people categorise and arrange objects in their homes. Can you tell us where this began? Where do your Namibian and South African family members fit in?
My mother’s side of the family is primarily based in Namibia, with my grandmother having roots in Rehoboth, while my grandfather moved from South Africa, to Rehoboth. My father’s side of the family comes from Stellenbosch. Just before Namibia’s liberation from apartheid South Africa’s colonial rule, the Immorality and Mixed Marriages Acts were abolished, making it possible for my parents’ marriage. During apartheid, they were categorised into different racial groups.
Coming from a mixed cultural heritage, I always feel like we are creating our own rituals, myths and stories about our ancestry as I don’t see myself as being culturally grounded to any particular group. So, I have always felt grounded by the objects in my parents’ home and the homes of my family and friends across Namibia and South Africa. I am specifically captivated by the display cabinets that I remember seeing during the most formative years of my childhood. I can’t pinpoint the exact moment I became aware of display cabinets as a visual pattern, but once I noticed them, they couldn’t be unseen. Since becoming aware of the trinkets, photographs, brass ornaments and porcelain figurines and teacups, the ornaments arranged and displayed in these display cabinets have had a profound impact on how I try to recreate some kind of cultural significance in my own understanding of identity formation.
When I started writing about the prominence of these display cabinets in my PhD, I became aware of how different generations and cultural groups incorporate display cabinets into their homes in diverse yet similar ways. Since writing about their visual prominence in lower-class to lower-middle-class ‘coloured’ homes, I have realised the objects arranged in display cabinets are visual storytelling mechanisms where we are able to portray the abstract parts of our identities that cannot be fully articulated in words.
What insight into your own identity have objects offered you?
Many of my family’s objects are heirlooms that have travelled with us from Namibia. Others have been collected along the way as we moved. Because of these objects’ biographical, material and aesthetic qualities, I became interested in studying and portraying the tangible intersections of recent material history that are localised and tie into historical events in the places I have occupied, as well as how this links to the identities I have assumed at various points in my life.
As I have learnt more about where my ancestors might have come from, I have started to speculate, imagine and mythologise about all the different cultural groups I could possibly have come from, as well as negate some. Not knowing exactly who these groups were, adds an element of mystery and possibility to how I choose to historically position and construct my identity in the present. From this place of possibility, I have imagined all of the cultural intersections that might have taken place. Although a part of me wants to know each detail, another part of me wants there to remain an element of vagueness. The objects I use in my work allows me to image these intersections in a physical form that encapsulates a moment in time that might be lost to changing taste, aspirations and cultural flux.
This veil of partial historical ignorance has allowed me to have a certain amount of agency in how I reimagine my own narrative as well as how I might link it to different people and groups historically and presently. This particularly relates to how I have been racially categorised as coloured despite not necessarily accepting this label as a signifier. Michele Ruiters says that some coloured people consider their ‘mixed’ heritage as something that happened so long ago that it is no longer important in their current consciousness. Reflecting on the material culture around me has provided a new dimension to my identity where I was able to imagine and fashion how I translate the various layers of my identity into material forms.
Your ornate sculptures are inspired by home décor found in lower and working-class homes in SA. Can you speak to this as it relates to meaning-making under colonialism, segregation and apartheid?
By absorbing the material culture we are in closest proximity to, we learn to imitate cultural norms. ‘Things’ are not absorbed or learnt as inactive sets of categories; rather learning takes place in everyday routines. As Daniel Miller writes, an object’s ability to quietly assist us to learn how to ‘act appropriately’, can be referred to as the humility of things. It is the very nature of a ‘thing’s’ invisibility that facilitates an environment in which material possessions, whether kitsch or not, have the power to ensure that certain moral codes or sets of behaviour are learnt and passed on to the next generation. The objects in the display cabinets have the power over residents’ senses and emotions which contributes to a degree of stabilisation and grounding by giving residents a sense of belonging through memorialising certain objects. These objects are the products of intimate social relations in South Africa’s post-colonial domestic environments.
Colonisation brought with it violent encounters of forced entanglement. This unsettling manner of bringing people together in colonial settings did not always necessarily happen through the forcefulness of a battlefield, but very often took place in the intimacy of domestic environments. Enslaved people were exposed to other enslaved people, and settlers to the enslaved people they held captive. Although the power balance remained unequal, in this intimate setting the exchanges that took place left a shared give-and-take legacy. I am interested in what it meant for colonised societies when an already creolised Europe brought with them their appropriated and translated objects to the lands they were to subjugate. I imagine the strange domestic encounters that took place. The objects I look at are framed within this colonial legacy and display cabinets become an ideal podium from which to study visual markers of aspirations, familial relationships and respectability that resulted from South Africa’s colonial legacy.
Your PhD work has led you into many South African living rooms. Can you speak to the living room as a physical manifestation of the human condition as you’ve studied it?
Within the parameters of the living room interiors and the microcosm that is the display cabinet, there is a dimension of the public and private encapsulated within these intimate and often uncomfortable environments, as it is often the only place strangers and visitors are allowed into. And it requires more care in how it is presented. I loved what Nathan Trantraal wrote in the Rapport in 2019 about his own home environment where he recounts a memory of his childhood home’s living room as having a set of invisible rules that were governed by the room’s material makeup.
