Q&A With Artists Lien Botha & Jaco van Schalkwyk

INTERVIEWED BY Alastair Whitton

Local artists Lien Botha and Jaco van Schalkwyk combine their talents in a joint exhibition titles After Nature, running at the Barnard Gallery from 31 August 2023. They chat to us about collaboration and the connections between their artworks.

Lien Botha, Jaco van Schalkwyk
Lien Botha, Jaco van Schalkwyk

In many ways, it seems that your upcoming joint exhibition After Nature, opening at Barnard Gallery on 31 August, is a long time coming given your shared interests and commitment to collaboration in the arts. Please would you tell us a bit more about the specific motivation for this project and how you hope it will be ‘read’ by those who will encounter it?

Lien Botha: It is interesting to note that both Jaco and myself were artists in residence on the German Island of Sylt during some stage of our careers, so perhaps our alliance was presaged by that sediment of the Wadden Sea. During the Cape Town Art Fair in February 2023; Alastair Whitton, fellow artist, and art director at Barnard, suggested such collaboration and when we started the discussion in April, it soon became evident that our individual processes and concerns were part of a symbiotic drift. The ‘reading’ Is best described by writer and exhibition text contributor, Vernon Head, as an “interconnected offering made into an aesthetic story; our desperate story of our last place for hope; our intrinsic belonging; our wild identity fashioned in the words of art. “We have specifically explored the juxtaposition of differing scales, and the ‘timbre’ of the exhibition is one of toned-down colour, which will hopefully underscore the contemplative nature of this collaboration.

Jaco van Schalkwyk: I have been particularly interested in collaborating with fellow artists the past few years; I believe brainstorming and conversations between different artist’s work are valuable to the art discourses of our times and society in general. Such is the case of collaborating with Lien Botha, an artist whom I greatly admire. I also see the gallery as a collaborative partner, discussing themes, negotiating the exhibition space, curating the works and planning the installation and the architecture of a proposed exhibition.

I have often noted the subtle but clear connections between your works. Although operating in distinct mediums there seem to be a number of points of commonality. Perhaps most evident is your shared interest in, and celebration of the natural world – a concern for and commitment to ‘conservation’ in the broadest sense. Furthermore, you both have an abiding fascination with Natural History museums, ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’ and natural science in general. Perhaps you could each elaborate a bit more on this?

Lien Botha: I have always worked primarily from my environment: the physical landscape as well as the internal landscape, and from this wide space comes small moments and events that can trigger an idea or concept. It is usually the ordinary that informs my work: love, loss, the memory of an ancestor, the life cycle of an insect. The world is an intricate place, fluctuating between order and disaster. But yes, you are right. . . . I have often found solace In Natural History museums.

Jaco van Schalkwyk: Lien and I are both inspired by nature and the conservation and documentation of our natural environment in South Africa and beyond. We both like to travel and document our experiences in nature, also visiting Natural History museums and so-called ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’ when the opportunity allows. I have been aware of this mutual interest for quite a while and was particularly inspired by Lien’s ‘Wonderboom’ project and publication that coincided with my solo exhibition “- arium” at Barnard Gallery in 2017. I also believe our love of storytelling is something that our work has in common – Lien through her photography and writing and for myself the juxtaposing of different paintings in series, groupings or installations. The exhibition title ‘After Nature’ also describes this commonality in our work; it could mean an apocalyptic ‘after’ we (humans) have destroyed nature on this planet, but also “ to paint or record after nature” ( i.e., realism and the imitation of nature). Lien’s recording of museum dioramas and the monochromatic palette of my works is not always ‘true to nature’ though. This almost creates an ‘otherworldly’ feeling or a constructed ‘new world’. My larger landscape painting compositions almost become backdrops or potential ‘new habitats’ for Lien’s juxtaposed bird images.

Lien, would it be fair to say that your photo constructions are of a poetic nature and how does your parallel role as an author impact or influence the way you make visual images?

Lien Botha: In a sense, the camera is both container and mediator which allows one to venture into the world and collect clues that could become part of a chronicle. I have also been intrinsically drawn to the ritualistic aspect of the medium: gathering material and equipment, observing weather reports for outside shoots, getting up early, waiting for light, clouds, or the right season. The dovetailing of image and text, which I realized in my first novel ‘Wonderboom’ (2015), remains a focal point of my practice.

Jaco, although you don’t consider yourself a photographer, you routinely use a camera as a tool in your practice. Perhaps you could expand on the relationship between your paintings and your use of photography in developing your compositions?

Jaco van Schalkwyk: My process always starts with photography, since I am a realist painter and take photos as reference wherever I go, and I also document my immediate environment. I print many of these photos to juxtapose in the studio(sometimes in strange ways to create new landscapes altogether). Sharing these photos and collages with Lien was also the way we brought this exhibition to life.

I have always felt that beyond your shared interest in the natural world and the notion of ‘landscape’ in general, that there is a sense of almost ‘remembrance’ and a certain ‘longing to belong’ in your works. How does your attachment to particular geographies affect and influence the works you make?

Lien Botha: For me, the very nature of photography alludes to the memory keeper. And through that repository, one works with what engages your days and nights at a given moment in time; you toil in order to try and make sense of the past through the present.

Jaco van Schalkwyk: I would like to think that I am not attached to only one place in particular, but more broadly to the planet and therefore conservation in general. We live in a time where almost every corner of this world has been discovered and documented; sadly, our greed and hunger for power as humans has left many of these environments and animal species under serious threat or even on the verge of extinction. Like the curious artists of the past, I am also endeavouring to document nature, but perhaps for a different reason; ‘After Nature’ is almost a final recording or documentation of nature and life on this planet as we know it.

After Nature will be on display at the Barnard Gallery from 31 August to 10 October 2023.

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