Guest Voices : Marco Cianfanelli

This week’s guest post comes from Marco Cianfanelli, a South African artist who, in addition to participating in the Earth Matters exhibition in Washington DC, is internationally recognized. Cianfanelli is an artist who examines the universal within the personal and, as the great T.S. Eliot once said of great writers, writes both himself and his time.

 

Back down to Earth

by Marco Cianfanelli

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Maquette: The sum of us [The sum of us (2009) realised at 4.44 x 3.47 x 11.4 meters; mild steel: Forum Homini, Cradle of Humankind]     

I am always slightly puzzled when asked to give my opinion on a matter, as one of the significant reasons I became an artist is the very privilege it affords me in blurring and manipulating elements of intellect, science, knowledge, emotion & gesture in a way that is based on, but not confined to, logic or fact but in a way that makes perfect sense to me.

Is it feasible to personify the whole of humanity, as one single being, a being with particular traits and a complex yet distinct personality? Could these traits and this personality be better understood by observing the condition of the earth, how humanity exists on it, in it, with it? In this sense, our perception of the earth’s state(s) would not be a judgement of humanity but rather a reflection of it. Be it good or bad, it is what it is.

If you believe in evolution, you have to consider that we, alongside everything around us, are evolving with every passing second. Evolution is not an event it is a process. With regard to our place on earth, how are we evolving or how will we evolve in the future? Is it possible that we can be active, rather than passive in the process of our evolution and if so, will the nature in which we cohabit the earth be something we value?

Regarding evolution, Vredefort to Sterkfontein, is a work that I produced as a response to the immense significance and connectedness of the two regions of Vredefort, the site of the largest verified asteroid impact crater, and Sterkfontein, a site of significant Hominid findings, which lies within the “Cradle of Humankind”. The work is both a scientific analysis and a family portrait of sorts or a musing on the subject of genetics, created by morphing and interpolating three silhouette portraits of my mother, myself and my father, to create the seven profiles in the work. Geographic coordinates of the region between Vredefort and Sterkfontein, recorded at 20-meter intervals, were gathered to create a digital three-dimensional topographical portion of this region. This data was used to create the third dimension of the seven forms and was amplified to varying degrees on each of the seven portraits, enhancing the effect of a wave or tide, representing the immense impact that rippled the earth’s surface well beyond the region of Sterkfontein.

Could an event so dramatic and in some ways, so violent that it made the earth’s surface twist and distort like water, be intrinsic to the evolution and formation of humanity, could our dawn have been catalyzed by such a cataclysmic event? It became apparent to me that the intended “family portrait” was actually something broader and spoke to me of humanity’s connectedness.

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Vredefort to Sterkfontein (I-VII)  
Laser cut, burnt, laminated supawood 
43 x 31 x 6.5 cm each
2009
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Earth Matters Around the Web: Climate Change

About 30 headlines down on my Yahoo News page, after updates on movie premiers and election updates, was an article on climate change released just an hour before writing this post. The article was entitled Greenhouse gas volumes reached new high in 2012: WMO, and as the headline reveals, the World Meteorological Organization has analyzed data showing that greenhouse gases, despite conservation efforts, reached a record high last year.

According to the Copenhagen Accord of 2009, a non-binding environmental treaty, many nations from around the world agreed to limit climate change to 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels. According to the new data released by WMO, our gas emissions, by 2020, will be 8 to 12 billion tons higher than that is thought needed to stay under the 2 degree mark. Instead, some predictions have us reaching the 2 degree mark by mid-century.

What is the significance of the 2 degree mark?

The 2 degree temperature increase set as a maximum by the Copenhagen Accord is not a safety zone. By many accounts, reaching the 2 degree mark will spell long-term environmental disaster. However, many scientists argue that even temperature increases of 1 or 1.5 degrees will wreak global havoc.  The significance then is that with such a small margin for error and a growing awareness of carbon emissions and global warming, humanity is still failing to neutralize the single most important global threat of our age.

