Adele van Heerden: Capturing Jo’burg’s two-sided beauty

Adele van Heerden’s studio is in an old Transnet building, wedged between a container- and scrap yard. It looks out onto vandalised train carriages scattered next to a silo. But the building is covered in vines, trees grow at the back, and on the roof, there’s a view of Table Mountain.

“In Cape Town, we’re very lucky because nature is never far away; if there’s no traffic, I can get to the mountain in 10 minutes,” says Adele.

‘The Mountain’. I am indeed talking to a Capetonian, but it’s ok; she seems alright, this one.

Adele has been making art full time since 2018, but she emphasises that didn’t happen overnight. “I studied, in total, for seven years, and then managed a gallery for two years,” she says. “I learnt how to navigate the art world and now I have enough clients and exhibitions, but I know not many artists can say that. You need to be disciplined with your time and know how to work with a budget to keep yourself going.”

In 2020 – just before the start of The Plague – Adele was invited to participate in a residency in Paris. The Cité Internationale des Arts allows artists from all over the world to work on a project in one of 312 studios, located in a massive building in the Marais district. In the early ‘80s, the South African National Association for the Visual Arts acquired three atelier apartments at the Cité, and it’s in one of these ateliers that Adele undertook her residency.  

Her project focused on urban green spaces, greenhouses, and gardens in densely populated Paris, and she immediately took in the artistic inspiration that the French capital offers. I presume she also ate baguettes at little cafés and smoked long, elegant French cigarettes. She possibly wore a beret. But I can’t confirm any of the aforementioned.

It’s also here, in Paris, where Adele developed a painting technique that she now uses extensively: using ink and gouache (a method using opaque colours) on architectural drafting film.

“I was using this technique before, but only on much smaller and detailed works,” she adds. “In Paris, I started going bigger, A0 and A1, focusing more on landscapes and places that I’d visited. I’d have my camera with me wherever I went, taking pictures of things I found interesting, then taking it back to the studio where I’d have an artistic response.”

[note: this reminds me of another artist I’ve written about, Audrey Anderson, who also takes a camera with her wherever she goes and uses the images as a significant part of her process]

It’s these paintings that I love most – the ink and gouache. These works are large and illustrative; the film’s ‘canvas’ adds a solid, architectural element to the contrasting nature theme. The colours have an appealing opaque brightness like they’ve been painted on stained glass that’s not fully back-lit.

I tell Adele that I love her ink and gouache work and that it reminds me of a graphic novel. She shares that, as a schoolgirl, she was obsessed with graphic novels, and that her art is certainly informed by this influence, as well as old-school Japanese manga cell-painting, which is done on acetate.

“Cell-painting is actually very similar to the technique I use now, but I only indirectly realised that influence in later years,” she adds.

For the ink and gouache technique, Adele paints directly onto the architectural draft film. She uses brush pens on the front and then turns the film over to apply the gouache in layers on the back. This ‘builds’ the colour and gives an interesting depth – and she points out that it creates two paintings: one on the front, and one on the back.

“With architectural film, you can abuse it without it getting damaged,” says Adele. “The film holds up well archivally, it’s easier to frame, and I really like it because of its opacity. If you do the reverse-painting technique and you turn it around, the colour fades a little, which gives a slight pastel effect. I draw with ink on the front then I flip it around and paint on the back with the gouache; some artists do that on glass. If you take the work out of the frame, there’s a whole painting on the back.”

With the eloquence of an esteemed contemporary arts writer, my response is, “Wow, so cool!”

Melville Koppies, 2022 (ink and gouache on film)

Adele’s Parisian stint was cut short by two weeks thanks to the outbreak of The Plague. She had to return to South Africa in a big hurry, but the residency energised her and it changed her practise completely. Back in Cape Town, the Hard Plague Lockdown gave her plenty of time to think about stuff, like her long-term goals and what she wanted to do next. She also started a series involving dogs on carpets.

She already had contacts at Jo’burg galleries, and she started Zoom chatting to Amé Bell, the gallery director at David Krut Projects. Soon they were collaborating, and in June 2021 Adele began a month-long residence at the David Krut Workshop (DKW), where she explored different techniques and sought inspiration from Jo’burg’s green lungs.

During the residency, Adele tried her hand at etching, but she admits that she’s not well-versed in the technical side of printmaking (for those who are interested in the technicalities, DKW has a useful glossary of printmaking terms here).

“I just allowed Roxy [Kaczmarek] and the other DKW technicians [Kim-Lee Loggenberg and Sarah Hunkin] boss me around until something beautiful happened!” she laughs. “I enjoyed the almost Victorian process of preparing the etching copper plate, covering it with wax, and then drawing into it with a needle to expose the wax, once the plate is submerged in an acid bath,” she adds.

