How to step up to the plate


WOMAN with monumental hair: Hannelie Coetzee’s 10-storey installation in Braamfontein. Photograph by Robyn Sassen.

“IN MY NEXT project, I will be making a wildebeest out of 10 000 dried locusts that Wits University’s Zoo Museum curator has decommissioned and given me.” You wouldn’t expect a statement of that nature from anyone other than South African mosaic sculptor Hannelie Coetzee, whose work you can see at Nirox, in Krugersdorp, the Fire Station Building in Rosebank and now in Braamfontein.

Not coming from a knitting perspective or a music background, where tiny particles of colour or sound coalesce to form a whole, she uses pixilation as her keyboard and palette, trusting her eye, her instinct and her physical stamina. She spoke to My View ten weeks into the installation of the Nzunza Portrait, in Melle Street Braamfontein, which was unveiled on Women’s Day, August 9, this year.

“It was my way of giving back to the community,” she began, commenting on her use of detritus in her approach to making objects. Coetzee speaks of her poor bywoner ancestral roots. “It is important to share our stories. My Afrikaner baggage goes back to my great great granny in Fordsburg, who used to save up blood from the butchery and bake biscuits for her family with it. It was the only source of protein she could access after the South Africa war. Her ethic was about using any opportunity to make things work. It’s how I make peace with this city.”

Descending the 10-storey-high artwork, Coetzee explained the Nzunza mosaic was commissioned by property firm, City Property, with whom she’s enjoyed what she calls a parallel partnership for some years. Founded by the late Alec Wapnick, the company is focused on giving city buildings new life; Wapnick’s son and daughter who run it today, are not afraid to think beyond convention.

“It started with Tant Koek”, she refers to an installation in Pretoria’s 012central initiative, on Helen Joseph Street in that city. “They were researching all the lovely developments in Joburg and how it’s using public art, and they wanted to try that.

“I knew Alec collected paintings by JH Pierneef in his day, so I suggested to his son, Jeff, that he invest in public art. He agreed. He gave me money and all the conceptual freedom I needed to do Tant Koek.”

“She was my great aunt,” Coetzee explains Tant Koek. “She was always an out-the-box do-er. So I celebrated her in this way. Jeff needed a way to point people from the parking lot to the project, and I said let’s not go literal with an arrow. Tant Koek shows you the way.”

Coetzee, who has her studio opposite the Farraday taxi rank in the city centre, was not shy in putting her cards on the table after this piece was completed. “I said I really like to work big. Tant Koek was only about 6m2. Toward the end of last year, Richardt Venter, one of Jeff’s architects approached me through City Property to say they have a 10-storey building in Braamfontein; would I be interested in coming up with an idea.”

The wheels were set in motion: For a long time, Coetzee had enjoyed an interest in the unusable seconds generated by the Liebermann Pottery factory in Vrededorp. They pointed her towards the relationship between architecture and hair in a way she couldn’t have anticipated.

It was a gift in the form of Wits University Press’s publication Forgotten World: The Stone-Walled Settlements of the Mpumalanga Escarpment by Peter Delius, Tim Maggs and Alex Schoeman however, that made everything fit into place. This publication was put out in English, Afrikaans and sePedi and documents (amongst other things) the early history of the province Mpumalanga, looking at the architectural remains of precolonial communities. Coetzee recalls “It was my ability to read Vergete Wereld: Die klipmuusnedersettings van die Mpumalanga-Platorand in Afrikaans that really resonated with me.”

Coetzee believes in synchronicity. Armed with an awareness of these forgotten structures, which even under new South African values have not yet been celebrated as heritage, “In 2017 I met Wits architect graduate Tshilidzi Mavhunga who considers the hair salons of Joburg’s inner city, from an architectural perspective. She argues in her research that the post-colonial structure of the city is still not conducive to how much hair is processed in the city. With her knowledge she could advise developers on how to adapt their buildings so that they’re more conducive for use in an African sense. In a real sense.

“Tshilidzi put me in touch with two strands of thought: the archived history of hair, and the hair stylist trendsetters who use old hairstyles in new hairstyles. Further to that, she offered me visual guidance as to how I can work on such a long thin canvas. It’s 10 storeys high; about 5m wide.”

These conversations led Coetzee to the idea of creating a young woman’s face topped with an elaborate hairdo, and the argument in Forgotten World corroborated the path she was exploring.

“It confirmed that the Nzdundza/Nzunza-Ndebele people came through the Highveld in the 1650s. This date has been confirmed through carbon dating on the pottery of the community. But there’s more: The pottery reflected Swazi and Basotho patterns, which means that the Nzdundza/Nzunza was an open ethnic group.”

