The internationally-renowned artist Jaco Sieberhagen, who has been based in Onrus for the past 10 years, is perhaps best known among local residents for his sculpture, Traveller, which graced Gearing’s Point as part of the 2016 FynArts Sculpture on the Cliffs exhibition.

Local artist Jaco Sieberhagen in front of one of his works in his home in Onrus.

What few people know, though, is that Jaco has been exhibiting extensively both in South Africa and abroad for more than three decades. This highly-acclaimed, multi award-winning sculptor has produced a staggering body of work and, apart from numerous national solo and group exhibitions, he has participated in more than 20 international exhibitions and symposiums in places as far afield as the USA, France, Italy, Germany, Russia, Ghana, Nigeria, China, Taiwan and Australia.

Jaco works mainly in flat steel which is laser cut to precision and then painted matte black or, in some cases such as Traveller, blue. The flat steel creates a two-dimensional silhouette which tells a visual story, or, as Jaco puts it, “takes the viewer’s mind for a walk”.

Because the design of these intricate sculptures has to be broken into elements (or cutting files) that are laser cut separately before being welded together in a seamless and energised unity, Jaco uses CAD to produce meticulously precise drawings. Once the laser cutting has been done, he welds the different elements together and spray paints the completed sculpture himself in his studio – a daunting process that is testament to both his creative and technical ingenuity.

Imagery, symbols and archetypal figures are used to convey a narrative that questions our sense of identity, while others provide scathing comment on the injustices of our socio-political history, the superficiality of popular culture and the destruction of the earth by modern greed and consumerism. Jaco describes these thought-provoking scenes created by his sculptures as “landscapes of the mind”. To tell his stories, he often incorporates the ideas and skills of sequential art and creates a series of works that depict a certain theme.

The secret to self-fulfilment is self-acceptance, says Jaco. “You have to trust and believe in yourself, in order to develop your own unique way of looking at the world; then your art will also be unique.” Jaco’s way of looking at the world is deeply influenced by his religious and humanitarian background. Amazingly, he had little formal art training and is largely self-taught.

‘Forest Selfie’ and ‘Mother Earth Selfie’ are part of a series that Jaco is currently working on and formed part of a recent exhibition at the Vryfees in Bloemfontein, entitled ‘Dwell in Possibility’. They depict the self-absorption of the ‘selfie’ culture, with people being more interested in their own petty preoccupations than in the destruction of our planet, even as the hourglass runs out.

Born in 1961, Jaco’s father was a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church and he spent his childhood in several small towns in South Africa such as Victoria West, Prins Albert and Riversdale. “Tradition dictated that on Sunday afternoons after lunch we always had to rest, which was very boring for children,” recalls Jaco. “To pass the time I used to read a lot, especially art books.” Jaco also enjoyed drawing from an early age and often visited the local artists in the small towns where they lived.

After matriculating at Langenhoven High School in Riversdale, Jaco spent the next seven years studying, graduating with a BA degree in Anthropology and Psychology from the University of Port Elizabeth (now Nelson Mandela University), before obtaining another degree, this time in Theology, from Stellenbosch University, followed by a Licentiate in Theology. “I was always interested in science and the human psyche,” says Jaco, adding that he sought to find expression of his compassionate nature in pastoral care and in making a difference in people’s lives.

Mother Earth Selfie

After graduating, Jaco was called up to do his two-year compulsory military training and in his second year he was stationed in Grahamstown. Here he became an occasional student at Rhodes University, attending evening classes where he was tutored by professional artists not only about the technical aspects of art but also how to think critically and analytically about art. “I realised that there was little point in following trends and that I had to find my own unique signature,” he says.

With his military training behind him, Jaco ended up living in Grahamstown for five years while working as a minister and immersing himself in the local community. He developed a passion for working with “differently-abled” people, developing workshops that taught them various skills, including needlework, spinning, weaving and knitting. In his spare time he worked on his sculptures, mostly in wood but also in metal and ceramics.

