“When you hear or see something, what is your responsibility? Do you look away? Or do you find a way? I use art to echo or to talk about these hard things.”
Wezile Harmans is a visual art practitioner whose interdisciplinary practice encompasses performance, video, installation, and mixed-media artworks as a tool for social change. His work confronts prejudices and advocates against social inequality, creating a platform for critical self-reflexivity within unwelcoming spaces.
My name is Wezile Harmans. In my practice, I study human behaviour. Most of the time I use the technique of defamiliarisation. It helps me to further the conversation, or further what I'm actually looking at, or what I'm seeing in different ways. My practice comprises performance, video installation, and mixed media. I use these mediums within my work as tools for social change.
I do a lot of field research, meeting people and getting to know them as well as getting to know the spaces and having genuine conversations with them. During that time, there's a lot of forgiveness that is happening, there's a lot of learning and unlearning and vulnerability. This process is the one that I regard as the most important one because it reveals a lot of things. As an artist, you ask yourself so many questions, why am I doing what I'm doing? How do I want it to reflect to the people? How do I carry that message to the actual audience and to the people without creating further trauma? Because whatever we are talking about is very sensitive, but how do I actually protect the person?
I think firstly, my interest is to hear and listen to lived experiences. I'm very interested, as an artist, in human rights. Defending our lives and the best way for us to be safe, how we respond to things that are happening to us and to our spaces, and where we go and look for healing.
How can I use art as a tool to fight or to respond, or to echo all these things that are happening? For me, my approach is not really tangible — I focus on the feelings. How I can make people feel, to not numb themselves, to realise they have possibilities - agency, because I believe that's where it starts.
I think it also goes back to what I do as an artist, because I focus mostly on movement. I come from a very performative background. So I study the whole idea of movement of moving our relationship with spaces, familiar and unfamiliar spaces in how we connect with that. So through my personal movements. I also interact with people, we have conversations that can be informal, about our experiences with these spaces, and why we are there. So that moment, or that moving process, it also does contribute to what I do as an artist in my process of researching. The creation of artwork, it goes outside the studio, also, it goes outside your practice, it finds a way to be within your everyday life.
As an artist, you ask yourself so many questions, why am I doing what I'm doing? How do I want it to reflect to the people? How do I carry that message without creating further trauma?
When you first interact with the work, let it be light to you, let it land so soft that you build this relationship with it so that you're able to respond when you are ready to receive it.
I am creating work that seeks for consent from the viewer.
I'm not a stranger to spaces like this. The farm space is very calming. And most of my work is about that. I felt at home. I did a lot of navigating around the space and that process of getting familiar was a work on its own.
Frustration set in when I realised that there was an issue with some of my materials running out, but in that experience came seeing the beauty of doing what I could with what I had. The space helped me to think in different ways that are uncomfortable for me, which was exciting.
It was not about me and how I do things. It was about me being in the space, and how do I honour and respect everything that is around me?
Residences teach me how to respond in unfamiliar spaces. They are not only a place for me to create work, but they also teach me as an artist. They require me to ask myself what am I doing exactly?
Lately my focus has been on South African borders, and to be specific, Beitbridge in Zimbabwe.
And I did touch on what happened in the Mediterranean Sea, which was focusing on the pushback in Greece and in Morocco. There are people dying in the sea. But now my focus is in ‘do not trust the borders’, focusing on Beitbridge. It is a border bridge with people crossing from one place to another, but there's more than that, there's a lot of death happening there and unrecorded things. There is also trading but, it has become a home to other people, involuntarily, because some stayed there because they were trying to get a better life
My interest is in understanding what actually happens there and to have conversations with people. I am also interested in the coordinates of the Beitbridge, the physical location. By writing down all these coordinates in all these places, they become ID numbers, they become the ages of people, they become other things. It becomes a conversation around how things can become distorted in terms of information.
[In the aerial view] in the plane from Cape Town back to Zimbabwe, there was so much brown. The material is inspired by that. I use the bandage material, as a landscape. When you look at someone with a bandage, you position yourself in a place of kindness. I started using this material as it would communicate this same sense to anyone looking at the artwork.
I use tea and coffee to stain the bandage. Growing up, when family visitors come you have to make them tea. There's something about tea and coffee … they’re like a medium for conversation.
The materials I use, the bandage and cotton are very soft and as soft as they are, they carry such heaviness. They reminded us about those pain, but also they gave us an alternative way on how to approach pain.
And then the red cotton, it is like the steps or the footprints of the people, their own map within the map of the country, where they are moving, so they've created their own border.
When you hear or see something, what is your responsibility? Do you look away? Or do you find a way? I use art to actually echo or to talk about these hard things and I think that activism came to me in that way.
Sometimes it becomes problematic because nobody wants to talk about the difficult things. There are many, many ways to fight. I use art as a weapon. When somebody says something and you don't react, that's another form of fighting. That's another form of saying that you have to understand this hurt me. But I won't shout at you. And that ability is something that I really want to echo in my art, that there will always be a choice. There's always a way for one, to reimagine the spaces to reimagine themselves and to build new ways, there will always be a choice. There will always always be a way for us to move forward. So I use art as a way to project or to echo what is happening and finding alternative ways for us to solve problems.
Finding a space of creative freedom, it can happen at home, washing dishes or, on the road or whatever, something comes up, and I quickly write it down. It's very difficult to find a specific location for creativity, because you're designing the space and thinking that it's a safe space, but you are actually creating boundaries for yourself. If the creative space in you is intact, you can access it anywhere.
I'm very interested in the timeless. In order for work to live longer, what’s important is actually the researching of it. The amount of time that you put into that work will result in how far or how long the work will last. My process of making art already tells one how far I want that work to go. It's timeless, there are no boundaries to the work.