Reading this unfortunate news, I am reminded of the work Coldfire/Kilimanjaro by South African artist Georgia Papageorge, a work featured in the Earth Matters exhibition at the Smithsonian, National Museum of African Art. Coldfire/Kilimanjaro is a work that is comprised of decades of observation of the Kilimanjaro glacier, which Papageorge has watched as it has steadily receded. According to Papageorge, one of the biggest local factors in the irreversible melting of the glacier is the felling and burning of trees in the regional and illegal charcoal trade. However, there is no doubt in our minds that carbon emissions and climate change is a global problem and that local factors and local impacts, as significant as they may be, are only indicative of the global scale of this seemingly irreversible problem. Image

Georgia Papageorge (b. 1941, South Africa)

Kilimanjaro Souther Glaciers, 2010

Mixed Media, 238cm x 148 cm

 

Guest Voices: Ledelle Moe

Today’s guest post comes from South African artist Ledelle Moe. Although born in South Africa, Moe’s heritage is geographically diverse, as are the many places she has lived. Often dealing with place and identity in her work, Moe created a stunning outdoor sculpture for the Earth Matters exhibition. Below are her reflections on the meaning of this work and her creative process.

 

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Ledelle Moe (b. 1971, South Africa)

Land/Displacements, 2012–13

Concrete, iron, Collection of the artist

 

In preparing to write for this blog, I have reflected on journeys travelled. Outside of the everyday of “being” in a place, the conscious trips I have taken feel like important pilgrimages. The ones I will site touch base with the beauty and history of South Africa.

On the 6th of October, I travelled with a friend to Robben Island for the day. During this trip an ex-political prisoner guided the tour through the cells. Nelson Mandela’s autobiography-“Long Walk to Freedom” came to life as my feet walked through the place that he has written about in so much detail. The book itself is a history lesson and an adventure story. It follows a man whose bravery and convictions, trials and triumphs are explained in a way that makes you feel as though he is writing you alone. Image

I re-“read” the book as an audiotape while driving across the country last year in preparation for making the work at the African Museum. His story and my journey from Cape Town to Durban had overlapping points such as Mthatha and I felt awe at being able to access this amazing country to revisit it and acknowledge its richness no matter how complex and difficult the history.

The trip to Robben Island left me with a heavy weight of the history of the prison and South Africa and as a result I felt compelled to try and understand the people that were victims of horrific injustices. In each cell there is now an image of the prisoner and a paragraph in their own words of the time spent there. Since then I have been drawing small pen and ink cameos of each person. This helps me to slow down and remember and walk through this history.

Both the visit to Robben Island and the trip across country reminded me of the thoughts Carol Becker articulates in her book “Thinking In Place” In this book she speaks about the impulse to travel to a place that holds a personal and political history, her reflections being, that through the act of making a pilgrimage to a place a possible reconciliation with the past and history of that place is possible.

During my cross-country trip last year I stopped in a town called Elliot, not far from Mthatha. It was this landscape that I used as inspiration for the work at the African Museum. The land itself makes up the base of the Drakensberg Mountains and has a unique place in the evolution of colonial South African territorial history and land claim. It marks one of many junctures of land ownership issues that are pervasive throughout South Africa.

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The small figures that are attached to the larger form of the sculpture were made from an accumulation of soil that I gathered along the trip. In taking the soil, I acknowledge the place I am in, while also removing a small part of that place and displacing it. In doing this, I felt it was a small gesture of “land claim”- of taking what is not mine and acknowledging that act. This investigation was a reflection of the migrations of my own family.

The articulation of the work itself, I hope speaks to a connection and disconnection, and of collective and individual grouping of peoples as they move transiently through and from the land.

As I sit here on table mountain writing this, I can reflect on this geography, explore this history and yet its with this distance that I begin to understand the place I have called home in the States in more focus. Similarly, when in the States the distance allows me the perspective to understand South Africa. It is with this paradox and duality that I feel very grateful to be able to participate in the show “Earth Matters” – that asks us to consider the earth under our feet and acknowledge it.

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Guest Voices: Artist Andrew Putter

Todays guest post comes from South African artist Andrew Putter who talks to us about the process of making Flora Capensis. 

One of my favorite things about making art is that I get to have all kinds of adventures along the way. Typically, when I make pictures, there are many steps involved that aren’t seen once the final artwork goes up on the gallery wall. For this blog, I chose three of the many hundreds of photographs I’ve kept of the tests, meetings, and research I did during the process of making Flora Capensis, and talk a little about each of them in turn.

