Acclaimed for an artistic practice that engages both materialist and conceptual thinking, Jeremy Wafer’s work is often visually situated in the field of abstraction and formalism, yet his concerns are coupled to his social-political, geographical and cultural context. In his exhibition Index, Jeremy Wafer’s sculptural installation is the principal medium in which the notions and implications of location, boundaries, and constructed borders are investigated.
Through a lens both personal and political, he offers revisions and reworkings of elements from previous bodies of work, which allows them to gain new meaning and different understandings through their relational context.
Reworkings of constituents seen throughout his career were also presented in Wafer’s 2013 exhibition Survey at Wits Art Museum. The artist believed that this looking back, which he undertook in the studies towards his doctorate, created a space for thinking about his personal geography and the mental architecture of his life, from childhood to practicing fine art. He says of this reflection: “It seems to me I have had only a handful of good ideas in my lifetime and I came to understand that what I do is to constantly try to improve on my expression of these ideas. Come to think of it, perhaps this is really what all artists do”. However, this exhibition Index will bring these familiar constituents into new focus as being rescripted in ways that advance complete engagement with the issues that extend outwards from this personal and geographic centre.
Much of the artist’s work deals with the imprint of human architecture and its boundaries, divisions and separations. He speaks of these from a South African perspective as evidence of the racial separation of apartheid, the dawning awareness of class divisions, and of physical barriers born of the need for security and the desire for possession of physical space. He writes: “I like the term embodied, material minimalism, which highlights the central role of material and the specificity of substance. As a student in the early ‘70s I was looking at artists such as Smithson, Beuys, and Hesse… There was an interest in breaking away from pure formalism to an engagement with the psychical and physical processes in the actualisation of art and also reflecting personal and social concerns and critique.”
In this body of work, the artist references familiar elements – corrugated iron, and the archetypal house – with new materials, sulphur being the most significant addition. Sulphur, which is paradoxically somewhat toxic and naturally healing, is used in this context for its vivid colour, pungency, and acridity. The sulphur is accumulated onto a square pillar, which is another reference to the built environment which Wafer uses to consider and explore the concept of physical and personal space.
Corrugated iron, which is used as a fundamental resource for building shelters, is often dismantled and moved around, and offers us an opportunity to consider the ephemerality, or fragility, of a person’s place in the world. The specificity of location is explored in a photographic documentation of territory in Sao Paulo, Brazil, through which the Tropic of Capricorn runs. The archetypal house, in this exhibition, is wooden, charred, and deliberately rammed into a corner. This structure, presented in a destablised manner, is considered in a revised context in relation to the other works on show.. The overall installation suggests both the vulnerability and constructed nature of personal locations.
Born in Durban in 1953, Jeremy Wafer grew up in Nkwalini, Zululand and studied at the University of Natal, Pietermaritzburg (B.A.F.A. 1979). In 1980 he completed his B.A. Honours in Art History, followed by a Masters in Fine Art in 1987 at the University of Witwatersrand. Although Wafer is generally considered a sculptor, he does not limit himself to any particular medium and easily moves between three-dimensional and two-dimensional work, simultaneously developing site-specific large-scale wall drawings and installations which have become distinctive to his practice. Wafer says of his new work that it “picks up, in varying degrees, on older beginnings and some older work, but locates these in an ongoing conversation.”
Jeremy Wafer is a Professor of Fine Art in the School of Arts of the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, Frequently featured in exhibitions in South Africa and abroad, Wafer’s work is included in the permanent collections of the National Museum of African Art at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC, Iziko South African National Gallery, Johannesburg Art Gallery, Durban Art Gallery, Wits Art Museum, the Standard Bank Collection, and in many other prominent museum and corporate collections. Wafer was featured in the South African pavilion of the 56th Venice Biennale in 2015. His work also featured on Views of Africa at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in conjunction with Earth Matters in 2013.