Thursday, January 28, 2010

Interview on Radio Today by Joburg heritage maven Flo Bird

I was interviewed on 1 December 2009 by Flo Bird, whose programme Heritage Today runs on the station Radio Today.  Here is the transcript:

Flo:  Now today I'm speaking to someone who has great and colourful meaning for us all, for all Joburg people, and that's Hermann Niebuhr, who has just opened an exhibition at the Anglo Gold Ashanti Gallery in Turbine Hall.  It's called "mine."  It has a double meaning, but it's about the mine dumps.  Welcome!

Hermann:  Good morning!  Thank you, Flo, and good morning to all your listeners.  It's a great pleasure to be here.  Just as you were talking about the Rissik Street Post Office [in the previous segment, about the historic building that burned down in the city centre and whether it would be restored or not], I sort of took my cue with the work I do, which is documenting Johannesburg, I took my cue from a line, and I can't remember exactly where it comes from, that "Johannesburg is a city that doesn't remember itself."

And it sort of struck me, like, "What's going on here?" that there's no books on Joburg, you know, you go to Cape Town and there are a gajillion coffee table books available in every bookstore.

Until Nechama [Brodie]'s The Joburg Book came along, there was to me a real lack of memorialising the city, celebrating the city, and documenting the city, in fact.  I know there were people doing stuff, there was stuff going on, but generally in the mainstream there just seemed to me to be a lack of it, and I was struck by that, you know -- the greatest city in Africa, effectively.  And we're not remembering it.

The work you're doing, and the work The Joburg Book is doing, and hopefully some of the work I'm doing and other people are doing is to elevate the city. I mean, we're going to have several visitors here next year [for the 2010 World Cup]...

Flo: We do hope for a little more than that!

Hermann:  Exactly!  And we've got a great city here.  Anyway, so my journey of documenting the city, of looking at it -- this is the third part of an exhibition trilogy of work I've done around Joburg, this one being the mine dumps. 

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Interview by Fred de Vries

Fred de Vries is a well-known journalist who lives in Johannesburg. He writes for South African and Dutch publications.

This interview comes from his book The Fred de Vries Interviews: From Abdullah to Zille (2008, Wits University Press), a collection of 39 interviews with South African artists, writers, musicians, and thinkers.

Hermann Niebuhr
Fordsburg, Johannesburg, April 2007

Neon lights, dodgy characters, gunshots, the smell of junk food, traces of piss and vomit. Hillbrow doesn't seem the most alluring part of town to explore at night. And certainly not the place to get out of your car and take photographs of lobbies of dilapidated apartment buildings. But that's exactly what Joburg artist Hermann Niebuhr has been doing for the last two months. Those lobbies, devoid of physical human presence, form the basis of a new set of paintings.

"There are parts of Hillbrow where you keep the camera down, because they shoot back, ha ha," says Niebuhr in his studio in Fordsburg. On a more serious note he adds, "When I first started driving around Hillbrow, it was like yeeakgrrrrrr. Then, phase two, I stopped the car and took a picture. By phase ten you get out of the car and you're fine. And you realise you're unpacking a whole lot of your own crap. I'm not saying: wear a Rolex and walk around Hillbrow. Don't be stupid. But you can get out of your car. Nothing has ever happened to me. I walk into those lobbies and say: 'Hi, I'm here to take pictures.' Sometimes they chase me away, sometimes they say it's fine."

Niebuhr's latest project is the logical follow-up to his 2005 exhibition Night Ride Home, which encapsulated the nightly journeys from his studio to his house in Kensignton. It resulted in a beautiful, almost dreamlike overview at the Absa Gallery, full of blurred visions and shattered lights, a kind of Edward Hopper for the twenty-first century.

The new paintings seem to go even deeper. "As your language develops, you're able to describe more authentically the things that you can see," says Niebuhr. "That's what I'm doing now. I go into the buildings. And once you're inside them, they still carry the knowledge from when you first saw them and thought: oh my God."

Both projects form part of his exploration of the state of the city. They lead us to pertinent questions about our aims, ideals and sense of belonging. Is Joburg a failed project or a success? Why are we so scared? Is this fear justified?

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Second Hands

I was looking through art books I had picked up at second hand shops, and it occurred to me to focus on the hands from classical works. I selected 25 of the most beautiful hands from Titian and other masters, and painted them onto one canvas.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Corot's mine

This painting from my recent exhibition mine is called "Corot's mine."

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot was a French landscape painter (1796-1875). He is the leading figure of the Barbizon School of painting and became as well known for his portrayals of human figures as for his plein-air (working outside the studio) landscape paintings.

The woman in my painting is a direct reference to Corot's reclining nude, but I have placed her in front of a Johannesburg mine dump. The dark brown "roots" of paint trickle from the landscape over the human figure.

"Corot's mine" is both homage to this master and a merging of the current-day man-made, toxic scenery with the tradition of 19th century landscape painting.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Artist's Residency in Brazil

I've just been accepted to an Artist's Residency programme in Sao Paulo, Brazil. We'll be there from 15 August until 15 November 2010.

The programme is run by the Foundation Armando Alvares Penteado, or FAAP. It's attached to a university with an art department, and I'll be giving lectures as well as having dedicated studio time in a beautiful 1920s building in the center of the megalopolis.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010


"Collateral" - oil on canvas, by Hermann Niebuhr.

For the story behind the painting ...

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