Oceanic by Adele Van Heerden


Cape Town-based artist Adele Van Heerden gives us a behind-the-scenes of her latest exhibition Oceanic, an exploration of watery spaces and places and their architectural adjuncts, political realities and how they’ve impacted her on a personal level.

What inspires your work? What do you hope to achieve with it?

I feel compelled to paint what I see in my daily life and travels. I explore environments, camera in hand, to discover and document them; especially human-made spaces and built environments that work in symbiosis with or in juxtaposition to the natural world. My subject matter is therefore predominantly centred around urban natural landscapes and interior scenes.

Once I have an idea for an image or painting in my mind I feel a sense of urgency to get it out in physical form. I see my work as an act of existential meaning-making, artistic research and meditative practise. My goal is to capture a specific moment in time, to freeze it and give shape to the experience.

On your upcoming exhibition, Oceanic: Jackie Wang describes the oceanic as “a revelation, the illumination of an already existing communalism and the direct experience of our embeddedness in the world.” Elaborate on how your injury induced the oceanic for you?

When I was diagnosed with a hip condition it was seriously debilitating – certain activities like long walks and trail runs had to be paused, but also more static activities like sitting still and standing caused me pain. As a substitute, I started swimming in the seas of Cape Town.

The feeling of being able to move my body, weightless in the water – almost like flying – was joyful and elating. When open water conditions were dangerous I acquainted myself with some of Cape Town’s municipal pools, including the Long Street Baths and the Newlands and Sea Point Promenade pools.

How, if at all, did your oceanic experience spur an analysis of the racialised class disparity that exists in Cape Town as a legacy of spatial apartheid? 

2022 felt like my summer of swimming, but it also gave rise to questions of access, both historic and current. Public beaches and pools were historically segregated, and today the legacy of spatial apartheid continues to shape access to the quality and convenience of public amenities.

Could you talk to infrastructure and water as being political?

Water is essential to all life and human development, and the United Nations considers access to water a basic human right and a prerequisite for peace. In South Africa, water is a particularly scarce resource, its sustainable provision being one of the most significant challenges we face.

I am interested in understanding this in terms of hydropolitics: A recent study in Cape Town found that the use of a swimming pool increased water demand by 37.36%. In the future water scarcity will become a factor in migration and conflicts over resources.

Commercial pools require financing and regular maintenance. Access is controlled and regulated by rules, and many pools require an entry fee. They are chlorinated and sterile so that the only life that can thrive in them is human. They are surrounded by human-made infrastructure (specific architecture, changing rooms, bricks, cement, fibreglass) that reinforces this sense of order and control, and I am fascinated by the architecture of public amenities and what it reveals about our shared histories.

The architectural styles of these public amenities reflect what was fashionable at the time they were being built, and they act as time capsules. My imagination often runs wild thinking about what these spaces must have felt like when they first opened.

Tidal pools, on the other hand, are unique ecosystems, often biodiversity hot-spots, that depend on the changing tides and sea level. Changes in ocean temperatures are associated with the species richness of tidal pools, which may be affected by increasingly warm waters. Climate change also results in sea-level rise, whereby areas previously submerged for short periods of time may face longer and longer periods of submersion, potentially negatively affecting the species richness of the pools. Cape Town’s tidal pools have a rich history, with some being constructed as early as 1903. With the rise of sea levels these unique natural heritage sites may not be accessible for much longer.

Despite their differences, however, tidal pools, municipal pools and beaches are all places of gathering, part of the ‘social infrastructure’ that contributes to the public life of the city and makes it possible for people to connect and build community. Infrastructure is an integral part of the urban fabric, the background technological networks and systems that support urban life. It is technological, material, social but also – and perhaps most crucially – political.Although often overlooked, infrastructure is a crucial part of how cities function as socio-technological systems, and they are entangled with ongoing socio-economic disparities.

Studying pools – whether municipal, private or tidal – as social infrastructure directs attention to the depth and texture of social life that can be facilitated in the urban environment. Such spaces matter because of their consequences and contributions to society, politics, health and well-being.

Adele Van Heerden

Tell us about your medium and the process of reverse-painting you developed.

I draw and paint these images based on photographs I’ve taken, onto the front and back of translucent drafting film – a polyester-based archival paper that architects use to draw plans on. I’ll start with a line drawing in ink on film (usually with a Japanese brush pen). I then turn the paper around and paint the mirror image in gouache – darkest and lightest tones first, then the mid-tones. I reverse the paper again, so the colour the viewer sees is seen through the translucence of the film.

I developed this technique in 2017 when I layered different drawings on film, tracing paper and butcher paper, one over the other so that the image on the first layer appeared blurred and ghostly. There was an almost animated quality in these figures. After some time working this way I switched to a single sheet of translucent paper, working on both sides to create depth in the image.

The painting of water brings with it its own technical challenges. How did you set out tackling the formal problems of representing water?

Water is always moving, wobbling, reflecting the colours of the sky above and structures around it, but also distorting and squiggling whatever is beneath the surface. David Hockney famously spent much time on the formal problem of representing water in California swimming pools, a location now regularly beset by droughts and water restrictions.

Photographing the movement of water in a swimming pool suspends a moment, and the water, normally always in motion, reveals abstract shapes, mirror-like reflections and refractions of light and the distortion of lines and tiles in the pool. Working from these photographs, I see water in a way that is impossible without the help of a camera. Painting this presents a unique challenge, and I try to see in terms of shapes, geometry, curves, colour and tone.

Describe the interior/infrastructure of the space in which you feel most creative/at peace/energised/yourself.

Being in a flow-state, a state of mindfulness. Connected to the present moment, not too bothered with what happened in the past or worrying about the future. Swimming, moving my body and meditation are gateways into that space. I try to recreate that feeling when I’m working in the studio. Once I’m there I can paint for hours without getting tired or distracted.

What advice would you give a budding creative who is afraid of putting their work out into the world

Work hard and consistently, be dedicated to your practice and see it as an ongoing process of self-development. Do what feels authentic to you. Do the damn work! I found having a strong community around me to be a very important source of support and encouragement. I have a wide network of fellow creatives and friends I depend on. Go to exhibition openings, go to gatherings with other artists and creatives, make friends, stay up late and talk about your craft!

What’s next for you?

After this exhibition I will be on a three-month residency at Cité Internationale des Arts, in the Marais area of Paris. The Cité was founded in 1965, and artists travel from all over the world to participate in their residency programs. It encourages cross-cultural dialogue and is a place where artists can meet other professionals.

My first stay there was in the annexe in January–March 2020, but unfortunately I had to cut my stay short to get home in time for the Covid lockdowns. This time I’ll be staying in the main building, with my studio overlooking the Seine.

I’m looking forward to starting a new project, and I am opening myself up to exploring new media and techniques without too many defined rules or expectations. Artists all have an inner well that we draw from in our creation, an inner reservoir of imagery. A residency is an excellent time to focus on restocking this inner pond of imagery and ideas, and I think Paris is a wonderful place for that.

Where can people find or purchase your work?

All the works from Oceanic will be available from 131 A Gallery. For more examples of my work, visit my website at adelevanheerden.com.

Follow Adele on Instagram, here.

Love Adele’s work? Check out the last Q&A we did with her about Field Trip, here. Looking for more local art? Sign up to our weekly newsletter, here.