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  • Osart Gallery

In conversation with Kate Gottgens

Andrea Sirio Ortolani: What do you think about the growing international interest in African contemporary art?

Kate Gottgens: Well, I think it has been a lot of time, and it is necessary, it is like redressing something that was ignored, not given enough respect. I think it was in early 2000, in the Venice Biennale, that started to be quite a lot of African countries represented, and it grew from there. Then I think Africa was taking more seriously African artists and their work, on the world stage. I guess it is just a part of the mistakes of history, that museums and institutions have always looked at European art and American art and given evidence to them. And now the politics are changing. It is a wave, and I think it will continue for some time. It comes in parallel with the impulse of Black Lives Matter, I think.

Sirio: How did you live the Covid period and how you managed your work? Kate: I found that was a time where I could really focus, being undistracted by other events. It didn’t change much in my practice; it was only a kind of even more forced routine. It gave me time to explore another media, the collage. There was time to explore what you have, and maybe also a sense of wanting to respond to this pandemic in a new way. It was not easy to go back to the canvas and the painting in the same way you were painting before, so I started to cut up this old collection of magazines. I had this book that I found on a flea market, it is a compilation of magazines collected by someone through the ’50s and ’60s, mostly of art. I read before about collage making, that sometimes it is a way for artists to face up a difficult period. Cutting, fragmenting, tearing, somehow feels appropriate in a face of a difficult environment.

S: I would like to know something about how you choose your subjects, often taken during everyday leisure activities... K: So, I’ve been working with those kinds of images for some time now, maybe ten years or more, they are kind of everyday images, and the photographs that I work from are vernacular, everyday photos, found photos mostly, not my own. I think what is important to say, is why this content has something to do with the fact I was born in apartheid South Africa, I raised a family in post-apartheid South Africa, and I felt to locate myself as a painter, and find my material and my subjects, in what is authentic to my lifestyle. Growing up in this country that was very aware of the difference, and privilege, so perhaps stand by painting swimming pools, gardens, backyards, freeways, these things where people are also usually in some kind of stage of leisure, and comfort, it was authentic to my own experience. Yet hopefully suggesting the problems with that. That there is an underrating of the comfort of wealth, that with that leisure come malice, hedonism, disregard, or recklessness.

S: In your paintings, I see a nostalgic suspension, that could be related to the photographic cut you often adopt. For example, in Court Shoes the person is cut such as she has been photographed by accident... K: Well I remember in that particular painting, wanting not to individualize someone, I think quite often with my figures I mostly prefer to not describe the facial features so clearly, I prefer the figure to be more like something generalized, because the moment when you gives the features of the face it becomes someone you know or don’t know.

S: Court Shoes, Colonial Mentality, and Dance Dance Dance, the paintings we have here exhibited, seems to belong to three different moments of your research. Is something in your use of colors changed from one moment to the other? K: I think I’ve always worked with dark and light colors, throughout the years I come and go from a dark tone, that is responding to the image I’m working with, has more specifically to do with whatever the content of that image requires. It’s not about time periods in my working practice. I like to work with very saturated colors sometimes, it is more like evoking a mood, I think the atmosphere is very important to me in my paintings. Darker paintings have of course a very different atmosphere from the colorful ones, but I enjoy the application of paint, and exploration, giving myself also just the challenge of a full palette.

S: Is there any artist of the past that influenced your practice? K: Yes, so many, but I think if we go back to black and dark paintings, the work of Goya and Manet where they use strong blacks for a sense of drama, it’s an influence for me, also the atmosphere that they evoke through quite highcontrasts is important... But then generally I think that the period I am most drawn to, influenced by, is a kind of 60’s – 70’s British pop, and artists like R. B. Kitaj, Francis Bacon, even Richard Hamilton. What I love is that they are very bold in their color use, and their sense of design and composition is very dynamic. They often have a wonderful union of abstract planes alongside figurative images. Francis Bacon is an example, his very disturbing kind of figurative elements that are so unsettling, and so interesting. And that combination for me is exciting. Another example is David Hockney’s early work – I think he became more decorative once he went to Los Angeles, but earlier on... I’m very drawn to that phase. And particularly in Kitaj, he is a very undervalued artist.

S: How the fact of being a woman, and more in general gender issues, influenced your practice? Casually, in the paintings we have here in the gallery, the main characters are women... K: When I was a young artist, I thought, I wish I had an ungendered name, in English we have names like Robin, that can be male or female, and very early I thought it could be to my advantage if I had a different name. Anyway, we all know that women had been less recognized in institution and galleries, but it is changing. I was affected by motherhood (I had three children) and it does not go very smoothly for an art career, but it was the right choice. Sometimes there is the perception that you don’t take it seriously, strangely, when you have children you can’t be seen seriously as an artist, which is bizarre, but I think it is a common perception. I make figurative paintings and there are male and female figures, sometimes less gendered figures , I don’t think I have a preference but I do make images where there are both, and sometimes there’s the struggles between the genders, or a sense of the powerplay, the vulnerability, or even the gender stereotypes... they’re conversations are there, in the work.


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