John-Michael Metelerkamp
Lucinda Jolly, 2019



Traditional European folk tales feature the poor boy who happens upon treasure in a cave guarded by a dragon or at  the base of a man- eating tree. On a more contemporary note and closer to home, there’s a 19th century legend about Kruger gold hidden in a huge hole carved into a giant baobab, in Hoedspruit, Limpopo Province, reputed to be the second largest in the country. The story goes that at the end of the Boer war, two ox wagons worth of gold were hidden in the baobab hole under a termite mound craftily created by burying a termite queen with the gold.

John -Michael Metelerkamp’s latest body of work, Century could be seen as having its origins in a modern folk tale involving Metelerkamp’s role as the “boy” who discovers gold. The gold in this case is metaphysical and a virtual reality in keeping with the technological 21st century. In folklore, the action of Metelerkamp’s uncle- a keen researcher of the family’s lineage - would have positioned him as archetypal ally, when he put a collection of black and white photographs of Metelerkamp’s 19th century ancestors on his computer’s hard drive. After forgetting their existence Metelerkamp was to rediscover them again quite by accident. In keeping with folktale lore, accidents do not exist. And it was as if the images had been quietly waiting for Metelerkamp’s psychic readiness before being unearthed. Interesting how this is aligned with the presence of the ancestors in traditional South African culture and  plays a weighty cultural role.

While Metelerkamp’s signature of prolific output, intuitive approach, a fascination with human beings behaviour and heightened emotional states remains constant, the cache of photographs were to bring about three major shifts in his current approach. Firstly, Metelerkamp’s subject content and personal iconography gets more personal, secondly a new medium, oil paint is introduced. Often working wet on wet Meterlekamp fell for its malleable nature. Thirdly, just as we were starting to get used to his vivid colour palette he offers a pared down tonal palette.  

There is also a profound shift in the energy of the 18 something paintings that comprise Century, which was two years in the making. Whereas in Metelerkamp’s previous works- even the flower still lifes- have a frenetic energy, the paintings in Century are as intense but in a far quieter commanding way. When Meterlekamp first started painting he made the faces ghoulish, in an Edvard Munch kind of way, to protect the identities of his ancestors. Stylistically however this didn’t work but their features have been reinterpreted and the names in the titles have been changed.

In this incarnation Metelerkamp’s connection with Naif art, the tradition of Rousseau, Séraphine, Adalbert Trillhaase, O'Brady, Morais and Lüthi is strong. And, like Rousseau who said "It is not I that am drawing, it is this thing at the end of my hand", Metelerkamp sees himself as a conduit or medium for what comes through him.

While these paintings may be derived from colonial photographs showing a confluence of cultures-  a Western European  one imposed on Africa with surreal consequences- the viewer is obviously free to interpret them through a lens of their choice. But the aim of Metelerkamp’s paintings is not a critique on the evils of colonialism, racism, hunting and the ecologically unsound.  And unless you project your own, you won’t find a storyline either. Nor will you find hyper photorealism at play.

Rather Metelerkamp’s paintings are evocations of presence - a haunting of sorts. He has successfully imbued snapshots of everyday life from another time with the strange, the edgy and  the uncomfortable. In a nutshell, what his paintings activate are  strong feeling states. Although the viewer will never really know who the figures are, what their relationship is or a background to their action, one can intuit the connection between them. The paintings have a darker “white mischief” lens. They are highly evocative of the harsh midday African heat , the cool of river water and  the cement stoep beneath the men’s naked feet,  the slippery skins of caught fish , the smell  of bushveld grass, the fecundity of tropical foliage and the threat of ominous skies.

To achieve this, Metelerkamp has resorted to the tools of the Naif tradition of strong unsettling colours, distortion and a deliberate disregard for proportion. But the use of distortion for powerful expression is an ancient one, a debt Western art owes Africa.  Many famous 20th century European artists recognised and used this device to break away from the stranglehold of Renaissance dictates with its emphasis on realism. We see this in the thickened necks, oversized heads, Thalidomide hands and feet of Metelerkamp’s figures, all in service to his particular dark, unsettling expression. Which suggests that sometimes a fictionalised account is more accurate than a slavishly realistic one.

The use of shadow is another, although less obvious, device in Metelerkamp’s paintings. It is not only used as a compositional element as in Family Portrait to provide both a sense of depth and seen also in the men in Barbels of Althorpe  or Florence Feeding Hounds It is also used  to ground elements,  and as a dramatic device. The shadows in Metelerkamp’s paintings serve to both reveal and conceal. Many of his figures features and therefore identities are concealed by shadows cast by their hats as seen in the Captain’s pith helmet or Florence’s protective sun hat. Sometimes this absence of identity seems to suggest a lack of status as in Jess Feeding Hounds where the top half of Jess is completely concealed by deep shadow with the spotlight on the two white dogs she is busy feeding. In other instances, shadows introduce a dark humour as in Kraal Girls where two dogs in the background are barely visible in deep shadow and it’s only the pin prick glimmer of their eyes that indicate their existence.

Although Metelerkamp remains unaffected and disinterested in contemporary trends and fads instead remaining true to his intuition, one senses that here is an artist that will undergo many transformations and metamorphoses. And one looks forward to seeing what he next pulls from his complex, engaging creative subconscious. 


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