Art and Design

Sanell Aggenbach: Figuring Memory

Layla Leiman

Cape Town-based artist Sanell Aggenbach will be showing a continuation of her Familia Obscura work at this year's FNB Joburg Art Fair.

Lightning Seeds (2013) by Sanell Aggenbach.

Cape Town-based artist Sanell Aggenbach works across a range of mediums including painting, sculpture, embroidery and installation, yet consistent in all her work is a deep sense of contemplation and empathetic engagement with her subject matter. Histories, the transience of memory, and a sense of yearning are themes that recur in her work. Aggenbach will be showing a continuation of her Familia Obscura work at this year’s FNB Joburg Art Fair.

When and why did you make the decision to become an artist?

After I finished my degree at Stellenbosch University I waitressed, travelled and lectured for a few years. It was only after I won the Absa Atelier award in 2004 that I became a full-time artist. It was one of those career choices that you don’t take lightly, it being such a fickle industry.

What was the first piece you ever sold, and how has your work changed and evolved since then?

I had my first solo exhibition at the AVA in 1998, a year after I graduated. There were only two contemporary art galleries in Cape Town then, the AVA and João Ferreira. I sold a couple of paintings, all based on my body. Since then my work has evolved and I have explored themes of cultural heritage and identity politics with my work in a variety of mediums.

You move quite comfortably between the various disciplines of painting, printmaking, sculpting, sewing and tapestry. What do you enjoy about working with a variety of mediums and why do you work with these specific ones?

When I studied at Stellenbosch we were taught all the basic skills that included welding, using power tools, intaglio printmaking, screen printing, stretching your own canvases etc. At the time the craft and the method of art-making was just as important as the academic and conceptual support. I guess this basic foundation made it easier to incorporate a variety of mediums into a body of work. I stubbornly don’t want to be pigeonholed as ‘a painter who dabbles in sculpture’ or a ‘printer who paints’. One of my current interests is the altering and transformation of the two dimensionality of painting. Having said that, I am just as comfortable in traditional painting as I am in producing a bronze sculpture. I enjoy problem solving and sussing out material challenges.

Your recent work plays on the ambiguity between reality and representation. What about this contradiction do you find intriguing?

My most recent work dealt with what Luc Tuymans refers to as the ‘authentic forgery’; the image twice removed from reality. It is the schisms between moments, snapshots and emotional triggers that intrigue me.

Please tell us a little bit about the ghostly, evocative aesthetic of your paintings and how this visually translates your thematic concerns.

I only started working in oil paints six years ago and it is a magical medium. Its slow drying allows for endless manipulation and gossamer effects of layering and transparency. This partial representation relates to the themes of transient memory and a sense of yearning that I often explore.

What do the found objects and coloured thread in your work represent?

Each object that I paint is selected for personal significance. In a way I enjoy an open-ended interpretation of my work, rather than a predetermined explanation, meeting the viewer halfway. The same can be said for my choices of colour, sometimes the decision is based on intuition and sometimes it is a more formal approach.

What will you be showing at the FNB Joburg Art Fair this year? 

Last year I exhibited a body of work entitled Familia Obscura based on obscured family snapshots. I decided to extend this concept for the FNB Joburg Art Fair by producing five new pieces: three botanical paintings and two bronzes. There is an ironic take on the ‘feminine view’, which includes a re-interpretation of Michelangelo’s Pietà. I enjoyed creating these works and playing off masculine mediums (bronze) with feminine concepts.

What are the advantages to having work at an art fair?

The FNB Joburg Art Fair allows for a wider audience. It demystifies the sacred gallery contexts and focuses more on the commerce side of the industry. It is also a great way of gauging the current mood and sentiment in South Africa.

What do you do when you’re not working, and how does this inspire your work?

I used to travel quite a bit, now it is more difficult with two young children. I never switch off completely, even in between projects I spend a lot of time researching in the Cape Town City library, rather than trawling the internet.

Is there a specific piece, your own or by another artist, that has made a lasting impression on you? 

In 1999 I saw Antony Gormley’s Field for the British Isles in the Winchester Cathedral. It is a startling and arresting work featuring thousands of unglazed, fired, small clay figures, standing closely together, all staring towards the viewer and filling a large enclosed space. It is one of those profound, yet extremely simple installations that still haunts and inspires me. Other artists who keep me up at night are Louise Bourgeois and Grayson Perry.

If you weren’t an artist, what would you be?

I don’t know, but probably a very frustrated individual.

What’s next for you?

I still have a sculptural commission to complete before the end of the year and next year is going to be very busy: Volta Art Fair in New York, a group show in London and a solo exhibition at Brundyn+ in Cape Town in November 2015.

Find out more about Sanell’s work via Brundyn+.

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