Photograph 1

This first photograph is of a mountain and a bay about 15 km from the busy, built-up city of Cape Town where I live. When I turned 38 in 2008, I decided that I needed to take a break from my hectic working life, so for two years I walked along the edge of this mountain every day and swam in the cold Atlantic sea. The best thing about this bit of coast is that to get to the ocean, one has to walk for 20 minutes along a footpath: there is no road. The land (the entire mountain!) is owned by the National Parks Board, so no-one may build or live there. It’s remote and quiet, and the further one walks along the path, the further one gets away from people, buildings, the city. The Parks Board spent a lot of money in the last 15 years getting rid of the invasive alien vegetation which took over in the 1970s. They successfully restored the extremely diverse indigenous vegetation which originally grew there for millions of years. It was whilst walking alone in the sun along the path one day, amidst this exquisitely rich seaside vegetation that I suddenly realized that there had once been people who lived here before the Europeans colonized the area in the 1650s. Although they’d been mentioned in our school history books when we were kids, few people took them seriously, and I’d pretty much forgotten about them. These original people – the Khoikhoi (derogatively called ‘Hottentots’ by the 17th century Dutch) – would have lived in the local landscape when it looked very similar to what this remote bit of coast still looks like today. It was from this moment of walking in the sun along this path, and feeling in my body the historical presence of these people, that I became interested in trying to find out all I could about the Cape Khoikhoi, and their encounter with the Baroque Dutch (amongst whom were some of my ancestors) who landed here in 1652. Although I did not know it at the time, many of the people of Cape Town today have Khoikhoi ancestors.

Photograph 2 

These two photographs brings back really good memories. Once I knew I was going to need enough rare, wild indigenous Cape flowers to make the six big arrangements for my final Flora Capensis artworks, I began searching for people who could help me find these flowers. Because most of these flowers aren’t grown in people’s gardens and it’s illegal to pick them in the wild, I had to find people who had the authority to assist me in finding and picking wild flowers without interfering in any damaging way with the local floral ecology. In the end I met many such people, and was able to gather flowers from a number of different sites in the countryside beyond the edges of the city of Cape Town. This photograph shows a group of women – Helene Preston, Libbes Loubser, Judy Wood, and Maggie Fowler – who took me out into a part of the country called Darling, known for the wild flowers which carpet the veld there in Spring. Under the leadership of Helene, these women go out into the veld in a Landrover once a week to keep an eye on various populations of rare wild plants, sending their information back to a big national database on local vegetation. What fun they have! After wandering around for a couple of hours bending down to look closely at the colorful life that has sprung up since they last visited, they unpack a table, flasks of tea, and homemade biscuits, and sit down to relax and chat. That’s what the photograph on the left shows: tea-time. On the right is a photograph of some of the flowers I brought back to the city with me after that trip. I remember so well the warm still air, the strange sweet scents of many different kinds of rare flowers, the moisture of the wet earth after the rains, and the gentle conversations over delicious biscuits.

Photograph 3 

The photograph on the left is a preparatory test I did for the final Flora Capensis works (I’ve shown one of the final Flora Capensis works on the right). When I took art in high school, our teacher often told us to make preparatory drawings before making a ‘final’ painting. I had no idea how to do that, and saw no need for it anyway. Why not just make the painting! I only understood the value of preparatory work when I was studying art at a postgraduate level, and watched my teacher – the artist Malcolm Payne –produce a new body of artwork. Malcolm was doing his masters in Fine Art at the same time that he was teaching me, so I got to see a lot of his working process over those two years. I didn’t know him before then, so the first things I saw him make came as a surprise. They were little realistic paintings, and to my eye, they looked really bad. Every few weeks when I went to his studio to talk about my work, I would see whatever new things he had made since we last saw each other. There were funny bits of wood with shards of mirror stuck on them. There were images made with spray paint, using plastic chains as a stencil. And countless other things too. I remember thinking how unfinished it all looked, and wondered whether he was the right person to be teaching me. But as time went on something incredible happened. Malcolm started making new, much bigger and much more ambitious work. This series of monumental, extremely complex mixed media works turned out to be his final pieces. It was only then that I saw how all the many, many little works he’d been making in his studio wasn’t meant to be seen by others. They were tests and explorations – experiments – simpler versions of parts of the final work that he was practicing on before he got to make the ambitious final works. If he had tried to solve all of these technical problems whilst making the final works, he would have probably messed them up. His experiments gave him opportunities to learn skills he would need to make the final works, as well as start growing his ideas – one step at a time – for how the final works would end up looking. Which brings me to my preparatory work photograph, shown here, on the left. When I set up this still life in my garage, it was a good few months before I made my final works, and was still pretty unsure of how I’d make those final works. I knew that I wanted to photograph indigenous Cape flowers styled to look like a 17th century Dutch flower painting. I also knew from experience that the best way to understand something you’ve never done before is just to do it – badly! By doing a ‘bad’ version of it (fast and cheap) you quickly start to understand and learn about what it is you’re trying to do, and get an immediate, in-the-flesh view of your idea. So even though no-one was meant to see this test, it was an important step in getting me to the final works, helping me see more concretely what it was I was trying to achieve.

