Spring 2008 Edition
Text Size:
Reconciling Self

Reconciling Self

In his mind, Andries Fourie knows he’s Afrikaans.

He was born in 1968 in South Africa to an Afrikaans family with a history of sharecropping and nostalgic notions of its agrarian past. He was raised with Afrikaans values and conscripted into the army that worked to secure his people’s dominance in society. He has visited his Afrikaner ancestors’ graves, now choked by weeds in a tiny rural cemetery.

But in his heart, any pride Fourie might feel in his heritage loses the relentless battle with emotions he cannot ignore — guilt, confusion, shame, anger.

For decades his people, originally white colonists of Dutch descent, were on the ruling end of apartheid. Based on a belief that black South Africans were not even human and an ideal of maintaining white purity, apartheid legalized segregation and severely limited blacks’ rights — and often responded with deadly force against those who violated rules or dared to protest.

“I grew up in an environment that was so sheltered and privileged. The moment I began to think for myself, I realized that the way I was raised was so completely fused with these unspeakable things.” You have to be completely blind to everything around you to look at that and not think there’s anything wrong.

“But my views are horribly offensive to the majority of Afrikaners. Many of my people would say that by virtue of my political beliefs, I’ve left the fold and have no right to call myself an Afrikaner. When you realize one morning, ‘My God, my own people don’t regard me as one of them anymore,’ that’s disturbing.”

A sense of identity — it’s essential to anyone trying to determine his place in the world. How do you deal with the conflict and fear of not knowing who you are? For now, Fourie’s answer lies in creating art. An assistant professor who joined the Willamette art faculty two years ago, Fourie uses multiple media — paint, prints and sculpture — to explore the issues of identity he struggles with daily.

“Art is not just about making pretty things. It becomes a tool for you to investigate your world. It becomes thought and emotional experience objectified. I make these works as part of the process of trying to figure out who I am, where I come from, and how I fit — if at all — into that place.”


Sculpture

The Colonist Adapts (Or Doesn’t) (2007)

“The Afrikaners’ early ancestors, the European colonists, came to Africa in 1652 in three Dutch East India Company ships. The Drommedaris was the flagship.

Sculpture

“I needed a metaphor for the European attitudes we brought with us, which we’ve clung onto culturally for more than 300 years, even though they are completely inappropriate for our environment. I thought a good metaphor would be a boat that can’t float anymore — it’s got all these openings and mesh. It can’t fulfill its original intent, so there’s been an attempt to modify it, with the rickety legs and wheels.

“In the middle is a dowsing wand. My grandfather used these to look for water. The boat can’t float, and it’s desperately seeking water.”


Growing Up with Apartheid

Afrikaner history stretches back to the mid-1600s, when Dutch settlers established the first colony in South Africa, clashing with African tribes as they expropriated the natives’ land for cultivation. The colonists later adopted the name Afrikaner to describe their unique blend of European and indigenous Afrikaans language and culture.

In the late 18th century, the British arrived, eventually conquering the Dutch settlers and taking power. The long-held mistrust and antagonism between the two groups only intensified the harsh nature of what was to come — a rising Afrikaner nationalism that took back control of the government through the National Party, intent on preserving and promoting Afrikaner power. Black South Africans who had already submitted to a long history of Dutch and British colonialism — which at times included slaving away in diamond and gold mines — faced a new horror: apartheid.

An Afrikaans word meaning “separateness,” apartheid established a system of legalized racism and white nationalism. Blacks suffered unspeakable torture and often death as they were forced to submit to laws that controlled every aspect of their lives, as if they were animals. A strong black resistance movement led to uncountable deaths and a police force that reacted violently to anyone considered traitorous. Apartheid’s horrors drew world- wide condemnation, and an International Convention of the United Nations General Assembly eventually ruled that apartheid was a crime against humanity, the highest criminal offense in international law. It wasn’t until the early 1990s that a new government finally began dismantling apartheid, and the country still struggles with the process of reconciliation as it moves toward peace.

This was life for Fourie as he grew up in Pretoria and Port Elizabeth in the 1970s and ’80s. Behind the hefty 6-foot, 2-inch frame and the Germanic accent that sounds subdued to other Afrikaners but gruff to Americans, Fourie is vulnerable to a past he once accepted and now struggles to reject. His family was working class, yet lived in a large home with a swimming pool and black servants’ quarters in the back, a typical arrangement in the white cities. As for the black cities, well, Fourie isn’t as sure about their arrangements. Law prohibited him from visiting them.

Fourie’s book of childhood nursery rhymes contains racist drawings of blacks amid verses that portray them as ignorant. In sixth grade biology class, he was taught that black people aren’t human because they have more ivory in their bones than white people. When he reached high school, Fourie was forced to wear a military uniform once a week. He spent hours on the school’s shooting range learning how to march and fire a gun — preparation for the two years of mandatory military service required of any white male older than 16 who was not in school.

