Bronwyn Katz has been a name to watch in the art world for a number of years now. But this month, her work is part of the New Museum's 5th annual Triennial, elevating the 28-year-old South African artist even more so.
Not far from where Bronwyn Katz was born, in Kimberley, South Africa, lies a petroglyph site called Driekopseiland.' It's been a source of fascination for the artist, who's interested in languages and land, and how they both carry history in their own way. She first started exploring these themes, and how they change with the past and present — construction and deconstruction — using a worn mattress. It soon became a recurring feature of her work, and through installation, sculpture, video, and performance, Katz seeks to imbue old, familiar pieces with new meaning.
It's earned her acclaim around the world, including a spot on the shortlist for the biannual Future Generation Art Prize. Katz has exhibited at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris and White Cube Bermondsey in London, along with group exhibitions in Johannesburg, Mauritius, and Senegal. She revisits the idea of Driekopseiland in her newest work, Xãe, which is currently on show at the New Museum in New York, as part of their 5th annual Triennial.
Located in the bed of the Riet River, the rock engravings at 'Driekopseiland' are believed by local communities to have been made to appease the river as part of rituals asking for rain. Inspired by this, Katz created Xãe out of pot scourers and steel wool -- everyday cleaning items that embody a different resonance in this context.
"Initially, I was really interested in 'matjieshuis,'" she tells OkayAfrica, over the phone from Cape Town, where she lives. The word refers to the Nama huts constructed by using an old technique where the women of each tribe would bend and weave reed pieces into homes around the Northern Cape. They are a symbol of the land before any development or colonialism took place. "I was thinking of structures that are temporal and made to move, and that adapt to the conditions around it. The 'matjieshuis' was the first idea, and then I, in my thinking, connected that idea to a previous work that I'd made in a 2019 exhibition, called X. The exhibition was largely around this creole language that I was beginning to form, or that I began to identity-forming in my work," she says.
Bronwyn Katz's Xãe is a series of totem-like poles made from deconstructed steel wool and wire.Image courtesy of Bronwyn Katz
She took the ideas and melded them together, to build on a structure that is movable and fluid and changing, like language itself. Xãe is a series of totem-like poles made from deconstructed steel wool and wire -- again playing with Katz' focus on materials and land carrying residual information from past experiences.
"My dad worked as a welder, and he fostered my interest in metals and in making things," she says. "I am interested in how hard metals can also be quite attractive. Soft metals too." Through Xãe, the materials used to make it are transformed from only being coarse and abrasive to also being flexible and fine.
"The word Xãe has multiple meanings," she says. "It means to swell, to blow, or even to marry. What interests me about the 'matjieshuis' is its flexibility. It adapts to weather and the times because of the woven reeds it's made from. In times of rain, the reeds swell to keep the inhabitants dry; in times of heat, the reeds swivel up so wind can come into the house. So Xãe is like a moveable house that adapts to a situation."
Katz' piece makes her one of forty artists from around the world to be featured as part of this year's New Museum Triennial. The theme, "Soft Water Hard Stone," brings together artists who, through their work, create subtle acts of resistance and defiance, and, in doing so, show, essentially, the power of perseverance. The theme takes its title from the Brazilian proverb, 'Água mole em pedra dura, tanto bate até que fura' (Soft water on hard stone hits until it bores a hole). It speaks to the idea that slow and steady movement can have a great impact over time. For Katz, this has been an enduring element of her work since she began making art.
"It's thinking about little freedoms," she says. "We have to start somewhere and build onto that." Katz saw this play out while studying at the University of Cape Town. "When I began studying it was, like, 'Rhodes Must Fall,' 'Fees Must Fall,' and understanding little freedoms or small steps in that context is, for example, asking for a symbol to be removed, which becomes asking for decolonization, which becomes decolonizing education, which becomes, at the same time, asking for free education. So, without what came before that, like, schools being inclusive and the fall of apartheid, there's no way to ask for what we had been asking for then. So, little freedoms in that sense. With each generation, we get to ask for more."
She continues: "But at the same time, I think things are so urgent that it's easy to feel defeated by this idea of tomorrow, you know? So both are important -- things are immediate, but also that it's fine to have patience, a hope that, in time, things get better for all of us."
This feeds further into the idea behind Xãe, and how Katz had been talking to the New Museum curators about the theme. "One aspect of the phrase is the idea of all of these colonial structures being immovable, and also, imposing of power. And that sort of sparked my thinking of the 'matjieshuis,' that it was a movable structure. That it's a flexible structure." Movable, fluid, changing with its people's needs — in making her art, Katz gives us a model for what true democracy should be.