Audrey Anderson: Finding beauty in the prosaic

I discovered Audrey Anderson by algorithmic accident – and I’ve been a little obsessed with her art ever since. It’s tricky to describe her style but I’d hazard with ‘an exercise in mindfulness with a graphic novel bent’.

Audrey Anderson was exhibiting her first solo show in 10 years at Gallery 2 in Parkwood – until lockdown happened.

Her latest body of work, called Stand a little less between me and the sun, is an attempt to “re-presence presence”. Thanks to a camera attached to her body and archival ink, Audrey captures everyday life fragments and transforms them into layered canvas artworks.

For the past six years, whenever Audrey has gone about her daily life, she has attached a Go-Pro to her head, arm or waist. She sets it to take photos every few minutes, and uses these random snapshots as visual reference points to base her artworks on. (“I’ve built an obsessive collection of images. You don’t understand, I’m running out of terabytes and hard drives!”).

By doing this, she’s able to experience a moment as well as “collect unpredictable tangible fragments”. These moment fragments are then transformed – snapshot by snapshot; layer by layer – into the most amazing ink-based imagery.

“I want to grab this awe and wonder from living life by allowing it to be felt in my works. It is an impossible task, but a challenge I embrace nonetheless,” she says.

“I want to capture my daily experiences, while being aware and present at the same time.”

It’s hard to hold present awareness most of the time – and now, in a lockdown existence, even more so. Or, perhaps it’s more accessible now?

I know I’m relishing the small things that I sometimes took a little for granted pre-lockdown: 10am sunlight hitting my back on my patio; a glimpse of the day-moon hanging in my block of blue sky; an owl hooting at night in the palm tree across the road.

Or maybe we’re still flailing in distraction: counting down the days for lockdown to end; baking bread for the ‘gram; feeling overwhelmed by Zoom fatigue (it’s a thing – as this Salon article points out: “Teleconferencing, day and night, is murder”.)

Audrey’s work speaks to this human quandary – the constant fight we all resist and rage against, the never-ending inner battle to just ‘be’. Her art plays out a balancing act between order and chaos; structure and flow; the conscious and subconscious. It’s highly illustrative in style, yet there’s a distinct feeling that pulls you in, and makes you stay.

“I enjoy detail and finding fragments in the whole but I also like the whole big mess,” she tells me.

She also tells me that she’s self-conscious about the fact that her art studio is in her garage. She used to belong to Assemblage, a collective studio in Newtown that has closed down. But she’s since moved to her own private space at home, in a Roodepoort suburb.

“It feels like people won’t take me seriously if it’s here,” she says, the ‘here’ ending with a question mark.

Ah, Imposter Syndrome, my old friend – I know her well.

Yet ‘here’ is where I meet Audrey for the first time, on a hot, mid-February morning.

I’m a little flustered when I buzz her Weltevredenpark complex’s intercom. I’m always nervous to meet new people, and we’d only communicated via email and SMS (not WhatsApp – Audrey’s old school like that). Plus, on the way to the West Rand I’d driven past a dead man lying in the fast lane on the M1, who was only half-covered by a silver space sheet.

I also hadn’t had my morning coffee yet.

We exchange greetings and she leads me to said garage. I take a look around; it’s amazing to see her works in ‘real life’ and not on my phone’s screen. A small section of wall serves as her “visual compass”, as she calls it. It’s plastered with images and printouts of other artists’ work, and one of the pictures grabs my attention: it’s a monochrome outline of woman’s side profile. Instead of features the profile is distorted and filled with detailed line work of derelict wooden structures, housed within a surreal forest landscape, housed within the woman’s head.

Audrey tells me it’s the work of a Detroit graffiti artist named Pat Perry. She adds that her wall compass helps her know where she’s going, creatively speaking. I tell her I can see she’s influenced by some of the artists on her wall.

“Hmm,” she nods.

“You can see some influences,” she continues. “You’ll get influenced regardless, so it’s better to have some control over it.”

Audrey Anderson
Audrey Anderson in her studio

Audrey grew up in Pretoria and she always knew that fine art would be a career choice. “My parents were artists, but both of them felt it wasn’t a viable career path because you don’t make money from art. They did try to be artists but they gave up and got, what they termed, ‘real jobs’.”

But Audrey could “draw a little bit”, so she attended a government arts high school in Pretoria called Pro Arte.

“That’s when I realised that art can actually be a career. I was with Lionel Smit and [Die Antword’s] Yo-landi Visser. Many of the kids had parents who were successful artists, musicians and dancers. That’s when I thought maybe my parents were wrong – I was going to be an artist regardless.”

After Audrey finished her fine art degree at the University of Pretoria she came to Jo’burg, and has stayed here ever since.

She tells me that she struggles with depression, quite serious depression. She can normally handle it but last year it got really bad – to the point where she started hearing things that weren’t there.

