RECONNECT opened last night, Tuesday 23rd October.
Thank you Durban for a stellar crowd at Hendrik Stroebel’s exhibition opening. Bren Brophy KZNSA Gallery Curator noted, “Throughout the centuries there were those who took first steps down new roads armed with nothing but their own vision. It seems that a simple needle, cotton thread, and clay are a powerful weapon against the sea of mediocrity that we are made to believe enriches our lives. The artist and I have chosen to title the sequel to ‘RECOLLECT’ (Stroebel’s solo exhibition in June 2011) RECONNECT, simply because Stroebel’s lifelong journey will shortly, quite literally be returning ‘home’ to the well spring of the artist’s inspiration. Following an extraordinary journey Hendrik will open ‘RECONNECT’ in March 2013 in Dubai at the Showcase Gallery, in partnership with the KZNSA Gallery. This on the occasion of ‘Art Dubai’ - one of the world’s largest contemporary Art Fairs.
Anthony Starkey, Head of the Department of Fine art at the Durban University of Technology opened the exhibition.
Here is what he had to say…
The purpose of this address is to provide a personal, technical, conceptual and historical context to this body of work titled Reconnect by Hendrik Stroebel, as a context for a personal reading of the work by the viewer.
Georg Hendrik Stroebel was born in 1954 in Bloemfontein. He completed his Higher Diploma in Fine Art at Technikon Natal in 1984 and made Durban his home.
Since childhood, when he would marvel at images of the pyramids in books, Stroebel has been intrigued by antiquity and the Middle East. I believe that making his home in Durban, with its rich connections to the east and the Muslim world is closely linked to this childhood attachment.
Since his appointment as a lecturer in the Fine Art department in 1990, Stroebel travelled to Egypt (1994), Turkey (1996), Uzbekistan and Turkey (1996), Jordan and Turkey (1998) and Iran and Turkey (1999). These trips to the Middle East informed the nucleus of all the work that followed (Nolan, 2010). Stroebel said that he is fortunate to have seen the splendours of Persia, antiquity and Islamic, but regrets that he has not been able to go to Syria to view the Roman city of Palmyra and the most authentic Arabic city of Aleppo, where recently the ancient citadel has been shot to pieces and the Unesco heritage site of the Arabic souks totally destroyed (Stroebel, 2012).
Stroebel’s work is firmly rooted in the tradition of Orientialist art, which had its roots in the influence of Turkey, Greece, the Middle East, and North Africa on the Western artist’s imagination, centuries prior to the turn of the 19th Century. Figures in Middle Eastern dress appear in Renaissance and Baroque works by such artists as Bellini, (http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/vero/hd_vero.htm) Veronese, and (http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/rmbt/hd_rmbt.htm) Rembrandt, and the opulent eroticism of harem scenes appealed to the (http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/bouc/hd_bouc.htm) French Rococo aesthetic (Meager, 2012).
In 1798, a French army led by General Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Egypt and defeated the Turks at the battle of the Pyramids, stayed for a year and then was driven out by the British.
Following him came first a trickle and then a torrent of westerners into the Near and Middle East. The writers who wrote about their experiences and the artists who painted what they saw became known as the Orientalists. They travelled through Turkey, Iraq, Persia, Egypt, Lebanon, Palestine, Arabia and North Africa. With time this became an art movement known as Orientalist art (Fink, 2012).
Stroebel’s visits to the Middle East were part of this long history of 18th and 19th Century artists who came from all over the world: from England, France, Belgium, Germany, Italy, Russia, America, and Australia. In common with Stroebel, some of them specialized in images of landscapes, in archaeological themes, people or architecture. One common thread unites these travellers and Stroebel; “All who went were changed by the experience. The journey affected these men deeply. As great art has the power to change the lives of those who create it; so it has the power to change the lives of those of us who view it” (Fink, 2012). This is clearly evident in the case of Stroebel and the body of work exhibited.
“The potency of Orientalist images remained undiminished for many artists into the 20th Century, including Auguste Renoir, (http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/mati/hd_mati.htm) Henri Matisse ( http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/klee/hd_klee.htm Paul Klee, Vasily Kandinsky, August Macke, and Oskar Kokoschka, all of whom took up Orientalist themes” (Meager, 2012).
“Edward Said, in his 1994 book titled Orientalism challenged the concept of Orientalism, or the difference between East and West, as he puts it. He says that with the start of European colonization the Europeans came in contact with the lesser-developed countries of the East. They found their civilization and culture very exotic, and established the science of Orientalism, which was the study of the Orientals or the people from these exotic civilizations” (Khalid, 2012).
“The Europeans defined themselves as the superior race compared to the Orientals; and they justified their colonization by this concept. They said that it was their duty towards the world to civilize the uncivilized world. Said argued that Orientalism is based on Western culture producing a set of assumptions and representations about the East which constructs it as a source of fascination and danger, as both exotic and threatening” (Khalid, 2012).
