Big hair: Hannelie Coetzee’s latest work, a commissioned 10-storey-high creation on a Braamfontein building, comprises ceramic plates. Picture: HANNELIE COETZEE
Big hair: Hannelie Coetzee’s latest work, a commissioned 10-storey-high creation on a Braamfontein building, comprises ceramic plates. Picture: HANNELIE COETZEE

Recognition of the value of public art by her adopted city, Johannesburg, has excited contemporary artist Hannelie Coetzee.

Coetzee likes to make her mark — spectacularly.

The most visible of her works is the recently unveiled The Ndzundza/Nzunza Portrait (the alternative spellings come from the nearby community), commissioned by City Property.

Her hair-inspired 10-storey artwork hangs on 28 Melle Street, Braamfontein. "I’m grateful to people in the property market who have become patrons of the arts," she says.

All Coetzee’s projects start with research and this commission came at the end of 2017, giving her time to play around with ideas. She visited Melle Street to discover what had happened there in the past, her richest vein of source material.

Coetzee says she questions the purpose of art as a mere commentary on societal ills and prefers using it to participate in life, solve problems, connect people and ignite dialogues.

She teams up with either scientists, architects or other experts who might help with her inquiries, but then her personal narrative also filters through into the artworks.

She realised that the Ndzundza/Nzunza Ndebele woman featured in this colossal work lived on the Highveld at the same time the first Coetzee arrived at the Cape.

To get to the heart and soul of creating the work, she discovered young architect Tshilidzi Mavhunga, who thinks and works in cities.

"It’s all about making cities healthier," Coetzee notes, and this is a big priority for an artist who taps into historical ecology to find possible solutions for some of the problems of today.

Mavhunga had done a master’s thesis that dealt with hair salon designs in the Joburg CBD and informed Coetzee how this would affect the environment.

And Coetzee’s wife, Réney Warrington (a curator, novelist and film critic), gave her the book Forgotten World by Alex Schoeman et al.

She used ceramic plates in this astonishing work to create a picture that will be seen from a distance and speak to the community that lives there.

What she discovered in Forgotten World was that Swazi and Basotho patterns had been found in the Ndzundza/Nzunza pottery patterns.

Archaeologist Schoeman and his co-authors had found in pottery remnants and through oral history that the Ndzundza/ Nzunza embrace a cultural diversity that included other ethnic groups. "Much like Johannesburg today," Coetzee says, adding that this was one of the reasons she lost her heart to Jozi.

Mavhunga also brought a group of Instagrammers to her attention. Their photos of trendy hairstyles inspired her to research old and new styles. The visual impact of Coetzee’s work will resonate with vigour and lead to the sharing of stories.

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