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South African artist, Karlien de Villiers has proven herself to be a versatile and dynamic practitioner that’s equally comfortable in a variety of artistic expressions, whether in sequential graphics or looser forms of painting and printmaking. She has exhibited widely in both South Africa and Europe and is currently in the process of completing her second graphic novel, Die Wildevroue, which will be released in France this year. ComicArtAfrica’s Su Opperman decided to find out more.
The abbreviated version of this interview appeared in the September issue of ComicArtAfrica, a sister publication of ART AFRICA that ran as an internal supplement in the inaugural issue, ‘Becoming African.’
AA INTERVIEW Karlien de VilliersKarlien De Villiers in her studio (Center). All artworks by Karlien De Villiers, courtesy of the artist.
When it comes to making graphic novels in South Africa, there’s a definitive lack of female representation. Karlien de Villiers is a clear exception. Initially, a part of the Bitterkomix publication from 1997-98, she moved on to complete her first full length graphic novel, My Mother was a Beautiful Woman. First published in Switzerland, it has been translated into German, French, Spanish and Italian and was received with wide acclaim at the Fumetto International Comics Festival in 2006.
Su Opperman: From a personal perspective, why choose art?
Karlien de Villiers: I don’t believe that I was ‘predestined’ to become an artist – I also wanted to become a forensic pathologist or a journalist or a historian, but I chose art instead. That said, since childhood, mark-making has been a type of ritual for me, a part of survival – I am quite lost if I can’t scratch a mark or a drawing into something, and there is also a type of violence in making your mark on an object or a piece of paper… as a kid my mother took away my pencils and crayons after I drew all over the walls, curtains and furniture, and I ended up making carvings into the wood of my bed with a kitchen knife.
So, drawing has always been a type of coping mechanism and communication for me, and a lot of recurring images in my work come from quite a subconscious, emotional/symbolic place that I can’t really put into words.
Your first graphic novel Meine Mutter war eine schöne Frau (My Mother was a Beautiful Woman), published in 2006, deals with the death of your mother against the backdrop of Apartheid South Africa in the 1970s – 80s. Why the focus on autobiography or family biography?
I initially started writing my first book as a personal visual journal without even thinking of publication at the time. As a child, I never really talked about my mother’s death and by working on this book I was able to remember her and say goodbye. I set out to remember and understand my own past, not to excuse anyone – not even myself. It also allowed me to get away from the idealised image that I had built of my mother – to see her more realistically. More than twenty years after her death, I could accept her faults and our political differences.
Beyond the history of my family, I wanted to reflect on my relatively carefree, mundane childhood from inside the “belly of the beast” – i.e. a private suburban drama that took place against the backdrop of a very absurd and grotesque political situation. However, delving into the recent South African past was fraught with more ambivalence than I bargained for.
Although my main objective was to make sense of the events surrounding the untimely death of my mother in 1987, it soon became clear to me that salvaging childhood memories from a white South African past involved saving my own little story from drowning. The narrative became an attempt to understand my identity on an intimate and personal level as well as viewing it as a small narrative within the larger historical narrative; as Milosz said in The Witness of Poetry, “…we apprehend the human condition with pity and terror not in the abstract but always in relation to a given place and time, in one particular province, one particular country.”
Do you think that life can be reshaped by recollection? By what is omitted or included in a narrative, whether consciously or subconsciously? Were you aware of any such occurrences while in the process of completing  My Mother was a Beautiful Woman?
I would say that the instability of memory is an innate quality of the autobiographic novel – the impossibility of creating any accurate account of a life or self-histories. When recreating a life by illustrating and writing a graphic novel, the process is not only mediated by conscious memory but in equal measure by hidden memories that reside in the unconscious and store a personal history of self, life, world and experiences.
While working on my first graphic novel I started with what I thought was the ‘correct’ version of my memories (by piecing together bits of recollections, stories and events), but consequently I quickly became aware of the ‘instability’ of my memories, their fluidity and volatility. Many ‘facts’ eventually changed shape in the written narrative, many events were omitted for the sake of dramatisation and other incidents were heightened or emphasised.
