Dirk Winterbach is one of the artists, along with André Laubscher and Ashley Walters, who is exhibiting work in Erf 81: Two decades of living on the fringe, an exhibition that hopes to go some way towards saving the Tamboerskloof Farm where Dirk is both a resident and practising artist. Magdaleen du Toit is a student in the CCA’s Honours in Curatorship class. While studying she has also been interning for this exhibition and is deeply involved in the project. The exhibition is on until the 25th of June 2017 at the  Association for Visual Arts (AVA) Gallery, 35 Church Street, Cape Town.

 

“Verskoon my as ek bietjie stadig praat of lank dink. Ek is een van daai mense wat, soos ek ouer raak, al hoe meer besef hoe meer ek weet, hoe minder weet ek.” [1]

Dirk and I are in his bedroom-home-studio, a section of the abandoned military magazine on Erf 81. He lights a candle and gestures for me to sit on the chair layered in blankets and pillows at his desk-kitchen-table. It is an unconventional living space, to say the least. It’s dark, windowless and damp despite two lights and a candle, but it’s homey. By the loaf of bread, the jar of coffee and empty milk bottles standing next to me on the table, and sculptures of the female form beside it, I can imagine Dirk performing his daily rituals in this discrete yet welcoming space. Placed on his chest of drawers is a colourful painting by a child that reads“I love you, Oom Dirk”. Drying on a table at the entrance are rows of clay animals moulded by children living on the farm. He has a calm and comfortable presence. He reminds me to speak English for the interview’s sake, and I offer free rein.

“I grew up in a family of people with very strong visual talents. I have an older sister and younger brother and they’re brilliant, brilliant painters. I always knew I wasn’t headed in that direction, but many members of my family were very talented with their hands, with all kinds of craft. I’ve always been attracted to extreme physical labour – whether that be sport or training. Sculpture, to me, became a way of merging these things – visual art and physical labour.” He reflects on the past 40 years of metal as his main medium and the importance of the element of the extreme in his work, how he pushes this envelope. “I do believe my physical commitment becomes visible in a mysterious way that the audience can register, the ‘blood and guts’ kind of process. And there’s also a lot of physical pain involved.” Dirk tells of hammering out heavy metal from the inside with a round-headed hammer to create the masks and heads, now on display at the Erf 81 exhibition. “I had quite severe headaches. And the technique I use for making the figures is one that really requires you to be fit and strong, especially being a 65-year-old. There’s a physical need I have…I guess it translates from some kind of psychological need to commit to both art and life, fully.”

Dirk explains the fact that he has never been a professional artist nor does he see this as central to his process and artistic goals, granting him a certain kind of freedom while, at the same time, condemning him as a marginal figure – obscure, on the fringe of the art establishment. He is a conservative maker, he says, sculpting objects that can speak for themselves as opposed to having conceptual meaning.

Strongly influenced by powerful, matriarchal women throughout his life – mother, sister, aunt, former wife and daughter, Dirk’s large female figures of metal exist as a homage to women and their strength. There is no further discussion to have about it. “People want to see the kind of thing you can look at with a glass of wine in hand and have some conversation about. I’m dead set against that. The thing I’m really resisting is the visual arts being employed to make literal or philosophical statements – it becomes adulterated, diluted.”

Dirk values creating artistic beauty, the kind that makes the viewer question in their response what they consider beautiful. He describes his project to be intimate and domestic, only gleaning the outcome and effect of his works through the children surrounded by it while playing and drawing in his studio space. Suspicious of trends in art and in general, he aims for his work to have a timeless quality. “Another artist at the exhibition said to me that he likes my masks – they’re brutal but they’re beautiful. I don’t believe art has any relevance if there’s no striving at all to create some kind of beauty. To me that’s very visible in Ashley Walters’s work. Not all his photographs are beautiful in the conventional sense, but it captures something.” He wishes for the practice of art to become more public in the form of murals – livening up dreary environments – without commercial benefit, recognition or prestige. Although, he argues with himself that “for art to find a new place in one’s life and society at large, decentralising it, is a difficult and public discourse.”

Having been a lecturer in anthropology and sociology at the University of the Western Cape during the 1980’s, Dirk is greatly concerned with social meaning and awareness, and therefore having his artistic identity “find its right place”. He tells of how he constantly comes up against his own conditioning, and has always tried to escape an exclusively European mind-set. “Can I transcend that condition? It’s one of the central challenges of my life to come to some kind of resolution. I’m getting there.”

Dirk’s authenticity, humility and unpretentiousness are the kernels of his identity as an artist. Due to his devotion to social awareness and spiritual growth, Dirk explains that he cannot afford, nor is he interested in the self-importance and self-image that so often goes hand in hand with being an artist.

“I tend to be very careful of the way I carry my identity as an artist. I am not an artist first and foremost. My artistic identity has to find its right place within my total being. I feel like I’ve found that place because nowadays I have the same commitment to being a social being, a person amongst others who gives and takes, and can fulfil social roles – foster parent, friend. I think that’s very damaging to the meaning art can have to society if the practice of art is confined to trained experts. And obviously the farm has played a role in that. This farm has become not only very well suited to creating sculpture, but it also has become a spiritual home. Coming here is coming home.”

 

[1] “Excuse me if I talk slow or think a bit long. I’m one of those people who, as I get older, realise the more I know the less I know.”

 

 

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Pictured above are some of Dirk’s masks and weapons on display as part of the exhibition Erf 81: Two decades of living on the fringe.

“At first the fact of my art weapons finding their way into a military magazine was simply a quirky coincidence. It made me smile. It dovetailed well with the mood and spirit in which they were made. The conscious mood was burlesque, playful, and satirical. At the time I was concerned with subverting the order of violence, rather than confronting it. But on the farm the responses of significant others, ranging from children to art peers, seemed to indicate that my intent had been more serious than I imagined. To me this is linked to the fact that in social and spiritual terms I had become that member of an endangered and vulnerable community who had invaded most deeply into military territory. Not deliberately or through conscious decision. But still, and yet, there I was. The military wanted their land back and us off it. Those non-functional weapons began to suggest the right response to the situation for me. I had to hold the ground, in a moral and spiritual sense. To do that I had to die to the notion that the pursuit of personal power and control is the ultimate aim of individual existence. I had to confront my own violence, finally. I had to admit complicity.” -Dirk Winterbach

 

Header Image by Ashley Walters, Gate Keeper, 2015.

Images of masks and weapons taken by Barnabas Ticha Muvhuti.