Finishing: South African artist Kevin Brand with elements of a sculpture. His works play with the idea of being unfinished as well as with assembling and disassembling. His new work, Janjaweed, will be exhibited in Cape Town later in January. Picture: GAVIN ELDER
Finishing: South African artist Kevin Brand with elements of a sculpture. His works play with the idea of being unfinished as well as with assembling and disassembling. His new work, Janjaweed, will be exhibited in Cape Town later in January. Picture: GAVIN ELDER

Although highly creative and imaginative, artist Kevin Brand is not given to sudden flights of fancy. But in an about turn, out of sync with his profile, he says of his new incarnation: "I will never [again] be disparaging about people who talk about this vision that came to them in the night.

The sudden shift of attitude must be laid squarely at the foot of his latest sculpture installation titled Janjaweed. Much about the sculpture, particularly its synchronicity, is, if not mysterious, then curious and slightly at odds with the everyday.

"I don’t want to sound religious, but this thing just told me how it should be done. I literally woke up and then it came through me," Brand says.

The eight-piece sculpture installation (Janjaweed is Arabic for "devils on horseback") is loosely based on a drawing by a Sudanese child aged between 11 and 12 years. It expresses the child’s experience of being caught in the conflict between the Janjaweed militia and the villagers of Darfur in 2005.

The components are elevated on low, irregular-shaped plinths fashioned from recycled wooden strips. Janjaweed includes eight human figures: some on camels, a soldier type figure on a horse and armed with an assault rifle, two figures engaged in an altercation and two further figures.

The drawing came into Brand’s consciousness through a newspaper clipping. It was one of a number by Sudanese children illustrating conflict.

In 2006, a group of Sudanese children was given paper and crayons to occupy themselves while journalists interviewed their parents.

A caption under a drawing in the newspaper reads: "This child’s drawing shows the Janjaweed attacking a village on camels. A woman flings her arms into the air as she is targeted for rape or execution. A soldier takes a woman to
be raped. She has a cellphone and ‘wants to call the agencies for help’."

Janjaweed has two iterations: the work as a whole and the work as a dissembled piece. Ironically, given its context, it can be likened to a Kinder Joy, a children’s chocolate egg containing toy components that require assembly.

One of Brand’s major challenges lay in how to tackle the two aspects of assembling and disassembling. To the rescue came film-maker Gavin Elder, who solved the problem with stop-frame film animation.

Elder asked Brand to assemble the sculpture and filmed with a stop-frame animation technique, while Brand disassembled it. The effect is an articulation from wholeness to a field littered with scattered carnage. It’s as if the blue exterior has been peeled back to show the intimate bloom of a wound or the red associated with interior organs.

One of Brand’s signature marks is his masterful ability to reassemble disparate, unexpected elements into a whole. There is something of the trickster archetype in his modus operandi that encourages us to look at our world anew.

This approach peaks in Janjaweed. The contradictory or paradoxical evident in much of Brand’s work extends to the finish of the sculpture. At first glance, it appears unfinished in keeping with that of a child’s drawing. But this is deceptive. The sculpture only alludes to being unfinished. It is, in fact, beautifully finished.

For all intents and purposes, the installation was regarded complete by Brand when it was placed in the studio to be filmed. But the unanticipated arrived via the studio floor, adding an unexpected dimension.

Brand’s work is often concerned with those at risk in society

Because of its scuffed quality and the lines created by the delineation of its floorboards, Brand recognised the floor as the worn graph paper on which the child’s drawing was made.

The Cape Town Holocaust Centre, designated for the exhibition of Janjaweed, posed a problem as it was carpeted. Brand solved this by making a temporary floor. Brand ran a saw over white floor boards, scoring millimetre-thick lines. For a scuffed look, he placed the boards in his work passages where there is heavy human traffic. So the floor became an essential element of the work.

This year is the 80th anniversary of the bombing of the Basque town Guernica in April 1937. Hundreds of civilians, mainly women and children, were killed and wounded in saturation bombing by German planes in support of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco.

The author of The World of Picasso, Lael Wertenbaker, wrote "never before in modern warfare had noncombatants been slaughtered in such numbers, and by such means".

Picasso’s Guernica has been used as an anti-war symbol from the 1960s to contemporary times. According to art historian Simon Schama, Guernica "instructs us in the obligations of being human". The same could be said of Brand’s Janjaweed, which could be read as a child’s Guernica.

Picasso and Brand were both inspired by a newspaper clipping. Picasso was living in Paris as a self-imposed exile from Spain and so heard of Guernica through the print media.

Brand has produced similar works, including 19 Boys Running (1988), in response to the 1985 Uitenhage massacre in SA; Here XVII (1995) alludes to the name for the Dutch East India Company and comments on the nature of colonisation and big corporations; and Pieta (1996), a pixelated black-and-white mosaic (originally attached to a wall of the Castle of Good Hope) of school pupil Hector Pieterson taken in 1976 by photographer Sam Nzima.

Brand graduated from Michaelis School of Fine Art with other well-known artists such as Brett Murray, Angela Ferreira, Oliver Schmitz, Nicolaas Maritz and the late Barend de Wet. In his early 60s, there’s something boyish about him. He says he likes "tying the dog loose", is able to "tolerate anybody" and considers himself as "quite old-fashioned" and "having values".

Brand has exhibited internationally and his work has been awarded. He says that he’d love to have done art full time, but couldn’t. "I chose very early on not to do art full time because I needed a job," he explains.

"I come from quite a poor family and I needed to pay the bills. If you have children, you have to educate them. These things were important to me."

He also says that his installations "weren’t very sellable. The nice thing is people saw them and liked them, and this gave me a bit of credibility."

Brand’s work is often concerned with those at risk in society. It is children, whether historically, as in the boy victims of the 1985 Uitenhage massacre, the death of Pieterson in 1976 or, more currently, the drowned Syrian toddler refugee and kidnapped Boko Haram girls.

"By and large, children are always victims and manipulated," he says. Brand’s interpretation of the child is particularly influenced by the depiction of the child in the German Romantic tradition, where the child is "sublime" and is seen as able to "do no wrong".

The Janjaweed exhibition opens on January 28 at the Cape Town Holocaust Centre, the day after International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Brand’s work is perfectly placed as the centre also houses drawings of child victims of pogroms and concentration camps.

For bookings and RSVPs to Kevin Brand’s Janjaweed opening on January 28 at the Cape Town Holocaust Centre, 88 Hatfield Street, Cape Town, please e-mail admin@holocaust.org.za.

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