Nicola Roos is a South African artist who studied at the Michaelis School of Fine Art at the University of Cape Town. She graduated in 2017 at the top of her class and received the prestigious Michaelis Prize for her outstanding sculpture work. While studying, Nicola discovered her cool medium of recycled rubber tyre tubing. Since then, she has primarily been working on creating life-size figurative sculptural installations. Through her work, Nicola investigate the origins of civilization and society, as well as the ever-changing politics of national identity, collective memory and cultural belonging in the postcolonial world. Her sculpture of Obsidian Samurai, part of No Man's Land series, was inspired by the first black Samurai in recorded history called Yasuke. The sculpture is currently in the private collection of Arnold Lehman, the ex-director of the Brooklyn Museum in New York. Although Nicola is still in the very early stages of her career, she has already captured many imaginations with her awe-inspiring sculptures which emanate beauty, spirit and showcase incredible craftsmanship. She is currently represented in South Africa by Absolut Art Gallery.
Can you tell us about your childhood? Were you a very creative kid, always making stuff? How early on did you realise that you an artist at heart?
I have always been passionate about art. I used to create pictures in chalk and water on the paving outside my house almost ever since I was able to hold a drawing tool as a child and loved making a huge mess doing finger paintings on the glass sliding doors. It was just something that I have always known I wanted to pursue. I have always harboured a deep love for history, archaeology, anthropology, language and literature and I am able to combine all of these interests in the work that I do now.
You studied at Michaelis School of Fine Art at the University of Cape Town. How important do you think formal education has been for you in terms of acquiring certain skills and pursuing career in the arts? Have you ever considered the route of going into the industry as a self-taught artist?
I am going to be extremely honest with you here: I feel as if my four years at Michaelis meant very little in terms of my practical skill-set. The theoretical aspect of the course was rich and rewarding, but on a practical level the majority of the knowledge I have amassed has occurred in the last couple of months after my graduation. I’ve developed my practice immensely just by not being afraid of trial and error (and by watching copious amounts of YouTube tutorials). Furthermore, my boyfriend, Matthew, is an invaluable asset. He’s a final year Information Technology student at the moment, but his sense of logic and hands-on approach has helped me to discover many new techniques and materials, as well as short-cuts and “art hacks” in the studio that I probably wouldn’t have come across on my own. He’s planning on joining me in my business and only pursuing his I.T. career part-time after he graduates this June. He’s definitely proven to me that you don’t need a formal education for this kind of work. Like he says, I’m technically only “a couple of essays” ahead of him!
How did you discover your really cool medium of recycled rubber tyre tubing and what attracted you to it?
I was originally enthused by the work of a classmate at Michaelis (Laylaa Jacobs). During an assemblage project we did in our first year, she sculpted this outlandish, amorphous human figure out of large portions of tyre tubes. I was absolutely fascinated. Until then I’d never really found a medium I was passionate about, but her piece inspired me to look into the malleability and obscurity of rubber more seriously. The recycled element also attracted me. Cape Town is currently suffering from the worst drought in a century, which, as crippling as it has been over the last three or so years, has essentially also helped to shift a lot of people’s perspectives towards more sustainable living and practice. In this current climate where the shortage of our world’s resources is being felt more bitterly than ever before, I would think that art institutions should emphatically encourage students to incorporate recycled materials into their work. Cut-up soft drink cans and paper-maché are what I used to associate with the concept of recycled art. I discovered this medium because wanted to change this perception of the inferiority of this way of creating art. I wanted to sculpt objects that my audience would take seriously on an academic level as well.
Have you always worked on big life-sized sculptures or did you start small?
I have completed fourteen works in this medium since I first discovered it in my third year of study at Michaelis School of Fine Art (2015). My first exploration into rubber was articulated in the form of a three-part series of altered wooden chairs upon which female torsos were sculpted. The torsos were then meticulously wrapped in multiple layers of thin rubber strips pinned into the carved torsos with (literally!) thousands of ordinary sewing pins. I’m actually re-visiting that series this year in collaboration with my boyfriend (he’s been there since the start – sitting in my hot, dusty studio while pinning those hundreds of strips to the chairs!).
