The Charis­matic ‘Craftivist’

SLOW Magazine - - Contents - Text: Julie Gra­ham Im­ages © Ryan Ab­bott

Eclec­tica De­sign & Art in Cape Town are pur­vey­ors of iconic in­ter­na­tional and lo­cal de­sign, ex­hibit­ing the finest in con­tem­po­rary South African Art. One of their cur­rent artists is sculp­ture, tex­tile de­signer, and craft pro­fes­sional, Mark Raut­en­bach, who is not only an in­ter­est­ing artist, but also a hum­ble soul, con­sis­tently chal­leng­ing con­ven­tional ideas of ma­te­ri­al­ity, and work­ing with unique medi­ums in a range of unique and thought­pro­vok­ing ways. Orig­i­nally from Kwazu­lu­na­tal, this crafts­man ex­traor­di­naire now calls Cape Town home, but his art – and par­tic­u­larly his per­for­mances – has taken him all over the coun­try where he has utilised his works as ac­tivism (which has been re­ferred to as “craftivism”) to high­light im­por­tant so­cial is­sues fac­ing South Africa and get peo­ple from all walks of life in­volved in the con­ver­sa­tion. It was an ab­so­lute priv­i­lege sit­ting down with this ex­tra­or­di­nary artist at to find out more about his fas­ci­nat­ing cre­ative, so­cial, and spir­i­tual jour­ney.

Born in the 1960s in Pi­eter­mar­itzburg, Raut­en­bach found that art was some­thing that sim­ply emerged in his life from a very young age. It was a di­ver­sion from the cul­tural sit­u­a­tion he found him­self born into – one that didn’t gen­er­ally en­gage in art – and yet, for Raut­en­bach, it seemed like the most nat­u­ral thing in the world. His ap­ti­tude for draw­ing and creat­ing forms was ev­i­dent and though he would re­ceive af­fir­ma­tion for his cre­ations, he never quite

un­der­stood why it was con­sid­ered “good”. “It took a long time to grap­ple with this ques­tion,” he re­calls. “I am still grap­pling with it to­day!”

At eight-years-old, Raut­en­bach’s mother taught him to knit and this, un­be­knownst to him then, would be the ba­sis for most of his cre­ative endeavours in the fu­ture – par­tic­u­larly this so­cio-po­lit­i­cal “craftivism”. “I just loved it,” he re­calls fondly. “I loved that I could make things . . . There’s some­thing so mag­i­cal about it. You take this thread and you end up with a fab­ric that you can then shape and make forms and pat­terns with.”

Raut­en­bach was also faced with con­flict from a very young age. The is­sue around gen­der dur­ing a con­ser­va­tive time in the coun­try and the idea that “boys don’t knit” caused him to start ques­tion­ing all kinds of ide­olo­gies around gen­der, bi­ol­ogy, and sex­u­al­ity. This too would be­come a theme through­out his life as an artist and his de­sire to ex­press him­self and his views, and en­cour­age con­ver­sa­tions with the pub­lic. “I think it has al­ways been cen­tral to my work. Gen­der, and gen­der iden­tity. It has a lot to do with my gen­er­a­tion,” he says. “The 80s were all about gen­der bend­ing and ex­plor­ing that. Push­ing bound­aries and un­fix­ing def­i­ni­tions. I was very caught up with that and it’s been a very big part of my story. Chal­leng­ing all those pre­con­ceived ideas that we in­her­ited – this is how men be­have, this is how women be­have.”

Raut­en­bach at­tended the Univer­sity of Kwazulu-natal – as the first mem­ber of his fam­ily to at­tend a ter­tiary in­sti­tu­tion – and stud­ied Fine Art. Do­ing what­ever he could to evade the army, he threw him­self into his stud­ies and in­tro­duced knit­ting as his medium of choice from the start, de­spite ini­tial back­lash from his con­ser­va­tive lec­tur­ers. “It was only later, in my third or fourth year, that some out­side lec­tur­ers helped and told me that it was all right what I was do­ing, and I should con­tinue in that di­rec­tion,” he says. “It was af­firm­ing.”

After spend­ing some years mov­ing be­tween Jo­han­nes­burg and Dur­ban and de­vel­op­ing a suc­cess­ful fab­ric paint­ing and T-shirt print­ing busi­ness, Raut­en­bach moved to the Cape in 1998 where he was of­fered a job as a lec­turer at the Cape Tech­nikon (now the Cape Penin­sula Univer­sity of Tech­nol­ogy: CPUT). “It was a com­plete sur­prise. I had never seen my­self as a teacher,” he re­calls. “I handed my­self over to the teach­ing an­gel and let it guide me. It was quite mad and crazy but I got re­ally ex­cel­lent feed­back. Stu­dents say­ing things like, ‘You re­ally changed my life’ or ‘I ac­cessed stuff that I didn’t know I could’. It was magic.”

