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Pandemic Stories – Johann Nortjé

June 8, 2020
June 8, 2020 Kurt Schroder

Pandemic Stories – Johann Nortjé

We take a look into the impact on the lives and livelihoods of people during the COVID-19 lock-down.

The unprecedented COVID 19 Virus and subsequent Lock-down has had drastic and differing effects on people in South Africa. This series aims to explore that space, and document a bit of what life looks like during Lock-down in South Africa. All necessary health & safety precautions were maintained in the production of this article, and all persons involved had legal permits to work and travel.

The story is told and was photographed by Bernard Brand.

King of Bones, weaver of wire and probably a Viking of some sort. I sat with Sculptor and artist Johann Nortje to hear how he’s been coping with the pandemic. I mean, you guys should know the spiel by now.

I remember first seeing Johann’s work in 2009. I was on holiday with a friend and his family and we went to the Cape Town waterfront. There was this small gallery that I went to check out and I remember a little wire sculpture of an audio tape deck and that stuck with me. Now all these years later I get to sit down and talk to the guy that made that. Life is pretty interesting and weird.

Going into this Johann promised me more questions than answers. I’m not going to lie; this was a tough interview to put together.

BB: What are you busy with currently?

JN: I made a maquette of a jackal for a potential job. The client asked me to make a seated pose and after I had done that, I figured I would also make a standing pose.
Sitting feels a little docile to me. If you’re making something to aspire to or to idolize I feel like it would be standing, proud.

I am also creating another draft for approval for a second potential job. This is slightly more difficult because of the brief. The client wants an interactive playground sculpture. Something that kids can play on and climb onto, but that isn’t so high that they can get hurt if they fell from it.

“Life is about breaking points and how many times you can get past them”.

(Editors note: Johann had a question for me which he ended up answering himself and I really enjoyed it so I’ve decided to add it here.)

JN: My favourite question is; “were you a weird kid?”

I lived in books and I consumed comics. I would take out books from the library and the maximum amount you could take was seven, so I would read seven books a week.

 My dad had this crazy idea of observing the sabbath and on a Friday night at 7 the power would go off and at one stage we were 7th day Adventists and we’d go to church on Saturday. I would read by moonlight until 4 in the morning and that’s why I wear glasses these days.
And that is what made me a weird kid.

BB: What do and don’t you miss about life before the pandemic?

JN: I don’t miss meetings. I am on the board of trustees at the complex I live and I’ve just come to the conclusion that I don’t want to do it anymore. This time has made me really think about what I want to be involved in and put energy into and what I don’t.

And the obvious things I miss are beer and the camaraderie of friends.

BB: What has been the biggest change for you, whether it be the creation process or daily routine and if there is nothing personally, what is the biggest change you observed around you and your environment?

JN: Nothing drastically in my daily life besides my cousin who I am looking after and maybe trying to ration cigarettes and not smoke too much. I’ve had a stretch where there wasn’t work for a year and 8 months so this almost feels like something I’ve done before.

 The biggest change a few months from now I think will probably be the fact that people won’t be going on vacation in December.

In the evening you notice the lack of traffic. We’re next to the highway here. Weekends feel so zen.
I’m a little bummed that things have seemingly returned to normal in recent weeks. We are not going to affect change by things going back to normal.
The biggest thing I noticed is that I am happy with myself and the quiet. And the things about myself that bug me I can change, but that is not a day journey. The thing that I really discovered is, being fine with your own headspace is a rare commodity. Work distracts us.

“In order for us to deepen, our communication needs to deepen.”

BB: What have you learned about yourself during this time?

JN: I’ve realized that I can “run” very far and that I can carry my own load easily and in doing that, the only person breaking is me and I don’t always feel like I am breaking open, you know?
How do I benefit myself without being a detriment to those around me?
How do you carry yourself and others?
Do you drop it all and have a lighter load and hurt others or do you carry it all and hurt yourself? How much does it help carrying someone else’s load?
Where do I end and you begin?
Like I said to you when we started, there will be more questions than answers.
 Ha ha.
I think being selfless isn’t for monks in caves, it’s for people with genuine empathy. It’s the person taking responsibility when everything encourages you to not do that so that you can’t be held accountable. Why do they decide this? Contradictory to everything you’ve been told and brought up to desire?

On art and not feeling like your art matters…

“Is an artist a Damien Hirst or is an artist someone putting “magic” and love into the stew they’re making. Someone else could eat that and have their mind blown. Or the bread baker or whatever. 
I think people assign this mythical role to what an artist is. The actual artists or masters are people you don’t know about. They live among us and they don’t see themselves as masters or artists. They don’t flaunt it”.

BB: What has kept you hopeful?

JN: My hope currently is fixated on the two job opportunities that may arise. We can hope for enlightenment, but I don’t know if these two or three months are enough and I feel that, if the world isn’t ready to accept or achieve it, then it won’t help.
The fact that I’ve had inquiries in this time is mind blowing and mind boggling and I am really thankful for that.
I’m hopeful but I’ve also dashed my hopes. Ha ha.

Thanks to Johann for asking more questions than giving answers. What I love about doing this work is listening to the people I am talking to. Really trying to shut up and just listen. I do interject and add my own point of view and opinions of course, but that is not the point and listening back to a lot of what was said I get to hear it a second time, perhaps with a new appreciation and understanding and that makes me smile.

Thank you for reading and if you’ve enjoyed this let me know. Comment, send me an email, tell me your story.

Editors Note: Answers edited for conciseness.