Niël Jonker

I have been a professional sculptor for over a decade.

I also paint landscapes and seasonally offer painting classes en plein air. I teach junior school art within my community whenever asked to. For variety, I foster creativity through artisan breadmaking workshops at my home in the village of Baardskeerdersbos. Over the past three years I have started using clay collected from places around South Africa’s southern Cape region where I live and work, not far from where I was born. This is my way of connecting with the land where I grew up, and with those who came before me. The caves along this coast contain precious artefacts, evidence of people’s early symbolic use of earth as art-making material. I knead and blend the indigenous ochre into the clay, producing a surface that reflects the colours and textures of the earthy origins of my ‘beings’.

I also use locally sourced ochre to rub into drawings. Clay was my first medium as child. I collected it from the communal clay pit on the family farm. The older indigenous inhabitants still use clay from this pit to make vessels. Clay is a transformative medium: as I work it, themes and styles come forth. Fragile Beings, my most recent work, suggests vulnerability. As clay is susceptible to unexpected natural processes, such as cracking and breaking, so also are my artistic process and vision susceptible to change.

The ever-present possibility of change is disturbing but at the same time reassuring. I let this ambivalence communicate itself through my sculptures’ raw finishes, evident cracks, and pensive expressions. For me, art is above all about the process itself, whatever the medium or the theme. I like to proceed intuitively, making sense retrogressively. The animal motif emerged in hybrid forms, sometimes therianthropic (animal-human combinations), usually anthropomorphic, and with often surreal results. My previous work on the human figure still comes through in certain elements, such as human eyes component. The bird motif repeatedly cropped up, and one day a collector alerted me to the Sankofa, a West African image of a bird looking over its back. A symbol of ‘going back for what one has forgotten’, it can symbolise acknowledging one’s heritage. Stylistically, I wanted to explore forms ranging in reference from the geometry of the primitive to the clean lines of the modernists, while not entirely discarding the naturalistic forms of realism.

This eclectic approach allows me to explore freely and apply revisionist thinking to traditional concepts. I like to assume the role of explorer, open to what might be undiscovered, coming close to magical realism. It pleases me when my work is viewed as ambiguous and paradoxical, sitting in the spaces that exist between clear meanings.