These attitudes were reflected in the discriminatory and paternalistic attitudes of Dutch and British colonialism in South Africa which resulted in the ideology of Apartheid, written into law and implemented by the Afrikaner dominated Nationalist party from1948. Coming from an Afrikaner background, and growing up in South Africa in the second half of the 20th Century, Stroebel was aware of these powerful cultural and political prejudices and their influence on personal attitudes to the cultural ‘other’.
I would argue that Stroebel’s depiction of the Middle East contains no trace of the highly romanticised portrayal of the region by the 19th and 20th Century European poets, artists and writers. Stroebel’s work, using long and short stitch embroideries within hand carved frames made from reclaimed wood, is a lived response to the enduring beauty of Islamic art and artefacts, especially the decorative nature of the architecture and the rich carpets and fabrics that are abundant in these areas (Nolan, 2010).
“His interest in needlework began twenty years ago when he taught himself to embroider. Although he was self-taught, he was familiar with the medium already as he had seen his mother embroidering when he was younger. Because of his traditional Afrikaans heritage, both his grandmothers as well as his mother had embroidered. It is only recently that Stroebel has found out that his great grandfather would also crochet items out of parcel strings” (Nolan, 2010).
“Stroebel’s reasons for using embroidery in his work are many. He suggests that he has always had a natural inclination to embroider and has chosen the medium both as an aesthetic choice, as well as it being part of his personal history. He insists that the embroidery is not used in any subversive or cognitive way – embroidery is used purely as a medium of expression for Stroebel. It could be said that the process of making the work contributes to its meaning. The act of embroidery has a reflective nature where Stroebel can go back to the place where he was and revisit it” (Nolan, 2010). Stroebel says that he must be excited about the materials in order to make his art and argued that, “With painting there is always the brush between you and the work, but with ceramics and embroidery it is much more direct. There is much more physical contact with the materials” (Stroebel in Nolan, 2010).
It is interesting to note that Nolan, in conversation with Stroebel in 2010 noted that “Stroebel is hoping to take this exhibition [Recollect 2011] to Dubai and the Middle East” (Nolan, 2010).
This hope has become a reality as this exhibition, titled Reconnect, opens in March 2013 at the Showcase Gallery in Dubai, in partnership with the KZNSA Gallery on the occasion of ‘Art Dubai’, one of the world’s largest contemporary Art Fairs in a region buoyant with the elation associated with the ‘Arab Spring’. This comes at a time when Oriental art is experiencing a remarkable resurgence. Qatar is trying to formulate a cultural heritage of its own and the Arab Museum of Modern Art opened in Dohar in December with a “commitment to modern and contemporary art from the Arab world” (Holledge, 2012).
In addition, a major section of the Metropolitan museum of art in New York has been refurbished to launch their major collection of Islamic art last year and the Louvre has just opened a new wing containing the art of Islam (Stroebel, 2012).
Stroebel’s obsession with the Middle East is mirrored by his life, from an adolescent longing to experience the enigma of the region, through a youthful realization of this longing in the form of extensive travels in the region, to a middle aged interpretation of the region. This mature body of work demonstrates a personal, contemporary and, perhaps most significantly, empathetic Western interpretation of the Islamic world. This interpretation brings a new dimension, and makes a new contribution, to the long tradition of Orientalist art. I would like to suggest that this contribution will, in future, be ranked by art historians alongside that of Irma Stern, whose painting titled Arab Priest (1945) was recently bought by the Qatar Museum Authority.
I am sure you will join me in congratulating Hennie Stroebel on a remarkable body of work that cements his reputation as one of South Africa’s foremost South African ceramic artists. It gives me the greatest of pleasure to declare this exhibition open.
23rd October 2012
Fink, R. 2012. Orientalist Art of the Nineteenth Century, European Painters in the Middle East. Available at: http://www.orientalistart.net/"www.orientalistart.net/. Accessed 19 October, 2012.
Holledge, R. Painting the Middle East With Too Broad a Brush? Arts and Entertainment. March 2, 2011
Khalid, H. 2012. An introduction to Edward Said’s Orientalism. Available at: http://www.renaissance.com.pk/FebBoRe2y6.htm"www.renaissance.com.pk/FebBoRe2y6.htm. Accessed, 19 October, 2012.
Meagher, Jennifer. "Orientalism in Nineteenth-Century Art". In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/euor/hd_euor.htm (October 2004
Nolan, C. 2010. The appropriation of needlework techniques in the work of selected contemporary fine artists. Masters in Technology: Fine Art dissertation. Durban University of Technology
Stroebel, H. 2012. Personal Communication with Tony Starkey.