Drawing is the language of Peter Mammes‘ mind. With a painbrush and black ink he contrasts chaos, deformity and the bizarre with intricate patterns and symmetry in works that are layered with meaning. Throughout his extensive travels over the years Peter has spent time assimilating ideas and imagery from different cultures and these have had a significant impact on his style, approach and choice of subject matter. In answering a few of our questions Peter tells us more about his unconventional perception of beauty, creating harmony out of disorder and the power of art.
What sort of environment did you grow up in?
I grew up in a very good family environment where my artistic skills were encouraged. I spent a lot of time in nature.
Were you always aware that you wanted to be an artist, or was it quite a journey to discovering this?
Since I was a child I’ve wanted to be an artist, my grandfather always encouraged and guided me as he is a painter of sorts too.
Looking back, what accounts for your ongoing fascination with the macabre and absurd?
I believe people are drawn to beauty, I just see beauty in the macabre. My fascination started the first time I visited a medical museum, it was in Pretoria. I went to visit the anatomy department to study the muscle structure and it was here that my fascination with medical museums and deformities began. I have since visited a number of medical museums, the Jipmer medical museum in India being the strangest.
Indian Beggar Line
You have a particular way of drawing with a paintbrush and black ink. When did you begin working in this manner?
I was working with architect technical pens for years, they are very limited as you cannot vary the thickness of the line. A paintbrush is the ultimate drawing implement as the thickness of line can be altered at will. I started drawing with a paintbrush pen when I did my Grammar of Ornament project.
When drawing, do you find yourself in a space that is intensely focused or is the process quite meditative for you?
I listen to audiobooks whilst drawing, I get lost in the books. Drawing is automatic for me and in that sense I think it is meditative; I am not there in a sense when I draw, I am wherever my mind has taken me.
How important to you or your process is the physical space in which you create?
I find it very important but not all encompassing. Every place I have worked has given my work a new dimension. I can essentially work anywhere where I can set up a drawing table. I am a studio artist, I do not like to draw out in public, but I have made a studio in Russia and India where I worked for months on end producing some of my favourite works.
Whether it’s through patterns or mirrored-imagery, there is always some sense of symmetry in your pieces. What influences this decision?
I am concerned with patterns, symmetry is a pattern. I draw in a way that I can repeat images and patterns, a pattern encompasses a whole culture and time and I collect pattern everywhere I travel. I am trying to create a harmony to the chaotic nature of my subject matter.
Simple Natural Ambitions
It’s interesting that within this order, you often depict something chaotic or disharmonious. Tell us more about what you seek to investigate or communicate through your work…
There is a beauty in the way animals and humans are born deformed, nature deforms in a symmetrical manner and also in very distinct patterns. I have found similarities in the specimens’ deformities at all the medical museums I have visited. Through my work I aim to pose questions around our ideas of the ordinary. Our understanding of the idea of ordinary is at the root of all evil, as nations and races try to impose their ideals on others often resulting in conflict.
You’ve mentioned that your life revolves around drawing images that show the contradictions in our thinking. What are some of these contradictions?
Take the guillotine for instance, quite a beautiful object, quite grotesque too. The guillotine has a beauty in the execution of its function, yet it is an ugly function. We look at the past from our vantage point; from our modern perspective the guillotine is nothing but barbaric, but from the perspective of the people from the French revolution the guillotine was a machine providing a civilised way to execute prisoners. The idea is that we take things out of context, and that the meaning of these ideas changes depending on our vantage point. We get stuck in our way of thinking and sometimes our thoughts are contradictory to the original meaning intended.
Do you believe that art has the power to bring about meaningful change? Or is its function something else entirely?
Art has the power for meaningful change. The fact that totalitarian governments crack down on the arts and artists is proof of that. Our own government tries to censor the arts here. Art is not decoration, it is very powerful, but we have been led to believe the post-modern ideas that art is useless. I was under that impression too until I saw the reaction people had even to my own work, and the kinds of debates that people have around the arts. Art is a reflection of our times, but it’s a two way mirror.
What are you currently working on or working towards?
I am always drawing, and there are a lot of group shows I am participating in all the time. I was accepted to be mentored by Dianne Victor as a program initiated by Lizamore and Associates gallery, which will result in a solo show at the gallery next year.
Ensignia of Power
Twenty Years of Democracy
Species Taxonomy Collected
Triumph Prosthetics for the People