Nelmarie du Preez | Two Artists Trapped in One Soul

Published in Avenir Magazine Issue Number 2.

Loops of Relation – to Hit, 2013, Nelmarie du Preez. Image Credit: Nelmarie du Preez.

“I am proudly South African. I carry my heritage as a part of my identity- the good and the bad”, reveals Nelmarie as she makes a cup of tea in her large sunny Laurie Grove Bath studio. Her studio is meticulously kept, with none of the dishevelment associated with an artist’s creation chamber. Behind her table, a neat grid of relevant flowcharts and scribbled notes adorn the wall. She leafs through the pile of books all relating to her current theme of work and continues, “I am working at the junction between performance, photography and computational arts and I try to explore heavy themes like socio-political identity with a casual witty subversion.”

Born and raised in Pretoria, Nelmarie’s upbringing played a large role in moulding her identity and subsequently her art practice. She completed her BA in Theology, Psychology and Audio-Visual Multimedia. She recently graduated from her MA in Computational Arts and has subsequently been invited to complete her Masters of Fine Arts at Goldsmiths, University of London.

Nelmarie falls into a small generation of South Africans whose upbringing was deeply entrenched in both the apartheid and post-apartheid eras. “As an Afrikaner, I felt torn between the binary divisions that growing up in this culture gave rise to. This duality has guided the way I approach my art through the inherent theme of the self/ other relation, and all the anxieties that surround it”. She recalls, “My school history books told me that I occupy two positions. Before apartheid ended, I was taught that I formed part of the ‘colonised’ people (under British Imperialism). After apartheid ended, I was told that I am in fact the ‘coloniser’ (of indigenous people).”

Nelmarie combines the artistic personas of Cindy Sherman and Marina Abramović to explore themes that are as diverse as race, femininity and socio-political identification. The neat mound of books in her studio ranging from White: Essays on Race and Culture by Richard Dyer; Freud’s The Joke and Its Relation To the Unconscious and Cindy Sherman: The Complete Untitled Film Stills only give an inkling to the vast amount of inspiration that the work of other thinkers holds for Nelmarie. By engaging with various notions of otherness and other-ing, she tackles the limited nature of its representation. The ‘other’ embodies itself in the form of a computer – the graphic user interface (GUI) that Nelmarie has lovingly personified and given an identity. Her website states:

“Du Preez/ Gui’ is a collaborative duo consisting of Nelmarie du Preez (b. 1985, South Africa) and Gui (b. 1984, USA). They have been living and working together for the past fifteen years in various capacities. For the past year they have been exploring the mediums of performance and technology.”

Nelmarie talks about Gui as one would talk about a tumultuous love affair. “Gui and I have been together since the 90’s. We’ve worked on so many projects together, but our relationship has also been in a constant feedback loop based on mutual trust and distrust. My actions feed his and vice versa. Sometimes this creates tensions. He is quite temperamental at times and I’ve said some harsh things when he was moving too slow for my taste. But in the end we are basically attached at the hip.” Though his identity is distinct from hers, it is an identity in a constant state of flux. The duality between the self and other manifests in the form of various interrelated dichotomies: male and female, human and technology.

Nelmarie du Preez - Servo Rhythm
Loops of Relation – to Stab, 2013, Nelmarie du Preez. Image Credit: Nelmarie du Preez.

In her 2013 work, Loops of Relation, this camaraderie is mapped by means of interactivity. Modeled around the performance relationship between Abramović and Uwe Laysiepen (Ulay), Nelmarie and Gui explore the parameters that drive the dynamics of a symbiotic coexistence. The four documented performances in the series play out in an endless looping pattern.

These videos aim to establish a relationship between Nelmarie and Gui that is based on complete trust. “I wanted to act as if we were a couple (in art and life) and Marina and Ulay’s relationship presented a picture perfect model for this. I also wanted to play around with the notion of erasing or replacing the ‘other’ as one could argue, Marina has done with Ulay” explains Nelmarie as she turns on her Macbook to show the four video works. The works, simplistic in their visual treatment, aim to highlight this intimacy between her and Gui.

In the case of Abramović and Ulay’s partnership, there was an emphasis on the union between the two selves in order to form a collective being: ‘the other’, a “two headed body” (Green, C., 2000, p. 37). But du Preez/Gui sees this other as an extension of the self. The other is Nelmarie as a man, an assailant, a computerised entity living within the virtual walls of the digital age. Besides bringing to front this symbiotic extension, the videos also bring to surface the antagonism and fragility that is at the core of such a relation.

Mini-drama #05 - I Can't Breathe!
Shooting the Bride, Mini-drama # 5 I can’t Breathe!, 2012, Nelmarie du Preez. Image Credit: Nelmarie du Preez.

