Juan Curtis Stockenstroom is bold. He does not mince his words – not in the art he produces or in his intention behind the art. That level of clarity does not, however, make his work singular in narrative or one dimensional. In fact, that clarity is the very weapon he uses to layer stories of Africa and its diaspora, stories hidden and known. The result? Every canvas that passes his brush is a collage featuring a diversity of subjects and characters that he organises into a harmonious and continuous collision.
Stockenstroom was born in Cape Town. He kicked off his career with photography and digital art, and then settled on painting as the best option for him to explore his ideas. To which I say, for now, because he is a dynamic mind whose work ebbs and flows between conventions. It is interesting though, how clear the freedom of digital shows up in his work. The freeform of digital as a technique and medium, which allows the artist to play, to layer work with text and images, resulting in a unique approach to composition, one that intrigues and engages and can provide new narratives and tangents.
When he paints, he assumes a fictional character, King Champion. Think Beyonce’s Sasha Fierce, or Janelle Monae’s Cindi Mayweather. As King Champion, he searches and finds ancient stories of Africans, stories of who we are and how we came to be and tells them in a bold, visual language. One would say he is influenced by Haitian-American contemporary master, Jean-Michel Basquiat because of his specific presentation of black people in some of his work – grotesque-looking figures, bold and one dimensional, reflecting how they are perceived by oppressive systems. But that’s not the point – the point is that he is part of a golden thread of today’s culturally astute artists who have sought to know the conventions of art so as to reject them, and keep it moving.
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He is self-taught, and within two years of painting, the 38-year old artist already has representation with Berman Contemporary, a gallery in Johannesburg’s Richmond neighbourhood. His first solo exhibition of his paintings was called Gold, Guns and Paradise, which opened in January this year until just before the (COVID-19) lockdown (here in South Africa). In this body of work, he explores political power, race, class, slavery, history, and really leans into his visual style, layering images, symbols and text, collaging with historical documents.
What I find interesting is how he plays with time, and pulls together storylines, themes and scenes that may seem tangential and unrelated, as if fighting the violent trope of a single story of Africa. Much of our mysteries as Africans exist in the silence and spaces between words, in between the lines, and Stockenstroom finds them, these themes and scenes and storylines, and tells them like an ancient griot telling ancient tales. It’s gripping. As he strides across Africa and the African diaspora with the confidence of home, he tells these stories as if to reclaim them, in all their complexity, with a fervour that recognises and honours the excellence of Africa. Every character is big and treated tenderly, with reverence; whether it’s a Misty Copeland-inspired piece discussing the lack of representation of people of colour in ballet, or a bellboy in Madagascar who’s story is explores the slave history of the African island.
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He says that his work is a “visual creole,” and I love that term. (Creole is a term used for a person or language that is a mix of European and African cultures). But in truth, creole is not just a mix of black and white and Asian, it’s something completely new that comes out of the interaction of those cultures and identities. Being coloured – the South African meaning of the word, mixed race – he understands the term very well. I think there’s a searching for the self as he goes through these hidden and buried African stories. That some of the stories he looks for are those that were hidden to protect them from violent perceptions of colonialism makes me wonder about the tension between those African legacies he’s unearthing, and the other racial legacies that make him.
Many of his paintings offer numerous threads of conversation which either knock the wind out of you and perhaps even have you ‘walking out of the room,’ or provide you with different, rich threads of conversation over time. It’s creative that you never get bored of because every time you look at it, you see something different, you peel off a layer and you discover worlds upon worlds. It is truly the kind of art you buy and never get bored of, art you will enjoy for years and years.
Check out the ‘Of Heroes and Heroines: A Slave Odyssey’ here>>>
Check out the ‘Gold, Guns and Paradise‘ catalogue here>>>
You can buy a limited edition print of ‘Black Samurai (Yasuke)’ from the Gold, Guns and Paradise’ body of work on the Berman Contemporary Gallery’s website here>>>. This limited edition print is part of a the Artists Solidarity Assistance Project 2020, an initiative that is raising funds to support visual artists as South Africa and the world is on lockdown due to COVID-19.
Image of Juan Curtis Stockenstroom from BermanContemporary.com