Art as environmentalism: Mandy Coppes-Martin’s material meaning

There’s an unsettling urgency to the works of Mandy Coppes-Martin. Working primarily with materials like paper and pulp and making use of fibres such as hemp and raw silk, there’s a perceived fragility in the artist’s pieces – as if they may crack and flake off their pedestals at any given moment.

“I use plant fibres, paper thread and raw silk not only because as a medium they are maleable and intrinsically beautiful, but also because textiles and fibres are steeped in political and environmental history,” she explains.

It is this theoretical connection that Mandy weaves throughout her works, often using nature and natural materials as a point of departure into musings on the human condition and indeed, humankind’s relationship with its surrounding environment.

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Mandy’s studio at Nugget Square, Johannesburg

“Silk, for example, is very similar to the human condition in that it has been spun from an insect that purges for days only to create a casing that will protect itself,” explains Mandy. “It then continues to produce thousands of eggs and then dies leaving behind a legacy for the next generation.”

Similarly, paper thread finds meaning in the life rings of a tree through its connection to paper, but extends itself to fragments of history, each consecutive ring carrying its own narrative. Her recent solo exhibition at the FNB JoburgArtFair put forward these themes well. The stand out piece ‘PUTRID’ declares itself in bold, yet delicate letters referencing the Raflessia Flower, an endangered plant otherwise known as the ‘rotting corpse flower’. Here, strong parallels can be drawn between environmentalism and humankind’s influence on the natural environment.

“It has no roots, no stem and no leaves. It cannot feed itself and therefore steals nourishment from a vine living in the forests called tetrastigma,” says Mandy on the plant which informed the work. “It is largely a metaphor for how we divest and digest from all things living and very rarely invest.”

“Putrid” – hand made antique lace collected from all over the world, paper thread and hand made cotton and sisal paper. 280 x 90 cm
“Putrid” – hand made antique lace collected from all over the world, paper thread and hand made cotton and sisal paper. 280 x 90 cm
Detail of works from 'Putrid' exhibited at the FNB Johannesburg Art Fair 2016.
Detail of works from ‘Putrid’ exhibited at the FNB Johannesburg Art Fair 2016.

More broadly, the artist is confident that art can be a convincing tool in creating environmental change through visual and emotional stimuli.

“I firmly believe that art has the power to shift the way we think in this world. People from all disciplines should collaborate more in order to create ideas and solutions that are clever, creative and that can be activated in real spaces,” she explains.

Looking ahead, Mandy’s already in the process of putting together works that touch on oil spills and the mapping out of trade routes and commodity exchange. “I’m also really keen to start working with different materials such as plastic and wood and have moved into a bigger studio which will allow me to develop much larger works,” she says.

Find more by Mandy Coppes-Martin on her website

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Detail of works from ‘Putrid’ exhibited at the FNB Johannesburg Art Fair 2016.

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'Superlative'. Madagascan Silk, hand made antique lace and paper thread. 86cm x 1.75cm
‘Superlative’. Madagascan Silk, hand made antique lace and paper thread. 86cm x 1.75cm

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