Artist refuses ‘protest’ label

Pietermaritzburg sculptor Gert Swart was commissioned to erect a monument in honour of Zulu warriors who died in the Battle of Isandlwana for the 120th commemoration. | SUPPLIED

Pietermaritzburg sculptor Gert Swart was commissioned to erect a monument in honour of Zulu warriors who died in the Battle of Isandlwana for the 120th commemoration. | SUPPLIED

Published Feb 25, 2024


Durban — Sculptor Gert Swart refuses to be labelled a protest activist, yet for more than four decades his work has depicted the harsh realities of a fragmented South Africa.

“My father was a policeman and I grew up understanding that something was terribly wrong in South Africa,” he said.

Over the years, the Pietermaritzburg-based artist has taken many commissions and he is hard at work in preparation for an exhibition at the Tatham Gallery next year. For this exhibition he is working on a labyrinth of portals with a theme of “Who am I”, which should guide you home to yourself.

“Instead of kind of losing yourself in the labyrinth, you find yourself, and if you find it difficult to engage with a particular portal, you can avoid it, and you can move on to the next one. Then, hopefully, as you gain experience with the portal, you can come back and look at the difficult ones,” said Swart.

His art has reflected the often unheard “other side”, the pain caused by apartheid and the stories that went untold. One of his most memorable pieces is the monument erected in honour of Zulu warriors who died in the Battle of Isandlwana.

Swart was approached by Amafa, the heritage authority in KwaZuluNatal, to create a monument for the 120th commemoration of the battle in which the British were defeated by Zulu warriors.

“There were all kinds of memorials to the English soldiers but there was nothing for the Zulu impis,” he said.

He was previously commissioned to create a bronze sculpture to commemorate the Battle of Isandlwana, which he did by depicting King Cetshwayo mourning the many people who died in that battle.

Another “privilege” for Swart was being commissioned to create a monument in honour of South Africa’s first Nobel laureate, Inkosi Albert Luthuli, in KwaDukuza (Stanger).

This sculpture by Gert Swart is titled Time is Longer Than a Rope. | SUPPLIED

Swart told the Independent on Saturday that it was never his ambition to become an artist. He studied public health and went on to become a health inspector for Durban Municipality, which exposed him to the horrors of apartheid.

“My area was from the north of Durban to the Tugela River. I went to a lot of these places like Inanda and it was just shocking. Schools with 1 500 pupils that didn’t have water to flush their toilets, and classes used to take it in turns at the end of the day to use a kind of plunger made of wood with a hessian sack at the bottom and they would plunge the cr*p down and there were just incredible breakouts of typhoid.”

Swart investigated and found the Inanda police station had records of people who died as a result of natural causes, showing more than 50% of those deaths were symptomatic of typhoid or cholera, he said.

He reported this to his head of department, who told him to put a lid on his discovery, but Swart threatened to take it to the media if the problem was not resolved.

Eventually he quit and went on to study Fine Art at the Durban Art School. In the early 1990s he was one of the few people determined to teach art to black students in the Midlands, doing so through the Midlands Arts and Crafts Society and the Community Arts Project.

One year he erected a sculpture in the Pietermaritzburg city centre called The Peace Tree, a 6m-high Christmas tree made out of painted tyres.

The Peace Tree erected in Pietermaritzburg used tyres, the weapon of necklacing, turning them into a symbol of peace by making a Christmas tree. | SUPPLIED

“We took the symbol of necklacking and we converted it into a goodwill symbol for the people of South Africa to show that change is going to take place,” said Swart.

It caused so much consternation the city council put it to the vote and it was eventually given the green light to install it on the grounds of the Tatham Art Gallery.

“It was very interesting because black people used to come up and shake our hand and say ‘thank you, it’s the first time we’ve got something in the centre of Maritzburg that symbolises it’, and they really got the idea, the symbolism of converting the necklace to something of significance.

“So I wasn’t a radical but I did try. The council took out a R1 million indemnity in case anyone should be injured,” he said.

Swart went on to witness many changes in the country and says if Nelson Mandela had not preached reconciliation there would have been a lot of bloodshed in South Africa over the years.

He said he had become disillusioned with the situation in the country.

“We just don’t see someone standing up for the good of South Africa,” he said.

Citing corruption and the collapse of important projects like school feeding schemes, he said he was disappointed with the current trajectory.

“To me it’s a huge sadness that some things haven’t changed, all the aspirations of the people just dashed,” he said.

The Warrrior’s Lament is the title of this Gert Swart piece. Many of his previous works will form part of the exhibition at the Tatham Art Gallery in Pietermaritzburg next year. | SUPPLIED

Independent on Saturday