The idea of the superlative haunts every artistic career. For the most part, being the best, achieving the most, setting the highest example is a burden. There is one exception: Barend de Wet, the Boksburg-born sculptor, painter, performance artist, knitter, fire eater and yo-yo expert who died in a head-on collision outside Caledon on 18 March. In 2007, De Wet, an unavoidable figure in the story of the fluorescent new art practices that emerged after 1994, set a yo-yo world record with a two-and-a-half meter looping vertical manoeuvre known as Shoot the Moon. Asked how he felt about his achievement, De Wet told a yo-yo blogger: “Fantastic!”
His masters’ category yo-yo record was the outcome of long-term passion rather than short-term mania, the latter being a pathology that frequently grips artists exploring new media and performance avenues. According to one account, De Wet, a hulk of a man whose tattooed body was both an enigmatic cipher and mobile art gallery, got his hands on his first yoyo in 1968. When I interviewed him at his Woodstock studio 2012, he pegged it around early 1970s. Either way, it was a long time ago and involved a hypnotizing encounter with young men in tight-fitting Coca-Cola T-shirts at his Afrikaans school doing tricks with plastic yo-yos. His passion for yo-yoing waxed and waned with Coca-Cola’s marketing efforts, but he decisively returned to the activity with renewed vigour in the early 2000s following an encounter at the Rosebank Sunday Market in Johannesburg.
“I didn’t know about yo-yos with bearings and all that, and it just opened up a whole new world of yo-yoing to me,” explained De Wet in a 2007 interview. He further told how his interest in yo-yoing was revived by the gift, on his fiftieth birthday, of a Dif-e-Yo Bare Bones – a revolutionary aluminium yo-yo that ushered in the golden age of all-metal yo-yos. The gift set him off on the path to an obscure world record.
De Wet’s love for yo-yoing was not an arcane hobby abstracted from his practice as an artist. In 2006 he showcased his mastery of this consumer-age object on ‘Kazoo – it’s a live art thing’ (2006), artists Anthea Moys and Juliana Smith’s kooky live-art extravaganza at Braamfontein’s defunct Premises Gallery. A year later he gave another yo-yo demonstration at the Michaelis School of Fine Art, where, three decades earlier, he received his formal art training. De Wet initially studied architecture at the University of the Witwatersrand in the late 1970s, but dropped out. Not everyone was amused by his energetic yo-yo demonstration and live tattooing of a lecturer at Michaelis.
“I’m livid, putrefied and disgusted to say the least,” wrote Unathi Kondile, a Michaelis graduate who now edits the esteemed Xhosa-language newspaper I’solezwe LesiXhosa, in an April 2007 blog post. “This old timer actually had the nerve to grace our campus and present to us what many could term a post modernist display of sheer crassity.” The moralising tone segued into a more pronounced question around relevance. In 2011, shortly after agreeing to publically interview Kathryn Smith, the sassy artist and writer who accepted dealer Baylon Sandri’s commission to write a book about De Wet, I received an irritated email.
“De Wet’s purported challenging of ‘little boxes’ of value and other cute ‘avant-garde’, neo-Duchampian clichés is ultimately undemanding,” I was lectured. By who? I don’t know. Rummaging through my things after De Wet’s death, I found a leaf of paper with questions and statements I’d prepared for my interview at the Book Lounge. It included Kondile’s invective, as well as the forgotten email. The nub of the pre-emptive rebuke was that De Wet traded in “fashionable but out-dated art glibness” and his practice was one of “superficial engagement”. The criticism, as I read it, hinges on De Wet’s lack of consistency. Whatevs.
De Wet’s commitment was tidal. Take his love of yo-yoing, which ebbed and flowed, material innovation changing his attitude to what he could do. Ditto with his practice as a sculptor, which acquired its shape and purpose in tandem with the careers of Brett Murray, Joachim Schönfeldt, Beezy Bailey and Nelson Makuba, with whom he lived in 1985. There is a clear through-line from De Wet’s 1981 box sculptures, modular experiments in form made from cardboard, and welded steel pieces that followed in the later 1980s, to the achromatic steel sculptures that appeared on ‘Black, White & Everything In-Between,’ his uncharacteristically austere 2016 solo exhibition at SMAC.
