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A beeline for Mother Nature

Anna van der Ploeg makes you reconsider the function of art. Not that you would immediately think this to be the case by observing her exhibition, Arc and Toll at Smith Gallery. The way she attaches little copper bells to her artworks might be slightly unconventional but she has not radically challenged what art looks like. Her art appears familiar, traditional even, in its delivery and subject-matter. There are figures of naked women and detailed figurative drawings of a beekeeper and images of a ray of sunlight stretching across the floor of an empty room warming up a plant.

As these recurring motifs in Arc and Toll imply, Van der Ploeg is concerned with mother nature. This is reflected in her colour palette and sometimes her medium too. Seemingly abstract works made from rust and salt are spread across the paper as if blown by a gust of wind. Moving between shades of cerulean to vivid indigo blues, to the earthy brown and orange tones, Van der Ploeg dives head long into the natural world, touching the earth and the sky. Or maybe she is hovering somewhere in between? This idea suits her art, which is centred on a subject who wears protective gear at all times and is suspended, held in place by nature.

Van der Ploeg communicates this via the form of a recurring female figure. She is often naked, save for a bee-keeping hat and veil. In the works titled “What if we actually knew this is paradise” and “Every point at which your body is touching the earth”, Van der Ploeg’s subject appears immersed in nature as indicated by obvious brush strokes, appearing like waves that wrap around and support this floating female form.

You can’t help thinking that this figure is Van der Ploeg. In her artist statement she explains that the exhibition was inspired by her work as a bee-keeper.

This allows her to reach a deeper understanding of the literal dynamics –between her and the bees – but also the metaphorical meaning that can be extracted from this very precarious activity. As such her art is the means for Van der Ploeg to gain understanding of her work, rather than it being a product of a kind of work. This may not be a new idea, artists have long used art to untangle all sort of conditions. However, there is something slightly different happening here; she is not seeking out a topic, but rather is driven by it. There is a subtle difference. It is refreshing to encounter this on the Cape Town art scene, where young artists are encouraged to make art their work, rather than life steering art.

The result of this has been art for art sake, giving rise to a glut of abstraction and conceptual painting that tends to be about painting and the process of painting, drawing, making something, because the content simply isn’t there yet.

Van der Ploeg appears to create artworks as a way of perceiving herself, though she never directly confronts herself as her head is always obscured by the bee-keeper hat that keeps her at a safe distance from the bees, mother nature, and us, the viewer. You could read all sorts of things into that and link it to her retiring demeanor.

In suppressing the identity of the woman, viewers are left free to project themselves into this tenuous setting – she is after all interested in observing the observer or making the observer come to terms with the rush of excitement and fear in confronting ‘the other’. In the context of this show, it could be nature, or perhaps the part of oneself that is compelled by it.

The quality of the art is a little uneven. Some works are well executed, poetic and aptly convey this sense of flowing through and against nature while negotiating this process of ‘letting go’ while ‘holding on for dear life.’ Others are not so successful – like a portrait painted on gauze. This could be the outcome when the art is the secondary activity, to another one –understanding beekeeping, bees, nature.

Beekeeping and art might not be worlds apart. Not only has Van der Ploeg managed to weave both of these activities together and suprisingly they have delivered her at a similar place –confronting her identity. As she notes in her (it has to be said beautifully written) statement “to work with bees I have had to lose the sense of myself as a being distinct from them.” This could be said to be the case with self-portraiture too and maybe even art making – at some point an artist should try and lose self-consciousness or at least suspend it temporarily. Working as a beekeeper has afforded Van der Ploeg this distance, while at the same time has brought her back into her art. – sponsored content. An edited version of this story was first published in The Times, 27 September

Arc and Toll shows at Smith Gallery, Cape Town until October 8


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