Trantraal grew up in Bishop Lavis in Cape Town. Bishop Lavis, like Cloetesville (where I conducted my research for my PhD), was also one of the sites where people, who were racially categorised as coloured, were forcibly removed to. Trantraal describes the hardness of the tiles and how beautifully his mother had decorated the living room, as making him feel unwelcome to play there, although this was not a formal rule. He describes the living room as looking like a place that was disserted – as if the people owning the home had vacated the house and had left everything in a rush with no time to take their possessions with them. Although his home had been prepared to represent respectability, the objects, the room’s appearance and atmosphere made it uninviting and largely uninhabited.
The larger living room environment in many of the residents’ homes into which I was welcomed embodied a similar culture of respectability and discipline that can be seen as being rooted in post-emancipation and postcolonial societies. The historical struggle of trying to recreate an awareness of their own humanity and self-respect away from the harsh conditions of historical events, such as the forced removals and histories of slavery and current ongoing inequality in residents’ post-apartheid livelihoods, is evident in the way in which many residents arrange the objects in their living room display cabinets. Some objects are revealed and others are safeguarded behind glass doors. This translated to me as residents choosing to give access to some visual information and holding other visual narratives in an enclosed environment that they might not want to reveal because of how they might be linked to traumatic events of the past. The biographies of the objects become mirrors of the lives their owners have lived.
Can you share some insight into your findings on the creolisation of Things as they pertain to South African lives?
Creolisation directs our attention to mixing that results in adaptations, dislocations and cultural dynamics that have come about from an initial colonial cultural encounter that did not lead to fixed belongings. They are bound to historical and even more current cultural traditions. Within creole histories, which are largely defined by uprootedness and disconnection, dislocated people created innovative cultural and social forms under extremely difficult circumstances. Rather than primarily focusing on these hardships, the poet Éduoard Glissant suggests that creolisation should not automatically be defined by an uprooting, loss of vision or an interruption of processes of becoming. Rather, he views creolisation as having the ability to contribute new and significant knowledge that adds to a diversification rather than a dilution of cultural formations.
Coming to terms with this translation of cultural formations can prove productive and equally difficult, as it entails returning to the point of entanglement where people are confronted with a reimagining of their creolised beginnings. Here, he places importance on the fact that travelling back in time to the moment of entanglement should involve actively wrestling with hidden histories, memories and the recognition of the difficulty that comes with these memories. However, in a South African context where there has been a forced and deliberate ‘loss of memory’ as it pertains to slavery and indigeneity and a corresponding loss of memory among the enslaved people descendants, it is difficult to recognise the forms of creolisation that have stabilised into new formations. One of the difficulties related to loss of memory and unawareness of this aspect of our past is the realisation that it is impossible to go completely back to one’s roots and accept that it is futile to embark on a quest to find “a sense of ‘original’ Blackness”. An acceptance of the impossibility should not, however, negate a desire to understand the processes that led to the identities that were formed out of creolising processes.
That is why I rely on oral and visual storytelling traditions used in cultural bricolage as a way to make visible the manner in which different groups use translated traditions and rituals to repair and fill in the gaps lost within different group’s collective memory. Rites and myths are reimagined where missing elements have been lost or forgotten as a result of displacement. I see display cabinets as fulfilling this role where objects become symbolic of the fragments and bits and pieces of our lost memories or hidden histories, arranged and continuously rearranged to create new, lost or interpreted narrative formations of giving a visual voice to the difficulties of returning to an origin story many of us know little about and are forced to recreate.
Take us through your artistic process. Do you begin with an idea or do you just begin?
My process normally begins with making prints. I’m primarily a printmaker. In the printmaking process, I look at elements of repetition, symmetry and how objects can be isolated and then grouped together in new assemblages. I work both digitally on Photoshop and with drawings and painting which I then translate into collages, prints and sculptural assemblages. A large part of my art-making process begins with the collection of objects. I will start off by going to second-hand shops and markets and look for objects online. I enjoy visiting specific homes where I have to collect the objects that I buy on these platforms, often leading to conversations about the social life that the objects inhabited.
Once I’ve accumulated volumes of objects, I can begin my sculpting process. It helps to accumulate a lot of objects so that I can have them all around me and almost sensually absorb them while I’m working on multiple sculptures. I work on many different sculptures at the same time, allowing all of them to sit a little bit while I finish off other works and they then start to visually inform each other. It’s a very intuitive process and I don’t start with initial planning drawings except for my prints. Rather than envisioning the end product, it is the process of collecting and seeing how objects respond to one another that guides the process.
Describe your favourite physical space.
My favourite physical space is my home. My husband calls me a nest maker. This normally entails making an organised and productive mess around me and then knowing how to be comfortable in it.
What is your proudest moment thus far? What is your most wanted achievement for the future?
I am most proud of almost completing my PhD. I have a little while to still go but it has been the biggest challenge in my life thus far, and getting it is probably my most wanted achievement for the future.
What’s next for you?
I am looking forward to exhibiting at 1:54 this year with This Is Not A White Cube and starting a new job in Cape Town.