The Charismatic ‘Craftivist’
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 firstname.lastname@example.org, 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.