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Featured: Negotiating Sculpture with Jessica Bothma

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Jessica Bothma is a young Durban based artist currently pushing boundaries in conceptual thinking. Much of her work is centred around humans negotiating spaces in the urban environment. We caught up with her to find out more about her work, process and her views on conceptual art in a contemporary environment.


Please tell us about yourself and what you do.

I am a young woman from Durban, 23. I am currently in my fourth year at DUT completing my B-Tech degree in Fine Art. I have lived in Durban all my life aside from travelling briefly with my parents and brother and spending two years on my own in the UK after I finished high school, 2009/10. I’m from a small middle-class suburb south of Durban, it’s called Yellowwood Park and all the roads are named after birds. We also have a nature reserve; Kenneth Stainbank nature reserve. Recently the Mary Stainbank Memorial gallery opened there. Mary Stainbank was an amazing sculptor who has works scattered across Durban.


I am a sculptor and installation artist. I create constructions that visually communicate my thoughts. I find it very difficult to articulate myself sometimes; I find that spoken words and text cannot communicate my thoughts aptly, it is quite final and there is often little room for interpretation. With sculpture I am able to present the viewer with a physical tangible thing that they can engage with, I have tools such as scale, texture, materiality and so on at my disposal. We are physical beings and respond to physicality. My viewer can feel and read my work in relation to themselves. I get a lot of joy from bringing my ideas into three dimension and the physical realm, my thoughts are transformed into sculptures or installations, it’s really quite amazing and I am grateful that I am able to pursue my passion and create.


When did you start getting interested in art, and in particular Sculpture?

I have always been interested in making things, ever since I was a child. In high school art was one of my chosen subjects and during my two ‘gap years’ I made the decision that I was going to study Fine Art at DUT when I got home. At the end of my first year at DUT we had to choose two practicals to major in, I chose painting and sculpture, then at the end of third year we had to choose one, I chose sculpture and I’m quite sure that it was the most confident decision I have ever made, sometimes things are intrinsic and you can’t really explain it, everything was aligned for me and my path presented itself.


Could you please explain your work process when it comes to creating sculptures?

My work process… So far in my experience each work has had a different beginning. Sometimes it’s a place I reference or respond to or a thing, sometimes it’s a word, sometimes it’s a texture or the way I see things presented in the built environment. I then explore these things and subvert things and play with the ideas, I never start a work with the desired outcome as a known. There is so much learning in making and doing that I allow that process to guide me. With sculpture you have to have something physical to then see what it needs or doesn’t need. I work with drawings initially, but they always change throughout the process of making, usually the drawings will help me with the initial shape and structure, after that it’s a lot of thinking and feeling and reflecting.


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How would you describe the art scene in Durban in terms of the work that’s coming from there?

My biggest challenge as a young artist in South Africa and more specifically Durban, is that there is a complacency amongst people and little support for artists. It is felt across the spectrum; from a municipal level artists and their artworks are not supported (eg. Andries Botha’s elephants at Warwick), and so it trickles down, you seem to stand alone in your fight for art here. The ‘art crowd’ in Durban seems tired and minimal and most people tell me to pursue my work in Joburg or Cape Town. I don’t agree with them too much, I may be tragically optimistic, but I feel Durban’s time will come, we always seem to be a bit slow to the start.


The art scene in Durban is full of talent, it’s overflowing in fact, but the talent is unfortunately not offered too many avenues to grow, people are hesitant to push one another here, talent isn’t nurtured enough and so artists and their dreams and ideas seem to fizzle out. There is also little being offered to young artists/graduates from the Durban Art Gallery and contemporary galleries alike. So we are not aware of the greatness we can achieve if we are successful. The other crippling factor is funding, as a young artist I have big dreams and big vision, those are quite expensive to make a reality. Materials and tools are seriously expensive in my field and there is little support from my institution.


Your work appears to push boundaries in conceptual thinking and a lot of your work is centered around humans negotiating spaces in the urban environment. What is the inspiration behind this?

I am interested in the built environment; that is anything that we, human beings, build to occupy, live, pass through etc. My area of focus at the moment is the city of Durban, and my commute to the city on a daily basis. We are the only animals that shape their landscape, it is remarkable how we live in this strange environment that we build for ourselves, with its historical, political and economic forces at play. I am busy unpacking this place and my ideas and feelings about it. I’m currently grappling with the notions of the physical environment being a litmus or reflecting the humanity that inhabits it. I am interested in the hybridity that I see in the city, both in human and built form. I am also interested in binaries within the city; human body/human environment, man/nature in the city, placement/displacement, absence/presence, the internal/external etc.


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With so much in the art world going digital, how important do you find the relationship between photography and sculpture nowadays?

I think that it is important for sculpture to be photographed in order to share it with ease, what with technology, social media and networking today. I have a lot of admiration for photography and photographers. Their tool is a lens and they can make you see something that you haven’t seen or something that you may have overlooked, or sometimes they can even make the invisible visible. The thing about sculpture is that you have to physically experience it, otherwise you have not seen a sculpture you have only seen an image of a sculpture.


Who have been your main inspirations in your life as an artist so far and why?

I am mostly inspired by physical objects or things, sometimes ordinary things or systems, physical, practical systems. It’s about craftsmanship for me. I really appreciate and respond to things that are well made and well executed. Experiences and places are also inspiring to me, more so than people, however there are a few people that inspire me and support me and my ideas, people that I have very special relationships with, such as; my brother and my very close friends and colleagues. They allow me to talk about my ideas and they engage with me which is really special and helpful.


With regard to artists, I look at a lot of different artists and a lot of art from different mediums to different periods in time. I am inspired by artists who make things well, like I said, labour is very important to me, I want to look at something and be in awe and respect of the making or I want to learn how you made that or how you even thought of making that. I feel that a lot of people in the creative industry are looking for the instantaneous, the sensationalistic or they want hype, I don’t respond to that and it doesn’t inspire me too much, sculpture is time consuming and there are processes that demand time and respect, each work is like a journey and you, the artist, must be the ever-patient pioneer.


What have been some of the highlights of your life as an artist?

Highlights… the joy of making for one (Refer to intro).


I have confidence and I am empowered by my abilities and practical skills, I am constantly pushing myself and my body. I’m in a place where I can build and create anything I can think of, it’s amazing really. It is also a lot of fun to not fall into a stereotype as a woman, I am often questioned by people, ‘but you’re a girl, how did you do this?’ or when people tell me to be careful with my tools… There is an assumption that because I am a young woman in a workshop I need your help, and I don’t know what I am doing.


How do you spend your time away from the art studio?

I am mostly in the studio working. It’s difficult to take days off as an artist, it’s not like a job, I have ideas I want to share, the more I work, the closer I get to sharing these ideas. On the odd occasion that I am not working on my sculptures in the studio, I am working to earn money to build my sculptures, I work making benches or tables or sometimes stands for booths etc. all things practical, improving my skills. When I am out of the studio I am reading or researching or seeing my friends and family.


What else do you have prepared for the future?

My future plans are to keep doing what I’m doing, I will attain my B-Tech and continue to work to fund my sculptures as well as possibly restoring sculptures or apprenticing to earn money to support my art making. I have a few things in the pipeline for my future, but I do not wish to disclose them at this time.


How can we keep up with what you do?

I keep a relatively low profile, I’m working on my website at the moment, but I post some of my work and processes on Facebook and Instagram.


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