Writing Art History Since 2002

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It’s difficult to talk about Hendrik Stroebel’s latest exhibition Reconnect, without reference to his 2011 show, Recollect, in the same venue.

Hendrik Stroebel, Traded, 2012, embroidery with ceramic frame, 34 x 23cm

That exhibition, which consisted largely of embroidered pieces set in ceramic frames, represented a blossoming of Stroebel’s career, and was seventeen years in the making. Using various self-taught embroidery techniques and showing an extraordinary grasp of colour, Stroebel focuses his subject matter almost exclusively on images from the Middle East, from ancient ruins to contemporary political figures to the flames of the oil fields. The resultant continuum of images is fertile ground for contemplation on globalism, modernity and tradition, while providing sharp commentary on the constructed schism between east and west, Christianity and Islam.

While Stroebel is not the first artist to use embroidery to create works of enchanting realism and beauty – indeed it is a mode of production as ancient as the culture to which he pays tribute – he has been markedly successful in creating an idiom that is entirely his own. From portraits to still lifes to landscapes, his beguiling way with needle and thread produces an emphatic hyperrealism whose colours and details are magnified by the sculptural dimension of embroidery. That said, the embroidered images seem far more three-dimensional than they actually are – if you look at the works from a side angle, you’ll notice that they are physically quite flat and it is mainly through Stroebel’s canny use of tone and texture that the works acquire their perceived depth.

Stroebel has been obsessed with Arabic culture and history since first visiting Egypt in 1989 and it is poetically appropriate that several major pieces from Recollect were purchased by a private collector from Dubai, ensuring that the 2011 exhibition – the first major showing of this work – was sold out show. Apart from the fact that some of those works have now made their way back to the region that inspired them, the forging of the Dubai connection has also provided inroads into the Middle East art scene for other Durban artists. (Andrew Verster recently opened A Brief History of Insignificant Things in Dubai, curated by the KZNSA.)

Recollect, which consists of new embroidered works as well as a collection of decorated urns and a series of eight-pointed ceramic stars, is a preview show of an exhibition that will take place in March 2013 during Art Dubai, which will also include three large pieces and five smaller works from Reconnect, on loan from the Dubai collector.

Stroebel’s natural inclusiveness is central to his work, particularly in terms of the fact that his subject matter – largely grounded as it is in Arabic culture – involves no touches of alienation or exoticism. In these times of supposed ‘Muslim rage’, Stroebel makes no delineation between the ancient cultures of the region and those of the west. In fact the opposite is true – his subject matter points to the deep connection between west and east, to the fact that the west is grounded historically, conceptually, religiously and intellectually in the Arab world, and that any attempt to separate these two intimately linked histories is as arbitrary and artificial as separating European from African history.

The captivating quality of his embroidered images does not quite extend to the works that are more grounded in ceramics. Stroebel’s urns, decorated with both found objects and images from the Middle East, possess gorgeous forms but I’m not convinced that the detailing adds anything to the works. This might have to do with the platonic formalist in me, but it’s also related to the fact that Stroebel’s painterliness is far more pronounced in his embroidered work than in the painted images on some of his ceramic pieces.

Similarly, the images painted on the collection of eight-pointed stars do not compare to the embroidered images that they frequently reference. In conversation, Stroebel says that although he initially studied painting, he feels a far greater affinity with the physicality of both clay and needle-and-thread. It is telling that when his painted ceramic images are accompanied by incisions – or any kind of sculptural addendum – they come alive and start to sing.

Stroebel has said that he wants to move on from his immaculately detailed embroidery in the direction of more abstract work, his chief reason being that, after the massive commercial success of Recollect, he doesn’t want to paint himself into a corner by chasing the money. While I understand this response, I’d nonetheless like to see him spending a few more years on his gorgeously rendered embroideries. My feeling is that there’s still a great deal more space for Stroebel’s highly personalised expressions of his love for antiquity and its ever-shrinking space in the modern world. Abstraction can wait.

Peter Machen is an arts writer based in Durban.

Peter Machen

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