Even when one works with autobiography, the moment that you start drawing the narrative – with stylised characters, edited dialogue, compositional constraints etc. –  everything is mediated through a fictional lens and it becomes a work of invention. Therefore, in the final printed book that was published, what was the ‘real’ truth or sequence of events became irrelevant, as the writing process confronted me with the fragmentation of memory, the instability of notions of truth and accuracy or certainty, and so forth – and in the end it only matters whether the story and characters are believable/authentic to a reader or not.
AA INTERVIEW Karlien de Villiers2Left: Karlien De Villiers, Drenkeling (Drowning Man) (2014). Monoprint on paper (1/1), 41 x 29cm. Right: Karlien De Villiers, Lammervanger (The Truant Officer) (2014). Monoprint on paper (1/1). 41 x 29cm
We all know that getting anything published isn’t easy, what went through your head when you found out that your first book was rated the second best seller at the Fumetto International Comics Festival in Luzern in 2006?
I was rather nervous and surprised that so many strangers would be interested in my story.  
Do you feel that the strong autobiographical tendencies expressed in your graphic novels are also found in your fine art output? Even if your artistic expression can be construed as more abstract when it comes to fine art forms of image making than that of sequential art?
To a certain extent, yes, but maybe less overtly so. I do think there are common threads between the work I make when I paint and draw freely vs. the more stylised images of a longer comic narrative. For example, the stylistic choices I make when working on a graphic novel of over 140 pages often has a lot to do with consistency, characterisation and clarity of reading.
An exhibition of paintings and drawings is also a narrative, with some autobiographic content, but the subject matter/stories are more layered or hidden and they function slightly differently in relation to each other and as individual works. I often don’t want to ‘explain’ these works as I like the ambiguity and possibilities for varied readings, whereas in a graphic novel there are other forces at work; you are dealing with characters, plot, timing, sequence, emotions, dialogue – what you show in the images and what you say (or don’t say) in the text is equally important and requires constant writing, re-writing, re-drawing and editing.
My paintings and paper works are more intuitive, spontaneous and expressive and the process often involves fishing in the murky waters of the subconscious without knowing what will reveal itself.
You’re a versatile artist with the ability to comfortably express yourself across a broad spectrum of creative disciplines. When comparing sequential art to other fine art forms of image-making, what aspects do find the most challenging in each instance and where do you think the biggest differences lie when it comes to getting your concept across?
I am quite comfortable working with individual fine art pieces, as well as with comics and sequential narratives. They are rather different practices, but they do inform each other in many ways.
When working on a graphic novel or comic strip, I really have to think very hard about the combination of image and text, as it is the tension between the words and images that communicate on many different levels (in comparison to having ‘only’ text or ‘only’ images). The work involved in completing on a graphic novel or comic book is much more time-consuming and strenuous for me. When working on a series of fine art pieces for an exhibition, I tend to spend less time thinking about structure and I work more from an impulsive gut feeling.
With a graphic novel I have to work more strategically and write and plan a longer storyline so that all the threads (plot, character development etc.) come together seamlessly as well as trying to achieve a fine balance between visual and textual storytelling – it’s closer to filmmaking in a way, as you need to have a more or less clear vision of where you want to take the characters, what makes each character ‘tick,’ and what emotional journey/experience you want your readers to have.

Your second graphic novel Die Wildevroue (Les Femmes Sauvages) will be released this year. From what I’ve seen, you’ve decided to include your fine art aesthetics into this book. Why the switch between drawing styles?
Actually, the predominant drawing style of Die Wildevroue is quite similar to that of my first book, which French critics call a ligne claire style (French for “clear line”). This ensures a distinct visual link between the two books. In certain situations, where a reader needs to make an imaginative leap between reality, dream, imagination and fact, I did use elements of a looser, more spontaneous watercolour drawing-style that can be traced to my so-called ‘fine art’ work.
Throughout the overall narrative, I maintained a consistent clear-line style with a few intermittent stylistic breaks that will force a reader to stop, re-read or re-think a particular sequence and, in doing so, gain a different insight into the character’s emotional state or being.  Formally, I tried to use stylistic breaks only when necessitated by the story and I integrated elements of the dominant (clear-line) drawing style with the other more expressive one, and vice versa – a small element like a tree or a person in the background, for example – to make the stylistic and symbolic jumps more effortless to a reader.
Admittedly, there are some instances where one wants the reader to ‘struggle’ a bit, in order to feel and experience events with the characters. Reading a graphic novel doesn’t have to be effortless.
