Juan Stockenstroom took the long route finding his expression as a painter. His earliest visual influences were the comics of his childhood. Later, as he entered adolescence, as if to compensate for his inner nerd, he was drawn to the edgy world of Woodstock’s main road, populated by gangsters, hookers and dealers. Sometimes paying the price for this influence with his naivety.
For this artist from a loving, working-class Woodstock family, there was no money for further studies. When you finished school, you got a job. First came the call centre, then the position of photographer’s assistant. He admits to getting into photography for all the wrong reasons – glitz and glamour.
But Stockenstroom gave up being a photographer’s assistant when he started to feel that the moving of props and lights was closer to ‘glorified furniture remover’ than anything creative. Then came the choice of buying a VW Beetle or a ticket to Britain – part of a two-year exchange offered by Britain to South Africa. The Beetle lost out.
The position of commercial photographic retoucher in post-production followed, providing a better fit than the previous positions. He took to retouching like a ‘fish to water’ and fell in love with the medium as it allowed him the use of his drawing skills. But in the end, he found the medium of photography too limiting.
Stockenstroom’s ‘aha!’ moment came on the back of an interview question – what else would you be doing if you weren’t photographing? The answer came clear as a bell: painting. For some time, unseen, barely perceptible underground currents had been gathering and the inevitable epiphanic moment arrived when Stockenstroom made the game-changing decision to go out and buy that roll of canvas and acrylic paints. A flood of energy resulted and he found himself working furiously for days, pouring out a once damned-up stream of unconsciousness until his wrists ached.
Stockenstroom names Francis Bacon, Cubism, David Hockney and William Blake as some of his primary visual influences. Other influences include podcasts, a range of music from bebop to classical, Shakespeare, and books focusing on history. The visual influence that comes most strongly to mind in his paintings is Jean-Michel Basquiat. Basquiat is considered the first black contemporary artist to ‘make it’. Stockenstroom was first introduced to Basquiat’s work, then unknown to him, via a t-shirt that he was given as a gift. Both Basquiat and Stockenstroom are essentially self-taught. Their energetic and interesting surfaces are produced by contrasting flat areas of colour with intense mark-making. Surface tension is created by contrasting the impulsive with the controlled.
The parallels are not just their similar mediums of acrylic and oil stick, the schematic rather than realistic, or the use of words in paintings as both formal, visual elements and for meaning – particularly the play on meaning, a sort of ‘schizophrenic speak’. Stockenstroom uses three different fonts. He explains that each font emerges intuitively in accordance with the dictates of their specific content. The same can be said of the presence of various languages, including Spanish, Afrikaans, and even Swahili.
But there is a far more profound point of connection between the two. A deep sense of otherness that informs the symbols and metaphors in their artworks. For starters, Basquiat’s mixed heritage is to Stockenstroom’s ‘coloured’ or mixed race. Both are observers whose works are more concerned with the wider social and political context than the personal. Their work engages with issues of race, slavery, identity, masculinity and effectiveness of a people. But Stockenstroom’s content is firmly rooted in the slavery, colonialism and apartheid particular to South Africa.
As in Basquiat’s artworks, black people in Stockenstroom’s works are not portrayed realistically but rather schematically as if to suggest a skewed perception by the dominant white race who does not truly see them. Hence their reduction to flat, cardboard cut-outs or highly simplified, schematic doodlings in both artist’s paintings.
Stockenstroom’s focus is often on characters who were not part of the victor’s history. For example, his painting of the little-known Louis van Mauritius, leader of a Cape slave revolt. He gives us a mash-up of Mauritius as the victorious Napoleon on horseback in the Alps, which raises various questions – for example, who are heroes and to whom are they heroes?
Whereas Basquiat often pays homage to the famous, for example, American boxers such as Sugar Ray Johnson and Cassius Clay, Stockenstroom brings it home with a focus often on the unknown or support acts. This can be seen particularly in his The Journeyman, where Stockenstroom ‘explores the often-overlooked characters in the boxing world known as journeymen.’ Here he depicts a merging of the two boxers’ forms – one Caucasian, the other coloured, but both abused by a dominant system.
Both artists are concerned with the history of slavery. Basquiat gave us Slave Auction and Stockenstrom Freeing Fleeman. Stockenstroom’s work shows the journey of a slave brought to the Cape of Good Hope during the 19th century and how he bought his freedom. Witty catchy phrases and puns like those graffitied on urban walls such as ‘the truthful liar may have won’, ‘bars not bars’ and ‘ja baas’ populate the surface, providing a literal dimension.
Currently, Stockenstroom is working on a new body of work in which he has introduced a new medium of metallic paint. One of the works in progress is inspired by a book on the rape of Africa, showing the schematic body of a woman with two faces, her body sectioned, suggesting Africa’s butchering by Europe and the colonising of her resources.