/ 21 June 2024

Stephané Conradie: Objects of our lives as signposts for the future

Standardbank Stephane Main Room 1672(p) 2 (1)
Found: Standard Bank Young Artist Award winner Stephané Conradie’s show Wegwysers Deur Die Blinkuur will be on at the National Art Festival in Makhanda.

After having missed each other for about a week or so, Stephané Conradie, last year’s recipient of the Standard Bank Young Artist Award for Visual Arts, and I finally get to chat over the phone. 

Before we get into the conversation about her exhibition at the National Arts Festival in Makhanda, Eastern Cape, which starts on 20 June, I was curious about how people simply decide that they will make beautiful things for the rest of their lives.  

We chuckle over the fact that she comes from a family of makers. 

“My mother would make us make things during school holidays when we would get bored and restless,” she says. 

“She made do with what she had or took us to the craft shop to get a few items for projects. She is also quite creative and is someone who sees beauty around her. 

“My father, on the other hand, has these random home-decor projects where he goes to construction sites and picks and puts things to make things,” the 33-year-old says. 

“Chaos?” I wonder. “But the good and fun type?” 

“Yes, that’s where it all started for me,” she replies.  

Conradie describes her practice as “a little bit of everything” but mostly the embodiment of South Africa’s troubled history. She focuses on telling stories about herself and the brown people in Southern Africa.  

“I also like to focus on simpler issues and what it means to bring fractured histories together and I try to bring those together to make something new, so I think of my work like that and myself like that,” she says. 

Travelling between Namibia — where she was born — and South Africa meant experiencing the different ways in which brown people are seen. 

“When I came to South Africa, we were boxed into a particular kind of grouping that did not quite make sense to me. So, for me, it is about trying to understand, even post-apartheid, why we continue to box ourselves into a particular kind of racial category. 

“When we look at our history, there is so much more than that particular articulation of a racial identity,” she says. 

For Conradie, it might have started with thinking about what it means to be a brown person in South Africa but it has extended to creolisation. 

“I don’t think creolisation has stopped because migration keeps happening, conflict keeps happening then people have to rearticulate themselves as they go along.” 

She admits that some of the content she deals with in her art can be heavy — she speaks about using the different pockets of her life to remind herself that she can live, even on her quest of telling authentic stories. 

Conradie is a lecturer in print media at Michaelis School of Fine Art at the University of Cape Town. I hear her smiling over the phone as she tells me about her students and their own ways of storytelling. 

“Because I teach, I am brought down to earth a lot by my students. They are also telling their stories through the work that they make here. So, this is such an amazing place to be — to be able to share my own experiences of trying to articulate through my making and to help them navigate that as well. 

“I feel like that is what grounds me.” 

National Arts Festival

Conradie’s exhibition at the National Arts Festival, titled Wegwysers Deur Die Blinkuur (Signposts through the Twilight), will be on at the Monument Building.  

Much like how she put together creative projects growing up, Conradie says she started with collecting for the works on this exhibition. 

“I do start with the collection process. I visited a lot of second-hand shops and bought the kinds of things that I would see in our home environment,” she says. 

She speaks of the room dividers that exist in most South African homes. That was a focal point — to think about those room dividers and why people keep certain kinds of objects: photographs, trophies, teacups and glass sets. 

“So, when I go to the second-hand shops, I think about … the room divider. 

“I also started looking on Facebook pages for people selling their things, and for those who would allow me into their homes, I was always interested in the stories behind the objects and why they were selling them.” 

She says she met people who were deciding to let go of objects for reasons such as the loss of a loved one or because they were moving to a smaller place. The idea of shedding became central to the works. 

Conradie takes these objects, which she describes as “bundles”, and prepares them for the next generation. 

“It is sort of the same concept of when our parents know that their time is about to end — they start to bundle things up and make sense of that — passing things down to the next generation.” 

She had to break some of the objects to create something new so the bundles could be articulated more clearly for the next generation.

Conradie hopes that the artworks function as a “signpost” for the next generation to transition with their parents through the twilight. 

“The twilight, the blinkuur, is a time to barricade against the uncertainty of the upcoming evening, when the world becomes still and threats begin to lurk. 

“Surrounded by family and inalienable possessions, inside the home discussions begin. The elders of the home, while polishing the brass, are restless and confront their adult children, sensing their blinkuur has arrived — who will inherit these brass pieces when they are gone?” the festival’s page explains. 

Conradie’s work, steeped in history and personal narrative, is best experienced beyond the confines of a phone call. 

Her exhibition at the National Arts Festival promises to be a profound and tactile journey through the stories and objects that shape our lives.