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Humdingers – Jacob van Schalkwyk

Jacob van Schalkwyk

22.12.2022 – 21.01.2023


“The fourteen works in oil that make up HUMDINGERS began in Cape Town but were all finished over a three-month period in Dowanhill, Glasgow where they benefitted from being exposed to greater calmness and a protracted second bout of autumn light. I began them by concentrating my productivity into painterly events inextricable from my inspiration. Over time, amplitude rather than amplification emerged as the major unintended consequence of tuning down my practise in this way. Gradually, I found the pitch between the tip of my instrument and the surface of the substrate with more clarity. I steadily grew my awareness of pulling, pushing, of dragging, of swiping and avoiding – not as isolated actions but as events occurring in consistent relation to my surroundings. In viewing and judging the surface generated by these events, I found them attenuated in varying degrees by the viscocity to which I had prepared the paint and mixed my colours. I began to play primarily with viscocity by limiting my colour palette and variety of marks until I felt a kind of resistance or gravity that I understand visually. Here, way out in space, I felt a sense of warmth like the heat generated by rubbing one’s hands together. I came to understand this visual warmth in the same way I understand the act of humming. By humming, either side of my wrists, my chest and my lips for example, felt more connected to a solar system of morphisms, energies, nodes and meridians that, eventually, became dissectable to me through repeated contact initiated by the action of painting. Finally, once again, I felt more in tune with art than all the things I see and feel today that I totally reject.” 

Jacob van Schalkwyk

Binne die abstraksie van
Jacob van Schalkwyk


Being able to make sense of a day depended on whether there was art in it or not.

An in-depth journey into the context and history of Jacob van Schalkwyk’s career would require more that just one article. One might begin by speaking of him as a multi-disciplinary artist based in Cape Town, who’s art includes installation, sculpture, drawing, music and performance. I can then of course find out more about the art fairs, solo and group exhibitions he has participated in abroad and in South Africa. Or about the films, theater productions and performances he took part in both locally and internationally. How he taught as guest and permanent lecturer at various universities and served as the head of the art department at Stellenbosch University. Or of his time in the Afrikaans punk band Jaco+Z-dog with Zander Blom. Or his debut novel The Alibi Club (2015). I however chose to speak with him about his most recent solo exhibition, HUMDINGERS, at Suburbia Contemporary in Barcelona, Spain.

Sometimes it is better to weave the past into the present when one considers the process, influence and practice of an artist. What I find in Van Schalkwyk’s practice is something I experienced while wandering through the museums and galleries of Paris, France. Completely homesick and slightly lost, I sat by chance in front of a massive blue painting in the Centre Pompidou. The longer I sat in front of the painting the more calm and comfort I found in how proportionality of the blue was able to grasp the most miniscule of scratches and dust particles: it was about something I could see but not explain. We each find in art a way to cope, escape, understand or to feel. In all its forms – be it music, poetry, film or painting – art is important in how we form our ideas of ourselves, the people around us and the world as a whole. 

I met the artist years ago when he taught drawing as a guest lecturer at Stellenbosch University. At first I thought he was just some ‘cool’ Cape Town artist who always wore black, with interesting sneakers and specs. Over the years, as I got to know him as mentor and artist, his ideas and knowledge have constantly influenced my ways of making art and how I think about it. During the course of our studies he intriduced us to the importance of experimentation with process and challenged us to think differently about the relatiuonship between the body, the brush/pen and the surface. That one actually considers not only the the concept of the work but also the technique and history of the material. That something as simple as charcoal on paper can communicate ideas, or generate a feeling, that words never can.

CJ: I read somewhere that your great-grandfather was AG Visser, who;s work was of course published by Ons Klyntji very long ago. And here we are now discussing your art in the new form of Klyntji. Do you think that there are aspects of this ‘heritage’/history/poetry that you can see in your own work/writing?

