I love meeting people who are shaping the city and I had been curious to meet Hannelie Coetzee for some time, having seen her “Hover” and “Ouma Miemie and Aunt Vya” on city walks…
Hannelie Coetzee’s work spills out of her studio and into the surrounding streets. The artist moved into Johannesburg’s Maboneng Precinct, on the city’s east side, two years ago and the streets are now her canvas.
As we walk the area together everyone greets her, from the fruit and vegetable hawker under the highway bridge to the barrista at the local coffee shack. Coetzee says her method as an artist has undergone an important shift since she moved her studio here – a barter agreement with the landlords that exchanges space for artworks. From working solo, and isolated in her studio, she has purposefully designed a process that takes her onto the street, where she consciously makes time to pause and chat to people who show curiosity about her work while it is being made. “Working in public space allows for a transparent development of my process, both conceptually and physically… I think it’s a way to broaden interest in the arts,” she says.
She works with stone, enjoying its solidity and its prehistoric provenance creating pieces that, in their detail, have a delicate, feminine quality. “I also had to consider vandalism, so I chose a material that’s not easy to move,” she says.
A photographer by training she takes photos, interpreting the pixels – into stone – as one would an embroidery pattern. One of her first city works is on the corner of Berea and Commissioner Street. Two floors up is a fine mosaic portrait titled Ouma Miemie and Tant Vya, a portrait of two women with 2 small children who seem to be walking away from the building. The women are part of Coetzee’s family – the photograph taken in the 1940s on this very street, as the women made their way to what was then Johannesburg’s premier department store, Greatermans.
A block or two away a large-scale mosaic eye, its lashes curling along the side of a building in Kruger Street, stands seven metres high. She photographed the eye of Anisa Mpungwe, who opened a flagship store for her fashion label Loin Cloth & Ashes in the precinct. The work is titled “The Change Agent” and makes reference to the visionaries of the area. The eye symbolically looks onto Main Street, in the direction of the city’s mining and financial heart. It’s materials are mining core, rock more than a million years old, extracted from the earth in Marble Hall, Witbank and Carletonville.
The works tell the story of someone forging a connection to the city. Of course it’s not without its complexities – not owning the spaces in which she creates work means the pieces are transitory, and can be overwritten.
She says: “I first did a heritage series. At the time I felt out of place, so was creating very personal work in public spaces.” With her later works she uses a grinder to cut fines lines in the top layer of the plasterwork that create a human shape.
The texture invites you feel the work, to run your fingers lightly across the walls where figures like “trapsuutjie” [chameleon] step softly, marking the artists’ shifting perception of the space.
* Hannelie Coetzee does art walkabouts in the city. To join, see hanneliecoetzee.com