Diving into Adele Van Heerden’s water-filled art 

Adele Van Heerden

Adele van Heerden fascinates with paintings of water that have not only starkly captured the hues and fluidity of the substance on paper but also the spatial and optical elements that lend appreciation to its significance in life. Through her work, van Heerden reflects and engages with cultures of swimming pools and varying bodies of water. 

Her work also uses water to deliver metaphors about life above water. A collection called Catalyst, recently exhibited at the 2024 RMB Latitudes Art Fair, explored the nature of impact and influence. Van Heerden looked at how people and events can be catalysts that drive change in one’s life. The Oceanic paintings exhibited at 131 A Gallery in 2023 were intended to prescribe a sense of serenity that can be found in the water as one engages with it during unsettling times and under varying circumstances: as an ecological resource, social proclivity, recreational adventure, or political and economic asset. 

Mamelodi Marakalala: Who is Adele van Heerden? Where did it all start and how do you now summarise your art practice and approach to art making? 

Adele van Heerden: My artistic journey began when I was a child. I always travelled around with my parents, who took me to business meetings and everywhere else. I was an only child and treated very independently, which led me to occupy my time and entertain myself with art materials. My family always encouraged me to continue refining those skills. By the time I got closer to matric and had to make career decisions, it became very obvious what I wanted to do. 

Today I’m an artist and swimmer based in Cape Town. My work is autobiographical and abstracted narration, which means that it’s based on my experiences and what I see around me and that it consists of storytelling through the painting titles. The story is sometimes veiled and not immediate, one has to read a bit more into it or chat with me for things to become clearer.

MM: I do find it fascinating that you are a swimmer and you’ve created an extension of your personal and serious relationship with water through your art. 

Can you elaborate on your experiences with water and then your encapsulation of it in your creative process?  

AVH: When I had a hip injury in 2021, I had to go into surgery and was required to do a lot of rehab. So I started swimming and water became a source of my healing. I swim about three or four times a week, in swimming pools and open waters such as the sea or the Silvermine Dam. 

I paint the bodies of water I can find everywhere I go. I’ve been to Paris on residency at Cité Internationale des Arts twice, so a lot of my work is about the swimming pools in Paris. They have about 40 municipal swimming pools there. This led to my interest in researching their public infrastructure. I research swimming as leisure. I explore swimming as a public and social space, and what that means for a community, for different people coming together for that purpose. 

Amid all my swimming, I am always just clicking away with my camera, and I shoot my surroundings on a few different cameras. I am collaborating with Polaroid at the moment and am very interested to see how that feeds back into my practice. Even though I don’t exhibit my photographs as yet, I think it’s fairly obvious from my paintings that they’re all photographically informed. 

MM: What are some of the memorable interactions you have had with the people following your work?

AVH: My art is such a lovely way of being in the world and connecting with others, travelling around and outside Cape Town. I was just at the Latitudes Art Fair in Johannesburg, exhibiting Catalyst through Lizamore & Associates, and met people for the first time who have been following my work for a while. Having those in-person conversations about the work is so lovely. I’ve gotten to speak with people at exhibitions who are swimmers and we’ve swapped stories about our times spent with and in the water. It always makes me very happy when people want to show me pictures of the pools that they swim in. 

MM: You also cite the environment and nature as part of your artistic interests and you’ve painted horses, flowers, architecture and indoor spaces. 

What creates these shifts between bodies of water, other natural wonders, and the various corners that the eye can see? What else calls to you when you step out into the world that is in your mind and we are yet to see?  

AVH: My art depends on where I am personally. The paintings of horses that you’re referring to are part of my monuments series and were created during my time at university. This was around the time of Rhodes Must Fall and there were a lot of debates and questions around the relevancy of monuments and around what we commemorate, or never commemorate, as a society – in South Africa and around the globe. I also studied politics and history, so my research focused on that and I explored the subject artistically. That body of work was in my first solo exhibition under the title of In Memoriam at AVA, the Association for Visual Arts, in 2018.

I slowly started moving towards painting more of nature, flowers and greenery. I was exploring greenhouses, parks, landscapes, and imagery of mountains. I was also running and hiking quite a lot during that time. So those environments were very much what I was seeing every day. When I injured myself and stopped hiking and running, I pivoted to swimming and water became another space of exploration for me. My work is always a response to my environment and personal experiences in one way or another.

What I have in mind are ideas around the mirror. When we look into the water, there’s a reflection. The water mirrors everything above the waterline. I also think that as humans, we tend to seek out mirrors. We seek out people to reflect back to us what we are. I am looking into the idea of people as mirrors, which then refers back to the water, light, and reflection. I am looking at the idea of our cracks, insecurities, hurts, and injuries as being places where the light gets in or gets out, depending on how you choose to see it. These philosophical and psychological considerations are a big part of my work at the moment.

MM: Considering the numerous ways in which water works, your art comes from many spatial and elemental points. Like how water can be contained by dams or river banks, what would you say holds your practice? 

AVH: I think the process itself is very important. My medium is architectural drafting translucent film. I usually start with drawing out the structure of the work with pencil or pastel and then turning the paper around to do a reverse painting on the back with gouache. The mirroring that happens with water also takes shape in my work in this way, where I work on both sides of the translucent film. As a result, the majority of the pigment you see in the painting is actually the pigment from the reverse side of the film coming through. It’s quite a unique technique.

I developed this technique for the first time when I was in a residency in Paris because I had been working on translucent paper for a long time, as far back as with the monuments works. What I love about the drafting film is that it’s poly-based paper, which means it’s very sturdy and archival and can be handled quite roughly without being damaged. Another interesting parallel is that it’s the paper that architects use and there is quite a lot of architecture in my work as well, including the architecture of the pool spaces. There are just many literal and metaphorical layers throughout my practice.

MM: My last question is on what you may be working on right now. Where are you in the creative process and can we look forward to an upcoming exhibition? 

AVH: I am preparing for another residency in Berlin, Germany, at an old mansion that had been empty for a very long time and has now been turned into artists’ studios. I will be in the countryside next to a lake for three months starting in July and I look forward to experiencing German bathing culture, experiencing the wild waters and seeing their beautiful swimming pools with all that amazing architecture. The residency will be followed by an exhibition in October in Berlin that I am planning on bringing back home for my South African audience to see. 

My intention for this year is to collaborate with other artists and creatives. Being an artist can be a lonely endeavour sometimes, so I’m putting feelers out for working with different printmaking workshops. I am in conversation with David Krut Projects about making some prints together again later in the year. I also engage with writing and have two different writers that I bring into my practice and we collaborate in that regard. Ceramics is another field I’m considering. I am looking for an energy return, a mirroring of each other, and to create something new that I wouldn’t be able to create on my own.

For example, I collaborated with my good friend Stephan Erasmus of Ambient Plant Music on some sonic adventures around Cape Town. We made field recordings of streams, pools, bays and waves that were then turned into an ambient composition for the Mirror solo exhibition from February this year at 131 A Gallery, which was performed at the opening. So I am very open to other mediums and art forms in my explorations of water.


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