It’s an approach which casts the whole chauvinistic tribal history that has enabled our taxonomy regarding different African styles, into doubt. “And as a result of this, I realised that because of our urban flow and open-heartedness in Johannesburg, the hair references must be mixed.”

But the plot gets richer, and revolves around the date of 1650. Almost thirty years later, Coetzee’s ancestors arrived in South Africa, from Holland. And it was the year when the researchers have established that the Nzunza community left the Highveld.” She grins: “I’m an African Joburger with a long history in this land. I feel very proud of this work.”

Putting the mosaic together was simpler than you might think, and more technical than you would believe: Coetzee was offered an entire floor in the building, formerly known as North City House. “The floor space was the same size as the whole mosaic, so I could lay it out exactly to scale. Each plate had to be prepared. Each had to be pre-drilled and mechanically applied to the wall. And then each had to be embedded into a purpose-designed adhesive. It was a very intensive, slow process. We only put on about six to eight panels per day.”

But it was an exercise in which her skills base grew incrementally. From sitting through a 12-member panel on glue, to learning the fine art of ‘trowelling’, the process has been a lot of hard work and a little magic. She speaks of the glue chemist climbing the scaffolding to ensure that everything was being done in the correct way, explaining public liability policies that a project of this nature must respect. “The building will have to come down if they decide to reclad it,” she quips, half in earnest.

“I’ve never naturally been a sculptor who can carve into things,” she adds, speaking of her career trajectory. “As I grew as an artist, I had to find my own way to play with the visual medium.

“The nice benefit of 20 years of shooting has made me really able to look at how light reflects. When I photograph it, it pixelates. It’s like an algorithm that makes the eye see properly.”

Coetzee was born into a staunch Christian family affiliated to the deeply conservative Dopper church. “I really believed lightning would strike me if I didn’t go to church,” she rejected the religion, but retained the work ethic. “I come from a family of makers – we always had stuff to make.”

The daughter of educated nationalists – her mother was a journalist, her father was employed by the apartheid government – Coetzee studied photography at the Vaal Technikon: her father insisted she follow a field that had job potential, and she worked in the technical aspect of the field.

It took some years for Coetzee to find her feet as an artist. In 2010, her first solo exhibition of sculptural work, Uitpak, was hosted at the Johannesburg Art Gallery. “I found waste stone from Freedom Park’s memorial engravings at a dump site and brought it to the studio. It was the first time I collected stone, rather than documented it.” And it represented a starting point with found objects which she still turns to.

“The exhibition comprised a dry-stacked corbelled house which I built at the JAG with these stones, drawing from my knowledge of how this architecture originated in Basotho and not Voortrekker culture as we had been taught.” Coetzee learnt that the Voortrekkers had tried copying the Basotho corbelled houses with trench stone-stacked walls during the First Anglo-Boer War in the 1880s.

Her historical curiosity matured into scientific focus. “The more I work, the more I want what I’m doing to contribute to environmental health.”

A turning point in Coetzee’s career was brought about when landscape artist Strijdom van der Merwe took an interest in her work. “He organised site specific festivals at Plettenberg Bay in 2011 and 2013. For the first, I did a time-lapse work, Family Portrait, on Lookout Beach, consisting of 14 stone-stacked figures, portraits of my family. Each high tide, they fell. And then I would stack them again.” The piece was well received; van der Merwe had her in his sights for further opportunities.

Blending environmentally savvy work with mosaic and dry stacking, Coetzee’s dragonfly at Nirox was born. “Black wattle came into the country under British rule – it was planted to serve the mining industry. But today, the trees’ thirstiness and the rapidity at which its footprint is expanding are concerns. There’s a large plantation of it on a farm neighbouring Nirox. After the black wattle is extracted, the keystone insect species that returns is the dragonfly.”

Moving on, those 10 000 locusts will feed into another environment-focused project. “They are the contents of 100 drawers in the Zoo Museum at Wits, containing a swarm of locusts that was bred in the 1950 and 1960s to try and manipulate through chemistry and hormones and experiment with getting a swarm not to swarm and eat all the crops. This is the research they were doing, then.

“I’m going to be building a wildebeest of locusts,” she adds. “I am planning a travelling exhibition that echoes the migratory journey of African migratory locust through Africa.”

  • Drive or walk in a westerly direction down Jorissen Avenue in Braamfontein from Wits University towards the Joburg Theatre, with your eye on the buildings and the Ndzunza/Nzunza princess will pop out at you.

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