“They were memory clips,” she explains. “I didn’t have enough dopamine for the sensory system to work properly. The brain’s sensory system sits next to your memory; my brain started borrowing from my memory instead of doing its job of actually hearing what is there.”

Sounds that she’d heard before in the past – a trumpet playing, someone laughing, or drawers being opened – would pop up, uninvited, in her current environment.

“I thought it was cool but the doctor said, ‘No’.”

Audrey says the ‘no’ in a purposefully deep voice. We both laugh.

I’ve experienced auditory hallucinations in the past due to extreme insomnia, but I forget to mention that. I can’t get past the trumpets.

Her eyebrows furrow.

“You suddenly make me worry about my mental problem, but I can live with it… everyone has a little something wrong with them. Maybe it’s only artists who realise they have mental issues because of the career they have?”

A standout piece in this latest body of work is entitled Between Fordsburg and Newtown. This large work comprises many fragments that make up the whole – the closer you examine it, the more you realise how detailed each fragment is. Like many of Audrey’s pieces, Between Fordsburg and Newtown is spectacularly prosaic: on its surface it simply depicts a walk through Newtown, to buy samoosas in Fordsburg.

Audrey Anderson exhibition
Between Fordsburg and Newtown

The central figure in the piece is Yael, Audrey’s previous studio partner.

“Yael and I used to share a studio in Newtown, next door to Assemblage,” says Audrey.

“On Fridays, after the Muslim prayer time, we’d go get samoosas from Samoosa World at the Oriental Plaza. Because they’re the best samoosas. We realised that the Bag Factory artists also went for a walkabout on a Friday, so Yael and I started meeting all the other artists in the area in the most random place: the queue at Samoosa World.”

To create this artwork, Audrey started with the smaller fragments first, although she had no idea what the finished product would look like. (“It took me way too long to make”).

“I knew I wanted a bigger image as the focal point, and I wanted to have bits and pieces that were visible through it. The bits and pieces came with me to a residency in Finland and I tried to see how I could connect them together as an embodied unit. But I realised that wasn’t going to happen there, and I brought the unfinished bits and pieces back from Finland. It was very frustrating.”

Audrey ordered the canvas and it stood in her studio for a while, the bits and pieces not coming together. One day she’d had enough so she intuitively started drawing a big image from one of the smaller images – that image was of Yael. She applied layers of paper over the large image, in-between she added hand drawings from the fragments, and finally she drew the background image over the whole thing again.

“It was a layered process,” says Audrey.

“Ink isn’t a medium that can be easily layered like oil,” she continues. “You have to be very sure of that one mark you’re making but also highly intuitive; you need a Buddhist sense about you when you’re working with ink.”

(This reminds me of when I interviewed Joburg artist Fred Clarke, who also works in ink. He stated his creative process is mysterious: “I’m not thinking at all, but at the same time I’m highly focused. It’s inexplicable”.)

“Most artists whitewash a canvas – they want to hide what they’ve done,” adds Audrey.

“When you put up any canvas against light you’ll see what has happened before what is there now. For me the layering is deliberate, so that the viewer can see what was there before.”

Detail from Between Fordsburg and Newtown
Audrey Anderson artist
Detail from Between Fordsburg and Newtown
Audrey Anderson art for sale
Detail from Between Fordsburg and Newtown

Stand a little less between me and the sun is also based on the idea that what one pays attention to is wholly based on one’s individual perspective.

“It’s like that saying, ‘To a man with a hammer everything becomes a nail’, says Audrey.

“I’ve got a perspective of a lived space and I interpreted it using an art medium at that particular time. I’m leaving it up to you, the viewer, to interpret it from your own perspective.

“You’ll give a bit of yourself to it to see something in any one of the artworks. That relationship between me and the artwork, and the artwork and the viewer, is where the magic happens.”

Audrey Anderson South Africa
Between Curiosity and muthi: “This was created from three images taken on my Go-Pro. It’s all from one walk I took in Durban, when I went from the Curiosity hotel to the muthi market. I met this guy, Kay. He had an American girlfriend, but she had to leave the country. Everyone thinks this artwork is about Joburg; Durban is so similar to Joburg – it’s Joburg with the sea.”
A map is not the territory: “I found this image in my phone, I don’t remember where it was from but it was taken many years ago. It’s me. I have so many photos on my phone. It’s a bit different, I had an idea about going through different realities.”
Audrey Anderson Joburg artist
Too close for comfort: “My grandfather used to go to the Oriental Plaza often to buy knives at a specific shop that’s still there; it’s run by two very old men who are brothers. I don’t know what the name of the shop is, I just know how to get there. One day I had to take my mother – whom I have a difficult relationship with – and my aunt to the knife shop because they wanted knives, and this artwork came from that experience.”

Follow Audrey Anderson on Instagram here; visit her website here; and watch a great video interview of her (courtesy ArtCoZa) here.

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