Writing Art History Since 2002

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Manuela Holzer in conversation with ART AFRICA.


Manuela is a South African born artist of Austrian descent, currently based in the Western Cape. She completed her Master’s in Fine Art from Stellenbosch University, where she gave expression to the fragility of human existence with her evocative sculptures. ART AFRICA spoke to Manuela about the way in which she translates her conceptual inspiration from Plato, Nietzsche and Jung into figurative sculptures.

In the past, you have examined the expression of the human condition through the sculpted medium – especially with regards to the notion of the shadow as addressed in the writings of Plato, Nietzsche, Jung and Sartre. How does your work visually portray these ideas, and why is the sculpted medium one that may communicate them most effectively?

At first, the focus of using the recycled black plastic bags related heavily with the idea of the shadow, which started out quite literally as the thin, black, literal shadow that we all have. At first, my sculptures were very two-dimensional. I started doing research on the shadow and found that it had been used in very interesting ways, both in psychology and philosophy. For instance, the shadow figures in Plato’s writing when he speaks of the allegory of the cave, Nietzche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra encounters a wandering shadow, and Jung uses the shadow to represent an aspect of the self. The notion of truth, encountering your shadow, and then coming to terms with that, creates a narrative, which is what I try to capture in my sculptures. The postures and poses of the sculptures highlight the vulnerable moment when that happens. It can be quite an existential crisis.

Collapsed Shadow (1 of 6), 2017. Melted plastic refuse bags and steel armature, 6 x 14 x 6 cm.

For ‘Shadow Series,’ you have combined classical sculpting techniques with a contemporary twist, allowing for the vulnerability of human existence to be brought to the fore. Could you please elaborate on your thought processes behind combining these two techniques as an expression of vulnerability?

The expression of vulnerability is twofold, the first being the postures that are taken. Historically, sculptures have all portrayed strength, courage and nobility, whereas my sculptures portray quite the opposite. The figures are cowering, withdrawn, uncertain, and insecure. Vulnerability is therefore captured in the postures that emulate and recreate emotions and sentiments that accompany the encounter with the shadow. The second application is in the material itself. Plastic is not nearly as durable as concrete, bronze or any other conventional sculpting materials. The recycled plastic creates very different textures and styles. The usage of plastic in itself becomes quite an interesting talking point regarding its prevalence in our lives, how quickly we discard it and how dangerous it can be to the environment.

In your artist statement, you have said that the sculptures serve as both a means of self-expression, and self-acceptance, where an attempt at capturing the artist’s body in all its imperfections has been made. Why is it important for you to share these vulnerabilities with your work’s viewers, and do you think this is all a part of the artistic process towards self-acceptance?

The sculptures that I create explore the concept of the shadow from my own personal experience because it is the only experience that I have a right to depict and express. My work is first and foremost autobiographical. I sculpt my own body as means of depicting my own personal shadow. As the expression goes, “artists hang their heart on a wall to be criticized.” In this case I lay all my vulnerabilities and my body bare to the mercy of the viewer. This is on the one hand a very freeing experience and on the other, a very daunting process.

My work also attempts to open a dialogue about the notion of the shadow. Everyone’s shadow differs. Each conversation with the viewers of my work deepens my understanding and experience of other people, their engagement with their personal worlds and struggles. Most importantly, my work attempts to further my own understandings of the struggles within myself, my own shadow.

Essentially my aim is to become more conscious of my shadow and the shadow in others and I firmly believe that confronting that shadow is a big step towards self-acceptance and self-understanding.


Your use of plastic in your sculptures reflect both the sturdiness and fragility of this medium, as well as of the human condition. What drew you to plastic as an artistic medium, and why do you think it is successful in communicating the nuances within life and the human psyche?  

The usage of plastic is more applicable to the times we currently live in. We use more plastic today than we ever have, it is mass produced, it is everywhere, in everything, and has become such a huge part of our everyday life. It is quite fitting then that the very material that defines life today would be used to try and convey the questions surrounding the self and the human psyche in an ever-changing world. It is that malleability and pliability of plastics that allows it to be moulded and mended into a form. Ironically, it is grasping at an age-old question. My sculptures never propose a solution or an answer or even assumes to know what the answer is. What my sculptures do successfully communicate, in my honest opinion, is that very question, “what does my shadow reveal?”

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