UNDER CHERRY WOOD
GENNA GARDINI SPEAKS TO THE WINNER OF THE 2009 MICHAELIS PRIZE AND THE 2010 SPIER CONTEMPORARY PRIZE, CHRISTOPHER SWIFT AFTER HIS FIRST SOLO SHOW.
“It was always in the back of my mind that someone would tell me ‘You can’t do that because you’re white’, Christopher Swift says, standing at the entrance to his first solo exhibition, Umlungu. I arrive at Commune.1, a new gallery on Cape Town’s Wale Street, for an informal walkabout through the show, and find the artist, who just one day later would sell two works to the drummer of Coldplay, waiting in the passage. He’s wearing shorts and a t-shirt with the image of a tie printed on it, one hand grasping a copy of Tretchikoff’s autobiography Pigeon’s Luck, the other stroking his golden lab, Kango. Rays from the gallery’s skylight, an adjustment made by owner Greg Dale to accommodate one of Swift’s ceiling-scraping pieces, beam around him as I crack a joke about the book (he is married to Tretchikoff’s granddaughter). It turns out the volume’s just been returned by Mrs L’Ange, another member of the small tour, whose husband Gerald L’Ange, also present, is the author of The White Africans: From Colonisation to Liberation (2009). I’ve heard Swift describe this book before as integral to the way that he thought about the country and to the making of Umlungu. Swift says that it helped him in “trying to be more open to understanding my own experience, but also that of my fellow Africans.”
Swift is almost disarmingly sincere. Speaking about his work he explains that it was his intention for it to resonate with people on very clear, different levels, to make it palatable for both “the general public and the art world”. He continues, “It’s difficult because you want to open the work up to the public, but you also run the risk of being criticised through your own peer review system. So it operates on levels.” It’s only once you see the pieces, mostly constructed out of discarded materials that Swift found on dumps and in industrial areas, that the movement between his various themes becomes clear. That the works in Umlungu are concerned with what Andries Botha, in the foreword to the exhibition catalogue, calls “a particular intonation of whiteness that is rooted exotically but substantially in the Southern African soil” is clear from the exhibition’s title: Umlungu is a derogatory term meaning white man (although, as Natasha Norman notes in the interview with Swift in the catalogue, “in contemporary Cape Town ‘hipster’ circles it now has a kind of street smartness to it, an irony.”)
That they speak to environmental concerns is apparent, too: trees are a recurrent symbol in the show, as is Swift’s loaded use of stone pine, a light-coloured wood, (and, less frequently, the darker cherry wood) to fashion them. Swift’s personal life is also, occasionally, invoked: in The Bridge, a structure made mostly of decommissioned Cape Town Electricity ladders stretching from one window to another but stopping just short of joining them, his wedding ring bobs, suspended in the middle.
Considering audience responses to the show, he says, “I think that usually, with contemporary art, the general public doesn’t feel like they can access it. But with kids, you ask them ‘What do you think this means?’ and they read the label and then have a go. They’re not afraid to make mistakes.” This regard for the responses of young people makes sense, considering that Swift works as an art teacher at Reddam House.
He was already thirty-two when he began his undergraduate studies at UCT’s Michaelis School of Fine Art, after a career in advertising that had taken him overseas. He explains that although he had left school initially wanting to pursue art, he’d felt compelled to pick a field where he felt he could make a living from his creativity. “I believe all people are born creative,” he says, “and that we’re taught out of it as the education system prepares you for a certain pragmatic outcome.” Returning to tertiary education more than a decade on, made “one thing very clear to me, as a mature student going to Michaelis: that the importance of the curious mind that you have in your twenties is about exposing yourself to the world and then reacting to it. Thinking about how I went through things at that age, I realised that the way I’d made decisions had radically changed. So the curiosity and open-mindedness of people younger than me was an enormous additive and refreshment to the way that I thought.” During his time at art school, Swift’s focus was always on becoming an educator. He tells an anecdote about a Scottish artist staying at his Abalone Guest House during Swift’s second year at Michaelis, who told him, “You’re not a teacher who’s also an artist, you’re an artist who’s also a teacher.” Two years later, Swift won the coveted Michaelis prize, an internal award given out after the UCT Michaelis School of Fine Art’s annual graduate show. The next year he continued his streak: he was one of the winners of Spier Contemporary 2010, receiving a cash prize for his work Dreamcatcher. Swift made the sculpture from 4000 black condoms, the legacy of a botched and fairly undocumented arms deal between South Africa and Germany that was meant to result in a condom factory being built in the Eastern Cape. Dreamcatcher spun its way out of a corner of City Hall, the black condom mesh of its middle suggesting a suspicious sort of give, bracing itself like a prophylactic trampoline. Swift explains that he changed the name at the last minute after seriously considering calling the piece Veni, Vidi, Vici (I Came, I Saw, I Conquered).
Later in 2010, Swift exhibited his outdoor public sculpture, Nelson’s Column (Ghost) outside the entrance to the Robben Island Getaway as part of the group show Time on Our Hands. Swift wrought the seven-metre-high installation piece out of 216 sections of the original fencing that enclosed Robben Island, one for each month that Mandela was detained at Robben Island. When asked how he managed to get permission to use the fencing, Swift answers that it was just a case of finding it and being willing to physically collect it himself. He seems to revel in the scrounging aspect of collecting materials: Umlungu’s King Protea is made from a series of dry-stacked shelving units salvaged from Dick’s Wholesale Fabrics. A found school-desk, inkwell intact, juts from the top of The Magic Far Away Tree. Glass Tree (after Pierneef ) is a collection of slicing slats of abandoned shower doors. “For myself, it’s about being exposed to and reusing a whole lot of material, refuse material and industrial material.” Swift shrugs, “You know what they say about one man’s waste and another man’s treasure.”
Genna Gardini is the staff writer and online editor of Art South Africa.
First published in Art South Africa Volume 10: Issue 02