This looping back to formal ideas and material expressions in earlier works was made via experiments like De Wet’s 2008 exhibition ‘White Elephant,’ at Blank Projects – the beta version of the Bo-Kaap dealership founded by Jonathan Garnham. De Wet slathered white paint over consumer electronics and a life-size model of his own aging body. Robert Sloon, aka artist Chad Rossouw, thought the comparison of a white man to an obsolete technology nominally cute: “Irony can be, like behind electric fences, a good place for whiteys to hide.”
Exhibitions, despite what dealers along Sir Lowry Road might tell you, are essentially experiments with the possible. The hope is that the experiment is not too volatile, that the alchemical combination of time, effort and material will hold. The gallery is a valuable site of experiment, but a far more important location is the studio. In 2012, I collected De Wet from the home in Gardens, which he shared with costume designer Diana Cilliers – her credits include District 9 (2009) and Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (2013). At his Woodstock studio he ran me through some of his recent experiment.
De Wet showed me how he attached tangled strands of acrylic wool to hardboard with a staple gun to make a kind of line drawing. He pointed out his crudely painted and welded steel collages made using leftovers from his more formal sculptures. He sighed when he gestured to his failed magnetic sculptures. “They never retain the same shape.” There was passion in all of this, but also boredom in the procedure of the grand reveal. When he got up to make another pot of coffee, I asked about the yo-yo hitched to his belt. De Wet’s bearded face visibly brightened. His collection of yo-yos, he told me, numbered over 90 pieces. “Whenever I’m stuck and don’t know what to do, I pick up the yo-yos.”
The yo-yos. Like his many tattoos (courtesy of Tyler B. Murphy of Sins of Style), spontaneous bouts of public nudity, and legendary reputation as a rabble-rouser in the 1980s and 90s (he quit boozing in 2011), the yo-yos are fundamental to the legend of De Wet. There is, however, a danger in exaggerating their meaning, in accentuating these biographical fragments over confronting the truth of the preternaturally enquiring and studiously committed artist at the heart of the legend.
“For many, Barend de Wet exists as myth,” wrote Smith in her 2010 monograph. “This has had the unfortunate consequence of an understanding of his remarkable artistic work (and by extension his legacy) remaining vague and inarticulate.” Smith’s book did a great deal to give coherence and solidity to a life that was more often than not sketched through anecdote and hyperbole. De Wet was deeply appreciative. “It was fantastic to have thirty years of work on show like that,” he remarked, using his favourite adjective. He added that it also presented him with the opportunity of a “clean start”.
That clean start, which was neither as absolute nor as ahistorical as suggested, expressed itself through colour. Whether framing knitted lengths of wool as abstract canvases or transposing tattoo icons into wall-mounted steel sculptures, De Wet’s mature work was a visual celebration of his love for colour. Driving the artist to his studio, I had lazily remarked how much I hated abstract expressionist painting. All that hyperbolic drama in a contained space. He was politely shtum. When we retraced our journey later in the day, it was somewhere near De Waal Park, he recalled attending painter Kevin Atkinson’s inspirational interdisciplinary classes at Michaelis. He explained how it had helped him formulate an idea of art as an inquisitive practice composed of many interconnected things: art as knitting, sculpting, performance, painting, even cooking.
After pulling up my handbrake, I asked De Wet about his fascination with colour. Why? What is its yield? He looked at me through his Gene Hackman glasses. It is the material in its truest form, he said, passenger door ajar. It is paint as paint, nothing else. It just is. No complications. He slipped out my car, and was gone. If the art world is faith, De Wet was a member of one of those outlier religions, the sort that is less doctrinaire and policed, more ecstatic, closer to animism than any formal religion. To the uninitiated the tenets of this marginal faith can seem like nonsense. “Brei!” implored De Wet, sporting a churchly suit and calling himself the Knitting Bull, during a 2009 performance in Stellenbosch. Knit, he was saying. Make things. Do. Be a verb.