He left the tech­nikon after five years and con­tin­ued to work, do­ing de­sign shows across the coun­try and a show in Mex­ico. He was soon of­fered an­other po­si­tion teach­ing at Ab­bots Col­lege in Clare­mont,

Cape Town. “It was the most ter­ri­fy­ing thing ever,” he says. “I got away with mur­der at the tech. This was far more cor­po­rate.” While there, he be­gan grap­pling with his own spir­i­tual jour­ney, specif­i­cally the ide­olo­gies of Ti­betan Bud­dhism – some­thing that had sig­nif­i­cant mean­ing to him and the way he lived his life, and some­thing that this new cor­po­rate en­vi­ron­ment begged him to look at again. It was dur­ing this time, in 2009, that his art ca­reer re­ally started to take off.

“In 2009, I re­ally started us­ing art as a way of pro­cess­ing my stuff. Art, life, and per­for­mance all started blur­ring.” While teach­ing at the high school, Raut­en­bach did his own “per­for­mance” where he didn’t throw any­thing away for an en­tire year. Tak­ing re­spon­si­bil­ity for all his own junk – lit­er­ally and metaphor­i­cally – the artist be­gan com­post­ing and re­cy­cling, but found that he was still left with so much. “It all be­came raw ma­te­rial, raw mat­ter,” he re­calls. “It be­came a whole spir­i­tual, eth­i­cal thing of ok, I have to ad­here to spir­i­tual prin­ci­ples which artis­tic aes­thetic things can mir­ror.”

He goes on to say: “I just started bind­ing the mat­ter with coloured thread. It was in­ter­est­ing to work with be­cause I wasn’t in any way steer­ing what it would be­come, I just in­tu­itively worked with it and through the process, al­lowed the form to be. It’s all part of the Bud­dhist prin­ci­ples of ac­cep­tance and sur­ren­der.

All th­ese prin­ci­ples, and what I needed to gain within my­self, were re­flected in the art and that was just magic.” He went on to ex­hibit this col­lec­tion of work at Spier in the Cape Winelands with a col­lec­tion of artists creat­ing dys­func­tional artis­tic ob­jects with func­tional ma­te­rial – a bit like re­flect­ing the dys­func­tion in all of us.

After be­com­ing frus­trated with the ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem, Raut­en­bach left and de­cided he needed to work with some­thing that was so­cially en­gag­ing. Re­turn­ing to his favourite medium, knit­ting, he cre­ated what is ar­guably his most af­fect­ing per­for­mance piece yet. The Ed­u­ca­tor’s New Clothes (2014), in­spired by Ma­rina Abramović’s work The Artist Is Present, saw the artist creat­ing mat­ter with five years’ worth of pa­per he had ac­cu­mu­lated from work­ing in ed­u­ca­tion. He lit­er­ally cre­ated the nar­ra­tive him­self by tear­ing the pa­per into yarn – a pro­ce­dure he calls “men­di­ta­tions”: col­lect­ing, stitch­ing,

tear­ing, rolling, and knit­ting. He sat in pub­lic spa­ces and be­gan knit­ting. “It was com­pletely dis­arm­ing,” he says. “And peo­ple be­came de­fence­less. They ap­proached me. And asked ques­tions: ‘What are you do­ing?’ ‘I’m knit­ting ed­u­ca­tion doc­u­ment.’ ‘Why?’ ‘So that you would come to me and ask me that ques­tion and I can find out what your views are on ed­u­ca­tion.’

“I would give it straight back and that was the art­work. The work was a con­ver­sa­tion that car­ried on for a year. It was so ex­cit­ing.”

Raut­en­bach con­tin­ues to en­gage au­di­ences with his wide range of work. From “craftivism” to per­for­mance, to mak­ing daz­zling ob­jects with raw mat­ter – his work is a di­rect re­flec­tion on what the artist is go­ing through at any given time. His lat­est work, which can be viewed at Eclec­tica De­sign & Art Gallery in Cape Town, is ex­actly this. Work­ing with a com­pletely dif­fer­ent medium, he has cre­ated a se­ries of il­lu­sions that come from his own ex­pe­ri­ence of be­ing in a dark space and con­tact­ing the spirit world for guid­ance. A play on the eyes and a play on words with ti­tles such as This Is Not Holo­graphic – an art­work that ap­pears to be holo­graphic but on closer in­spec­tion is, in fact, a se­ries of pho­to­graphs of holo­graphs – Raut­en­bach’s work con­tin­ues to in­spire view­ers to ques­tion all kinds of as­pects of them­selves.

Raut­en­bach is cur­rently ex­hibit­ing in Dream Rift, Eclec­tica De­sign and Art’s cur­rent ex­hi­bi­tion.

For more info, visit Eclec­tica De­sign and Art’s web­site www.eclec­ti­cades­ig­nan­dart.co.za, email ad­min@eclec­ti­cades­ig­nan­dart.co.za, or call +27 21 422 0327.

Eclec­tica De­sign and Art is at 179 Buiten­gracht Street, Gar­dens, Cape Town.

[This is not a Land­scape] Deep in the Woods, polyester thread, cut archival print, cor­ru­gated card- board, acrylic ink, pa­per, glue, 64.5 x 88.56 cm, 2017.

[This is not] Holo­graphic, cut archival print, MDF, polyester thread, glue, 106.5 x 76.5 cm, 2017.

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