Dr Jan van der Merwe, painting lecturer at the Department of Fine & Studio Arts and celebrated installation artist, is among the artists whose work is showcased in a new book by the Suid-Afrikaanse Akademie vir Wetenskap en Kuns (SAAWK), literally South African Academy for Science and Arts.
Working primarily in rusted metal, Dr van der Merwe has developed a language that speaks subtly, yet eloquently, of the vulnerability and transient aspects of life. He is known for his thought-provoking installations in which he incorporates found objects with rusted tins. His work has been exhibited internationally and he is regarded in such high esteem that his art and methodology form part of the prescribed South African art curriculum for school learners and tertiary students.
Compiled by respected art historian, Prof Alex Duffey, the book, Die Kunsversameling van die Suid-Afrikaanse Akademie vir Wetenskap en Kuns (The Art collection of the South African Academy for Science and Arts) contains the work (106) of 100 artists, coupled with comprehensive descriptions of the artworks, write-ups about the artists and images of their artworks.
Dr van der Merwe’s artwork taken up in the SAAWK collection is entitled The Last Tweet. He says the installation refers to technology (Twitter), a method of disseminating information very quickly, whereby messages could be conveyed on a global scale, also enabling misuse of power.
Elaborating on the work, Dr van der Merwe adds: “The phrase ‘canary in a coal mine’ is an allusion to caged canaries that miners would carry down into the mine tunnels. If dangerous gasses, such as carbon monoxide, collected in the mine, evaporate, the gasses would kill the canary before killing the miners, thus providing a warning to exit the tunnels immediately.”
“It is an honour to have my artwork included in the book,” he says. “Among all the artists in the book, I especially admire Gunther van der Reis. It is so special to see my work and his in the same publication. From 1977 to 1979, I was an Art student at the former Technikon Pretoria, and Gunther was my painting lecturer and mentor. Gunther, who is 93 and still making art, persuaded me to pursue a career as a fine artist. In 1999, The Academy awarded Gunther an honorary medal for Fine Art. It had special meaning when I received the same medal in 2019. To be included in this book alongside Gunther is an affirmation of the influence and necessity of an inspiring lecturer and mentor,” Dr van der Merwe adds.
“I would like to congratulate Dr Esther Nikwambi Mahlangu (84) who is the recipient of this medal in 2020. She is an important role model for my generation, as well as to the young generation of artists on our Campus, where she also painted a mural.” Dr Mahlangu is known for her bold, large-scale contemporary paintings that reference her Ndebele heritage.
Prof Duffey started working on the book way back in 2014, and it is considered as an invaluable gain to any collection of South African art.
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