Dark forces at work in Amsterdam

Underlying menace:Ruan Hoffmann with one of his works, loosely patterned on a city map of Amsterdam that he has shaped into the shadow of an automaton. (Supplied)

Underlying menace:Ruan Hoffmann with one of his works, loosely patterned on a city map of Amsterdam that he has shaped into the shadow of an automaton. (Supplied)

He is known for his ceramics but, in part due to the practicalities of using clay in the small Amsterdam studio and not having a kiln, he has created a series of three works on paper instead. 

In each of these, dark geometric patterns, built up layer by layer, converge to create a robot. 

"They're loosely based around the plattegrond, the city map of Amsterdam," Hoffmann said. The dark lines represent the narrow streets and alleyways of the Dutch capital. The idea took root during one of his bicycle rides through the park. 

When I visited the studio, the works were still unfinished. 

"I almost want to work it to death," he said. "I have to stop myself. Either I will destroy it, or finish it." 

About how a cityscape transforms itself into a robot, Hoffmann is initially cagey. 

"If I start thinking about it, there will probably be a whole list of hidden meanings. I just don't think it's necessary to explain them in that way. The relevance is what's relevant here. I'm on a bicycle every day, I go to the park, I draw, I work. The deeper angst-ridden messages can probably be tapped out of them if you wanted to.

"I like the black lines; I liked the look of them and wanted to make more of them. There was something about it that worked." 

Using gouache to layer the paint allows him to work quickly. "The development of the drawing is quite organic. I draw something and it grows." 

Mixing the paints with water creates lines of pigment, more canals. When he is finished with one layer of painting he turns the work on its side to create different lines. He intends to make high-resolution ceramic transfers of some of the patterns to use elsewhere. 

One of the robots is rather menacing and he likened it to something "dredged out of the canal, out of this water". 

Hoffmann admitted that the name Transformer sounds a little tacky, "but I'm thinking about it the whole time, this robot-like thing of the city. What I like about this figure is that you do get the feeling that it's moving towards you." 

Reading the papers and watching the news gives him an understanding of some of the currents flowing just under the surface. 

"I don't think of Amsterdam as this floating little paradise where everything is wonderful. I do think of it as quite a dark place." 

Beneath the utopian veneer of bicycle paths and canals, politics is never far away and the grass is not always greener. He refers to some of the racist attitudes he has observed and mentions the fear of Islam and the veil in this part of Europe. 

His metaphor of the city as a robot evokes Steinbeck's comparison in Grapes of Wrath between a company and a machine–"because those creatures don't breathe air … they breathe profits". 

"Yes," Hoffmann agreed. "In Dutch there's a word, maatschappij [which in Afrikaans means a firm or a business], but here it means the society. Do you see the words that dictate this? It is like a machine and it functions like a machine."

He wondered whether the famous Dutch tolerance is perhaps only toleration. "That is also part of the maatschappij"–you're either in or you're out. 

I spoke to Pauline Burmann, chairperson of the foundation, who told  of her surprise that, in the face of massive cuts in arts subsidies, the foundation had received another four-year grant from the city. This will provide for two residencies a year for artists from Africa and the diaspora. 

Supported by local people working in the arts, the foundation grew out of the Dutch anti-apartheid movement. It commemorates Mnyele's work and his visit to Amsterdam for a symposium about art shortly before he was killed in a cross-border raid in Botswana. 

Perhaps it also reminds the city elders of their role in fighting apartheid. 

The following week, Hoffmann emailed to tell me he has named one of the robots, Aksie Boekenstorm 1984, after the occupation of the Suid-Afrikaanse Instituut in Amsterdam by anti-apartheid activists. They bombed the building with paint and threw books into the canal.



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