Since discovering the medium during my third year of study at the Michaelis School of Fine Art in 2015, I have primarily been working in life-size figurative sculptural installations constructed out of recycled rubber tyre tubing. I investigate the origins of civilization and society, as well as the ever-changing politics of national identity, collective memory and cultural belonging in the postcolonial world.
I achieved 95% for my final-year sculptural installation (2016) and have since been working full-time from my studio in Durbanville, Cape Town. I was the recipient of the annually awarded Michaelis Prize, as well as a co-recipient of the university's Simon Gerson Prize, for this body of work, called Dis(re)memberings. While I was still a student, I started part-time job at a nearby art gallery in order to help pay off my student loans and cover some materials cost for my projects. This gallery took a keen interest in the projects I was working on during my third and fourth years at Michaelis and started to include some of my pieces in exhibitions, the first of which was a inter-disciplinary group show called Form and Substance in the second half of 2015. This opportunity allowed me to be introduced to the first collector who supported my practice: Grizelda Hall, a prominent name in the local art scene.
The gallery went on to exhibit some of my pieces to the Cape Town Art Fair in 2016, where I made my first sales to international collectors. One of my sculptures from the No Man's Land series that was exhibited there, was purchased by Arnold Lehman, the former curator of the Brooklyn Museum of Art in New York, USA. The unexpected popularity of my sculptures at the Fair prompted the gallery to return the following year, where three pieces from the Dis(re)memberings series were acquired by South African-based corporate and academic collections.
When this gallery closed its doors in 2018, I was contacted by another institution that saw my work on social media and was interested in including some of my life-size figurative sculptures in an exhibition in Stellenbosch, called Black and White. This opened the door to a more longstanding collaboration between myself and Absolut Art (later rebranded as Dyman Gallery). A US-based collector's group came across my work that was featured in this gallery and went above and beyond purchasing some of the exhibited pieces by also suggesting a long-term project where I would deliver a minimum of 20 sculptures from the No Man's Land series to them over the course of the next 3-odd years.
This project allowed me to truly hone my craft through much trial and error - an opportunity that I would never have been afforded so easily had I not been offered this sense of "job security" that would keep the studio doors open through this process of continuous experimentation and production. In order to make the deadlines set for this project, I had to find a studio assistant to alleviate the workload and streamline my time management. This led me to a wonderful lady from the local community who was a part of my journey for the duration of this project, teaching me important leadership skills and encouraging me to learn how to delegate tasks and compartmentalise aspects of my production process more efficiently. Through the connections I made during this project, I was able to participate in various contemporary African art group exhibitions in North America in 2018 and 2018 and was even approached by EverGold Projects in San Fransisco in early 2020 to host my first solo exhibition, centred around select works from my No Man's Land series that had formed part of private collections in the States.
This project came to an end in the first half of 2021 when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and lock down restrictions were enforced across the globe. Even though we had delivered over 20 works to these collectors, the pandemic threw a spanner in the works for many other plans that were still in the pipeline with regards to this project, and I suddenly found myself in the unexpected position where I had been absent from the local exhibition scene and the art market for quite a number of years while exclusively dedicating myself to this project which had now run its course. I was without connections and without prospects - a scary place to be for an artist who had already been practicing for a number of years.
The sudden security of income had vanished and I needed to start the long journey of re-introducing myself to local galleries, art consulting agencies and collectors. The pandemic had completely changed the way in which the art world functioned - suddenly, the focus had shifted away from the importance of the "white cube" tradition. Social media platforms and virtual exhibitions became a marketing and showcasing tool with far more gravitas than ever before and I started dedicating serious time and effort to building my audience online. This has led me to cross paths with the most incredible individuals from various different industries - fellow artists in the national and international scene, art freight companies, businesses promoting sustainable living, film-makers and corporations alike.
This experience has taught me much about re-defining and re-branding myself as an artist, presenting my practice online and pitching my work to various different outlets in order to keep growing and showcasing my art, and the narratives that inform and inspire it, to the world. The art market is continually evolving and I am excited for the challenges and opportunities this will continue to bring my way.
