Garth Erasmus: The unorthodox painter

POSTED ON: December 1, 2020 IN Mario Pissarra, On Artists, Word View

by Mario Pissarra

Note: This review was originally published online in 2005.

Garth Erasmus comes from rural roots in the Eastern Cape . He studied Fine Arts at Rhodes University (1978-80) before moving to Cape Town. He taught art from 1982-1997 before becoming a full-time artist. Erasmus is well represented in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African Art, Washington DC.

Erasmus is known as a “painter” who uses unorthodox materials. He traces this back to his first Thupelo Workshop in the 1980s: “there was no more paint… we had to turn to something else”. He developed this further as a means of addressing the legacy of oil paint as a “European thing” and “to demystify art”, advocating the idea “that making artwork was accessible to anybody”. Erasmus comments that “on a purely practical [level]…there was always something that I wanted more out of paint and one of those things was for paint to have a certain three dimensional quality…so the discovery of acrylic paint was very important because it was not as precious as oils and it was much more flexible and elastic, and much more open to be corrupted with sand and things like that, objects…”

Like many artists of his generation Erasmus was acutely aware of the context and consequences of apartheid. He talks about how his family life was “destroyed” by “social engineering”. Many of his early works incorporate direct political imagery, including stencil images of Mandela at a time when representations of Mandela were illegal, with the allusion to graffiti reinforcing the positioning of his art outside of the dominant fine arts frame.

In the late 1980s, in anticipation of political change, Erasmus began to question his practice. Reflecting on his life as an artist he notes that: “I’ve changed now to becoming more isolated as an individual, as an artist…. I’ve become more and more interested in personal and private issues … in the overtly political times [the] private and personal was very much put aside”. A key part of this shift “was to look at what indigenous means in my life” He began “seriously researching indigenous culture, particularly San culture, Khoi culture, looking at words like “Hottentot”, that I grew up with.”

An important part of this process was his discovery of “the music of indigenous cultures”. This led him to invent instruments: “the music that I make is the same as the paintings that I make… they’re coming from the same source, the same spiritual and emotional place… I want to work towards bringing all of them together.” Although there have been changes in his person and in his art, Erasmus still sees himself as more of a cultural worker than an artist, with concerns about education and healing prominent in his thinking. “We all know that serious healing must happen, but for me there’s just no imaginative way of going about this healing… I’ve become sensitised in my own personal life to what that healing means, and what that healing is, and I’ve decided to put that in practice in my own way in my work.”

* A slightly edited version of this text appeared in Art South Africa, 2005.