Anna van der Ploeg is a contemporary artist based in Cape Town, South Africa. Her interdisciplinary practice is comprised of printmaking, painting and sculpture. The success of two solo shows in Cape Town and artist in residence programs in France, India and Japan have been formative to her process based practice and furthered her appreciation for different methods in print. Van der Ploeg is interested in exploring proximity to discomfort and what we choose to reveal of ourselves. Using diverse materials – paper, wood, ink, metal, rust, wax – she approaches these questions from multiple angles. Van der Ploeg’s parallel role as a beekeeper permeates her visual language; the rich, ritualistic performance allows her to embody this veiled figure and mine it’s metaphors.
You have spent significant time between France, India and Japan – How have each of these countries informed your practice?
The residency in Japan was also a training in Mokuhanga watercolour woodblock printmaking. This appealed to me for combining two things I love: print and wood. Since then I have included the blocks themselves into my practice. Woodblocks are a willful, anachronistic affectation in a world that has largely dispensed with ancient forms of print; the ubiquity of digital printers has made them obsolete. The use of colour and appreciation for subtlety in Japan had some influence on me. And then just being in a place of such paradox and confusing contradictions was incredibly stimulating. In India I worked in very simple media – ink on paper – and in a very hermetic setting. I think it opened a more personal dialogue in my work than I’d made myself available to previously. My days were glaringly punctuated by meals, and it lead to thinking about mealtime more generally, and how it is spent and shared. France fine tuned my lithography skills, affirming that this inaccessible medium is as unique as I suspected.
Having traveled extensively, you continue to return to Cape Town. What makes this city the place that you call home?
What indeed? This goddamn relentless wind blew me away with the NikNaks packets and then sucked me and my little green passport back. A friend moved to Joburg and said ‘you know, everyone in Cape Town goes on about the mountain and the sea, but, you know, I never used them!’ However, I’m here on the mountain and I miss it when I’m gone. Returning made me realise that I am, for better and worse, a Cape Town girl, a cliché I am content with. How this estranged city identifies with the rest of the country is something more complicated. The political climate, emerging voices and thoughts contain some sort of urgency. It is a space that I can’t idealise or always understand, and so it draws me in.
The titles of your paintings really speak to us. In an era where ‘Untitled’ is commonly used to reference an artwork, how do you determine the titles of your work? And how important do you find the relationship between the title and the work itself?
Reading and writing is a central part of my process. I start with writing down thoughts, links, worded illustrations, or notes from something I’m reading. I can’t help a little cheesy wordplay, taking an opening to associate one thing to another with combining their words. It seems like a lost opportunity not to. I like the notion of the role of art to address the unspeakable, but that that work still has a title. To different extents, titles are footnotes, guides, or steal the show completely. Titles are important. In one account in Svetlana Alexievich’s Chernobyl prayer, someone says: ‘we think language, but language also thinks us’. I admire people who manage to tailor language to their own needs, to use it in a way that is entirely their own.
You have a parallel role as a beekeeper. Can you share some insight into your time shared with this extraordinary species?
Beekeeping is such a rich practice. I took it up after two things happened synchronously. Firstly, I was walking in a hiking group and we were attacked by a swarm of bees. One man was stung more than 30 times. Everyone was stung, except me!
Then I read J.M. Coetzee’s The Lives of Animals (1999), in which an observer figure, removed from being human or animal, is alluded to. This text explores the sympathies between all species.
After that it seemed obvious that I need to keep bees! The hierarchies in the beehive and a hive’s ties to the keeper are a synecdoche for our own social structures, allowing me to probe the experience of our proximity to one another, the discomfort we sometimes find there, and what we then choose to reveal about ourselves. Beekeeping became quasi-performative, allowing me to step into anonymity, out of the hyper-visibility of being white and female in post-Apartheid South Africa. This distance provided space to interrogate the pre-accepted cast of the play in which I am an actor – space in the shifting self-perception of young adulthood, and in making art that represents others.
I wanted to understand the relationship of a figure of power to a micro-organism; of myself to this world within a box, but it turned out I only cracked open the lid. The practice of beekeeping proved to be dense with symbolism located in diverse histories and mythologies. It is physical thinking, methodical and responsive engagement, away from the studio and making art. My fear, clumsiness, laziness has been felt in the way the bees react to me. For all the control, it is also totally unpredictable.
After the success of your last solo show Growing To Another Sun at Smith Studio, Cape Town. What have you been working on and towards?
I’ve spent a lot of time working on applications for Master of Fine Arts programs abroad; going through the motions of interviews and funding applications. Much of the application process requires reflection on your previous work. It took longer than I expected, but the time made room for research, learning and really thinking about where I want to be in the next couple of years, how I want my work to grow and what I want to communicate.