David Brits is a young South African artist who graduated from Michaelis in 2010. In the three short years since he has participated in a number of group shows and two solo exhibitions; an exploration of conscription during the Apartheid era titled VICTOR VICTOR at Brundyn + Gonsalves in 2011, and 1969 currently showing at Grande Provence Gallery in Franschoek. The show’s title marks the year that his grandfather led a rescue mission to the most remotely inhabited place in the world, Gough Island.
In 2012 David curated Not My War, a group exhibition held at the Michaelis Galleries, UCT. The show featured works by local artists reflecting on South Africa’s involvement in the border wars in Namibia and Angola during the 1960s to 1980s.
David grew up in a 265 year old Cape Dutch Homestead that has been in his family – the de Stadlers – for 7 generations. This has provided him with both his love for history and the inspiration for his printed stationery line, De Stadler Hall. The images on the notebooks, prints and cards that he produces are derived from an illustrated dictionary once belonging to his grandfather and published in 1930.
David’s background also includes audiovisual and photographic archiving and graphic design and illustration which he freelances in. With 1969 mid-show (the exhibition runs till 28 August) we found out more about his art, influences and ardent curiosity with the past.
Did you always want to be an artist?
My parents named me after Michelangelo’s statue of David, and being told this growing up must have certainly rubbed off on me. From an early age I loved nothing better than to draw. As a child I’d spend hours on end doodling dinosaurs, monsters, and characters out of my head. My parents always encouraged me creatively, and I was very fortunate to have been sent to art classes from the age of 8. My mom was a primary school teacher, and my school holidays were often spent doing art-related activities that she’d set us, and when I got older I would make the posters for her classroom walls.
So art always came very naturally to me (even though it is a lesser known fact that I am colour blind), but when it came to choosing to study art, I found the decision a quite daunting. I was very fearful of choosing the path of an artist, because, as far as my 18 year-old-self was concerned, it meant I’d almost certainly be poor. But luckily, I stuck to what I loved most and it has paid off.
In one way or another your exhibitions have all been concerned with or a reaction to South African history. What do you enjoy about being a young artist in South Africa today?
After I graduated from the Michaelis School of Fine Art, I spent a year working in London. When I arrived, I had high hopes of being involved/working in the art world, but that didn’t materialize at all – I ended up fitting shoes in a hiking shop in Covent Garden and serving burgers in Brixton. I lived very close to Goldsmiths College, one of the top art schools in the UK. Seeing Goldsmiths’ end of year show really highlighted to me the quality of arts education I received at Michaelis, whose graduate work was certainly en par, if not better than that of Goldsmiths’.
Being a recent art school graduate in London, I felt like a small fish in a big pond. Coming back to South Africa really highlighted the incredible wealth of opportunities here, especially in the creative industry. In South Africa, I feel like being an artist is far more attainable. People in the art sphere (even the ones high up) are far more approachable, more easily accessible, which means that if you want to start/do/create something, it’s pretty simple if you put your mind to it.
Your rich familial history also filters into your work, what appeals to you about working from your family’s archive?
Growing up in a Cape Dutch Homestead that has been in my family for almost 200 years, has definitely instilled me with a great affinity for objects and images from the past. My grandfather, who lived on the farm next door, also had a big influence on me. He was one of South Africa’s top snake catchers and herpetologists (a reptile expert), and his tales of growing up in pre-war England, his time as an aircraft mechanic in WW2, adventures and narrow escapes (many involving snakes) enthralled me. He was also a photographer and filmmaker, so his life was well documented.
With my family living in one house for so long, things that would have usually been thrown away or lost have been passed down from generation to generation. The result is that my family’s ‘archive’ is mostly in tact, but is far from being the sort of neat, catalogued archive that you’d expect. Spanning almost 200 years, it’s a collection of loose photographs, newspaper clippings, poems, old books, documents, deeds, wills, postcards, letters, maps and ephemera. Going through pieces of the ‘archive’ from a young age, meant that I had to piece a story of my family history together, combining it with the stories I was told as a child.
I think that has informed the way I work as an artist to a large degree, as piecing together a story of the past, particularly based on fragmented bits of information and images, is the basis of much of my artwork.
Your most recent work, 1969, is based on a story about your (non-snake catching) grandfather, what inspired you to translate this story into art?
I got the idea a few years ago, when I came across two photograph albums that my grandmother kept, chronicling my grandfather’s time in the South African Navy. The albums fascinated me, especially since they contained the few surviving photos of my grandfather as a young man, and his time as a captain in the navy in particular. The exhibition concerned a rescue that my grandfather led to a remote island in the South Atlantic Ocean. Because the mission received a lot of press coverage when it took place, my grandmother cut out and kept many articles and newspaper clippings in the album. Many articles, however, no longer had dates and captions and the photographs were not well described. I was drawn to this fascinatingly rich, yet ‘incomplete’ archive.
How does the medium you used – hand rendered dot-matrix drawings – play a part in the story?
The artworks have actually taken their queue from the newspaper clippings from which they are derived. If you enlarge a press photograph, you end up with an image made up of thousands of tiny dots, which are a result of the way they are printed. Handrendering the images means that they took many hours to complete, and working on one for days at a time became a very meditative (if sometimes excruciating) act. I was very young when my grandfather died, and making such labored artworks was, in a strange way, a chance for me to contemplate his life.
The history of white masculinity in this country is often a focus in your work, what’s the fascination for you?
I feel it is important for me to get a picture of the collective history that I have inherited as a young white man growing up in post-Apartheid South Africa. At the age of 22, I was struck by an unusual thought: if I had been born 20 years earlier, as a young white man, I almost certainly would have been conscripted into the army, and very possibly been sent to fight the war in Angola or have been posted in the townships to quell the widespread unrest. The more I thought about it, the more peculiar it seemed: why did I know so little about this period of history? What did it mean to be a young white man at the turn of apartheid?
These questions lead to down a road of rather intense research into South Africa’s era of military conscription, and in particular the ‘Border War’ in northern Namibia/Angola – something which I knew painfully little about. I find images from the apartheid-era (particularly of men) fascinating, in that they are often so imbued by the political-hierarchical atmosphere of the time in which they were created.
Other than 1969, which is showing currently, what other projects do you have on the go?
I have a number of group shows coming up towards the end of the year, and am currently working on my submission for the National Portrait Award. I am also busy designing a new range of notebooks and illustrating a range of t-shirts. In September I will be traveling Turkey for the Istanbul Biennale.