As a teenager, Fourie began to question his upbringing — the first of many times he rebelled against his culture. He snuck into a black business district in Pretoria intending to buy banned books — something “deliciously subversive,” he says. He was surprised to enter a bookstore and find political literature, printed speeches from Martin Luther King Jr. and other writings that made him rethink his way of life.

But it was his conscription into the army at age 19 that truly planted the seeds of doubt in Fourie’s mind. “For the first time, I was sent into black residential areas. When I saw how people were living — no running water, no electricity, block after block of shanties — it became abundantly clear to me that I was being made to participate in something that was completely evil and inexcusable.”

Fourie applied for a visa to emigrate to the U.S., a process that took two years. He left in 1989 at age 21, and didn’t return for 16 years.

He left South Africa, but the country most certainly did not leave him. “I am harrowed by guilt all the time for the small role I played in what happened there. I think guilt about what happened is not only necessary, but it can be liberating. You have to work through what happened in the past to make sure it doesn’t poison the future. Afrikaner culture is so authoritarian, and it sees anything like that as weak. You’re supposed to be fierce and have no mercy, but that’s not conducive to the kind of reconciliation South Africa’s past requires.”


Sculpture

Asking the Ancestors for Answers (2007)

“This jacket belonged to my mother’s father, Thomas Greyling. I wanted to take an object of my grandfather’s and convert it into something that was more African. The piece refers to West African talismanic hunters’ capes and war smocks. These articles of clothing are covered with amulets and charms, which they believe ensure success in war or hunting.

“This jacket belonged to my mother’s father, Thomas Greyling. I wanted to take an object of my grandfather’s and convert it into something that was more African. The piece refers to West African talismanic hunters’ capes and war smocks. These articles of clothing are covered with amulets and charms, which they believe ensure success in war or hunting.

“I chose to put keys all over the jacket because they’re a great metaphor for a solution or an answer. They open doors. But these are keys that don’t open doors anymore. In a way, they’re a metaphor for me and what it means to be Afrikaans. You want to revere your ancestors and live by the values they taught you, but at the same time, because your society is so dysfunctional and racist, many of the answers they’ve given you don’t work.”


Remembrances of Home

Fourie’s works are intentional hybrids. His childhood was so fused with apartheid goals that he couldn’t see the truth of what was happening around him. As an artist he reacts with fusion, but of a much different sort, using his torch to weld materials that portray the conflicting messages reflecting the culture’s hybrid nature.

His works combine older found objects with newly fabricated structures, audio and video messages with tangible sculptures, images of pleasant Afrikaner memories with those of the horrific oppression of black South Africans. His newer works are built more upon old materials he’s found — a gramophone, used clothing, a beat-up shovel.

“When I was growing up, everything was about purity. You had to keep culture pure, and people had to be racially pure. I’ve developed an enormous distrust of anything like that. I’m far more interested in things that are improvised or hybrid, because I think that’s a reflection of what the world is actually like.

“In South Africa, people often don’t have a lot of money, so everything is improvised. They make their own donkey carts. They recycle materials because they can’t buy new ones. Kids can’t afford to buy toys, so they create cars out of wires…. I make my pieces in this improvised, idiosyncratic way I’m hoping will reflect some of that. My newer pieces are more ambiguous than the work I made in the past, but I hope it’s a productive ambiguity and not just wagging a finger and lecturing about something.”

Associate Professor Keith Dull, chair of the art department at Ashland University in Ohio, worked with Fourie before the artist came to Willamette. Dull says he is always impressed with the “boldness and fearlessness” of Fourie’s work, along with Fourie’s continual struggle to interpret his personal view of his history. “The pieces are always multilayered and manage a simultaneous love and disdain for the topic. Within a single piece, he’ll ruthlessly expose an injustice with one hand, and delicately sift out a nugget of cultural validation with the other. The work always contains a feel of aggressive honesty.”

Fourie first returned to South Africa — where his father, grandparents and other relatives still reside — for a two-week trip in 2005. He wanted to learn what traditional Afrikaner culture was like before the Nationalists took power and, as Fourie says, made the culture more Germanic. He also needed to sort out some of the demons of his past.

For the first time, he saw his home country living — and struggling — in an era without apartheid. Segregation no longer ruled the land, but the country was often still divided in terms of where and how people lived. “It was very liberating to see that it was not the same place as when I left. But at the same time, a lot of problems remain. When you talk to Afrikaners today, they complain that our language and our history are not respected in schools and that, because of affirmative action, we’re shut out of the economic prosperity of the country. But they’re still much wealthier than blacks in general. There’s enormous heartbreaking poverty in that country.”

