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#NewPerspective | Dryfsand: Every Frame a New Blank Page

Scottish Leader, a whisky brand known for their singular richness, recently introduced a new look and reformulated recipe. Inspired by their tagline ‘A New Perspective’ we’re spotlighting five local creatives who embody this notion in their way of working; people who are re-inventing, re-looking and re-interpreting the everyday to question convention.

Artist duo Naomi van Niekerk and Arnaud van Vliet, who work together under the moniker Dryfsand, perfectly embody this in their approach and style of live multi-media performances. Using puppetry, shadow-play and dark sand on a light box as ‘ink’, Naomi ingeniously creates beautifully evocative monochrome sand drawings by shifting the grains with her hands, an assortment of brushes, combs and fine tools, together with live musical soundscapes by Arnaud. Both accomplished artists in their respective fields of multi-media performance and music, the notion of impermanence is central to their individual practices and strongly influences their work together as Dryfsand. Rather than working towards a finite end point, Drayfsand celebrates the fluidity between each frame where the shifting sand dissolves one image to make way for the next. 


Tell us about the name Dryfsand – how did it come about and in what ways does it encapsulates what you do?

The direct translation of ‘dryfsand’ would be drifting sand but it is also the Afrikaans word for quick sand. I work with sand animation making it easy for people to remember the name. Like quick sand we would like to draw our viewers in (the unsuspecting travellers) unexpectedly. The tone of our work is also quite dreamy and pensive.

What prompted you to begin working together and exploring the convergence of your different disciplines?  

Arnaud and I have been friends for many years. When I returned from France I wrote a short solo work called Epitaphe and needed a soundtrack. The work was about memory so Arnaud and I started to interview people asking them to tell us their most memorable travelling experiences. We used these interviews as a basis of a soundtrack that complemented the objects and visuals for that piece. Seeing as Arnaud’s music is quite filmic it made sense for us to continue our collaboration. We have collaborated on numerous projects since the staging of Epitaphe in 2013.

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Your multi-media works includes performance, drawing, projections, puppetry, music, video, stop-motion and soundscapes. What do you each find most exciting about this multifaceted approach?      

I easily get bored doing only one thing so working in more than one medium keeps me busy and focused. It is nice to work for three months on a drawn animation film and then to sculpt with clay for a while to make a puppet. It is also very exciting when these mediums converge to create a ‘gesamentskunstwerk’… Arnaud would incessantly make field recordings when we’re on the road. When those found sounds are added to an animation film it makes the drawings come to life. I guess we are lucky to each have different skills that we can combine.

How did you first start using sand as an illustration tool?

When I lived in France my favourite past time was drawing in cafés in the evenings. By the end of my second year when we had to present ideas for our solo works I had a cupboard full of drawings. My lecturer encouraged me to find a way to incorporate my drawings into my live performances. I then started to look at sand animation filmmakers such as Caroline Leaf. After I saw her film The owl who married a goose I knew that it was a medium I had to explore. The idea stuck and the first thing I did when I returned to Joburg was ask Arnaud to build a light table.

Photo: Paul Shiakallis

Photo: Paul Shiakallis

Photo: Paul Shiakallis

Photo: Paul Shiakallis

What about this unusual medium appeals to you?

Its transformative properties. I use very fine dark sand that almost looks like ink on camera. With a brush or a toothpick I can make delicate marks that can be shifted ever so slightly to create the animation. I am a big fan of monochrome drawings such as the wood block prints of Franz Masereel, With the sand I can create similar stark black and white lines that are easy to erase and to change if I am not satisfied with the composition.

Unlike illustrations in ink or paint, your sand drawings are shifting and ephemeral. Can you tell us about the notion of impermanence in your practice?

Because I am constantly working on the same surface it is inevitable that a scene has to be destroyed for a new drawing to emerge. This is quite liberating since I am never intimidated by the blank page. I normally start by throwing a handful of sand on the table and then scratching into it until I am happy with the scene. The only trace kept of my work is the digital image captured on camera. I am very notorious when filming my work as once it is erased it ends up in the dustpan and is impossible to retrieve. The notion of impermanence has also become an important theme in my work such as in The Impermanence Museum, a 20-minute film that looks at impermanence in relation to Johannesburg as a city. 

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While each frame of an animation is important, the transition into the next is equally so. Can you visualise how this will play out or is it a process of working through different options?

A bit of both. For some films such as ‘n Gewone blou Maandagoggend I would storyboard a couple of scenes and then figure out the transitions, sometimes the transition would determine the subsequent scene. But often the most poetic transitions are discovered while drawing the scene. 

How do new works begin? Is it very collaborative, do you improvise, do you each develop ideas on your own and then merge them together?

New works often evolve from long conversations. We both read a lot and listen to a lot of podcasts. For example The Impermanence Museum evolved from a mutual interest in how our practice as performing artist is impermanent by nature. After conversing we would each develop ideas separately and then merge them in the rehearsal process. 

In today’s world of life-like CGI and augmented and virtual reality, your aesthetic and approach has a distinctly lo-fi and inventive, almost archaic quality about it. Is this something that’s intentional? Please tell us a little more about this.

Well, yes it is definitely intentional. Being a puppeteer I have an affinity for objects and raw materials. I enjoy the tactileness of the sand and the paper and there is an earthiness and a warmth within these lo-fi objects. It is their imperfection that conveys emotion in a different way to CGI. The work of Ray Harryhausen, one of the fathers of stop motion has stood the test of time and has inspired generations of filmmakers. I think we connect differently with real objects than we do with CGI animations.

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You’ve just returned from the Krok International Animation Film Festival. Have you gained any fresh perspectives on your work after seeing it screened alongside films from all over the world?

Yes most definitely. Having a film screened at KROK was a huge honour for me as I was surrounded by the best of the best animators from all over the world who often work with big studios. It was a very humbling and inspiring experience. Looking at my own work, ’n Gewone blou Maandagoggend (translated as An ordinary blue Monday), a film based on the poem by Ronelda Kamfer that tells the story of the everyday life in a ghetto, confirmed how important a strong story is when entering a film into international festivals. I also saw that the low-fi approach still has an important place in the animation film industry.

Can you give us a birds-eye view of your show Kontinuum that you’ll be performing at PopArt this weekend?

It is a story about a long distance relationship presented in the form of an animated graphic novel. The show consists of live drawing, some prerecorded animation sequences and live music. The music of Kontinuum is quite special as most of it is performed on a 1936 lapsteel guitar.

Lastly, what do you hope audiences take away from your work?

We want to give our audience something to reflect on, for them to access that space of introspection, like when you take in a walk in the park and your thoughts drift freely… that peacefulness that you experience of just being in the moment. We hope that our music and images will linger in people’s minds and that it will give them something to ponder on.

Watch Dryfsand’s Kontinuum at PopArt Theatre in Maboneng this weekend, 9 – 11 October. 

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Follow Scottish Leader on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and look out for more interviews on 10and5 soon.

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