 

From the Archives: Photography’s role in shaping African identity

“Front view of Bolugun House, Lagos.”
Photographer unknown, c. 1877-1895
West African Photographic Album
EEPA 1995-170002
Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives
National Museum of African Art
Smithsonian Institution

In Earth Matters, an enigmatic photograph, dated 1898, is featured: attributed to the unknown “O. Vincenti,” and labeled “M’Suguma—Tänzer,” the silver-gelatin print depicts two men, probably Sukuma, based on their dress, stiffly posed and likely arranged by the photographer. They stand before a painted backdrop that is not only clearly artificial but its “jungle” theme appears to be at clear odds with the dry, dusty dirt below the feet of the two men.

This photography works to deliver a “factual” record of these two men that would be extrapolated to the Sukuma people as whole. Through the framing and background, the photographer has created a falsified image that appears, nonetheless, seamless and truthful.  In this way, the work brings up questions about the way that photography has worked to shape our understanding of the African people and landscape.

However, in this remarkable photograph from the Eliot Elisofon archives that dates c. 1877-1898, we see a more complete picture of the photographic process, not just the composed or constructed final product. A portable darkroom is visible in front of the building and to the left.  Such darkrooms were necessary for early photography, when wet, non-fixed plates would be exposed and preparation and development of the wet plates had to be done on-site. A crowd of people appears to rest, taking a break from the photographic process. A large camera would have been concealed within the black box. The umbrella lying in front of the crowd seems to indicate the use of a rudimentary flash.

Despite these clues, we can still only speculate as to what was going on in this scene, which was taken in Lagos, Nigeria – thousands of miles across the African continent from Tanzania. But the standing woman, second in from left, is distinctive in her dress and hairstyle, which has been identified as Ghanaian.  Perhaps the group was in the middle of a posed photography session, similar to that in O. Vincenti’s photograph of the Sukuma men in Earth Matters. No matter what event this photograph depicts, what becomes clear is the role that photography has played in creating and affirming our knowledge of faraway places or people, and sometimes perpetuating misconceptions or stereotypes. (For more information on photography in Africa, check out this post on stereoscopes’ role in shaping the international understanding of mining in South Africa).

Further, it is obvious that this history extends back much farther than we typically acknowledge, far beyond what may typically call the “modern” era for the arts of Africa. This camera’s presence challenges our notion of the “primitive” nature of 19th century Africa, and is a reminder that photographs, no matter where, when, or by whom they were taken, document choices and negotiations between the photographer and their subjects, rather than “facts.”

 

Guest Voices: Tafline Laylin

Today’s guest post is from Tafline Laylin, Associate Editor for Inhabitat.com and Managing Editor of Green Prophet.

Earthy and Recycled African Architecture

Early Homo sapiens built Africa’s oldest homes with lightweight wood, a group of Polish archaeologists recently discovered. Our ancestors then continued to rely on local materials to build homes suited to their particular climate for the next 70,000 years or so. Designs varied depending on cultural values and available resources, of course, but ancient residential architecture was typically cheap, simple to build and accessible to just about anyone.

 Today, 62 percent of people living in sub-Saharan Africa seek out a life in slums, according to the 2012/2013 UN Habitat State of the World’s Cities report. Shacks in these so-called informal settlements are usually built with corrugated steel, cardboard, tarp and other cheap or free materials. They are dimly lit and poorly insulated, unbearably hot in summer, drafty in winter and frequently succumb to dangerous paraffin-related fires.

Far from simple, this dismal housing situation is becoming increasingly complicated as cities in particular burst at the seams. By 2050, the global population will swell to nine billion people and seven out of ten of them will live in cities, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Albeit belatedly, municipalities across Africa (and indeed the globe) recognize that they have a serious problem and are slowly beginning to explore alternative housing solutions.

One low-income brick and mortar home costs the South African government roughly $12,500 and 2.8 million of them were built between 1994 and 2012. Still, the University of Stellenbosch’s Sustainability Institute estimates that 500,000 people in the Western Cape alone are still without homes or waiting for one.

