Stanford Valley Guest Farm recently became the home of four bronze sculptures by Belgian-South African artist, Herman van Nazareth, the best known of which is titled Uitbundig (Exuberant). This sculpture, which depicts two figures celebrating with arms held high, has been placed in the fountain near the entrance to The Manor House Restaurant. (A similar seven metre statue commissioned for the Soccer World Cup stands in front of Artscape in Cape Town.)
This work, as is the case with most of van Nazareth’s sculptures, dates back to the 1960s and is a reminder of a turbulent period in the history of South Africa – a time of violence, struggle, and brutality against people of colour. The sculpture with its black patina represents African brotherhood, the fight for freedom, and subsequent victory.
A second sculpture, also named Uitbundig, is positioned near the entrance to the farm and was originally on display at the JS Marais Park in Stellenbosch. In Beweging (In Motion) is presented in a crawling position on its elbows near the small dam in front of the restaurant, while a fourth, Stein, depicting a grown man, stands in the garden behind the restaurant.
Born in Belgium in 1936 as Herman van Aerde, van Nazareth grew up in occupied Belgium during WWII. The horrors of war witnessed as a young child undoubtedly played a significant role in shaping his social conscience. He was averse to inhumanity and abuse of power and took a strong stance against the culture of white supremacy, with its forceful and often brutal oppression of people of colour prevalent in his adoptive country, South Africa.
He produced works which were an incisive commentary on social injustice and added his voice to the many brave, often young artists and politicians who were directly addressing and challenging the apartheid policies of the government at the time. Van Nazareth was one of the first artists in South Africa to be called a “protest” or “satirical” artist.
Interestingly, during his first 25 years, van Nazareth showed no sign of talent for or interest in drawing. That changed following a chance encounter with Belgian artist, Bert de Clerck, in 1961. After studying art at the Royal Academy in Ghent, Belgium, van Nazareth did a year at the Royal Academy in Antwerp where he was apprenticed to the artist, Floris Jespers. He later accepted a scholarship to study at the Michaelis School of Fine Art in Cape Town and, in 1965, emigrated to South Africa. He is the last surviving member of a group of 1960s poets, authors and artists that included Ingrid Jonker, André P Brink, Jan Rabie, Marjorie Wallace and Uys Krige.
I met Herman van Nazareth last month when he visited Stanford Valley Guest Farm. A man of few words, he tends to avoid direct eye contact and says that the focus should not be on him but on his art. He does not discuss his art and, instead, almost distances himself from the viewer to allow for free interpretation. He says that art is about learning to really see the subject and capturing its essence.
He is not concerned about producing beautiful or aesthetically pleasing works. His “disfigured” figures are often grouped together and placed in the open in natural landscape settings. On the surface, his sculptures look rough and unfinished but require a very sophisticated technique. Although they may appear ungraceful, his sculptures portray a sense of loneliness and timelessness, and have undeniable power.
Van Nazareth recounts how an observer, after looking at one of his drawings which to the unenlightened eye could seem very simplistic, asked, “How long did it take you to learn to draw and paint like that?” “Only a lifetime,” was his quick response. And it had indeed taken him a lifetime to be able to cut to the core of his subjects and show only their essence.
Piet Boyens, curator of MUDEL (Museum van Deinze en de Leiestreek) in Belgium said, “The art of Herman van Nazareth appears to be the unmasking of the superfluous. Avoiding the fringe, he makes room for the deeper meaning. His view of man appears in an innumerable number of figures that seem to repeat each other, but are always different.
“He often brings together people who are talking to each other or who just ignore each other. Conspirators without conscience, a crowd in uprising or the anonymous mass without a voice? Through everything courses a line of tension: on the one hand, the displaced, the backward, the marginal, the robbed, the wounded, the mutilated – and, on the other hand, the power carriers, the magistrates, the rulers, the identity thieves and the despots.”
The owners of the farm and restaurant, Dr Reinder Nauta and his wife, Elsabé, are honoured and excited to host this display which now forms part of the landscape of Stanford Valley Guest Farm. It also perfectly complements the restaurant’s well-known eclectic art collection. In using art and the natural beauty of Stanford and the Overberg, they are creating a space where the values of optimism and uitbundigheid (exuberance) remind us that, despite our painful past, South Africa is a place of huge potential for all its peoples.