22 May 2024 ///

The Joyous Discoveries in the Depths of Clay: Discussing ‘Art Formes’ with Olivia Barrell

When chatting to Oliva Barrell, an art historian and founder of the new-format gallery, Art Formes, it becomes strikingly clear that her interest in clay goes far beyond the substance, and transcends the borders of art models as we understand them. Since Art Formes’ inception in 2021, Olivia has fostered a community of contemporary clayworkers practising in South Africa, amplifying their diverse and moving stories from their studios to the world.

Though the medium of clay might seem unassuming, Olivia has taken great effort in exploring it to the nth degree. We could speak to the element of earth – stable, grounding, tactile, object, a forme (the namesake of the platform which is adopted from the French word forme, although unfamiliar to the English language, encourages new meaning to previously unrecognised shapes or bodies of art.)

Olivia expanded her hybrid set of skills in the years leading up to the inception of Art Formes. With 8 years of art historical study at the Sorbonne University, experience working for some of Paris’ top museums, such as the Guimet Asian Arts Museum, as well as several years spent in both the South African primary and secondary markets, Art Formes was born from a wealth of experience. Olivia shares with us: “I wanted to create a space where sculpture could get more of a spotlight, to draw attention to some of South Africa’s other disciplines aside from painting, which has often taken prevalence.” As a result of this sentiment, Art Formes was conceptualised as a new-format ‘gallery’, one that broke the mould of what Olivia referes to as “what felt like a increasingly stagnant art model”. Art Formes can only be described as something unique – part-gallery, part-publishing house, which is tied to the ethos she believes in: artworks cannot be understood fully without a literary explanation or accompaniment.

Hennie Meyer, 400g Series, 2024. Photography by Barry White for Art Formes.

“I have always been interested in objects and the stories that they hold. When I moved back to South Africa after 10 years in France, I was taken aback by how rich ceramic art culture was, not just historically but also contemporary artists working with the medium. So I started to look around for literature surrounding the material and was surprised how little there was on the topic.

Conducting over 80 interviews since 2021 for the compilation of the now-published ‘Clay Formes’ book, Olivia has curated a selection of largely undiscovered artists, who were dispersed around the country. This meant that a considerable amount of time was spent adventuring and taking original photographs of largely undocumented artists in their studios. When asked about how she found these artists, Olivia says, “South Africa has an incredible system of mentorship, that is applicable to the realm of painting, but is fundamentally tied to ceramics because there is technical knowledge that is passed on through the generations. So as you enter this web of mentorship, you can find all the artists that are interconnected, which is quite a beautiful process.”

On Clay Formes: “I had to be intentional about how I wanted to put the publication forward. It wouldn’t have been possible to include all contemporary South African artists working with ceramics or clay, so I had to limit it to 30 artists. I wanted to expand pre-conceived notions of the medium, illustrating its various forms such as porcelain, terracotta, stoneware and earthenware – alongside the more experimental uses of the material such as air-dried and wild clay. Artist Jo Roets, for example, creates her own medium which is closer to paper than it is to earth. Whereas sculptor, Ledelle Moe moves the material towards the monumental through her integration of earth and concrete to prolific proportions. And the medium is radically transformed through Belinda Blignaut who is a global pioneer of unprocessed, wild clay.”

Siyabonga Fani, Smoke-fired terracotta, 2024. Photography by Barry White for Art Formes.

CLAY FORMES book, edited by Olivia Barrell, an Art Formes publication.

Olivia expresses that it was also important to include artists who were not only different stylistically but hailed from multiple regions of the country and were born across time frames spanning from 1998 (when Ben Orkin was born) to 1941 (Hylton Nel’s birth year). “I deliberately chose the largest possible range of contemporary artists working with clay, to indicate the diversity of artistic expression within this medium. Such a range highlights the array of cultures, traditions and backgrounds that make up our South African ceramic landscape. It is medium that can take almost a lifetime to master.”

Off the back of the publication of CLAY FORMES, Art Formes launched as a gallery at Investec Cape Town Art Fair in February 2024, with six of its featured artists represented in the space, all of whom work in various forms of clay. The publication was reimagined in what was the first exhibition of purely clay and ceramic works at Investec Cape Town Art Fair – a celebration of clay in a new format. Now the retrospective is taking a tour to RMB Latitudes (24 – 26 May 2024) showcasing artists 𝖲𝗂𝗒𝖺𝖻𝗈𝗇𝗀𝖺 𝖥𝖺𝗇𝗂, 𝖩𝖺𝖻𝗎𝗅𝗂𝗅𝖾 𝖭𝖺𝗅𝖺 𝖺𝗇𝖽 𝖧𝖾𝗇𝗇𝗂𝖾 𝖬𝖾𝗒𝖾𝗋. Like Art Formes as a platform, Latitudes as a fair acts as a similarly positive exploration of South African contemporary art, with artist-focused curation and a way to engage with art in a meaningful way.

“The interest in the medium seems to have grown in parallel to the development of Art Formes over the past few years. In 2021, I believed that there would be a growing movement towards sculpture within contemporary South African art, especially in mediums such as clay.” When asked why objects, specifically clay objects are in the current zeitgeist, Olivia said “I believe it is connected to the constant digitisation and two-dimensionality of today’s world. It is my perception that people are gravitating towards three-dimensional art works and the interaction they offer.”

CLAY FORMES book, photograph by Alix Rose Cowie

CLAY FORMES book, edited by Olivia Barrell, an Art Formes publication.

Olivia shares apprehension towards “The White Cube” format, therefore ensuring that Art Formes challenges these stagnant notions within the commercial art world. “Art Formes prioritises a more considered and curated approach to exhibiting artworks, with a rich literary emphasis in contrast to today’s stark White Cube.” Her passion to explore and celebrate contemporary ceramic art in all its open-ended, rebellious, ancient, symbolic, sacred, innovative, spiritual, therapeutic and diverse ways is an ode to each artist finding meaning in clay for themselves. When speaking about the future, she notes that the aim is to take the platform beyond South Africa, to celebrate these stories internationally. And although one can never predict what the next generation of ceramic artists and clayworkers will produce, she has no doubt that we will be surprised with what artists can achieve within the medium.

She shares “At Art Formes, we pay careful attention to each artist’s practice and their particular bodies of work – unpacking that is something I am particularly passionate about. I love a work if it holds a story that surprises me and evokes thought and appreciation – that is what makes an artwork interesting. And so, every single artwork in the book has a distinct story.”

Visit Art Formes at Booth A9 Latitudes Art Fair, Shepstone Gardens, JHB, to see the exhibition

Tickets for RMB Latitudes available Here

Purchase Clay Formes Here

Written by: Grace Crooks

For more news, visit the Connect Everything Collective homepage www.ceconline.co.za

You May Also Like

A Sartorial Genesis with Chloe Andrea Welgemoed

A Sartorial Genesis with Chloe Andrea Welgemoed

When reality seems to present a flat surface of 2-dimensional, replicated ideas: Chloe Andrea Welgemoed is a stylist and art director whose maximalist spirited work stands in direct resistance to any and all oblique tediousness.