Pioneering the Art of Print and Paper
Johannesburg-based Bevan de Wet is a contemporary artist who works predominantly with etching, linocut, monotype, and screen printing. His striking, thoughtful work, renowned for its figurative take on the human body and identity, has resulted in his becoming known as one of Joburg’s most prolific creatives. He was also the winner of the esteemed ABSA L’atelier Merit Award in 2014.
De Wet’s more recent work sees the bold artist completely reinvent himself by moving away from high-precision print-making and dynamic ink abstracts. His insight into what comes from abandoning that which we know in favour of something new speaks of his creative genius. The move is also sparking wide-spread attention and resulted in the massive success of his most recent solo exhibition, New Forms: A Study of Broken Parallels, which took place at the Candice Berman Gallery in Bryanston, Johannesburg, in July and August this year.
De Wet’s passion for art and technical drawing led him to enrol in a college for graphic design, but soon found that it wasn’t hands-on enough for him. So he went on to study fine art at Rhodes University in Grahamstown where he excelled, graduating with a distinction in 2008. He spent the next few years as an artist, print technician, collaborator, and academic facilitator at the
Artist Proof Studio in Johannesburg where he worked with renowned artists such as Gerhard Marx, William Kentridge, Norman Catherine, and Doris Bloom. He is currently a full-time artist and works primarily with paper, exploring and constantly playing and experimenting with the medium.
SLOW caught up with De Wet recently while he was in Ireland with six other South African artists and a writer completing an arts residency in the small, rural Cill Rialaig Arts Centre. In between a very productive few weeks on this misty edge of Western Europe, he spoke more about his work.
SLOW: As mentioned, your work is primarily done on paper using mostly etching, relief printing, papermaking, and more recently, paper folding methods. Can you take us through the journey of finding these mediums and techniques?
Bevan de Wet (BW): When I was younger I used to draw a lot, often with ballpoint pen. When I first started etching at art school, I felt like I’d found my ideal medium. I think what I love most about etching is that there are virtually endless approaches to working. There is so much flexibility in the way you can express an image, and it’s very much process-based, building up layer by layer. Conversely, relief printing (linocut or woodcut) felt very basic to me initially – like there was only really one way of doing things. Over time and with a lot of
experimenting, I’ve started changing my approach to it, often using it in combination with monotypes or working with multiple or reductive plates. I’m now much more excited by it and by what I’m discovering currently. The main thing about relief printing is that sometimes a very simple and basic image can be quite bold and powerful.
More recently, I’ve started looking at paperbased processes as an art form in itself.
Currently I’m working on a large body of unique paper works for an installation. The paper folding has come out of this interest in engaging more closely with paper as a medium or artwork. I started making some basic origami works but soon rejected that, and threw myself into the deep end by making some very large and ambitious folded paper works, mostly figuring it out as I go along.
SLOW: Can you take us through your creative process from idea to the final product?
BW: It varies depending on the work or the project. Sometimes the best work happens simply by playing, experimenting, and exploring something in a new and different way. But basically, from an initial concept, I would make a drawing or some kind of collage from photos I’ve taken, then draw that onto a plate to start carving or etching. The image that’s first drawn on is often reworked or revisited numerous times, and a lot of the exciting stuff comes
out in the moment and in the process. I’m learning that the less you try and force, the more honest the work is and the more interesting the results can be. Sometimes the process can become quite laborious so it can often take months from starting a work to finishing it. I find I’m generally working on a dozen things at once.
SLOW: A lot of your work concentrates on history, identity, and exploring the notions of displacement and belonging. Can you explain how this came to be an important theme to you and why you feel it is a necessary theme for audiences to pay attention to?
BW: I think all artists work with identity in some way. As a South African, I am aware that my culture and lineage traces from multiple places, mostly Europe, and I was exploring how that influences my own sense of belonging in a place which is quite far removed from those ancestries. I’m interested in how my current place relates
to that, and how I became aware of this sense of alienation from that. Many of my figurative works use anthropomorphism and hybridity to begin creating a new, and quite fictional, mythological narrative to express this sense of displacement. With current conversations around space, belonging, displacement, and xenophobia, I feel the work is trying to encourage people to engage with these concerns.
SLOW: You describe your latest work as “interrogating the body more as a concept of space, working with landscape and exploring land itself as a body”. Can you explain how the use of the human form is important to both yourself and viewers?
BW: The human form in art is a very relatable thing. It becomes a mirror on the world and can give the viewer a sense of familiarity, or discomfort. Currently I’m trying to explore the body more in a broader sense, in the sense that water is also a body, as is land. I had explored the surface of the body as a site for contesting identity, and also using the surface as a space that could be mapped. My practice is currently shifting to move this almost topographic mapping of the body to a sense of mapping a landscape, a space which extends beyond an individual or personal identity.
De Wet is currently preparing a selection of new works for the South African Fine Art Print Fair in Johannesburg, which runs from 27 to 29 October 2017. He is also currently completing a body of large handmade paper works (about 120 in total) which will be exhibited in a few forms early in 2018. He will be taking part in a few more group shows around Johannesburg this year, and will be exhibiting some work at an upcoming exhibition in Dublin. Watch this space!
For more info, visit www.gunsandrain.com.
Study 20 (Self portrait as Bird), etching, 30.5 x 25 cm, 2014.
Study 17 (Bird Man), etching, 25 x 31 cm, 2014.
Untitled (from the Equilux series), collage embedded in handmade paper, 172 x 62 cm ea, 2017.
Study 8 (Rara Avis), etching, 25.5 x 21.5 cm, 2014.