02 Sep Nolan Oswald Dennis: Mapping a history, writing a present and tracing a future
Nolan has been awarded the prestigious FNB Art Prize 2016 for his elaborately contoured and delicate line drawings that can be thought of as maps or symbolic cartography. Revisit our 2014 interview with the artist below, and catch his solo exhibition at the FNB JoburgArtFair from 9 – 11 September.
Born in Zambia and currently based in Johannesburg, Nolan Oswald Dennis works in drawing, painting, installation, space, time and memory. Though research-based, his work emerges as a reaction – finding its form as he tries to process his thoughts and interests, which often relate in some way to (South) African history, popular memory and information systems.
To learn more we spoke to Nolan about his intentions and approach to making art, his interest in social fictions and what he believes about the future, the present and the past.
What type of environment did you grow up in?
I was born in Zambia to parents exiled from Apartheid South Africa. I moved to South Africa in the early 90s and in 1995 my family settled in Midrand, a semi-industrial suburb on the fringes of Johannesburg (it sits between Joburg and Pretoria thus MIDrand). My house was the last house before the veld that used to lie between Johannesburg and Pretoria. The final frontier. The environment was a mixture of abandoned construction sites, unfinished houses and small farms/small dreams. These days the farms and bush have mostly been replaced with medium density townhouses, corporate headquarters, amashisanyama, carwashes and the largest mosque in the Southern hemisphere.
When did you realise that a career as an artist was something you wanted to, and could, pursue?
I am still working out whether being an artist is something I want to, and can pursue.
How have you gone about this? Tell us more about your journey so far…
Drawing has always been a way for me to process boredom, unbelonging and frustration with my surroundings. In 2009 Fuzzy Slipperz and I started an art group called Mafuta, which was a great construct to investigate ideas about what types of work I was interested in – particularly in public art. I became obsessively preoccupied with (South) African history, memory and information systems. At some point I enrolled at Wits and got a degree in Architecture which drew me towards installation as a medium. I began hanging out at the Keleketla! Library at the Drill Hall in Hillbrow and engaging with socially oriented, critical practices. The relationships I made through Keleketla! have had a big influence on my work. Through that space I began working with The Brother Moves On, testing combinations of performance and drawing. I also did an open office residency at VANSA earlier this year.
What are you influenced and inspired by?
In 2009 my housemates were a brother and sister who would do something like this: they would argue about the merits of Mbeki’s recall by evoking Ghost in the Shell, the Treatment Action Campaign, Octavia E. Butler, three six Mafia, the Kenilworth Spar, The Sandman, WWE wrestling, Cowboy Bebop, Wu-Tang, Lesilo, Ronald Suresh Roberts, Naruto, Bram Fischer ad infinitum. This way of moving between fiction and fact, with the blurring of time, space and authority in their construction of a South African subjectivity completely changed my view of what is going on here in this place, and how I relate to it.
I’ve been listening to Phillip Tabane and Malombo since I heard Ra talk about them on Soundcloud, I’m always trying to find more Keoropetse Kgosistile poems, JL Dube’s uJeqe- intsila kaShaka, Ghalil Islam’s Fire in The Unnameable Country, Black Audio Film Collective, Cuss group, Euridice Kala, Hac-One.
How would you describe your style or aesthetic, and how has this developed since you first started out?
I’m not too concerned with describing my style/aesthetic. I would rather think about intentions. When I was younger I was really into early New York graffiti and badly drawn comics, cartoons and monsters like Roman Dirge’s Lenore, Jhnonen Vasquez’ Invader Zim, and Dub from tube on SABC. I also wanted to be a writer, in the graffiti sense as well as the literary sense.
I tend to do a lot of different types of work because a lot of my work is a reaction, trying to process specific things I am interested in at specific times. These interests have mostly been around questions of popular memory, sanctioned history and trying to escape the limitations of my ongoing miseducation. I’m not particularly good at using colour, so my work is generally monochrome for now.
How do you approach the art making process? Do you prefer to create in a manner that’s quite spontaneous or, alternately, one that’s pre-planned and well thought out?
My work is very research orientated, in a sense it’s totally pre-planned, but up to a certain point and after that I try to let go and hope for the best. My work emerges from things I’m thinking about anyway, for my own non-productive purposes, so art making is almost a by-product of other interests. I am quite pedantic, so in reaction, I constantly try to avoid too much planning of the actual visual element and rather let the ‘thing’ emerge from the action of creating it, in this way any object at the end is more of a process work or a study, for a better next time. I tend to avoid doing compositional sketches where possible.
You’ve expressed an interest in ‘aspects of social fiction’ and the ‘collapse of social certainty’. What does this mean to you?
I’m interested in creating analogues of entire fields of knowledge, as ways to question the dimensions of specific narratives about (South) Africa, like Borges’ map that is so detailed it is the same size as the country and thus utterly useless and left to disintegrate.
Ludwig Wittgenstein said “My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them—as steps—to climb beyond them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.) He must transcend these propositions, and then he will see the world aright.”
