Marsi van de Heuvel • skoonveld
skoonveld – Artist’s Statement
skoonveld directly translates as “clean field” in English. It can also be used to describe something being completely gone or missing, calling to mind the emptiness of large swathes of land from which people were forcibly removed during apartheid. It can equally be applied to the systematic erasure of the history and culture of the diverse group of people whom the apartheid government labelled “coloured” and subsequently described in wholly negative terms. It is to this erasure that Marsi van de Heuvel’s latest body of work speaks.
Through this work Marsi explores the idea of belonging to a place, a family and a culture by investigating and reinterpreting the photographs taken by her maternal grandmother and other family members during apartheid. The photographs capture ordinary scenes of everyday life – young girls at school, a child feeding chickens, a father holding his young daughter, a child and her doll. People of colour took and displayed photographs as a way of resisting the dominative narrative that would portray them as inferior. These photographs show ordinary families as they wish to be seen and disturb the memories that we have of the apartheid narratives of subjugation.
In her search to make sense of her own identity, Marsi came across a biscuit tin stuffed full of her grandmother’s photographs, a record of her family’s experiences living in Upington, Graaff Reinet and Umtata. Through deconstructing and reassembling these images she painstakingly reinterprets and re-members the lives of the generations who came before her, exploring a heritage blurred by racial classifications, forced removals and shame. Using oils and other media, she destabilises the negative stereotypes that were assigned to people of colour throughout slavery and apartheid. Often, she hones in on smaller details, like the gloved hands and handbag that hint at a special occasion and is so representative of the respectability that our mothers and grandmothers strived for as an antidote to racist labelling.
Marsi taps into the legacy of education passed down from her grandparents, who were both teachers, to her mother, an art teacher, in whose classroom she first honed her craft, and to her own experiences growing up in Cape Town. There are numerous references to the classroom, another space rigorously controlled and policed by the apartheid regime. She reimagines a typical school class photograph that reflects the Eurocentric norms and standards to which we were subjected. Projected onto chalkboard, it references the impermanence and fragility of these memories.
This legacy of trauma, sustained through slavery and apartheid, continues to reverberate down generations and, through her art, Marsi engages with the sense of loss and pain that threaten to displace her own narratives if not addressed now. The subject is at once personal but also taps into the collective experience of what it was like to grow up “coloured” in South Africa during apartheid. By exploring her own heritage in an attempt to make sense of her roots, Marsi invites viewers to recognise themselves in her work and in the reflection of those who went before her. Her work invites us to think about who we are and where we come from and generates conversations about identity, race and belonging that are urgently needed if we have any hope of forging a national identity within a true democracy. In the absence of a formally recorded history, this work engages with an ordinary archive, reinterpreting it for another generation of South Africans and asks them to reconsider the past through a different lens so we may imagine a different future.
Nadia Kamies, author and historian.
More about Marsi, the artist
dedication, discipline, patience, and maybe slight obsession.
- the juxtaposition of big imagery through small marks.
- her process to be slow, therapeutic and meditative.
- to see labour in an artwork.
- pain, long days and, occasionally, boredom.
- people to feel something.
- to see things through.
- a bit of sanctuary.
- memories of growing up in her mother’s art class room.
- studied at the Ruth Prowse School of Fine Art.
- participated in numerous group exhibitions and art fairs in Cape Town, Johannesburg and Paris.
- had solo exhibitions at the Smith Gallery in Cape Town, the Rochester Museum of Fine Art in New York, and Nuweland in Amsterdam.
For more details on Marsi's art background, see here.