Andre Stead, ‘Simulant - Edition of 6’, 2016, Christopher Moller Gallery

Sentient. By Ashraf Jamal

The African principle of Ubuntu – we are whom we are because of others – finds its cognate in the Western world through an ‘empathic revolution’. Against the pandemic of narcissism, a disease and a culture epitomised by the ‘Selfie’, artists such as Andre Stead are asking us to return to a more ‘sentient’, intuitive, compassionate worldview. Preoccupied with the ‘ability to feel and to assimilate people, ideas or culture’, Stead has, as a consequence, transformed sculpture into an osmotic metaphor. His figures achieve this by allowing for transparency and letting the viewer’s eye literally pass through the sculpture’s body. In this way, Stead reminds us that self-possession and self-containment is an ego-driven and rational conceit. For example, the female figure entitled ‘Sentient’ is carved from an assembled block made of ‘one hundred tapered modular parts’. By carving this assemblage, thereby breaking the form yet again, Stead reminds us that we are composites, or porous conglomerates. While Stead’s approach is technical, his mind-set is metaphysical. The sculptures are ‘designed so that when the viewer is directly in front of the artwork, at an intimate conversational distance, the negative spaces align, allowing the viewer to see through the artwork’. Stead’s reflection here is curious. His sculptures are not three dimensional Apollonian ideals but, because they are perforated and therefore as much a thing of air as of substance, evocations of a more open-ended, more fluidly inter-connective ideal.

‘The transparent nature of the artwork is a symbol of our ability to be aligned with others in such a way that we can understand their pain or joy as if it were our own’, says Stead. A view at stark odds to that typically associated with sculpture – that it is a thing to be looked at and revered at a distance – Stead reminds art that art need not be reverential, that its beauty can and must also reside in its connectivity. And in this regard, his sentiment powerfully echoes that of Martin Buber’s I and Thou. Stead’s understanding of transparency does not suppose a seamlessly aerated bond but the struggle to truly understand others. His sculptures of men and women are the avatars or mediums for this great humane idea. His most powerful work, in which the human form is wholly abstracted – a blob atop a fretwork of legs – forcefully reminds us that human understanding is not reducible to the cognitively perceptible; that the human is the embodiment of a greater idea and not merely the sum of rational transaction and a balancing act of opposed forces, but, all the more, the enigmatic sum of a far deeper synergy. It is curious that Stead should attach this belief to a form, sculpture, which notoriously has shunned such an ideal. But then, contra the rational view of humankind, it is our atomic, porous, and boundless nature which, for Stead, matters the more. For him, human connection is not only possible by reaching outward into the world, it is all the more profoundly possible by turning inward and finding a universe of possibility within ourselves. It is for this reason that I regard Stead as a sculptor of the ethical heart and mind.

An immersion in online platforms revealed to the artist the astonishing ease with which human beings disclose their deepest secrets and longings. And in this regard it is worth noting, after Tom Chatfield, that ‘contrary to popular belief, “sex” is not the most searched-for term on the internet. If you ask Google about “sex”, it will offer just under two and a half billion results: enough to beat most enquiries but, charmingly, still less than a third of the more than seven billion results for “love”’. And it is love – the love of oneself and the love for others – which, equally charmingly, has inspired the sculptor Andre Stead.

About Andre Stead

b. 1975, Evander, Mpumalanga, South Africa, based in Cape Town, Western Cape, South Africa