The faces behind the sculptures
Meet the team collaborating to bring these projects to life.
Nicola Roos (b. 1994)
BA Fine Arts (Sculpture)
Michaelis School of Fine Art
University of Cape Town
Matthew Miller (b. 1992)
BSc Information Technology (Software Development)
Get to know me
What inspires you?
I would like to say that history itself is most likely my greatest source of inspiration. I often look to figures from the colonial narrative in order to re-conceptualise the nightmare of South Africa's - and the African continent's - tumultuous past. Colonialism casts an enduring shadow over all of us today and by researching liminal, unknown individuals from this time period who have profoundly influenced our perspectives on race, culture and society in the postcolonial era, we can begin to focus on what connects us instead of what divides us. The dream of showing people the connections between us in such a divisive time, is what inspires me to be an artist.
We have to create in order to exist. We have to create in order to understand. We have to create in order to remember. As novelist Joseph Conrad states: "My task is to make you hear, to make you feel, and, above all, to make you see. That is all, and it is everything."
Why did you choose to work primarily with recycled inner tyre tubing?
The recycled element attracted me. Over the last couple of years, Cape Town has been suffering from the worst drought in a century, which has essentially also helped to shift a lot of people's perspectives towards more sustainable living and practice. In this current climate where the shortage of our world's resources is being felt more bitterly than ever before, I would think that art institutions should emphatically encourage students to incorporate recycled materials into their work. Cut-up soft drink cans and paper-mâché are what I used to associate with the concept of recycled art. I discovered this medium because wanted to change this perception of the inferiority of this way of creating art. I wanted to sculpt objects in a sustainably way that my audience would take seriously on an academic level as well.
This particular kind of rubber is also fast becoming an extinct material now that the majority of new cars do not require inner tubing in their tyres anymore. It was a natural choice to articulate 'obsolete' narratives in history in the language of an obsolete medium. Furthermore, a strong association has always existed in my mind between rubber and the colonial project in Africa... It is difficult to forget photographs in the history books of the atrocious physical punishment dealt out to slave workers on the rubber plantations in the Belgian Congo under King Leopold II. I wanted to create work that speaks to a victory over the historical weight of the incomprehensible cruelty and hatred of colonialism. I attempt to find a balance between creating work that will last long (a museum-quality piece) and work that is sustainable in order to lighten my footprint on the environment.
How long does it take you to complete one sculpture?
It takes us an average of two to three months to complete one large-scale figurative work from scratch. Matthew and I work in the studio full-time on a daily basis, and our assistant, Liza, works from home part-time. She has been a part of our team since 2020.
What is art for you? What are you trying to achieve through your practice?
Ideally, my intentions with my art are to evoke a moment of self-reflection: I'd wish for the viewer to be able to stand back and try to define to themselves what their own perceptions of ethnographic and socio-cultural belonging are in the postcolonial world that they inhabit.
The very least I'd like to do, is to make the viewer aware of these incredible stories of ground-breaking individuals that have almost entirely been lost to history... I am always looking towards the past to attempt to make sense of the current socio-political state. Everything is connected and the best way for me to make these connections relatable and understandable is to visualise them through the people in the history that set off the dominos leading to the current world state. Colonialism was the first such domino to fall and it still casts a great and violent shadow over us all. These incredible historical individuals I base my work on have altered my perceptions about people, politics and society for the better - and the least I can hope for is that my work has the potential to do the same to others in some small way.
Fundamentally, a lot of my conceptualisation goes back to personal experience. It all comes down to the question of what's bothering me about my situation and the situations of others that I come into contact with. It's about looking at the core issues we are dealing with as a South African society in the 21st Century and looking back to heroes and heroines from our common past in order to bring us back together. Where did it start? And who were the first champions of change? What can we learn from their experiences, their lives, their struggles, their victories?