Journey to the Interior.

Groen Weivelde (Green Pastures)

Come with me on an exploration from Paris and Japan to… the Karoo, that arid, neglected part of South Africa. Through some remarkable works of art.

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Cape Town artist Annari van der Merwe

Annari van der Merwe is a Cape Town artist with a wealth of global experiences,, yet her roots and her identity are South African. She started painting under the tutelage of well-known artist and former academic, Gregg Kerr, about seven years ago.

In the course of her exploration of the art of painting, she studied the work of artists whom she admires and regards as predecessors and mentors – the Old Masters who worked in Europe before 1800, and later generations of painters such as the Impressionists. She uses them in surprising contexts.

In an early series, Not by Bread Alone, consisting of eight paintings (mixed media, 600 x 800 mm), some of her favourite painters, from Caravaggio to Paula Modersohn-Becker, are depicted at a table laden with food and drink they either painted themselves or are likely to have enjoyed. So we have, among others, Frida Kahlo sitting behind a table spread with watermelon and various fruits, against a backdrop of tropical birds and creatures; Picasso at a table with sea food and a bottle of wine.

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Marc Chagall. From the series Not by Bread Alone.

Annari takes her love of making composite images further in My Grand Tour. In twelve fairly large paintings (approximately 760 x 970 mm), she presents both familiar and lesser known figures, painted by the so-called Old Masters, against the backdrop of architectural spaces she photographed on her world travels. And just to spice it up even further, her Bengal cat, Bijou, appears in every painting as a leitmotif, or echo. These paintings formed her first solo exhibition in Cape Town towards the end of 2018.

Suspended, which features Leonardo’s Lady with an Ermine and Tintoretto’s Senator, in an open-air art gallery in Kyoto.

The My Grand Tour paintings are clever, delightful, intriguing, challenging. The artist is “playing” with other artists – and with the viewer. I can gaze at them for hours, puzzling over the references and the possibilities.

Meanwhile, Annari, always the perfectionist, has developed her technical skills to superior levels. She uses mostly oil paint, and for her latest series she has employed the painstaking process of glazing with transparent hues, which sometimes requires up to 20 applications to produce a wonderful luminous light effect. It is simply beautiful. As with all good art, I find it occupying a discreet space in my consciousness.

Onoopgemaak (Unopened)

With her latest series, Elegie vir die Karoo, in which she makes extensive use of glazing, she enters a new phase, emotionally very compelling. Van der Merwe finally comes home, confronting the past and the present of her own world. The 12 oil paintings (measuring 800 x 1100 mm) depict the interiors of deserted farmsteads which the artist knew growing up on a sheep farm in this semi-desert region of South Africa.

Annari says she thought glazing would convey her intentions best, because “…the colour and texture… might possibly evoke the insubstantial, shifting nature of memory and imagination.”

Die Groen Mat (The Green Carpet)

Her mentor, Gregg Kerr, explains, “…the artist invites participation in an elegy for the ghosts and shades of those who once lived and died in those spaces.”

Along with the major paintings, a parallel series of eight small paintings (300 x 400 mm) will be exhibited. Contrary to the Elegie series, these miniatures portray the exteriors of humble buildings that have survived in her small Karoo town of Richmond. They are executed in the conventional way where paint is mixed to the desired colour, rather than building up the colour by glazing layer after layer.

Annie Potkraal se Huisie. One of the Karoo miniatures.

There is profound emotional depth to these paintings, which mourn not only the desolation and neglect of homes once pulsing with human warmth, but also the universal loss of love, care, human community.

What makes these paintings so much more powerful is the restraint with which the sorrow is handled. Very clear geometric planes, emptiness, only slight suggestions of decay (dead flowers on the floor, guinea fowl inside the house). And then the incandescent effect of glazing, which transports the viewer to a dreamworld.

As Gregg Kerr says, “If it is possible to paint a quietness, a faint heat and a melancholic drone of insects, Van der Merwe has done that.”

Al Moiz en Victor.

The Elegie vir die Karoo-exhibition, which will run at the Breytenbach-Galery in Wellington, Western Cape, South Africa, from 13 March 2021 until 28th April 2021, will also include three related but quite different paintings: whimsical, surreal paintings of a pumpkin or a melon floating in the sky above the Karoo landscape.

Karoo-wolke 1 (Karoo Clouds 1)

Annari says she once quipped to someone that – during a severe Karoo drought – one would sooner see a pumpkin or a melon float in the sky than a rain cloud.

For me, these paintings are a moving and sublime tribute to the Karoo, to life and loss, from Annari van der Merwe, herself a child of the ancient dust of Africa.

To see more of Annari’s paintings, go to http://www.annarivandermerwe.com

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