Writing Art History Since 2002

First Title

For many years interested in writing from South Africa, in 2002 the German literary scholar and translator Indra Wussow was introduced to South African art by way of an encounter with the work Jane Alexander. Now based in Johannesburg for large parts of the year, Wussow hasn’t entirely forsaken her desirable North Sea address, having transformed it into a haven for South African artists, writers and poets

artsouthafrica issues
kunst:raum sylt quelle in Rantum, Sylt
SYLT, Germany, Dec. 13, 2010 — For over a century, writers and artists have been drawn to the bucolic German island of Sylt, no doubt to get away from urban life and relax, but also to make work. The expressionist painter Emil Nolde is one of the more famous visitors to spend time on Germany’s largest and northernmost member of the North Frisian Islands. In recent years, though, a number of South African artists have also travelled to this UNESCO World Heritage Site to produce work. Oh, and Roman Polanski.

The Ghost Writer, Polanski’s new movie, was filmed on Sylt, the island a proxy for Martha’s Vineyard on Cape Cod. Sylt features more centrally in filmmaker Uli Edel’s 2008 film Der Baader-Meinhof Komplex, a historical account of the Red Army Faction in Germany. The film starts with a benign scene set on a nudist beach, plentiful on the island.

It is a big leap from Edel’s opening portrait of Ulrike Meinhof, the disaffected journalist who co-founded the Red Army Faction, seated on a FKK (Freikörperkultur, literally free body culture) beach and writer Ivan Vladislavic’s immersive text about photography and Johannesburg in TJ/Double Negative (2010). There is, however, a link.
A typical homestead on Sylt
In the colophon to his novel, due to be released in 2011 as a standalone trade title, Vladislavic thanks, amongst others, Indra Wussow. For those who may not have met the blond literary scholar and translator at Arts on Main, here’s all you need to know: in 2002 Wussow founded kunst:raum sylt quelle, an artist residency on Sylt.

Vladislavic is part of an eclectic list of South Africans who have stayed on the island, amongst them writers Henrietta Rose-Innes and Imraan Coovardia, dancer Itumeleng Mokgope, poets Gabeba Baderoon, Antjie Krog and Lebo Mashile, and artists Mary Sibande, Minnette Vari, Lien Botha, Alexandra Ross and Stephan Erasmus.

The residency, which also hosts artists from other countries, is located on the site of a mineral water bottling plant in Rantum, a village south of Westerland, Sylt’s main town. The plant was acquired by Wussow’s parents some years ago and plays host to a wide range of cultural activities, including a summer theatre and revolving programme of exhibitions (housed in the same building as the upscale restaurant).
Australian poet and artist Richard Kelly Tipping’s work Watermark (flood) on kunst:raum sylt quelle
Evidence of the South African presence in Rantum shows itself quickly, a series of large-scale photographic prints by Paul Emmanuel displayed in the glass windows screening the factory interiors. Emmanuel will next year show his exhibition Transitions, which travels from the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African Art in Washington D.C, on Sylt.

Still from Paul Emmanuel’s non-narrative film, 3SAI: A Rite of Passage (2009) Emmanuel’s exhibition, which in part considers how the military “influenced and perpetuated notions of masculinity in South Africa”, is perfect aligned with Wussow’s interests in South African art.

“There are similarities between our countries’ histories,” says Wussow when I meet with her in Melville, where she bought a house three years ago. “It is interesting how South African creative output always tries to go beyond the political, and yet somehow can’t escape this question of identity and context.”

“It is a bit like Germany after the Nazi period. People didn’t talk about anything because they wanted to forget. The point is that if you don’t know what you did, you will never learn why you did it. It is interesting to see this enacted in culture locally.”

Although interested in South African literature since a young age — she read Mandela’s writing as a child — Wussow’s interest in art came much later. She credits a meeting with the dealer, art historian and Daimler Award curator Ralph Seippel at Art Cologne as pivotal. He introduced her to the work of Jane Alexander.

“I thought her work was extremely interesting,” says Wussow. “Coming from a literary background I was intrigued to learn more about the visual arts. In 2002 Ralph curated a show of South African art that featured Kay Hassan, Berni Searle and David Koloane, some of whom came to Sylt. Afterwards I decided to visit South Africa.”

The visit culminated in Wussow’s “semigration” to Johannesburg.

Working from a space in the Arts on Main precinct, Wussow directs the activities of jozi art: lab, a multi-disciplinary arts initiative that has in the past co-ordinated projects such as Xoli Norman and Sue Pam Grant’s interdisciplinary art installation Guard on Shift (2008).

Dancer Tumi Mokgope is a frequent collaborator, both locally and in Germany. Standing in as a theatre director with Mokgope has given Wussow insight into the benefits of working across disciplines.
Swedish artist Bo Christian Larsson, right, a sometime collaborator with Robin Rhode, at the kunst:raum sylt quelle on August 28, 2010
“It is not about the different languages so much as cooperation,” she says. “Two is more than one.”
Similar to collector Jack Ginsburg’s Ampersand Foundation residency in New York, the kunst:raum sylt quelle makes its residency awards on a discretionary basis. There is no application procedure, merit the only criteria underpinning an invitation to visit the island. (This is not the case with the Sylt Quelle Cultural Award for Southern Africa, which is a juried, application-based award.)
An outdoor gallery on the premises of kunst:raum sylt quelle
Unlike Ginsburg’s TriBeCa apartment, however, which can only accommodate a single artist (or artist couple), Wussow’s Sylt residency can cater to multiple, overlapping visitors. There are five fully equipped apartments. Unlike many other residencies, it also pays for travel from South Africa and offers a nominal stipend. Residencies are either one or two months.

James Webb is a past resident.

“Some residencies function as barricades, keeping the outside world at bay, allowing you to climb deep inside your head,” says Webb, a past winner of the Absa L’Atelier art competition whose prize includes a six-month residency in Paris. “When I was on Sylt, I remained indoors for days on end. In my defence, it was very cold outside. I spent three weeks ploughing through my computer: editing works, finalising texts and images, and sifting through years of notes, clues and ideas.”

“It was the most anally retentive exercise imaginable, but I honestly believe that my work has improved as a result of it. I got things in order and, through that, learnt so much about my own practice. These are the monastic residencies — contemplative and slow burning.”

Disclosure: Sean O’Toole was a guest at kunst:raum sylt quelle in late August 2010.

Performer in Bo Christian Larsson’s Cataclysmic Raft (2010) performance

Related Posts

Scroll to Top