David James Brown was born in Johannesburg in 1951, but has spent his working life in Cape Town. He studied design and photography at the Michaelis School of Fine Art, and was introduced to sculpture in 1975 by Cecil Skotnes. At around this time he found a studio in an old building on the edge of the business district of Cape Town, bordering the beleaguered District 6 - which at the time was subject to forced removals , the demolishing of houses, the eviction of people from their homes and the breakdown of a community as families packed up to leave for an uncertain future on the Cape Flats.
This studio and environment was to play a significant role in the development of Brown's work. Just opposite in a plot of fenced ground riot police dressed in camouflage uniform, leaving in their armoured vehicles for daily combat in the townships. Within the low walled boundary of the building and on the opposite pavement, groups of street-people, or strollers, set up home in packing crates or the shells of old motor cars, and in the evenings would make fires in open braziers. Some were disabled, legless, often bandaged, making their way around town in supermarket trolleys. A couple - he a paraplegic, she his companion - slept under his window, and Brown remembers overhearing many conversations in which she would recall fond memories of times when her mother had fried her an egg and bacon, or some other special treat. These people, seldom sober, often harassed by the police, became part of Brown's inspiration as well as his first real audience. Many befriended him, one entrusting his monthly disability grant to his care, and then would make regular withdrawals for meatballs from the corner cafe, a new radio, or other expenses. All had comments on the sculptures that were gradually evolving to incorporate the brutality, pathos and disparate community of people that characterised both the area and the time.
The other occupants of the building also contributed to this strange liming society. His neighbour, an engineer-inventor, had set up a workshop constructed out of old bits of machinery, fridges and other tailored contraptions, and experimented with a form of injection moulding which resulted in bizarre construction of foam, but finally brilliant success. Further down the corridor, a business making burglar bars and security gates flourished. And upstairs a carpenter spent years on creating the interior of a yacht which would finally take its owner away from the chaos that seemed to be the inevitable fate of South Africa.
David Brown's first solo exhibition Dogs of War (1980) was held in the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg. These were large brooding sculptures carved from Jarrah and incorporating metal jackets or armour. His first icon was the dog - an animal he was to use as both a symbol of powerlessness and of aggression. Further developed in his series One Man and His Dog (1983) these contrasting attributes - the sense of a loving domestic animal gone feral - lent to the works a quality of menace, as if all that was familiar and dependable was really founded on a deep dark pool of irrational mistrust.
In 1985 David Brown exhibited a collection of bronzes entitled Procession at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg and later at the Basel Art Fair in Switzerland. These works, 23 separate pieces linked together as a cavalcade of vehicles, transporting structures and figures - some victims, some victors - to an uncertain destination. Together the procession expressed a medieval quality, at once a parade of the condemned, and triumphant return from a distant battle. They also recalled gladiatorial combat, images from the Inquisition, Breugel's peasants, drunks and gluttons, and more to the present, Ridley Walker's vision of post-apocalyptic deranged chaos.
It was at this time that Brown began work on a commission for the Johannesburg Art Gallery which resulted in the monumental bronze and metal sculpture, Tightroping. This work was completed in 1985 and drew on the themes of his previous work. Placed as it was outside the gallery in Joubert Park, the sculpture found a home from home, and was to become the favourite backdrop for photographers in the area. In 1996, however, one of the figures was stolen, probably for scrap, and the sculpture, as such, no longer exists.
The group of work to follow Procession, was titled Voyages (1989). These works took the ship - the Ship of Fools, the slave vessel, the ships of the voyages of discovery - as its central theme. On these vessels, groups of figures work hard; rowing, pulling, hoisting, bellowing, going nowhere. These are ships unworthy to sail, rusted, broken, their sides split open. They are full of survivors, driven crazy by violence, repression, processes of dehumanisation and hopelessness. These ships are destined to sail to no new destination, there is no hope for their human cargo, yet they contain the destruction, as if Brown were symbolically packaging the horror and holding it up for our scrutiny.
For the next few years David Brown was to work on his biggest and most ambitious sculptures yet. These included the exhibition at the Goodman Gallery entitled Dogwatch (1993) and the Dialogue at the Dogwatch (1995) which was a commission for Hennerton House Estate in the English countryside. The latter piece was two years in the making and cover and are of 30m by 11m with a height of 6.5m. All these works focused on folly, brutality and paradox, with their historical roots in the travelling carnival show or mobile arena here costumed figures enacted a ritualised inversion of hierarchies through ridicule and the absurd.
In the Dogwatch sculptures these ideas reach their culmination. The ambulatory structures provide the stage for a dialogue between the figures and the enigmatic anthropomorphic shapes. The spotlit arena refers directly to the idea of performance, but is also concerned to evoke images of a night watch or surveillance tower. The dog watch, the time between late afternoon and nightfall, is the time when the light is penumbraic, images become less easy to discern, the atmosphere plays tricks with the senses. It is also the time when the noises of the day recede, and, as if unwilling to break the impending silence, the figures sign to each other and gesture their scatological messages.
These pieces are also about paradox and dualism. Like others in his genre, the figures draw on the period he worked near District 6. The materials too, were chosen for their symbolically paradoxical nature. Bronze, as the enduring medium for classical sculpture, recalls the heroic figures of ancient Rome. Cor-ten, embodying paradox - its appearance being one of rust and decay - is in fact the most endurable of ferrous metals. But the heroism of the figures is belied by their appearance. Well protected in tunics, knee guards, helmets and boots, their naked loins, however, expose their most vulnerable parts. And despite the fact that each figure has found its place on the structures, none is quite at home in it. It is as if an unusual playground with its strange apparatus has been hurriedly appropriated and, before the watch is over, reckless acts will have been carried out inspiring ridicule and absurdity rather than heroism and awe.
In Dialogue at Dogwatch the figures each gesture a sign. These all mean different things in different cultures. But here, what is spoken is not a coherent language, but the silent babble of Babel. Each figure carries on its back a pack, these are sealed, but for the one belonging to the crouching figure on the low tower. Protruding from his sack is a pole supporting a propeller. This figure perhaps recalls the earlier carnivalesque bird of wisdom, the propeller suggesting flight and freedom from earthly constraint. But clearly here no flight can take place. This figure is weighty, earthbound and, like the others, too involved in the unfolding drama of the dog watch.
The final destination of this particular sculpture played a significant role in the thinking behind it. The structures and figures suggest an itinerant carnivalesque performance, erected on a mowed English lawn. The players have set up their positions and the act is about to begin. The work is intended as a participatory piece. The tower can be climbed, the viewer can become part of the action. The suggestion of folly and the reference to paradox and inversion recall earlier rituals from an earlier time when carnival not only poked fun at prevailing hegemonies, but celebrated the return of spring and the expulsion of winter. In many ways this notion of welcome and the return of spring represents the first real introduction of a theme of hope in the sculptors work - hope in this country for happier times.
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