After a short bout pack backing in South East Asia, several collaborative ventures and a residency in New York, Newtown-based printmaker Bevan de Wet has become one of Johannesburg’s most prolific creatives. His immense dedication to precision coupled with his organic pursuit of deconstructing both history and identity has induced the inception of several unprecedented collections, and, consequently, of his own mythology.

Bevan de Wet, ‘Homo Melanoleuca 2′, Linocut, 197cmx97cm

One simply cannot delve into Johannesburg’s printing industry without coming across your name; could you give me a brief run-through of your journey?
I was born in Jo’burg and lived here most of my life. After school I went to Vega to attempt to study graphic design. After a year I realized it wasn’t where I wanted to be. I always wanted to study art so decided to go to Rhodes University in Grahamstown. I majored in printmaking because I felt like it offered the most diverse options of all the disciplines. I had always worked primarily with line and thus fell in love with etching and its possibilities. After completing my BFA I came back to Jo’burg for a while where I began teaching etching at Artist Proof Studio and also editioning my own work. I was then offered to return to Rhodes as a teaching assistant in the printmaking department for a semester. During this time I worked with Christine Dixie editioning her very large etchings, my introduction to collaborative printing. I became aware that a skilled printer is invaluable but did not know as yet that it could be a potential career option. I then spent 6 months backpacking around South-East Asia before returning to Rhodes for another semester of teaching. At the end of 2010 I was offered a job as a collaborative printer at David Krut. After a few months there I was offered a full time position at APS, as a printmaking technician and collaborator, where I would be able to make my own work as well as teaching. I’ve been at APS since and have recently returned from a residency in New York at the beginning of this year.

Taking a look at the consumption and distribution of art, what do think of the transition that has taken place from your generation to the current one?
With every generation, access to art (and any media) becomes increasingly accessible. The Internet is the largest gallery in the world with instant access from any point on the globe. In some ways we become desensitized to art and its potential simply because of a bombardment of flashy images. People in coming generations will have less and less appreciation for skill and quality of craftsmanship because in this digital age much of that becomes superfluous. Digital art, photoshop and Instagram put many art forms at risk, particularly photography and printmaking.

Bevan de Wet, ‘Faun A’, 2008, woodcut, 159cmx99cm

Bevan de Wet, ‘Mock Chicken’, 2008, woodcut, 98cmx40cm

Growing up- what were the chief influences that we can attribute to your current work and the messages it carries?
As a young boy video games and animated shows like Ninja Turtles and Xmen were incredibly popular. They were these fantasy spaces that existed just at our fingertips and so much of my childhood play was influenced by this stuff. I also used to read a lot of comic books. I think in the 90’s every child had at least one superpower that they could immediately list if asked ‘if you could have any superpower, what would it be?’. I was always fascinated by the potential of how an ‘ordinary’ looking person could have some kind of hidden power that was unveiled the moment they disguised or masked themselves.

Describe an average day at Artist Proof Studio?
It can go from moderate and productive to completely frantic. APS is an NGO, a small organization with only about 20 something staff. Because the studio is involved in so many projects, there is always a number of things happening and deadlines are constant. It’s a great vibe there, there are a lot of creative people and we work with a lot of great artists. The average day is always a process of creative problem solving.

Bevan de Wet, ‘Rhodesian Woman, 2008, etching, 100cmx70cm

Bevan de Wet, ‘Fertility Figure’, 2008, etching, 100cmx70cm

Is your work more deeply rooted in the conceptual, the production or the aesthetic? Most people don’t see the engineering and the immense preciseness involved in the printing process- does this take premise over the message you are trying to depict?
I think most work has to balance all three. There is usually some kind of concept or idea behind my work. Every piece starts as if a seed, the idea that has not yet taken form. The process, like I’ve said, is that of a constant problem solving, its an interrogation and constant process of reinterpretation. Through the production the work generally shifts, or evolves, both physically and metaphorically. A work will seldom look like what your initial plan for it is, and no matter what the intention or concept behind it, there is always something new unfolding in the process, often something which you will only understand much later or that it may take an outsider to perceive in their reading or interpreting of the work. In terms of an aesthetic, or the aesthetic of the work, this may depend from work to work but there is certainly a deft level of draughtsmanship that is strived for.