JvS: I read the newspaper the other day – I think it was the Sunday Times – and someone wrote there that it is unfair to consider Afrikaans as a ‘White person’s language’ since these days even Brown and Black people speak it. To me it was so telling of the continual misunderstanding around Afrikaans. Actually, it should be “today there are even White people who speak Afrikaans.” The history of the language, and the misinformation and lies spinned during and even before aparthied… who was involved? Who were the first people to refer to themselves as Afrikaners? We know for example that these people were not White people. Who were the first people to describe the grammar of Afrikaans? It was Arab linguists present in the Cape. The language was not formed in the sitting rooms but in the kitchens, the slave quarters of the Cape. I think it can be very complicated to allign oneself with the history/heritage, or it can be easy. For me it is easier to go out and to speak Afrikaans with people to understand the richness of the language and to feel how people express themselves, to feel how we build bonds and keep them through speaking Afrikaans. That is not to say I am a wonderful person. I am not at all. Actually I am a monster! It is important to keep a certain kind of perspective over how pure or how clean one is. I think we are all somewhat between being “in the soup” (an Afrikaans idiom for being in trouble or in a mess) and “being out of the soup.” Or we are still dripping with soup. Or we are still in the soup. I am not sure what makes sense but I am grateful for the perspective. It helps me immensely to be able to speak to my great-grandfather, my grandfathers on my mother and father’s side – I mean the living and the dead – in order to learn about my volutary and involuntary instincts. And to understand where those come from, and to know how I can go about changing them. With A.G Visser specifically – if there is time for such a long conversation – for me readability is a top priority. I think we have that in common and also, the will to help people. You know, aside from poetry, he was a medical doctor and his son, my grandfather, was a psychologist. My mother is a psychologist. I think the will to help people is something I strive towards.

CJ: I’d like to know more about your relationship with the the various forms of art you move through. When I attended Dolcefarniente, your 2017 exhibition in Cape Town, your use of all of these elements made sense to me. How do all of these elements fit together in your thoughts around making art?

Jvs: It is true that I have done a number of different things in my career. Before my first exhibition in South Africa [Bait al-Hikma (House of Wisdom) at Art on Paper in 2011, I had  – beginining in the early 2000’s  – an experimental career in New York as a, shall we say, music and drama and video art person. I toured with incredible musicians. The writer/spoken word artist Carl Hancock Rux and I worked together closely for a couple of years. You know, in the early 2000’s in New York it was possible to grow in different directions simultaneously. It is also part of my training as what they referred to as Pratt as a Drawing major: someone who must be allowed to move freely between the disciplines until they find their own way of making sense. It was also made clear to me, early on, that there was no guarantee that I’d ever be able to make sense, but here are the tools, or at least the foundations upon which it might be possible for me to make sense at some point in the future. 

I don’t think I have managed to make sense yet but Dolcefarniente came close. If anything, for me it was a very important exhibition, especially because I was able to do it twice, once in Johannesburg and again in Cape Town. The two exhibitions were slightly different but the consolidation and the chance for me to make sense myself of the different things I had done, in an exhibition setting, in a gallery space, was really extremely special and an opportunity I am quite grateful for. Dolcefarniente was a drawing exhibition, in all the wonderful and different manifestations of drawing. From there I could see a way forward, towards making sense, with greater clarity.

CJ: I’d like to delve deeper into your history and how you approach the art-making process. I think I can do that by speaking about your recent exhibition, HUMDINGERS. You say that you began the paintings that make up the exhibition in Cape Town and finished them while living in Dowanhill, Glasgow for three months. It made me wonder about how the passing of time (and place) can influence one’s work?

JvS: If you are trying to make sense of something it helps immensely to gain perspective on it and, whith the work for HUMDINGERS, just the fact that the sun is another colour in Glasgow, that the light is softer, that the streets look different, made it possible for me to relax in a way. I could look at the colour, look at the work, look at the paintings – half finished – that I’d taken with me there from a completely other perspective. And so, it allowed me to not only identify the invisible feeling of each painting – because I’d already understood what I was working on – but just to make each feeling clear and communicate or complete  each painting in a way that was not crass or rushed.   