In the early nineties, Jaco relocated to Worcester with his wife, Sugnét and their first-born, Madeleine, who was later followed by a second daughter, Lujane. Here Jaco worked at the National Institute for the Deaf before once again getting involved in congregational work, mainly among the local youth. Because most of these community projects took place after hours, Jaco says he could spend his mornings at home in his studio.

“I was very privileged to have this time to develop my art, asking questions, solving problems and finding unique answers,” he says. “At the same time, being involved in community work was a reality check; it kept me humble and grounded.”

Jaco’s sculpture, ‘Traveller’, formed part of the 2016 FynArts Sculpture on the Cli s exhibiton.

When the family settled in Onrus in 2009, Jaco was finally able to dedicate himself full-time to his art. His experience in pastoral and community work, however, continues to inform his choice of subject matter. “It is important to embrace our humanity and celebrate the resilience of the human spirit,” he says. Popular themes in his work include the depiction of iniquity and corruption among those in power, while turning a blind eye to the suffering and oppression of the most vulnerable in society. But there is satirical humour, too, and a playful quirkiness that seems to nudge and wink at the viewer, rather than preach.

In contrast to overt protest art, Jaco’s works are filled with natural imagery such as trees and animals, and appear, at first glance, deceptively simple, whimsical and almost childlike. They don’t shout out their message but gently draw you in and invite closer scrutiny to unveil the multiple symbols and layers of meaning.

“Art should take your eye on a journey, to discover the thought and message behind it. And while it should be stimulating and challenging, and not shy away from controversial and uncomfortable topics, art should also celebrate the good in life,” says Jaco, whose works are also represented in several public and corporate collections in South Africa, including Sanlam, Rand Merchant Bank, Iziko Museum, the Constitutional Court, Johannesburg Library and City Council Chambers, to name but a few.

Jaco in front of his 10 metre-high wooden sculpture, ‘New Beginning’ that was installed in a park in Taichung, Taiwan in 2011

He makes a distinction between gallery art and public art, which he says should be “softer on the eye”. An excellent example of this are his monumental works of up to 10 metres high that can be found in sculpture parks in China and Taiwan.

“I have been most fortunate to participate in several international projects, in collaboration with artists from all over the world,” says Jaco. His first trip to China was in 2007, when his proposal for two 5-metre high wooden sculptures entitled ‘Conversations’ was selected for the Erdaobaihe International Sculpture Symposium, followed by the Changchun International Sculpture Symposium in 2010 (‘The Locomotive’) and 2018 (‘Walking Tall’), both large steel sculptures. In 2011 he was also invited to participate in the Centennial International Wood Carving Event in Taichung, Taiwan, for which he sculpted a 10-metre high eagle from wood, entitled ‘New Beginning’.

In August, Jaco will be heading back to China, this time to Zeng Zhou. So far, 2019 has been one of his busiest years. “I am truly blessed to have so much work,” he says. Apart from travelling to India twice, in February and May, to oversee the installation of his extensive series of commissioned works for a new office building in New Delhi, Jaco was in Milan in June for the opening of a new restaurant, the walls of which are adorned with smaller, tongue-in-cheek works that portray quintessential symbols of the Italian way of life. “It was a really fun project,” says Jaco with a smile.

The 41⁄2-metre high sculpture, ‘Walking Tall’, which was installed in the Changchun Sculpture Park in China in 2018

In spite of all his success, this gentle giant of an artist exudes a humility and an enduring sense of wonder that takes me back to his sculpture, Traveller, which, after gazing out over Walker Bay for a year, was included in an outdoor exhibition at Tokara Wine Estate entitled ‘The other side of Winter’. This collection of works comprised figures morphed with nature, specifically birds in flight, which were masterfully combined by Jaco’s poetry. His explanation of these works could easily be applied to Jaco’s life as a whole: “The human spirit has the ability to dance with the rising sun while facing an uncertain day and to fly while circumstances invite him to stop believing.”

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