Nicolene Swanepoel Little Creatures 2014 | | Art in South Africa
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Little Creatures / Without Pedestals (Another Time, Same Place: The Re-evolution of Animals) 2014 | UCT Irma Stern Museum Cape Town

A horde of creatures are crawling from the primeval mess of visual artist Nicolene C. Swanepoel's studio. Lumps of clay transmogrify into animals of various kinds. They are not made to comply with a planned design, but grow according to the whim of the clay and how it responds to the artist's hands at that particular moment. Drier clay offers more resistance, moister clay is more slumpy, well mixed clay is more predictable, half mixed clay offers exciting possibilities, for instance, cracks. Weather and other environmental conditions also affect the process.

Each little figurine emerges into its own individual being.  Most look different to anything we have yet encountered, neither animal nor human. A few may suggest (but do not represent) existing animals - some suggest  more recognisable forms - equine, feline, bovine, homonine, not only the latter, but ALL uniquely sapient.  Others are less recognisable, not a mix but a vague transition or between one and another species.

The artist uses the tip of her (supposedly uniquely and superiorly human) opposable thumbs to make simple graphic marks for eyes, mouths, ears.  These marks remind of African masks and - figurines. 

The final form or animal is very much to be evaluated not only by its visual appearance but also its tactile feel - the way the shape / form sits in your hand, the way your hand / your fingers are lured to embrace the form, even to lift and touch it with your lips, the artist wants to encourage you to sense it as much as possible.

While animals are often viewed in an anthropomorphic manner and many artists depict zoomorphic humans.  Nicolene Swanepoel says "my beings are neither of these - not an animal with human features nor a human with animal features, or a hybrid, but a 'newly developed' animal, a hypothetic being which evolved according to circumstantial conditions. I attempt to heighten our awareness that all beings develop according to environmental pressures - all are unique and have their own set of well developed abilities."  

A superior sense of smell is suggested, for instance, by an elongated "head",  abstracted into a long multi-tubed appendage (neck-head-snout, perhaps reminiscent of the snout of an aardvark). Prominent ears have superior hearing.  A domed head might indicate a more developed sense of intellect.  But no one of these qualities elevates one creature above the other - they are all uniquely specified, all exquisite in their own ways.

These creatures stand or sit, lie in dorsal or sternal recumbency, crawl or stand.  They stand apart or interlock, they play alone or dance with each other.  

They stand without pedestals as none of them are placed above another, they are not elevated by their "creator" (in this case, the artist), nor do they regard themselves as part of a definite special (or "specie-al") hierarchy. It is exactly this that makes them approachable, touchable, sense-able, intimate, but at the same time, vulnerable.

"I am trying to remind that humans are not to assume that, because of an apparently superior intellect, we are greater than other beings - we are animals with our own set of 'superior' abilities (in our case, apparently an advanced intellect, in lieu of physical strength and well developed senses), abilities evolved according to our own intrinsic make-up (our material, the clay we are made of) responding to environmental pressures."

The artist continues: "Should this be appreciated, perhaps we can step back and evaluate the damage we have wreaked to our environment and the creatures dependant on it, due to our assumed 'superiority' and attempted control of power over everything on earth.  Once we appreciate that we are but a small part. Like multiple others, in our universe, and respect all other elements in it, we might begin to try to undo and repair our destructions."