CJ: The titels read to me in a narrative way. I think especially of works like Sometimes a good day, Even keeling over, Wonky Days, Daylight saving 3am and Collect them all (Diptych) 

JvS: There is no linear narrative to the work. There was no narrative structure to the titles either. I cannot make sense of anything. Because I cannot make sense I cannot imagine a narrative that makes sense. Nothing makes sense to me at the moment. So, if you look at titles like Sometimes a Good Day, Even Keeling Over, Wonky Days, Collect them All, Gold Diggers… they are all about things that make no sense. Daylight Savings 3am… I think the side-effects of living in a time where nothing makes sense wieghs heavily on us all.

CJ: I think an important element of your work is the fact that you look back into history to learn about colour, technique, composition etc. I especially enjoyed the text on the David Krut website about a visit to your studio in 2017. Your work contains so many layers of history and research. You referred then to Joseph Albers’ theory of The Interaction of Colour and Titian’s fascination with colours like realgar and orpiment. I assume you were exposed to these techniques and histories as part of your BFA in Drawing at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, NY?

JvS: Yes, sure, it is influenced by my studies and life in New York. You know, the difference between Pretoria in 1999 when I left there and New York in 1999 when I got there is that… here with us in South Africa there is still an unwillingness to see art as a proper business. Still today even, not many people understand fully that an artist like William Kentridge or Cinga Samson or Igshaan Adams can have an economic impact on numerous people in the country. You know, an artist, in their prime in terms of production and market value, has the possiblity of changing the lives of hundreds if not thousands of people. People already understood that very well in New York in 1999 and they also already understood that art is a science.

CJ: In your newsletter for HUMDINGERS you refer to the influence of the Getty 

Institute’s conservation reports on specific Roman-era Egyptian funerary portraits. You write that, “I was struck by how, given the material analysis of these portraits, the body of the work – I mean the material object in physical form – is the evidence…”

JvS: Places like the Getty who have enough money to analyse panels from antiquity take what they do incredibly seriously for good reason. That level of analysis teaches us things. It makes sense. I don’t go back into history because it fits into some sort of artistic or academic practice I’ve adopted. I do it in order to make sense of what is happening today. It helps me on a material level. How did people live back then? It is important to also retain a sense of perspective about what makes art possible, not the other way around. When I say that the material level is evidence, it is exactly that the material itself provides evidence of its own availability. So, if it is lime wood from Europe, how did the Egyptians have enough contact back then with European markets to import the stuff on a large enough scale to make it available to artists? It is amazing to be able to go to an art shop like the Deckle Edge and have all this incredible shit available from all over the world to make art with. It is not like that everywhere. Many of the art shops in New York have closed. none of the art shops I visited in Glasgow had any of the materials I needed. Art materials are technology. It is about availability. It has to do with global markets. In the same way, Titian was able to source the blue he needed only because the textile industry in Venice was substantial enough to support leftover pigment to be used to make paint. So, the work itself is the witness or evidence of what was possible in that time, in that place. And when we look back two thousand years and say people were less accomplished or less developed than we are today, information like this begins to say to you, ‘Wait a little bit, that is not accurate.’ That is how my thinking and process was influenced through the sense that I found in looking again at the Egyptian funerary portraits. You see, it doesn’t actually matter what I do on the canvas. I am an after-thought. The story is in the pigment. The story is in the paint. The story is in the beeswax and how I use it. And thereafter comes the ‘why’ and the meaning and the question of is it good or is it bad. 

CJ: You also write in the newsletter that, “Perhaps justice can also be about returning us to what we feel we really look like, who we really are, what we were when we were ourselves, when we were together.” This refers to the same portraits and how by looking at the paint and the colours we are able to glean a great amount of information about the cultural history and the clothes worn by the people depicted within them. This made me think about the work you made for HUMDINGERS. It is sometimes difficult to immediately ‘read’ abstract art and to understand it but it feels to me like you are touching on similar elements?

