Arguably one of the most important sculptors in South Africa of his generation, David Brown passed away tragically suddenly on March 18 in Cape Town. My View was privileged to have interviewed him in January.
He balked, laughingly and humbly, at the idea of being a South African institution, but his deeply cynical, darkly hilarious works from the 1980s formed a curious backbone to what South African sculpture was – and is still – about. Akin to the harsh absurdity that German Expressionist artists like Max Beckmann and George Grosz articulated in the mid-20th century, the work is eerie and witty, explicit and dramatic.
“It’s hard to make pretty things in South Africa,” he spoke of his series, the Eleven Deadly Sinners, shown in 2015 at Woodstock’s Smac Gallery. Inspired by the Roman busts in the corridors of FTSE, it’s about “the banal professions: Butcher, Soldier, Lumberjack, Boxer … complicity is the theme. These are the ugly side of humanity.”
Brown’s Smac show was his first in over 20 years. “Freedom is intoxicating,” he expressed aversion to the gallery circuit. “You walk into the studio. Put on some rock ‘n’ roll. And engage the material. It’s a good thing, but you slip out of the public eye. Art is not like running a race, but if you can crack a big commission, it helps. I don’t know what’s going on in the art world right now. I just make things.”
Inspired to be a sculptor by his father-in-law, the artist Cecil Skotnes in 1975, in 1986 he rocketed to the attention of South Africa’s art world, with Tightroping. It was a winning entry in a competition mounted by the Johannesburg Art Gallery, which had just built a contemporary wing. Brown’s work was chosen with that of Willem Snyman, Gavin Younge and Bruce Arnott.
Tightroping, featuring a man and a woman splayed at outlandish angles to one another was installed in front of the gallery, facing Joubert Park. “It became a favourite place for wedding photographs,” said Brown from his gorgeous studio in Cape Town’s suburb of Woodstock, the repurposed high-ceilinged red brick building which was once a brewery.
“I made it in my first proper studio: a broken down dilapidated ruin of a building on the border of District Six. It just fitted: the front hit the door and the back hit the wall.”
But Tightroping’s saga didn’t end there. Ten years later Brown was telephoned out of the blue by JAG’s director, Rochelle Keene. “‘Are you sitting down?’ she began. ‘You won’t believe this. Your sculpture has been stolen.’ I was horrified,” he described how the heavy bronze piece had been violated. “The female figure on the rocket was wrenched off, as was the flag.
“All that was left was the figure on the back of the chariot with a megaphone. The woman must have been thrown over the wall. I thought it would have been chopped up for scrap metal immediately. The JAG flew me up there to see the damage. Some people thought it should be restored. Some thought it should we should just forget about it. They moved what was left into the museum.
“Seven years later, the artist Willie Bester phoned me: ‘Hey, I found your sculpture on a scrap yard,’ he said. ‘I’m putting it up in my garden; it’s got a big crack down the middle. Can you fix it?’ I visited Willie and discovered it had a huge wide crack. Fortuitously I think someone in the scrap business had seen it as something that might have had some value and they put it aside. The work had a stainless steel blade, which was still there, amazingly.
“Willie was so crestfallen that the thing had to be returned to the JAG. He’d paid R5 000 for it. Then the Sunday Times did a story on it. I don’t know how they picked up on it, but the scrap yard got a fright, and they paid Willie his R5 000.
“Then it came back here. It stayed in the studio for about two years. I had it up on a winch hanging against the wall and then finally – the JAG didn’t have money – I actually fixed it for nothing. The gallery sent me the remaining piece of the sculpture. I was working with the industrial foundry, so I got a dirt cheap price for that and the transport. And that was the end of it.”
He slipped easily into a philosophical tone about the fallibility of things. “It’s all about the dynamic of making things. The supreme freedom. In the end, it doesn’t matter really, whether they get sold or smashed up for scrap.”
Brown, who was an immensely prolific and intrepid explorer of new ideas and new ways of expressing them, felt strongly about how South Africans don’t look after sculptures. “They buy a Merc and clean it every day, but they buy expensive sculpture and expect to look after itself. It’s devastating. My wife Pippa and I were in Berlin for a year and we saw all the monuments and sculptures. They’re all immaculately polished and they look beautiful.
“Maintaining a sculpture is neither expensive nor difficult. When my sculpture was installed in the gardens of the University of Cape Town, I trained a young man, Nicholas Shemane, to restore sculptures. He goes there three or four times a year: cleans them; checks all the bolts are tight; waxes and polishes the bronze, so it looks great. There are 64 sculptures in the collection and he does the whole lot. It’s a job. You’ve just got to know how to make a beeswax polish and you need a panelbeater’s buffing machine and a few rags and some scourers. That’s all.
“The complete disregard for public sculpture is not about malice. It’s benign neglect. I believe there won’t be anything left in 50 years… art is understandably right down there in priorities, but still …
“In the 1980s, there were so many competitions, so many awards, so much was happening. I think some of the most interesting art was made then. But that seems to have all fallen away,” contemporary young artists disappointed him. “They all want to be superstars. Tomorrow. Our art world has become isolated and competitive. The collaborative generosity I knew from people like Neels Coetzee, I don’t see any longer today.”
As a young sculptor, Brown, who was educated at Westerford High School and UCT’s Michaelis School of Fine Arts taught at the Ruth Prowse Art Centre briefly. “I worked like a demon: Teaching three days a week, working the rest of the time. I think I was an okay teacher, but I didn’t want to teach. I wanted to make.
“Anyway, I have kind of survived. And miraculously I have gotten this far.”
Brown, born on February 3 1951 in Johannesburg, died from a suspected aneurysm and heart attack while surfing in Muizenberg. He leaves his wife, Pippa and son, Jules.