Name: Bronwyn Katz
Place of birth: Kimberly, South Africa
Occupation: Artist, sculptor
Bronwyn, when did you first realize that you could tell stories through art?
It's actually hard for me to separate making art and being a storyteller — it's the same thing for me. I make art because I want to tell stories, and I think I’ve always felt like that. I grew up as an only child, and of course I had friends, but I did spend most of my time alone. And I think because of that, my imagination grew a lot. My grandmother loved telling stories as well, so I’ve always been curious about telling stories myself; I remember being six or seven and knowing that I can attribute meaning to things that don't necessarily correlate, that I can give new meaning to things.
Was that the start of your exploration in found objects?
I loved making things, but it wasn’t until maybe my third year in art school that I started thinking about the stories that objects could hold. In our third year, we were no longer given briefs, so we had free rein! I started thinking about ancestral lineage and language and how to tell those kinds of stories; I ended up doing this assemblage project where I made a wearable gown out of steel wool and pot scourers. That work was about Afrikaans, which is the language that I grew up speaking, and what it means to me, the history of the language before and during apartheid, being a black person living in Cape Town and the tension and uncomfortability that comes with that…
“These are charged materials. They are objects created for a very specific purpose, and it became exciting to see how I can manipulate that, how I can extend the object’s life.”
Pot scourers and steel wool continue to feature in your pieces today. What made you choose those objects?
I often use found objects and the memories in objects as a way of thinking through my own history, my family, my ancestors, the places I live in or am from… I chose those materials because of the ideas that had been placed on them in the context of South Africa, where they can actually be used as derogatory terms, and those were my first pieces that dealt with that. I want to use these found objects to give them new meaning.
You then started exploring the topic of gentrification in South Africa through your use of found bed springs and mattresses…
Yes, I was working with bedsprings that had been left on the street, that had become part of the landscape of the city due to people moving around. I would just pick them up on my route from home to the studio. These are charged materials, you know, they are objects created for a very specific purpose, and it became exciting to see how I can manipulate that, how I can extend the object’s life beyond being more than just something you’d find in a hardware store or a furniture shop.
And how are you going about that? What is your process like for transforming these objects from junk into art?
Different things! I find it exciting to be guided by the material, I’ve never really experienced having an idea and pursuing it and doing exactly that — I like to just be guided by what I find. For the bed springs, some of them I would just live with for extended periods of time, and then it would be like, “Okay, that's it, that's the thing.” Others I would disassemble, take off the frame, release the springs or stretch them out, remove the coils, or eventually even introduce other materials. I love the steel wool and scourers because they’re soft metals so they can bend and stretch and be disassembled. They’re great for joining other objects. Playing with those dimensions is fun for me as well.
The final products can sometimes seem almost playful, with their little curly cues of springs sticking out here and there.
I think that comes out just because the process is playful, a process of experimentation. It's not my intention for them to look playful, but maybe it's a result of play, so it looks playful, you know?
It reminds me of El Anatsui’s draped bottle-top installations, which have a kind of gentle, ethereal look about them, despite being made from stiff metal.
I think El has influenced an entire generation of artists from the continent and all over the world, especially where found materials are concerned. There’s definitely an influence for me as well in terms of process because El’s bottle-tops are disassembled, straightened, made firm and then pieced together. It’s time-consuming work! There are definitely correlations between his process and mine, so the work we’ve been doing together for the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative has been so interesting. As his protégé, I got to spend time in Ghana exploring his studio, seeing what his work involves, and that was so interesting for me.
“El Anatsui has really instilled this openness in me and a willingness to explore something new. I’ve found myself wanting to challenge myself as much as possible.”
What kind of lessons would you say he’s taught you throughout this mentorship program?
He is such an interesting person. He’s known for his metal work and his work with bottle-tops, of course, but he also has all these other practices, with materials like wood… And the time I spent with him, he’s really been encouraging me to not be so stuck on the materials that I've chosen, you know, he’s really instilled this openness in me and a willingness to explore something new. I’ve found myself wanting to challenge myself as much as possible. I’m now thinking about wood these days, or maybe metal or stone, materials that come from the earth because there’s just something about things that you have to dig under the surface for… I grew up in a place with a history of mining, so maybe that’s going to be something I explore next.
It must also be important for you to be part of a network or community of other artists in that way.
Of course, I mean, the Rolex arts family is such a rich network and so many of the artists, both mentors and mentees, are people I really admire. So the program allows this possibility to collaborate and also just to be surrounded by writers, musicians, makers, and creatives outside of my specific creative niche. And that is so exciting and important for me.
Was that something you had in mind when you helped co-found the iQhiya arts collective?
Yes, exactly. The collective isn’t active anymore, but at the time, as black female artists, and also as students, we didn’t feel particularly acknowledged or seen as significant. So we thought, if we see each other, everyone else will be forced to see us, too. I felt so proud to be a part of something like that, and seeing the results that came from it. When I was young, art really brought me a lot of joy, and it was a joy I could experience without the company of others. But now, I’ve realized that how much it moves me to learn from and about other artists, so that’s something I really hope to inspire in others.