JvS: I don’t struggle to understand Moshekwa Langa or Mark Bradford’s abstraction. You know, I feel what they are busy with and I understand the language they are using. Abstraction has a language. Of course it helps to know the elements of that language: how do compositions work, what is the underlying geometry… the formal elements. When you look at someone like Ernest Mancoba, I mean, wow! It is unbelievably complicated what he does, what he speaks of, what he is feeling, what he wants to remember and what he puts into the work. You can feel it, it is an energy thing. When you stand in front of an excellent work of art, whether it is abstract or not, you will have a reaction, you will feel something. I speak to people who collect art from Africa – I mean traditional sculpture and artefacts – and of course there are a lot of fakes and so, the question is how do you tell the real deal from the imitation? The answer I get is simple: you feel it. You can feel it. The object vibrates and does something inside you. That is my experience with abstraction.

CJ: With my final question I’d like to close with one of the last sentences of your statement: “By humming, either side of my wrists, my chest and my lips for example, felt more connected to a solar system of morphisms, energies, nodes and meridians that, eventually, became dissectable to me through repeated contact initiated by the action of painting.Finally, once again, I felt more in tune with art than all the things I see and feel today that I totally reject.”

I sometimes feel like there is a difference between art and the art world, and that it is important to seperate the two, even if one cannot really. Your final sentence especially made me return to the feeling through which one asks the quaestion, ‘Why to we make art?’ Since it is the last sentence of a wonderfully dense artist statement I want to ask how making the work for this exhibition lead you to your final sentence? 

JvS: Now that you’ve asked the question I remember again it was actually the other way around. How I felt about art and the art world is one thing but let’s talk instead about how I felt about art and the world. That is what lead me to the work. I placed that senstence at the end of the statement for good reason. On the one hand doing so is part of the heritage you asked me about earlier. I have in the past spoken about how Eugéne Marais can leave everything hanging until the last sentence before using it to stick a knife in and turn everything upside down. So, it is a writer’s tool that I picked up in Marais and my great-grandfatther’s generation of writers. You wait until the last sentence to stick the knife in… because I wanted to make gentle work. I did not want to make work that was agressive. I wanted to make work that felt deeply. Partly as a result of my… well, I survived a pandemic. At night my neighbours here in Sea Point would clap for the NHS in England as if they all lived there. After that they’d play Heal the World and then Andrea Bocelli and then of course Andrew Loyd Webber’s Pie Jesu. And the longer the lockdown lasted the louder they started playing their music and the less chance I saw of staying alive – not as a consequence of the lockdown but because of having to become married to a world completely void of deep, difficult work. Being subjected on a daily basis to a version of life where there is nothing complex and everything is kind of compressed into a syrupy-sweet level almost did me in.

So, with HUMDINGERS I wanted to make gentle work that would still be sharp enough to penetrate the deeper emotions in others. Why do we make art? That is a potentially super-complicated question. It is a deep question. I wouldn’t say I questioned why we make art but I did ask how we make art. That is something I contemplate a lot when I look at the messages that the Bushmen and the the Khoi left on the landscape. You know, the Bushmen and the Khoi who painted on the rocks… the technology that enabled making those paintings is not exactly matter of fact. If you start looking around online or in museums for the pigment pouches and art materials, the tools we still have that they used to leave those messages it is just unbelievable. It is unbelievably complicated. I mean, you can send someone to space in 1969 or you can make a Petroglyph or rock painting 20-,30-, 40- thousand years ago. I don’t see any diffirence in the technological advancement needed to do so. So yes, I will think of how we make art more that I will think about why. Because the why became kind of clear to me during lockdown. Being able to make sense of a day depended on whether there was art in it or not. I spoke earlier about how it is impossible for me to make sense of the world. I think I can now in a way of conclusion say that the only place I can make sense is within art. I do not expect the art world to make sense. I do not expect the world itself to make sense, and it is perhaps too much to ask of art that it makes sense. But to me, certainly, the only place where I can feel that things are sensible is within art, in painting, in drawing, in music and performance and writing. To me it is the only place where I feel I can still retain the bonds between myself, other people and society that, you know, can sustain life.

If you would like to see more of Van Schalkwyk’s work or just want to chat with him in person, visit the Suburbia Contemporary booth at the Investec Cape Town Art Fair this weekend, where he will be showing new paintings inspired by his time in Scotland.