I’m interested in the social fictions we have created in South Africa since the fall of the Apartheid. The rainbow nation is an obvious example of a fiction we created in order to pursue a particular sense of social stability/certainty. That social certainty was built around notions of reconciliation, that we can hold different colours (historical-political agendas) together in a curved unity like a rainbow. That unity was challenged by the simultaneous idea of two-economies: South Africa as a country with two nations, one white and rich and the other black and poor, a dichotomy. To some extent the story of Madiba’s rainbow nation has been sufficiently discredited to consider it a collapsed certainty, we can’t rely on it, so we have new competing fictions emerging – the idea of economic freedom fighters, the second transition etc. These are ways of describing our current predicaments that both collapse and define social certainties, some better than others. I think fictions and certainties kind of run in circuits, complicated loops, they all need each other, but they can be short-circuited and collapsed.
Through distorting archival notions of memory, reprogramming mythologies and fragmenting superstitions – how do you endeavour to map a history, write a present and trace a future?
By collecting every bit of data that has ever existed, writing an algorithm to recombine the data in different arrangements, and projecting simulations of these combinations in real time. With or without a computer.
I think the future, the present and the past are really the same thing. The conceptual distinction is about trying to extract new perspectives on a problem. In this way superstition, archive, mythology, the academy, memory and prediction are all means to grapple with and articulate a present-crisis.
Land:Transitions is a textual mural consisting of about 30 000 written words and a performance intervention examining the historical, symbolic and personal meaning of South African land. What sort of research did you conduct in order to create this work, and what were your findings?
I spent a month researching the recorded history of conflicts over land in South Africa. I determined a rough timeline and collected as many academic papers, books, articles on the period as I could (academically referenceable material). I then looked for other works related to land, conflict and dispossession, these included poems, political manifestos, oral histories, letters, reports, songs, lists etc. I also found basic geological history of the formation of the physical earth that constitutes South Africa.
The work was not about presenting findings, in the sense of a conclusive report, but rather presenting the entirety of my research without narrative, as a fragmented collection of everything I could find, the intention was to allow people to explore the texts through the inconclusivity and contradiction of the various sources, and to suggest, within the overload of information, the sense that there is still information always-missing, the silenced voices which haunt any sense of South African landscape.
Using manipulated found cardboard and crates, you created a site specific art installation at the Ussher Fort (a slave fort and colonial prison in Accra, Ghana) called Memory and Speculation. Tell us more about this work, and the aspect of collaboration it entailed.
This work was about coming to terms with Accra, a city that for me, holds a mystical-mythical status as the capital of the first free sub-Saharan African nation. As a prototype of anti-colonial triumph and colonial revenge. But Accra is also a real place, with a real lived history and a real lived present. So the work was about trying to hold these two divergent aspects together. Like a dream and a waking.
The work was made for Chale Wote, a festival in Jamestown, Accra. The installation was abandoned during the opening with 6 pieces of white chalk placed on a black table in the entrance. There were no instructions to guide, encourage or prohibit visitors. During the open period visitors added their own texts and marks, consisting of various drawings, names and scratches.
At the end of the day the installation was basically destroyed, the collage was ripped off the walls and lying on the floor, things were in general disarray with chalk scratches of lovers names, swear words, drawings of penises and guns on the wall. But ultimately that was the nature of the work, the idealised/imaginary politically sacred Accra meeting the everyday energy of a working city.
The resultant work was then presented as collaborative composition of disparate voices, unreliable perspectives and incompatible notions of archival and historical space. I made a video afterwards to try process the experience.
You’re also engaged in an ongoing collaboration with performance art ensemble The Brother Moves On which, so far, has consisted of live installations, performances, illustrations, an album cover as well as poster and conceptual design. Specifically looking at the album cover for A New Myth, how did you go about visually interpreting their music?
The work was an elaboration on an idea we had come up with for the ETA ep. ETA was a triple faced cosmonaut waiting for the arrival, of what? The work was always a move to escape the mining, city/rural narrative of Mr Gold (an important earlier character in The Brother Moves On canon). A New Myth was trying to expand on the image of the man from outside this space, waiting. The album itself is a kind of moving on, I see it, musically, as folding different places into itself, like a telephone switchboard, or a taxi rank. So in the imagery I had this idea of a map of the universe, the known heavens, as essential to finding new coordinates, the dissolution of masculinity (The Brother) the doubling and tripling of aspects, trying to find/create/assert a new place to address, be addressed and address from.
What are you currently looking at, reading, watching and/or listening to?
Reading: Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood and Trouble on Triton by Sam R. Delaney.
Watching: 28Up South Africa and Salo by Pier Paolo Pasolini.
Listening to: Tricky by Blowback, King Krule’s 6 Feet Beneath the Moon and Neo Hlasko.
And finally, where to from here?
Attending corner loving, some research at the Wits Palaeontology Archive, thinking about fire. Refusing Afro-futurism.
Follow Nolan on Twitter.