Intoxicated by the freedom to make art

STEEPED IN HUMILITY AND HARD WORK: David Brown passed away suddenly. Photograph by Robyn Sassen

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.

Response: a conversation of broken skulls, transparent pelvises and chance

Call and response: Bronwyn Lace's pelvis sculptures in contradistinction with Neels Coetzee's skull works cast in bronze. Photograph courtesy Circa Gallery
Call and response: Bronwyn Lace’s pelvis sculptures in contradistinction with Neels Coetzee’s skull works cast in bronze. Photograph courtesy Circa Gallery

Artist Bronwyn Lace enjoyed an important friendship with the late Neels Coetzee. She graduated from Wits University two years before she first encountered his work and knew him more as a friend and master of South African sculpture, in the latter part of his life, than as teacher. In so many respects, her artistic voice is the most ideal to form a dialogue with that of Coetzee’s, in this, an extension of the unmissable retrospective of his work, entitled The Crucible, curated by Koulla Xinisteris.

Like The Crucible, Response embraces a profound resonance with musical rhetoric and tradition. The construct of call and response – where two musicians or groups of musicians create dialogue by repeating musical phrases that are distinct but different from one another, reaches throughout the history of musicmaking. Lace’s work interfolds with that of Coetzee’s without upstaging it, in a visual phraseology that really does respond to it, respectfully enhancing your experience of the work of both artists.

Coetzee’s work engages very directly and poignantly with the crushing presence of death – through his skull sculptures, his maquettes of monuments to the tormented and the bones and metal detritus of AK-47 weapons. Conversely, Lace offers a subtle and detailed contemplation of the beginning of life: the pelvis. She presents a series of resin casts of the bones, and has worked into x-rays of a human pelvis with gold thread.

The most powerful of her works on this show, however are her “light sculptures”, pieces that take the sheer poetry of her crepuscular contemplation of the atmospheric phenomenon of God’s fingers, exhibited in this gallery some years ago, and tweaks it into a greater and deeper sense of subtlety. Collectively entitled Ascension, the three pieces silently, yet dramatically, speak of chance encounters, of the glancing of light against thread, of the bittersweetness of transience and the way in which death leaves us all in awe of what life may mean.

This is not a religious work in the conventional understanding of the idea, and yet, in the ways in which it flows and blooms, teases and upbraids the layout of Coetzee’s work, it touches deeply.

Most of the piece informing The Crucible remain in the gallery space, as and how they were since early September when this retrospective opened, including Coetzee’s achingly fine line drawings and lithographs. Lace’s pieces have been inserted into the space with an astute sense of space, of composition, of time and light. While the sense of grand finale that you were deeply aware of in Circa’s astonishing oval well, as you encountered the eponymous work itself, is modulated and slighted diluted by the strong light in Lace’s two Ascension pieces installed there, the sense of ritual balance is not lost.

  • Bronwyn Lace’s exhibition Response, curated by Koulls Xinisteris is in the two spaces of Circa gallery, Jellicoe Avenue, Rosebank, until October 31. Visit or call 011-788-4806.

The impenetrable sadness of Neels Coetzee’s Crucible


It was William Blake who wrote of infinity in a grain of sand; there’s a logical, but also a peculiar parallel which happens unintentionally in Crucible, the first major retrospective exhibition of work by the late Neels Coetzee. It’s an odd thing, because the intensity and unequivocal beauty of the work you initially see is so great that you very quickly think you understand, and forgive its paltry quantity.

This damaging misperception has to do with an odd lack of information in the gallery that at first leads you to believe that Coetzee’s first major retrospective is really small and only fills Circa’s downstairs Speke Gallery. It doesn’t. The whole of the above gallery is full of his beautiful work, offering an aesthetic crescendo in your gallery experience which is without compare. Ignore the lack of signage and follow the ramp upwards after you have basked in the glory of the drawn images downstairs.

This aesthetic climax is Coetzee’s eponymous work, a peace monument comprising melted down AK-47 rifles. Completed in the mid-1990s, it’s a work which teeters between inaccessibility and the engaging rigidity of pattern. At the time, it was considered a landmark in South African sculpture, and has been placed in the gallery for this exhibition in such a way that it casts linear and complicated shafts of shadow and light around it.

The experience of seeing Crucible in this context bears great similarities with that of gazing upon an organ in a Gothic cathedral. It judders your emotions and it takes you a little while to gather yourself around the rest of the exhibition. Primarily showing sculpted works in the upstairs space of Circa, and many drawings, maquettes and etchings in the Speke space downstairs, the exhibition is heavily populated, yet feels bare: Coetzee, who passed away in 2013, was a highly self-critical artist, who often destroyed works in process.

So, in perusing this sensitively curated testimony to the value of Coetzee’s work, you understand – in the same way as you understand when you peruse Franz Kafka’s oeuvre, for instance – that this is the tip of the proverbial iceberg, but that the bulk of the body of a career trajectory of 39 years is sadly lost. There’s a deep and relentless focus on mortality with Coetzee’s bronze skull series. And there’s a monumentality to the individual works, which belies their maquette-like size.

In the gallery handout, there’s mention of the works being cast at two- or three times their original size, in compliance with Coetzee’s desire – something which was never honoured during his life time. In truth, the works could well have been cast ten- or twenty times their size, offering as they do a segueing of surfaces and a sense of space that is almost religious in its sense of mystery.

On the whole, a dark exhibition, in intent and focus, this retrospective conjures up a sense of deep sadness. The many monuments to the tormented, like broken gates, populate the gallery’s open vestibule, and one stands amid the fishes on the pedestal facing Jan Smuts Avenue.

Arguably, one of the exhibition’s most moving drawcards is the collation of two-dimensional works in the Speke Gallery. Coetzee’s approach boasted a very distinct line; one so delicate yet scalpel-like in its directness and intensity. He engaged with the stuff and texture of life with a curious and irascible exploratory eye and hand, creating a sense of intimacy which makes you draw close to, and away from, simultaneously.

A tremendously moving testimony to arguably one of South Africa’s more important sculptors, Crucible is not an easy exhibition to visit, but it is a deeply rewarding experience.

  • Crucible, a retrospective exhibition of work by Neels Coetzee (1940-2013) is curated by Koulla Xinisteris. It is displayed at the Circa and Speke Galleries in Rosebank, Johannesburg, until September 26. On October 1, this exhibition will be segued with a response by artist Bronwyn Lace – one of Coetzee’s former students – to Coetzee’s life, work and death. Phone 011-788-4806 or visit