For millennia the snake has yielded immeasurable power in our collective mythologies. Legless and cold-blooded, it has accompanied us since the beginning of time, evoking fear and wonder. Snakes exhibit a symbolic fluidity; they are emblems of healing and fertility; evil and immortality. The serpent is the catalyst in the fall of mankind for Christians, is a zodiac sign in Chinese astrology and in Eastern traditions represents the body’s Kundalini energy centre – which after adoption by Western medicine – has come to be the universal symbol for healthcare.
As humans, our desire to claim power and our ceaseless curiosity has led us to capture them both for entertainment and medicinal purposes. But, perhaps more fascinating than the snake itself, is John Wood – the subject of David Brits’ Snake Man, whose inquisitiveness superseded any repulsion he might have had towards the scaly creatures and resulted in him owning a snake farm and becoming a reptile aficionado.
Death, the great equalizer, the reminder of our mortality, is what inspired David to explore the life of his late maternal grandfather. He’d often contemplated writing a book compiled of memory, recordings, letters and photographs but always knew that it would be easier to do something more concrete when he was no longer around. “Celestial distance brings with it creative license for the biographer”, he says.
As an artist, he fills the role of historian, curator and visual biographer because his work has deep familial ties and draws on the history of found objects and family stories; kept and passed down through generations. Often it means examining being a white man growing up in post-Apartheid South Africa and the subsequent privilege he was born into.
It would be assumptious but not unexpected to draw parallels between Snake Man and his previous work, 1969. Both pay homage and examine his grandfathers’ histories during a fraught time that was patriarchal and oppressive in South African history. When asked if this collection expands on themes of white masculinity and privileged existence he replies that his grandfather’s “relationship to snakes was far more unusual, more compelling and mysterious. Sure, it is not hard to draw associations between the snake and masculinity, but I think that is a more subtle theme in this show”.
Unlike 1969, Snake Man afforded David more time to engage with an uninhibited creative process devoid of the mechanical constraints when using the dot-matrix technique (which can take up to fifteen hours to complete a single drawing). Feeling more witness than agent to the creative process, the period of creation would vary between long periods of intense concentration and shorter but no less energetic spouts.
Initially, he had only decided on dot-matrix drawings based on press photographs collected by his grandfather and kept in a scrapbook as testament to his career as a snake man, but later incorporated other modes of drawing that came from experiments made while in residence at the St Mortiz Art Academy in Switzerland under the mentorship of Daniele Buetti and Marcel van Eeden.
It’s been a while since David has exhibited. This time, he says, “There is a deep trust in the creative process, where before there was a deep fear of not succeeding. I think this new manner of making art, in many ways, has led to new styles in my work. There has been a freedom to move into new areas, a movement to abstraction, and photographic-based images. It has been wonderful to explore new territory and mediums”.
There’s a link between the mythology surrounding older father figures and our present day selves; the way in which we’re shaped by history and those characters, whom as children, we greatly admired and thought of as immortal gods. With time and death we are reminded that they – like us – are human. What legacy does a snake man grandfather have on his grandchild? David says, “I caught reptiles in the garden and kept them as pets. They were the central characters of my grandfather’s stories, the subject matter of his photographs and films, the topics of his books, the content of his letters. He made his life from snakes, and in a way, they also shaped mine…one’s ancestral inheritance is a wonderful thing to embrace. And certainly something that inspires me in my creative life”.
Snake Man opens on the 19th of November at SMITH Studio and runs till the 9th of January 2016. For more details click here.
Visit David’s website here.
In studio photography by Bony Ska / Linocuts printed with Jan Phillip Raath.