Installation view: Fragile Beings, an ongoing series of terracotta sculpture.
It was with a sense of wonder that I encountered the exhibition ‘Fragile Creatures’ by Niël Jonker at the Rossouw Modern Art Gallery in Hermanus during the FynArts Festival in June 2022. This powerful exhibition was, in my opinion, one of the highlights of the festival. Niël and the gallery team did a remarkable job of installing this evocative show. The darkened walls, spot-lit images, and forms transported the viewer to another time and place.
Jonker, a graduate of the then Natal Technikon, has grown up with clay as an extension of his being – from digging in communal clay pits on the family farm as a child to collecting clay along the coast in the way that ancient inhabitants of Africa did eons ago. His manipulation of mostly terracotta clay infused with natural pigments like ochre and other earths is intuitive and thereby timeless. The sculptures feel like they could have been made hundreds of years ago or last week. The forms are reductive, simplified, and archetypal and this is their power. Surfaces are scratched, hewn, incised, and even cracked adding to their timeless quality. Representing animal forms that have anthropomorphic and therianthropic qualities remind the viewer of our innate connection to sentient beings such as birds, baboons, and other animals. As viewers, we experience a moment in time where animal and man are closer to each other than in reality. This phenomenological moment provokes feelings of familiarity with past, present and future – reminiscent of the Sankofa bird images made by the Akan tribe from Ghana.
Jonker says of this body of work “Vulnerability is suggested in the title of this series of sculptures. I invite the viewer to explore the potential of being while simultaneously acknowledging the fragility of life, and this as a force of potential rather than the less sustainable posture of being resilient”. His works defy definite interpretation by alluding to a moment, a feeling or contemplation in time. The pieces resonate with the energy of sacred objects that are not specific in meaning but evoke a sense of power.
The charcoal drawings based on the sculptures are not merely descriptive but are suggestive of the symbolic nature of the works. They too become timeless, made of ancient materials like charcoal and clay with ochre in it that has been used to make marks and images in the same way as our cave-dwelling ancestors. Jonker achieves a modern and emotional sophistication in these works that places them firmly within the 21st century but evokes a bygone era when man and beast were closer and more in tune. In the ways of a shaman this hints at the possibility where, as in magical realism, the forms become interchangeable, morphed into one another, inhabiting an almost dream-like space.
Jonker also pays an element of homage to workers in clay like Noria Mabasa, Henrietta Ngako, and Wilma Cruise who depict animals and humans in a biomorphic way infusing human features, qualities, and postures into animal forms. Like them, Jonker allows us to identify with the animals and see ourselves as part of them. Through this, we reconnect with a part of our past in our quest to become whole.
This deeply contemplative, quiet, and moving exhibition carries the weight of history, and the power of our link to the natural world and embodies our quest for meaning in turbulent times.
Senior lecturer and HoD, Department of Visual Art, University of Johannesburg