Field Trip, 2021 (liftground, spitbite, and hardground etching) | Adele also painted onto the etching copper plate with acid, which gives a watercolour effect. The colours were all blended on one copper plate; if you look at the colours on the etching above there’s teal, brown, and mint green. These colours were blended by hand; because it’s a hand technique, not all the colours are the same, even though this etching is an edition of eight

Adele tells me that The Wilds is her favourite green space in Jo’burg, and she loves its unruly greenhouse. “It’s like a Little Shop of Horrors, with the cacti growing out of it and plants growing up the glass. It’s a bit misty inside and imperfect.”

She likens The Wilds greenhouse to Jo'burg itself, with its tended-to green spaces contrasting with neglected pavements that almost give out under you. “I always think it would be interesting to have a thought experiment,” she muses. “What would Jo'burg look like in 50 or 100 years if you just let the plants run wild – if people just left, if there was an apocalyptic event? I think it would look a lot like The Wilds greenhouse!” she laughs.

It’s only now, as I write, that I realise I should’ve asked her if she’s ever been to Chornobyl*.

The Wilds Greenhouse, 2022 (ink and gouache on film)
Victoria Yards Nursery, 2022 (ink and gouache on film)
Utopia, 2021 (watercolour monotype with woody crayon) | This monotype (basically a one-off watercolour print) depicts the Joubert Park greenhouse that Adele visited with a group during her residency at David Krut. An old and dilapidated structure, most of the glass is broken, but the community around it has attempted to revive it. Says Adele: “There are traditional plants being grown for medicine, squash and butternut grows on the ground, feral cats hang around, and it even has some beehives. You can see it’s gone through a dip, but now there’s a community effort to look after it again. It’s a hidden pocket that many people use as a refuge, in the middle of the city.”
Beehive, 2021 (watercolour monotype with woody crayon) | Adele says: “There are old buildings around the Joubert Park greenhouse, and they remind me of the beehives inside the greenhouse; they’re the same colour, too.”

Adele’s love for nature is long-standing: her mother is a gardener and plants have always been a prominent theme in her life. She says she’s not very good at identifying plants, but she finds them interesting and beautiful to draw. “I just love the contrast of how we’re in the Anthropocene era of cities and how urban gardening is becoming popular, there’s biophilic design, and people are realising it’s so important to be around nature, especially if they live in a city. Not only is nature aesthetically pleasing, but it also calms us down.”

Adele adds that she’s always had a pull towards Jo’burg. “I really like the sprawl of it; it's such a big city and I love driving around and seeing the different areas. I also like the idea of it being the biggest man-made forest; it's proper urban but people realise the importance of green spaces.”
Adele during her residency at the David Krut Workshop in Johannesburg ©Bernard Brand

For Adele, Jo’burg is like a parallel universe to Cape Town. “I think people are a bit more friendly and open to new relationships in Johannesburg, whereas in Cape Town it can often feel very established. I’m used to it being that way, but when I go to Jo’burg I’m always so surprised by how friendly everyone is.”

She adds that she likes the Jo’burg hustle, and how things get done. “In Cape Town, we’re partial to taking a Friday afternoon off and going to the beach. That lifestyle is great, but there’s an efficiency in Jo’burg. I think because it’s the city of business and commerce, and people are motivated to work hard.”

It’s true, many of us work our asses off. We get things started to make money. There’s no beach on a Friday afternoon, but we meet up with friends, where we talk about the things we’ve started and complain about the money we haven’t made. We hoot at each other the nano-second the robot turns green. And we’re fast learners, too: after the first time our hubcaps are stolen, we use cable ties to attach them to our wheels.

But it’s getting harder to live here, even for someone like me who loves this place. Each month, the potholes deepen, the poverty worsens, the gunshots get closer, and the load-shedding persists. Like the opposite ends of a magnet, Jo’burg push-pulls me – and it’s increasingly pushing. I’m not alone in this sentiment, yet art like Adele’s reminds me that it’s not all kak here.

Indeed, there is beauty. A plant, twisting up the broken glass of an old greenhouse, a collection of succulents in a reclaimed industrial space, the Brixton tower, set against tufts of dry veld and a blue-blue sky.

As I type this during yet another round of early evening load-shedding, I realise it sometimes takes an outsider’s eye to see Johannesburg’s beauty.

In this instance, it’s captured on two-sides, on architectural draft film.

Adele van Heerden’s solo exhibition, ‘Field Trip’, is being exhibited at the David Krut Main Gallery, 151 Jan Smuts Avenue, Parkwood. The exhibition has been extended until 21 May 2022. You can find her online DKW catalogue here. Find out more about Adele via her website.

*Chornobyl is the correct transliteration of the Ukrainian. Just like we’ve been spelling Kyiv incorrectly all this time.

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