African modernism unmasked

PLAYFUL: Derrick Erasmus with 'Skate Mask' at the Bay's GFI Art Gallery. Picture: BRIAN WITBOOI
PLAYFUL: Derrick Erasmus with ‘Skate Mask’ at the Bay’s GFI Art Gallery. Picture: BRIAN WITBOOI

FOR Derrick Erasmus, art is never about selling but always about sharing – and creating works that intrigue, inspire and delight is as natural and as compelling to him as eating or breathing.

In the Cuyler Crescent, Central, home he shares with his wife, fellow artist Christine Ross-Watt, the two live a fantastical life creating special pieces and finding beauty and humour in unlikely places.

The foil from the top of some coffee jars morphs into a collection of jovial faces; leaves, butterflies and even “bubbles disappearing down the sink” plant the seed for future works or simply present the opportunity for “a bit of fun”.

Erasmus’s central theme of masks revealed itself to him in just such fashion some 40 years ago. Slicing open a green pepper he saw two little eyes peering out at him from inside the shiny flesh, pips forming a tiny mouth, “and there was my theme smiling at me”, he says.

“Nature has a humorous, inventive side; an underlying whimsical quality.”

But finding his way to a theme that would literally shape his life’s work was a process that already began years before, first when he was an illustrator for the London Museum of Natural History and, later, after joining Kew Gardens as a botanical illustrator.

Erasmus, 79, who is originally from Pretoria where he matriculated at Pretoria Boys’ High in 1952, had landed up in London with Bay stained glass artist Hunter Nesbit.

It was Nesbit who persuaded him to “try out” PE in 1970 to take up what was initially a fill-in position at the art school of the PE College of Advanced Technical Education, forerunner of the PE Technikon (now NMMU) art school from which Erasmus would retire as head of foundation studies in 1994.

In the UK, Erasmus drew everything from fossil remains of trilobites and ammonites to flora from far-flung corners of the globe. And so the realisation came: “Whether it is making grasses or insects, nature has endless variations on its themes – so too one object can have a thousand faces”. With the concept as infinitely applicable to masks, he has devoted himself to painting them in a multitude of forms in a style some have called African modernism.

It is distilled in Capricious Nature in Art, an exhibition to celebrate his 80th birthday in September and which is now on view at the GFI Art Gallery at 30 Park Drive.

Here, 50 extraordinary works he and Ross-Watt treasure to the point of considering them “friends” may be viewed in glorious relation to each other, expertly displayed in one of the Eastern Cape’s finest gallery spaces by the couple’s former art school colleague, Jennifer Ord.

And who would not want to be friends with the likes of the engaging Polly Peepers, the winsome Felicity Fang – painted on a piece of conveyer belt for unusual texture – or Aliens Playing at Being Masks practically vibrating off their brilliant-blue canvas?

Visitors will meet Mr Allsorts, a “sweet” robot-like character fashioned from Liquorice Allsorts-coloured bits of wood, and Frolicking Threesome, a celestial trio that flowed from Erasmus deliciously dipping into computer graphics in recent years.

His love of line drawing is evident in works like Cat Mask and One Line Mask – the latter literally created using a single line. Some, like The Little Clown, reflect experimentation with automatism: “When the Rink Street cinemas were open I’d sit there drawing in the dark while waiting for Christine. That’s how Maskville Dog Show [a work now owned by a collector in Tokyo] came about.”

Others are highly geometric, and apparently symmetric, until you realise Erasmus has cleverly applied the principle of unity and variety, where elements look similar and yet are calculatedly different.

Colour is another great obsession and so there’s a riotous, pure and at times startling colour-fest to be found in pieces like Monday’s Mask and Masks Hiding in an Island Industry.

Erasmus’s works are now in collections around South Africa and abroad, and so seeing the pieces dearest to him on display in his home city is both privilege and treat.

This really is a world-class exhibition – and one absolutely not to be missed.

Capricious Nature in Art may be viewed until April 11. – Louise Liebenberg


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