In Shooting the Bride (2012), Nelmarie sets forward the tradition of feminist self-portraiture established by Cindy Sherman. While Sherman considered the theme of female objectification in the 1970s and 1980s, Nelmarie reflects on it from a contemporary standpoint. Through the use of masquerade and mimicry, she explores the performative constructions of identity with respect to race, class and gender. The series features an ironic depiction of the bride, where Nelmarie, akin to Sherman, stages, photographs and re-enacts the scenes. “I draw much inspiration from Cindy’s work, especially in her approach to making art – playing many roles in the production of the scenes – as actress, photographer and director. In all my works, I perform these roles with a conscious relation to each other” she elaborates.

Modeled around the spectacle of the wedding, Nelmarie takes the conventional bride and infuses highly dramatised, but biographical narratives, revealed to her by newlywed brides whom she interviewed after their wedding. The drama unfolds within the blurred liminality that precedes the transformative ritual when the woman is yet to achieve married status. This series sets out to explore the absurd constructions that the bride must succumb to, and the role the visual medium of photography perpetuates in setting out these ideals of femininity.

Nelmarie recalls one story with fond nostalgia: “One bride’s photographer insisted that she wear fake-eyelashes in order to make her eyes ‘pop’ in the wedding photos. Her make-up artist however used way too much glue and subsequently made the brides’ eyelids very heavy. At the end of the 24-hour wedding day, she was so desperate to remove them that she tugged and pulled to the point of almost tearing an eye-lid. She remembers crying in her honeymoon suite.” Nelmarie re-enacted this and many other revelations. By abandoning the picture perfect visual narrative of the wedding album, Nelmarie destabilizes the romanticised image of the fairy-tale wedding and instead questions this surface-level idealisation.

Mini-drama #04 - Watch the Dress!!
Shooting the Bride, Mini-drama # 4 Watch the Dress!, 2012, Nelmarie du Preez. Image Credit: Nelmarie du Preez.

To enhance the composition further, each photograph is backlit by light boxes to enrich the cinematographic feel of these highly stylised constructed performances. While these works refer to specific identification within feminine associations, they can be carried over to address larger questions relating to the male gaze, masquerade and the agency of womanhood.

Nelmarie’s Sherman-esque self-portraiture addresses questions of socio-political identity, just as clearly as it addresses questions of feminised identity. In her on-going study of post-colonial and post-apartheid anxieties, entitled Ancestral Angst, she positions herself in front of the ‘Voortrekker’ monument in Pretoria. “The monument symbolises ‘Afrikaner-ness’, especially the dual/binary identity. It was erected after the Afrikaners moved away from the Cape Colony where they suffered under British rule. Today, the monument is viewed as a symbol of all that was wrong with apartheid”, she explains.

Voortrekkers, 2012, Nelmarie du Preez. Image Credit: Nelmarie du Preez.

Nelmarie’s current work involves an investigative archival project surrounding the notion of colourblindness and political correctness. She uses her own background as a South African, which is full of strange and complex encounters (especially surrounding the intersections of race, class and gender). “I use situations or my somewhat distorted memories of them to construct a factual/fictitious narrative that plays out like a crime drama”.

In Buried! (2011), the political identification gains a distinctly personal impetus. Nelmarie remembers, “The day the footage was taken in 1993 was a day of celebration, as my family welcomed my grandfather home after being discharged from hospital. It became a day of storytelling and my grandfather slowly but surely began revealing a secret he had kept buried for almost five decades.” During World War II, he formed part of the ‘Stormjaers’, a right-wing paramilitary subgroup of the ‘Ossewabrandwag’, who were an anti-British and pro-German organisation opposed to South Africa’s participation in the war. “As a Stormjaer, one of his tasks was to bomb various civil sites, but rather than planting the bomb, he buried it. This story would ultimately end up being the very last one he would tell, the very last secret he would ever reveal as we all watch him pass away, while a tape recorder captures it all on film”

Nelmarie recalls, “I was about eight years old when this footage was taken. I was never allowed to watch it until eighteen years later, when my mother asked me to convert the old VHS tape to DVD”. Today Nelmarie, screens the four-minute film in various settings, questioning the boundaries between the personal and the public, myth and reality, life and death.

Buried!, 2011, Nelmarie du Preez. Image Credit: Nelmarie du Preez.

For Nelmarie, her ancestry stands in direct correlation with her day-to-day living. In encounters, it’s saturated with ideologically charged questions in both her personal and professional life, where she finds inspiration for her art. The initial triggers for conceptualising a project usually stem from something that directly affects her in some way or another, whether it be family, friends or technological ‘others’. She is always on the look out for a trigger; a one-liner or a story to tell. She warns, “I think sometimes people should be careful what they say to me, because I might just turn it into a potential artwork.”

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