While interactions with his people on that first return visit were mostly positive, on a subsequent trip, tensions mounted and Fourie faced rejection from many who disagreed with his harsh assessments of his culture. Within his own family, his father never wanted him to be an artist — Afrikaners traditionally consider the profession unmanly — and he didn’t understand the messages Fourie tried to convey through his art.


Sculpture

Mbaqanga Special (2008)

“Mbaqanga is a type of music black South Africans listened to in the '70s and '80s. It was a mixture of funk and indigenous black South African music. I've really grown to love it. On the piece are the names of famous Mbaqanga bands.

“The music is the happiest music in the world, but it's made at this time when people are terribly unhappy because they're so horribly oppressed. By law in South Africa during apartheid, any supervisory or well-paying jobs were reserved for whites, so black people could only be manual laborers. That's what the shovel is about. I added the crutch because you have this culture that has suffered injury, yet it still manages to produce this exuberant music.”


But one family member understood all too well: his grandfather, after whom he is named. The elder Andries once managed an ice cream factory, where he punished his black laborers with beatings — typical behavior at the time. In the post-apartheid era, he realized his people’s mistake and it’s profound implications for society. Despite having only a fourth grade education and almost no experience in art appreciation, he easily understood what his grandson’s work symbolized. “It was almost like he didn’t really see these things as art,” Fourie says. “He just saw them as cultural symbols, as pieces that say something. Ideally, that’s how I’d like them to be seen. They’re my own thought process made visible.”

Making Amends

Fourie won an Atkinson Faculty Research Grant from Willamette to return to South Africa in summer 2007. His purpose: to collect visual reference material and do research to help him create sculptures for a solo exhibition at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art. His show opens in April.

But he had another, unspoken goal: personal reconciliation. Fourie contacted the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Art Museum and offered to conduct art workshops for teachers and students in schools and at the Red Location Museum in the Nelson Mandela Metropole area. For the first time, he planned to visit black schools to teach black pupils.

“I’d grown up there, but I’d almost never been into the black areas of my hometown. I wanted to create works about the other 90 percent of the population. The only other time I’d been to these black cities was as a soldier, driving through in an armored personnel carrier, with a machine gun, gas mask and riot helmet. I wanted to gain access to those communities in a way that also benefited them. It doesn’t erase the fact that I was a soldier and that, by my presence there, I supported an inherently evil system. But it’s all I can do at this point. I can try to make some sort of amends for what happened.”

The museum helped him set up a series of workshops, some for teachers and others for students. He led them in drawing portraits of people who were prominent in the city’s liberation struggle and creating cardboard sculptures of their ancestors. And he introduced them to the basics of abstract sculpture, the medium he has most embraced.

In the process, Fourie also met with a group of Willamette students visiting the country for a post-session class, Social Movements in South Africa. Taught by Leslie Dunlap, assistant professor of history, the students spent several days with Fourie as he introduced them to the town of his childhood and shared his stories. “My big struggle during the trip was wondering how apartheid lasted for as long as it did,” says Chris Platano ’10. “He helped me answer that question. Through school, through church, even through pastimes like rugby, everyone was thrown into this Afrikaner culture that supported apartheid. It was so ingrained in their culture that they never really questioned it.”

Platano was not alone among the students in wrestling with this issue, says Dunlap, a scholar of South African history. And Fourie — himself seeking answers — was the perfect guide. “I think he embodies the best aspects of what truth and reconciliation can be,” Dunlap says. “He truly wants to grapple with how this happened and how it can be undone.”

Student
Student
Student
Andries Fourie teaches New Brighton Primary School students in South Africa. Photos courtesy of Andries Fourie

To collect information for his Atkinson research, Fourie sought the family member who inspired his work the most: his grandfather. The two took a trip to the Northern Cape Province to visit a place the elder Fourie hadn’t seen since he was 13 — the farm where he was born. Fourie says many farms in that area still operated under a feudal-like system, with farmers living in enormous ranch houses, their laborers in tiny huts. Fourie’s grandfather died in December, and the artist finds it fitting that their last time together was spent visiting this place, exploring the farm and the graves of their ancestors.

“When you go to a place like that and see where generations of your family’s roots are — especially when some people in your ethnic group are telling you that you can’t be one of them anymore because of your political views — it makes it hard to ever really say, ‘I’m not an Afrikaner,’ because I am.”

In the end, Fourie turns to the formerly oppressed black South Africans — whom he describes as “deeply forgiving” — to answer his identity questions. He still takes pause when asked which ethnicity he claims. “When I talk to black South Africans about this, they say, ‘It doesn’t matter to us if your people don’t want you. We’re happy to have you. You can be one of us.’ So I suppose at the end of the day I call myself South African.”

Andries Fourie: Recent Work, an exhibition of pieces Fourie created in response to his recent trips to South Africa, will be on display April 12–May 11 at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art. Fourie will discuss his work in a free gallery talk April 15 at 12:30 p.m. at the museum.