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Burchell singing in the new

Burchell singing in the new
  • PublishedJune 1, 2018

African artists were once dismissed by the international art community as novelty figures but not any more, they are now some of the most dominant figures on the international arts scene, known for standing at the cutting edge of innovation. Beverly Andrews spoke to leading South African artist, Jenna Burchell.

Jenna Burchell’s work escapes easy classification since much of it incorporates traditional techniques with the use of modern technology. She is perhaps most famous for her ‘singing rocks’, which literally emit musical sounds when you stand close to them. 

Speaking to New African about her early development, South African Burchell states: “Art was a welcome compulsion from the very beginning. One of my earliest memories is of looking up at my mother who was writing a note while talking on the phone at home; the movement of her hand was so fascinating to me.

“During preschool I would stand in front of the easel and just paint, not listening to anyone telling me to stop or to paint something that was representational like a cat, a dog, or a house. 

“It was much later that my language of working with technology developed. I was a young student at university and I was naturally struggling with my family being so far away: they had moved to the UAE. We spent a lot of time communicating using technologies like phone calls and messages. These allowed us to connect despite our real world divide. Generally when people think of technology they think of cold, blue light and hard-edged steel, but I don’t see it this way: over time I came to see technology as something warm and loving. It had a glow to it: a safety in it.”

Burchell goes on to state: “It was natural for me to emotionally express myself through technologies in my art. For me, things like circuitry, soldering irons, and microcontrollers were the equivalent of canvasses, brushes and paints. I found myself experimenting with different materials, industries and knowledge systems.

“Where I lacked a skill set, I would seek out collaborators to teach me and work with me. I became aware in my honours year that the way I was working did not comfortably sit into any existing discipline of words, frameworks, or methods in the historical or contemporary art world, especially in South Africa at the time. So, I found myself making up my own language of method statements, processes and ways of communicating my practice.”

She says in the first 10 years after she graduated from university,  she took on a dual career as both an artist and a producer involved in heritage museums in South Africa. “This duality became symbiotic: what I learned in the one career influenced and benefitted the other. It was only over the course of the last year, 2017, that these two careers became too demanding and I needed to choose my primary direction. I chose to become a full-time artist. I find that my practice allows me to incorporate the elements that I love about museum and heritage work.”

With an upcoming solo show in London this autumn, she elaborated on the influence of her work in museums and heritage on her art practice. “During this time I often encountered histories lost between the known histories. This made me develop a deep passion for personal histories, as well as a sensitivity to the presentation of knowledge and artefacts.

“It was here that I really learnt about the power of memory and how we choose to encapsulate it. This drew me to artists that work with the memorialisation of personal, social and political history: Japan’s Motoi Yamamoto, in his work with memory and salt; China’s Ai Wei Wei, in his memorial Straight; South Africa’s Sethembile Msezane, in her work on living sculptures that stand for history’s truths.”

She says that in regard to sound, she has been greatly influenced by US composer John Cage in his theory and practice of the aleatoric: “This has been foundational in how I collect and compose sound. In my minimalism I’ve found myself influenced by artists such as Danish/Icelandic Olafur Eliason, Palestinian Mona Hautoum, and South African James Web.”

Her greatest influence, though, she say is being South African. “South Africa has taught me how to think, see, feel, empathise, act, love, communicate, make a plan, create something from nothing, and even mourn. It has pushed and pulled my life to its absolute heights, depths and re-forged me along the way.

“I don’t think I am alone in this feeling. Artists are shaped by their experiences. Our experience here in South Africa is layered with meaning, memory, struggle, and history and that reflects in our art-making: [how] we lived through the fall of apartheid and colonialism, the rise of Mandela and the Rainbow Nation, and especially now we negotiate our cultural mosaic.

“I believe our sensitivity to these issues translates into our visual and conceptual language, giving our work a tone of universality in a world changing with such strong diasporic forces.”

Burchell’s work, alongside that of other African artists, is not only groundbreaking but has a vitality often lacking at the present in art produced in the West. Burchell’s own singing stones, fusing the ancient with the modern, could be seen as a symbol for Africa.  NA

Written By
Beverly Andrews

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