Nicolene Swanepoel Spirit Guardians | | Art in South Africa
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Spirit Guardians | Stylised dog ceramic sculptures

During October 2004 Nikki Swanepoel exhibited an installation of one hundred one foot high ceramic sculptures in Johannesburg.

The initial stimulus for these sculptures is a canine Nkisi or power figure from the Democratic Republic of Congo A crouching dog sits alertly, mouth open, teeth sharp, tongue lolling, ready to protect. Wrapped around its neck is a worn cloth, on its back it carries a sealed box containing secret substances. It is imbued with power. Figures like these are used to protect people against destructive forces. They often bear found objects on their backs, like rusty nails, inserted to awaken the protective spirit. Dogs are particularly powerful as they swiftly hunt down prey, and so too, symbolically, evil spirits or the evil actions of another.

With the African artefact as original stimulus, the real dog, its behaviour, social structures, and interaction with humans have further dictated the development of these sculptures. As a (retired) veterinarian, I have been pre-occupied for more than two decades with the role of domestic animals, in particular the dog, in historic and contemporary culture.

Dogs are essentially gregarious. In a wild state, they tend to live in packs, and work together as a tight social unit. Since their domestication, humans have often, unfortunately, over-exploited their aggressive instincts. Their territorial protectiveness has become our weapons to defend our lives and possessions. In this process we have blunted their companionable natures.

This work is less about physical abuse of animals, than it is about the abuse of their behaviour and nature by exploiting their instincts to serve us. More importantly, it rebels against the abusive intolerance and inhumanity between people due to poverty and crime, especially in large urban cities.

The combination of the quaintness of a ceramic dog body with disquieting additions is deliberate, to stimulate questioning in order to uncover a variety of interpretations. It also reveals the duality of the superficially attractive and its underlying “darker” nature. This duality needs to be integrated in order to live a balanced life, to avoid being split between the extremes of fantasy and fear.

My ceramic sculptures are protectors of our souls, not against actual malevolence, but the terror of living with fear about something, which might happen. As are dogs, we are also intended to be: Social, caring, a tightly knit, compassionate society.

Let these dogs stand at our front doors, welcoming good forces rather than defending against evil ones.