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Issue 05

In the Studio with Ydi Coetsee Carstens

Istine Rodseth Swart in conversation with Ydi Coetsee Carstens, a young oil painter from Stellenbosch, South Africa.

Istine Rodseth Swart is an administrator for the Kirby Laing Centre.

Living Room – Kampala, 31 x 25cm

Istine Rodseth Swart: Briefly tell us what your studio practice entails as a painter.

Ydi Coetsee Carstens: Painting is a very old practice and I like to think of myself as momentarily escaping the modern world and all its trappings when I go to the little studio I rent on a farm. There are no computers there and no cell phone reception, making it feel almost like going to a monastery.

While I paint, I let my thoughts meander on theology, history, sociology and the strangeness of being in the world. Starting around 9am, I paint systematically, but passionately and sometimes feverishly, until two or three o’clock, when I’m spent. For the remainder of the day I work from home, separating my administrative work from the almost sacred experience of being in the studio. 

My art-making process involves stitching together and editing photographic sources, drawing, stencilling, masking, scumbling, dry brushing, glazing and sometimes using gold leaf. A lot of thought goes into cropping and stitching images beforehand and comparing possible compositions before crafting a final painting. When I’m ready I emerge from hiding and show the work to a trusted friend for feedback. But until then I’m very private and critical about my work. 

Church Hall Floor – Stellenbosch, 60 x 60cm

IRS: Your “empty” interiors are fascinating: mysterious and evocative. What do you think it is about empty buildings that compels you to paint them?

YCC: I think the material matters. We like to speak of the church as a collection of people and not as a building, yet the places we occupy are important theologically. The mission church I grew up in, for instance, exists within a social context in which geography was extremely consequential. Because of the group areas act (enforced during the time my father pastored the church), the building had to be moved from the centre of town to its periphery, the psychological and spiritual impact of which is hard to fathom.

Perhaps institutional buildings also intrigue me because, like the parsonage we lived in, schools, churches and hospitals share a unique way of being administered. A committee decides on the colour of the walls, rather than an individual. And there seems to be an ethical dimension to either buying new paint or paying someone’s salary.

Deserted public buildings seem paradoxical, because their core function is for people to congregate within them. Maybe empty buildings speak of loneliness, or point towards those who are left behind when everybody else has gone away. People like teachers, nurses and cleaners, who do their work unseen and often unappreciated.

In affluent communities, buildings typically fold quietly around their human inhabitants, whereas in less affluent communities, buildings can make themselves quite conspicuous. A fluorescent lightbulb may buzz overhead or a dog-eared carpet snag your foot as you walk. You move through these spaces more aware of the idiosyncrasies of your surroundings.

IRS: I find myself wanting to populate these spaces with my own thoughts, memories, connotations and stories. Do you give any consideration to how your work may be interpreted – are you comfortable with multiple personal interpretations or do you want to influence the way in which your work is read?

YCC: I hope my paintings are places within which viewers can linger. This is what makes the work accessible, I think. Some contemporary art strikes me as quite forceful, asking you to feel something right away. But once the initial impact is over, it feels like the work and its meaning evaporate. I would rather have my work unfold in collaboration with the viewer, as it does in the process of masking, drawing, erasing and glazing when I create it. Making a successful painting is a slow process because I look at it from every possible angle, scratching through layers of meaning and trying to reach a certain level of intensity, or distillation. But in the end I don’t own it.

I find that meaning and memory are slippery. I sometimes wonder how much of the past is crafted to fit a narrative remembered later in life. Ambiguity in the work appeals to me for this reason.

Blue School, Ida’s Valley Primary – Stellenbosch, 100 x 100cm

IRS: At 32, you are still a young artist. Do you think your generation has a different view of being an artist in SA than that of artists working the 80s and 90s?

YCC: I’m lucky that I was introduced to racial issues early because of my parents’ work in the mission church, but also because I have an adopted cousin (of Zulu descent) who is in her early 20s now. Growing up alongside her has taught me a lot about the realities of race. This, and living in a coloured community for a few years while growing up, cannot be separated from how I see myself as a South African.

I think I belong to a generation that hasn’t given up on reconciliation, although our choices might not seem as radical as in the 80s. South Africa is still a messy and uncomfortable place, and one needs to work hard at retaining perspective and resisting cynicism on the one hand and being in denial on the other.

IRS: Reflecting on the past seems important in your work, both in how you reference your childhood and how you’re passionate about the history of the country. In what ways do you feel you live in continuity with your heritage through your art?

YCC: At KRUX we often interrogate how past events and régimes influence academia, the arts and global culture today. But there is also a very personal side to heritage. I have a peculiar name, a family name on my mother’s side. The first “Eyda” was born to Dutch parents in the Cape in 1739. The name was later spelled “Ijda” and still later “Yda.” My family calls me “Ydi,” which is quite special and reminds me that in a small way I’m woven into an historical thread of people and events on the continent.

My art heritage comes mostly from my father’s side. My father’s grand-uncle was a missionary in Zambia but also a self-taught landscape painter. As a boy my father was intrigued by the enigmatic “uncle  Peter painting with a knife.” This inspired him to paint and draw as a youngster and to continue using art throughout his ministry years. I have many uncles and aunts who are directly or indirectly involved with missions or who have pastored churches. Like all pastor’s kids I have a tacit understanding of what goes on behind the scenes of church and pastoral ministry.