I find printmaking to be somewhat of a science. Many techniques are certainly very complex and there is constantly more to learn. Perfecting such techniques and pushing your understanding of a technique can only help the type of work you do and your approach to it. Most of my work is figurative and contains some sort of character placed in a particular pose or gesture, often set up in relation/conversations with other figures. I started out making these hybridized figures, often combining humans and animals. I’m interested in the symbolic notions of humans as animals and also by depicting certain animals I may make reference to particular notions such as fertility, by using a rabbit head for example. This fascination with anthropomorphism is often likened to mythological stories, fantasies based on these impossible but imaginable creatures which contain magical powers or are shunned or praised as otherworldly beings. Throughout this process I feel I am developing my own mythology, inventing my own characters to potential stories that are removed from any such context and remain ambiguous or have ambivalent poses. Through decontextualizing them (removing the background, having figures isolated) they remain open to reinterpretation. In a sense they become characters, as if in an unwritten play or story, interacting for a single moment. And as such, they are often dressed up and many wear masks. I am fascinated with this notion of masquerade, where a wearer of a costume (and especially a mask) is able to act out of the commonplace conduct and become a new and imagined person, with a sense of anonymity and mystery.

Bevan de Wet, ‘Homo Oscillum Cutaneous 1′, 2012, Linocut, 197cmx97cm

During collaborations- how do you go about merging your aesthetic, preferences and techniques with those of your clients? And if not- are you ever able to push the conceptual facet of the project aside and focus purely on the process? Do you ever find yourself compromising?
As the term collaborate suggests, it is a constant process of working together – in this case to find a middle ground between what an artist wants and what the technician is able to do (technically) OR advises the artist to do (usually relating to the type of work the artist makes and what outcome they hope to achieve). It is like a conversation, a rapport between artist and technician, and for the technician to be able to best please the artist, one has to have a good or informed understanding of what the artist wants. There does come a point (or often in certain types of work) where it is purely about that technical process, concept aside.

This process of collaboration can be valuable for both parties though, there is always a lot to be learned on either side and often what is learnt can often inform my own artistic practice.

Give us a brief overview of YOUR creative/printing process- what does it consist of? How does it compare to the universally accepted methods? How has it evolved?
This is a very involved question but I will address it briefly. For a long time my focus was mainly on etching, because it offers the most possibility of any printmaking medium. The last year and a half however, I’ve been working a lot more with linocut and screenprinting, largely to explore their potential but also as a change in my approach to making work. There are many processes that we do not have access to in South Africa, simply because our technology and access to materials is nowhere near the potential in the US and Europe. With a growing understanding of these technologies we are gaining access to more and more, the potential is endless.

Bevan de Wet, ‘Homo Connochaetes Taurinus’, 2012, Linocut, 197cmx97cm

What are your thoughts on art/design schools in SA? Many creative’s argue that these “schools” contribute to the disintegration of uncontaminated expression- to what extent do you agree?
I think this is a topic for lengthy debate. I do think that many creative people are opting for a more commercial career path, as it could be far more lucrative option. There are many institutions churning out advertising machines, which certainly does threaten the development of more artist individuals who certainly do have the technical skills to become potentially great artists, but the direction in which they are steered will ensure that little of their creativity is utilized for uninhibited expression but rather for functionality.

Do you have any dream clients? If so- Why?
Hmmm, I guess so. Since being an artist and the art market is quite unpredictable, and there is seldom certainty of regular income (unless you have another job as well), a dream client would be someone who is avidly enthusiastic about your work and your potential and decides to support you as an investment potential. Such dreams clients should be wealthy and influential so as to suggest your work to their wealthy and philanthropic friends.