Can you describe what’s a day of working like for you? Also, what part of your creative process do you enjoy the most?
Now that I’m running my own business on a more formal level, I’m definitely out of the studio a little more often than before, sourcing materials and such. I’ve appointed two full-time assistants, which has been an absolute dream come true on the business front. They’re two absolutely wonderful young women who’ve neither had any formal art training, but who are such a pleasure to work with and who continue to surprise me with their (hidden) talents. I split my time between training and guiding these assistants, working on my own (usually tackling the “dirty work” in my garage studio while they focus on the rubber) and doing some research and academic writing in the evenings. There’s quite a lot of different aspects to my creative process, so each day is different. Matthew and I have also started collaborating on photo-shoots and the creation of video art featuring live models wearing the costumes I create for my sculptures.
You are fascinated and inspired by historical figures like Yasuke, who was the first black Samurai ever written into recorded history, and women from colonial era - La Malinche in Mexico and Krotoa-Eva in South Africa. However, as you say yourself, your characters are not so much individuals but rather elements of an imagined realm beyond official history. Can you talk about the process of how you create these characters and how do you decide which emotions they should project?
I start by researching my subject. I am profoundly intrigued by literature and poetry as well as theoretical writings. I always attempt to uncover the different ways in which the little-known historical people that I use as subjects have been interpreted and re-imagined throughout the centuries in literature and poetry. I am fascinated by the far-reaching effects that these individuals have had on the ways in which people - especially women - perceive and understand themselves today. I enjoy finding the correct person in real life to use as my model. I do life-casting for the faces, hands and even feet of my sculptures. I suppose it's like casting someone for a role in a movie that you're making in your head. It is so important to find the right person to embody and do justice to the deeply complex historical individual… It all happens in layers, really. There’s lots of mold-making and casting taking place behind the scenes that contributes to building the character. Creating the costumes are usually only the last step.
The costumes of characters in your sculptures are just incredible! Can you talk about the process of designing them or do you kind of make it up as you go along?
Despite extensively researching outfits from the particular culture and historical period that I am basing the work in, the design of the clothing is greatly drawn from my own imagination. Essentially, my characters are situated beyond the realm of official history. I often choose two of three simplistic patterns and then echo them in different ways throughout the costume. This gives a sense of unity to the separate units of the outfit. The almost-repetition of patterns also serves to keeps catching the viewer’s eye, especially in conjunction with all the little, hidden surprises I incorporate in every piece: a rare glass bead, the branding of the tube that’s been cut out and stitched on again somewhere unexpected, etc.
What kind of feelings do you want to evoke in the viewer perceiving your sculptures?
I prefer not to approach the work with my audience’s intended reactions or emotions in mind. I feel that the most sincere method for me would rather be to attempt to portray my own considerations and sentiments with regards to my subject, so that the viewer may instead experience and interpret those in his/her own way. Ideally, my intentions are to evoke a moment of self-reflection: I’d wish for the viewer to be able to stand back and try to define to him-/herself what his/her own perceptions of ethnographic and socio-cultural belonging are in the postcolonial world that he/she inhabits. The very least I’d like to do is to make the viewer aware of these incredible stories of ground-breaking individuals that have almost entirely been lost to history… I am always looking towards the past to attempt to make sense of the current socio-political state. Everything is connected and the best way for me to make these connections relatable and understandable is to visualise them through the people in the history that set off the dominos leading to the current world state. Colonialism was the first such domino to fall and it still casts a great and violent shadow over us all. These incredible historical individuals I base my work on have altered my perceptions about people, politics and society for the better – and the least I can hope for is that my work has the potential to do the same to others in some small way.
What would you say is the main thing that drives you and inspires you to create?