AA INTERVIEW Karlien de Villiers Die Wildevroue

Karlien De Villiers, Image from Die Wildevroue (2015). Ink, gesso and watercolour on paper, 26 x 36cm.

In comparing Die Wildevroue with My Mother was a Beautiful Woman, what lessons have you applied this time around to make this labour-intensive process a little bit easier for yourself?
I wish I had a better answer than this, but in many ways I think I made it even more difficult for myself the second time around – clearly I don’t learn from my mistakes!
With my first book, drawing pages 1-20 was an agonising process; I doubted every drawing and hated every page and often tore up pages after I’d drawn them… and then after page 50 it became almost effortless and I finished it in one go. In contrast, the second book is taking me much longer to complete than the first, mostly due to changes in my personal life such as juggling a full-time job, family life with two small kids and working on exhibitions with galleries. This means that I struggle to find uninterrupted blocks of time to focus. When I completed my first book, I was (mostly) an unemployed student and my time was my own, which meant I spent a lot more time fretting. I don’t have that luxury now, so when I have some time available to draw, I have to work.
Tell us a little bit more about Die Wildevroue – why did you choose this narrative?
I’ve always had a keen interest in history, human relationships and the telling of the ‘small’, personal stories that are often lost in mainstream historical writing. Die Wildevroue is a term which has a specific historical root in South Africa; during the Anglo-Boer war Afrikaner women who were never captured by the British were called die wildevroue as they often fought commando alongside the men, left their homes and survived by living in the veld.
However, the novel is set in the present,with references to the past, as the main character’s great-grandmother was one of die wildevroue. Of course being a ‘wild woman’ also has other stereotypical cultural and sexual connotations which is something the novel explores through the main character’s struggles against convention, and also deals with her coming of age during the ‘90s in South Africa; relationships, marriage, motherhood and sexuality amongst other topics.
What constraints, if any, has your publisher placed on you in order to make this book commercially viable?
My publisher has been very supportive and completely open towards any stylistic choice I wanted to make for this book, and we discussed several different aesthetic options while I was working on the manuscript. He did advise me (given his knowledge and experience of the public and readership in France) that certain stylistic choices may result in the book being categorised as a niche or marginal publication versus choosing an aesthetic which would be more accessible to a wider audience. In the end I made a formal decision to use a drawing style that suited my publisher and me, without compromising on my artistic integrity or freedom. That’s as good as it gets with a publisher, really.
Why do you think comics/graphic novels are predominantly not thought of as literature in South Africa? Do you think this is changing?
A lot of the local perception about comics and graphic novels has to do with exposure and availability. You don’t walk around in Cape Town and see bookshops dedicated to selling comics, graphic novels and picture books from different genres like Lambiek in Amsterdam or Forbidden Planet in London and New York, for example, who sell everything from graphic memoirs, literary graphic novels, action comics, superhero comics, adult comics, children’s comics, manga, figurines and merchandise. It’s also a cultural thing – in France, people grow up with a very wide variety of comics, graphic novels and BD (Bande Dessinée) and it’s as much part of the reading culture as any other type of literature or media.
There are also more publishers in Europe (and Japan and the US) who specialise in picture books, comics and graphic novels, and there are many international comic festivals, such as the Angouleme Festival in France, the Fumetto Festival in Luzern or the Seattle Comic Con that promote this medium. The general public is also more aware of comics and graphic novels as a popular and potentially serious form of literature.
As an artist, what’s your greatest criticism of yourself?
I tend to feel stagnant quite quickly and, to compensate, I try to pursue/push new possibilities with everything I make. Falling into a comfort zone is easy and can become boring and repetitive. I don’t think I always succeed in this and it’s possible to view my work as somewhat schizophrenic, as I don’t focus on ‘just’ one thing.
Any new projects you’re working on? If so, do tell.
For now, finishing the last twenty pages or so of my book is keeping me completely occupied. When that is done (and after taking a small break) I will begin working on a new series of drawings, paintings and sculptures for a future solo show. And maybe a children’s book or two – who knows?
The abbreviated version of this interview appeared in the September issue of ComicArtAfrica, a sister publication of ART AFRICA that ran as an internal supplement in the inaugural issue, ‘Becoming African.’

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