Charl Attan (for the Art Times):
“Nicolene’s integrity showed in her work. She had the talent and intelligence to bring her message to the world in a subtle unobtrusive way.” So says Ilse Schermers , owner of the Franschhoek-based IS Art gallery and lifelong friend of artist Nicolene Swanepoel, who passed away suddenly on January 10th, as a result of having suffered a stroke.
“She was incredibly bright and very curious and brave,” she says of the artist whom she met when they were “about six or seven years old in the second grade at Anton van Wouw Primary School”.
A fervent animal rights activist, Swanepoel’s oeuvre is overwhelmingly made up of work – whether in painting, writing or ceramics – that with great subtlety, effortless sensuality and intellectual rigour sought to highlight the necessity and value of animals to human existence.
Says Schermers: “She started out studying fine arts at Pretoria University, finished her honours and then went on to complete a Veterinary Studies degree at Onderstepoort. After starting the Animal Behaviourist Department at Onderstepoort and having suffered a severe injury in a bicycle accident, she went on to study ceramics in Johannesburg. She managed to bring all these strands of interest together in her painting and ceramic works – not only exploring inter-human relationships, but also inter-animal and animal-human interaction. All of these play a significant role in her work. She really broke new ground with her ceramics.”
When asked what he believed to be Swanepoel’s unique contribution to the South African art world, another of Swanepoel’s long-term friends Kobus van Bergen says: “I think her own individuality. In hindsight, I think she was one of a few artists that I know of that worked a lot with recycled materials in a lot of her art: paintings on old maps or catalogues, for example. A lot of her clay she used for her ceramic works came from a fellow artist in Grabouw – after it was used to make moulds. Nikki [as she was affectionately known by her friends, acquaintances and colleagues] then transformed the clay, giving it a second life to create works such as the fantastical creatures that went on the exhibition at the Irma Stern Gallery last year or her beautiful Nguni heads and horses.”
Despite eschewing conventional art world dynamics (i.e having no official gallerist), Swanepoel garnered numerous accolades, including the Louisiana State University’s “Animals in Art” awards (1997), the Trienalle Mondiale D’estampes Petit Format (1994), and the Premier Award in Ceramics South Africa’s 2008 National Exhibition at the University of Johannesburg Art Gallery.
Says Van Bergen: “She followed no one, copied no one and came up with ideas out of the box. She slogged at what she was working on for months – sometime years – and was very, very disappointed if it was not accepted, or bought into, by the art-loving public.”
“But,” he laughs, “.”
“Or rather,” he laughs, “we were behind.”
While her contribution to the art world has been certainly be significant – and one that, with her passing, has undoubtedly left a void – it is those who knew her best and longest who will feel her absence most.
Says Schermers: “For nearly 50 years, she was part of my personal and professional life, so it is extremely difficult how big an impact she had on my life and the lives of many, many others.”
With touching messages of grief from shocked friends and lovers of her work flooding Swanepoel’s Facebook page, Schermers adds: “Over the past week, the outpouring of beautiful and meaningful words about Nicolene has been astounding. She touched many lives – and on so many levels that we are probably not even aware of.
“You see, Nicolene truly treated everyone as equals. She never discriminated. She was sometimes delightfully naïve and was completely void of pretentions and was comfortable in most environments. She could hold her own whether she was on her BMW motorbike on a dirt road in the Karoo or delivering a seminar for esteemed Veterinary Science academics, doing a walk about of her exhibition for school children, or cooking her eccentric meals for friend – she was at home in her own skin.”
Schermers laughs, adding: “She could be grumpy at times, but she was kind, friendly, eccentric, courageous, brave, strong, thoughtful, fair, bright, funny, intense, private, beautiful, enthusiastic about life, thorough, principled, and,” she smiles, “sometimes just plain silly.”
Recalling times spent with Swanepoel, Van Bergen says: “What I’ll miss most about her is her love of good, hearty home-cooked meals and good wine, her love and compassion for animals … even her sometimes absolute stubbornness which,” he laughs, “could drive one up the wall.”
Schermers adds: “She worked really hard. But, as hardworking as she was, she put a lot of effort and love into her friendships. She will be sorely missed.”