As is so often the case, these challenges have spurred fascinating innovations throughout the continent. Especially exciting is the recent push to recycle existing materials instead of using more raw resources, to design smart homes that work in sync with nature, and to exploit renewable energy in order to ease pressure on national grids powered by dirty fuel such as coal and diesel generators.   

iShack by Anna Lusty via University of Stellenbosch (Left to right: Ms Lauren Tavener-Smith, Mr Berry Wessels, Mr Andreas Keller)

iShack by Anna Lusty via University of Stellenbosch
(Left to right: Ms Lauren Tavener-Smith, Mr Berry Wessels, Mr Andreas Keller)

Take the iShack designed by Andreas Keller and Professor Mark Swilling from the University of Stellenbosch. A short-term answer to South Africa’s housing crisis, its traditional zinc exterior belies a host of sustainable design interventions that make it almost revolutionary. In addition to incorporating waste cardboard and recycled tetra pack drinking cartons (painted with flame retardant) as insulation, the design team constructed the back wall out of straw and clay. These absorb the sun’s heat throughout the day and release it after dark.

A rainwater harvesting system allows residents to collect their own water, which is a simple but groundbreaking gift for people who don’t take it for granted. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the National Research Foundation have supported a plan to scale up distribution so that even more people can enjoy an enhanced quality of life.

As innovative as it is, however, the iShack doesn’t represent the most creative re-use of materials.

Critics sometimes question wheter using shipping containers for housing is humane. After all, these giant metal boxes once carried cargo across the seas and become blistering hot under the sun. But there are approximately seventeen million of them on the oceans at any given time, according to Andy Boyd at the University of Houston, and a great deal of them are disused. Instead of allowing them to languish as waste, modern designers have successfully repurposed them into comfortable homes, restaurants, hostels, and pop up retail stores.

Image credits: Visserhok Classroom, Tsai Design Studio

Image credits: Visserhok Classroom, Tsai Design Studio

The trend is picking up in parts of Africa as well. Tsai Design Studio recently converted a shipping container into a small classroom for five to six-year-old students living in Du Noon Township, an impoverished farming community outside of Cape Town. Windows are cut out of the red-painted metal to promote natural light and ventilation and a huge overhanging roof provides shade. There’s a gap between the top of the container and the roof, which evacuates rising heat, and gardens planted outdoors, including a vertical garden, will also help to keep the site cool.

Plastic Bottle House, DARE iShack by Anna Lusty via University of Stellenbosch

Plastic Bottle House, DARE

There are dozens of projects that I could have chosen for this short survey of earth and recycled architecture in Africa, but few were as popular on Inhabitat, where I work, as “Africa’s First Plastic Bottle House.” The Development Association for Renewable Energies (DARE), a Nigerian NGO based in Kaduna, built a two-bedroom bungalow out of hundreds of plastic bottles filled with sand, strung together at the neck, and then stacked into round walls said to be stronger than cinder blocks.  Not only is the prototypical home cheap and well insulated, it also addresses a burgeoning waste problem by putting plastic bottles to a constructive use.

But why so popular? With such a proliferation of ridiculously expensive homes, people with modest means look at it and they think, “hey, if all else fails, I can always build one of those.”

Tafline Laylin is an Associate Editor for Inhabitat.com, an internationally renowned blog that believes design can save the world, and Managing Editor of Green Prophet, a leading source of environmental news in the Middle East and North Africa.

  

 

Earth Matters Around the Web

800px-Venezia_veduta_aereaVenezia, view from air (photo via Wikimedia Commons)

This week, news of the 55th Venice Biennale has dominated the art world. And African nations have been front and center in the coverage of the biannual art festival, celebrating the newest and most dynamic artists and ideas from around the world.

  • “It’s viva Africa,” declared Zimbabwean curator Raphael Chikukwa, as Angola took home the prestigious Golden Lion for best national participation with its first ever showing at the Biennale – learn more about the frenzy surrounding the Angolan pavilion, among others hailing from Africa, here.
  • Learn about some of the best offerings to be found this past week in Venice, according to the Huffington Post, which heavily featured African nations including those from Kenya and South Africa.
  • See Ireland’s contribution to the Biennale, featuring Richard Mosse’s photographs of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and learn more about the unique infrared process Mosse uses to make these arresting, colorful images.

What have you heard about this year’s Venice Biennale? What pavilions and artists did you think put forward the best showing? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Get a look inside the Angolan pavilion above, and hear from its curators Paula Nascimento and Stefano Rabolli Pansera – and don’t miss more videos from the 2013 Biennale’s excellent YouTube channel here