Panoply is defined as: “A splendid or striking array; Ceremonial attire with all accessories; Something that covers and protects; The complete arms and armor of a warrior.” In this two-person exhibition, Walter Oltmann and Hentie van der Merwe explore their interests in costume as a way to display the absent body. Taking as the departure point the image (or icon) of the displayed costume (for example those found in museums), the artists, in very different visual languages, unearth how we understand ourselves in relation to traces of others.
Walter Oltmann explores the idea of the empty suit as a substitute or surrogate for the body. The uninhabited suits in his sculptures and drawings were initially derived from images of early European dress. Based on such “conquistador-like” clothing, he developed a series of forms in woven aluminium wire and in related drawings. Not unlike armour in appearance, these works recall features of larvae, caterpillars and beetles. By hybridising insect features with the male body, the artist explores aspects of militarism, masculinity and colonialism, and also reflects on society’s preoccupation with defense. The hitherto implied invitation to the viewer to mentally try on the suits is realised more literally in that the wire suits on the KZNSA exhibition may be worn.
Hentie van der Merwe’s work extends his current interest in an archive of Nama (Khoi) folktales he recently discovered in Germany. These tales were recorded by the German folklorist Sigrid Schmidt in Namibia during the last 40 years of the twentieth century while “working with the Nama people”. Van der Merwe explores the overlap between Nama and Afrikaans folktales: the inclusions and exclusions of details, their complex and violent nature, their grotesque humour and bold caricature that talk of violence, power and history.
The figure of the German emperor Wilhelm II – who led Germany at the time of it’s colonisation of Namibia (then German South-West Africa) towards the end of the nineteenth century – has also shaped the artist’s thinking. Wilhelm II suffered from birth complications which left his left arm withered and useless, a defect which contributed to a strongly narcissistic personality with complex psychological and sexual drives.
Van der Merwe’s ideas find form in sculpture, prints and a film made in collaboration with director Amanda Evans and composer Philip Miller that makes extensive use of high-end motion-capture technology and 3-D animation.