Corner, Church Centre – Stellenbosch, 50 x 50cm

IRS: Do you think this strong Christian heritage in your family helped or hindered your artistic ambitions?

YCC: I guess my relationship with the church has always been complex, although I love the church deeply. As someone who naturally grapples with things, I’ve questioned my faith many times. Yet, somehow, I continue to be drawn back to Christ and to Christianity. In some ways art and beauty are responsible for this “drawing back.” During times of severe questioning, I feel drawn closer to God if I hear a Bach cello suite or see a Rothko painting. Philip Yancey once wrote that he has three reasons for believing in God: classical music, romantic love and nature. I think I relate to that in a very deep way.

The biggest challenge in being an artist from a “missionary family” has been in valuing art for its own sake. Protestants – and believing Christians in general – tend to speak about art as an extravagance, often unconsciously. Missionaries, underpaid and overworked, sometimes resent the rich who spend money on high culture, and from the perspective of the suffering, the industry can seem like a slap in the face. Although I’ve done a lot of reading in trying to understand this, I’m still not exactly sure how making beautiful, evocative (but expensive) objects fits into our mandate of caring for the poor, the suffering and the weak. Yet art truly is my passion – I have to believe God meets me there. A book by the South African theologian, John de Gruchy, Christianity, Art and Transformation, has been a great help in this regard.

IRS: You mentioned your love for nature. Most of your works, however, depict human-made spaces and figures. Do you feel there is a tension between these two directions?

YCC: My master’s research was on Romanticism, so theories about nature and landscape will always be close to my heart. My husband and I are also avid hikers, barefoot-people who love roughing it and experiencing the wilderness at its most authentic.

During periods when I have felt debilitated by human issues (as for instance during a sojourn in Kampala, a city with an extremely high human density), I needed to paint landscapes in order to reawaken myself to beauty. During other times, when I have had freer access to nature and more stability in my life, I have sought beauty in the man-made, the mundane and even the “ugly.” Like the Romantics I grapple with the link between beauty and subjectivity. I often ask myself whether “kitsch,” for instance, is a useful way of thinking about plastic flowers and paintings of gaudy waterfalls, i.e., the ambiguous place where “nature” and “culture” meet. I think we are all looking to connect with beauty in some way or other. And that taste has less to do with it than context, memory and human desire.

Blue Carpet, Church Centre – Stellenbosch, 50 x 50cm

IRS: You are currently artist-in-residence for KRUX. What does this mean for you and your art and what role has KRUX played in your spiritual and artistic development?

YCC: Before KRUX I had never heard of the term “artist-in-residence.” It is a beautiful term to me because it hints at “residing” somewhere, that is, being home and feeling safe. At this stage we don’t have a physical space where an artist-in-residence might work, but we dream of one day making this a reality.

In the academic paradigm where I studied before I knew about KRUX – postcolonial and critical race theory – I often felt very alone. I think the misalignment between my personal narrative and the narrative of the secular department was just too complex to bridge and perhaps it still is. In our lectures, white missionaries who brought Christianity to Africa were regarded as complicit in, if not responsible for, racial injustices, and words like “religion” and “oppression” were used without the nuances I felt they deserved. The theoretical labels attached to painting figuratively were also extremely constricting (realistic paintings were called “cute”).

After my studies I was introduced to KRUX through a small arts conference. The community I met there made me feel valued and listened to, and my missionary background not resented or belittled. As I became more involved in KRUX, I met people from multiple church communities who also cherish conversations about history, Protestantism, culture and the arts, and who, most importantly, still have the ability to feel wonder. My art gradually started coming into its own and I had the confidence to pursue art for its own sake. I can’t imagine where I would have been without this input in my life.

IRS: Do media and social media have any impact on your work, in terms of your approach to your work or its contents?

YCC: Art criticism has always been practised in specialised circles, but the character of “viral” media today makes it possible for journalism to do significant harm to artists, or deter them from making work altogether. (I think for instance of the scandal surrounding Paul Emsley’s portrait of Kate Middleton.)

The general public today is flooded with images of all (questionable) shapes and formats on social media and the news. Yet as students we were made very aware of the notion of “problematic art.” Revisionist history and new fields of enquiry like gender studies and critical race theory significantly changed how artists from my generation think about their work. This self-critical posture, combined with the power of journalism and media today, can make being an artist terrifying.

In a recent series of paintings inspired by travelling in Africa, I was very aware of this. On the one hand, creating images of African people could be deemed contentious historically. On the other, omitting the human figure is equally dehumanising. I spent many weeks wrestling with this, listening to podcasts about media perceptions of Africa and trying to figure out if my artworks were unethical in some way. In the end, only by having a Christian perspective, rather than a secular one, could I find my way out of this conundrum.

At my recent solo exhibition, an elderly Sotho gentleman spent a long time looking at my figure sketches, saying they reminded him of his childhood. This revealed to me the great disparity between the critical gaze of some intellectuals, and the receptive gaze of true humanity. As long as we can resist the dehumanising forces of our time, we’ll be able to connect with each other honestly and authentically.

An Ordinary Day – Windhoek, Namibia, 60 x 60cm