I'm not the kind of person that would be able to spend my time sitting in an office. I defy conventionality and often criticise institutions. I am fascinated by the origins of civilization as we know it, the paradoxical psychological state of the post-colony and the complexities of the feminine both in history and today. Art allows me to spend time investigating these issues through research and visual expression. It gives me the opportunity to interrogate the way the world is and connect with people who are asking the same questions.
Do you enjoy socialising at art shows and talking about your work or do you prefer to be alone in your studio making stuff?
Both! I enjoy being present at exhibitions and art fairs where my work is on view, because I always felt that art is so much easier to relate to and appreciate if you have access to some personal, inside information instead of simply reading a brief artist statement on the wall. I enjoy being able to engage with my audience and to experience a whole spectrum of ideas and observations about the work and about the themes that my work deals with. I enjoy participating in artist walkabouts and delivering talks about my work. I am extremely passionate about the historical contexts surrounding my sculptures and I feel that knowing about or understanding those contexts a little better helps to break down the academic distance between viewer and artwork. I’m generally quite a reserved person otherwise, though, and in most other situations I’d much rather be articulating my thoughts via written text rather than by speaking about them to someone on a face-to-face basis, so I’d say that spending a day alone in studio just creating work is equally satisfying.
What are some of the biggest challenges you face as an artist?
As a young woman in the art world, I have to be aware of the patriarchal and misogynistic tendencies that have underscored and continue to influence the most historically significant literary, political and artistic voices in our society. I’ve often encountered people who are familiar with my work who then seem surprised at my gender when they meet me in person. My greatest challenge is negotiating my own right to speak about these individuals in history who have lost their sense of autonomy – people who have consistently been spoken through and spoken for in the last five hundred years. The right to speak is often denied to me because I come from a different ethnographic of socio-cultural background. I am challenged to find the universal connections between us, because we are essentially all inhabitants of the same postcolonial world – we face many of the same challenges and share many of the same emotions towards all that’s wrong in our society today, no matter who we are or where we come from. The body of work I completed for final year at Michaelis School of Fine Art, “DIS(re)MEMBERINGS”, dealt almost wholly with the last five centuries’ roller-coaster ride of changing perceptions with regards to femininity and the role of women in society. As Mexican author Octavio Paz summarised in his prominent 1950 essay ‘Los Hijos de la Malinche (The Sons of La Malinche)’: “Her passivity is abject: she does not resist violence, but is an inert heap of bones, blood, and dust. Her taint is constitutional and resides ... in her sex.” I am tearfully proud of all the women who have fought against this trope and of everyone who have worked towards building a more harmonious world for us to co-exist in.
Boonji stands for ‘positive energy derived from creativity’. How important do you think creativity is for humanity and do you see yourself as a kind of ambassador for creativity?
Indeed, I do see myself as such. Creativity is the force that keeps us from going through life with our eyes half shut, complacent in the dullness. It gives a voice to that which has not yet been articulated and an image to that which has previously not been seen. Creativity is the salve to the itching questions in the back of our minds. It is the outlet to everything we keep bottled up inside. I think that everyone is inherently creative. It’s a part of being human. We have to create in order to exist. We have to create in order to understand. We have to create in order to remember. As my favourite author, Joseph Conrad, so beautifully states: “My task is to make you hear, to make you feel, and, above all, to make you see. That is all, and it is everything.”
What is your idea of happiness?
Snuggles with my grumpy 16-year-old cat, Moshka.
When my boyfriend cooks me dinner.
A hot cup of green tea and a great crime novel.
Spontaneous road trips and weekends away.
Rain in drought-stricken Cape Town.
Having made something that I feel is the best it can be – you know, when something just ‘clicks’.
What are you currently working on?
I’ve recently finished a commission work for a private collector of African Art in Mexico. Now I’ve returned to focusing on building up a large body of work that will become solo exhibitions in the USA (2019) and in Europe (2020).