Due to the fact that you were once a student turned teacher in your area of expertise and therefore-copiously exposed to the creative processes of those around you- which stimuli do you think prove to be the most valuable of drivers in one’s artistic evolution?
I think constantly being challenged and faced with new and exciting tasks. Doing the same thing repetitively can become tedious and seldom continues to stimulate interest in what you do. You need to be excited by new things, new work and new approaches. Its good to be out of your comfort zone sometimes, it’s the only way we can learn new things and find our fuller potential. This sounds totally clichéd right?

What does your life look like right now? You’re engaged in all sorts of things. What projects are currently occupying your time?
Well, my social life is almost nil. I am currently working with an artist making 4 very large etchings (2m x 1m), which has been an incredible challenge and labor intensive task. I’ve never even seen etchings this big let alone working with them. The project is far larger than I ever expected but all of the initial fears of the unchartered territory of this ominous task are slowly falling away. One gets into a rhythm with these sorts of things and while it has been a challenge it no longer seems impossible and gets a little easier each day. Aside from that I am making a lot of new work, having fun, being quite experimental, taking a new approach to my working process. Tentatively working more with colour. Making magic.

Bevan de Wet, ‘Bird of Prayer I’, 2010, monotype, 50x58cm

Bevan de Wet, ‘Bird of Prayer VIII’, 2010, monotype, 50.5×57.5cm

What is your personal aesthetic comprised of and how does it carry through into your everyday life?
I try and keep things looking as sleek as possible, at least with my work. Being a printmaker means being a perfectionist. I tend to be quite OCD when it comes to finished products with my work even if there is a lot less strictness in the creative process itself. I guess I like things a very particular way and I’m not happy if things don’t reach that desired point. It extends to other factors of my life too, which in different situations one might say I’m pretty anal. Everything has a particular place and that kind of structure I find necessary for things for things to function the way I expect them to. This can be a particular challenge in a studio with so many people where things are seldom anywhere you may expect them.

Your inclination toward unequivocal perfection surely helps you to ensure that you are constantly ‘over-delivering’ on all that you are producing however in the presence of this quiet dissatisfaction- how are you able to determine when a piece is ‘complete’ and thus, ready to be abandoned?
That’s a tough one. I guess it’s just intuitive; it’s something you learn to decide in time. Its also different from work to work, sometimes less is more, but to do less is usually harder, at least with me. A piece is complete when it reaches an interesting point without overstating itself. I don’t think simply because something is complete that it is ready to be abandoned – especially with printmaking when completing a plate for instance is only really the beginning, after this point you would print and edition the plate which can take far longer than working the plate itself. I do sometimes lose interest in something once I’ve completed it, not because I think its bad necessarily but because all that you needed to process by making the work has been processed and then comes time to move on to something else.

Due to the fact that you are constantly receiving new orders and producing work on similar deadlines- how are you able to ensure that progress and evolution are inevitable within your art?
I think its important not to lose sight of your way of working, the type of work you want to make and the type of techniques you want to use. Sometimes working with other artists gives you a platform to experiment with new ways of working. Dare I say, using other people as guinea pigs? It can be difficult to maintain a steady creative desire when so much of your creative energy is used on other people and other peoples work. It also goes in waves, unless I feel like I’m doing something exciting it can be hard to force oneself to make work when all you’ve been doing all day is making work for other people. I try and keep my style of working for my own work, and not just offer it as a potential option to the artists I work with. I have creative solutions that I keep for my work and then different solutions for collaborating artists. It can be hard to keep these solutions entirely for ones own practice especially in an environment where there are many people making work and we are all influenced by one another and our surroundings. Constant stimulus is key, and the quest to make something different and unique is eternal.

Bevan de Wet, ‘Oscillum XXIII’, 2012, screenprint, 100cmx70cm

Bevan de Wet, ‘Oscillum XXXVII’, 2012, screenprint, 100cmx70cm

interview by Nicole Francis
all artwork by Beven De Wet