Growing up in Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape, Francois Knoetze was first introduced to the world of theatre, art and music through the annual National Arts Festival (NAF). Throughout university, he developed his own artistic practice in a multidisciplinary direction, working fluidly between sculpture, video, performance and digital art. His interest in the relationship between material and social histories has led to work that explores the objectification of people through the personification of discarded objects.
Knoetze’s ‘Cape Mongo’ series is perhaps his best-known work and has been shown in festivals and exhibitions around the world. Larger-than-life sculptural suits made from different forms of trash lumber through Cape Town, revisiting the spaces of their imagined pasts. Performed in public sites over a period of two years, ‘Cape Mongo’ is the video documentation of the creatures’ journeys, which Knoetze has spliced together with archival footage relating to social issues around housing, poverty, inequality and racial segregation.
Although Knoetze is now permanently based in Cape Town, Grahamstown holds deep significance for him in terms of the shaping of his world view, and he returned this year to start on a new body of work. ‘It’s a place I want to interrogate as an extension of examining my ideals, identity and aspirations,’ he says.
Created with the help of fine art student Thabiso Mafana and filmed with a 360-degree camera, his new piece, entitled ‘Virtual Frontiers’, is an immersive virtual reality (VR) world of phantasmagoric panoramas in which the viewer becomes the performer via VR headsets. ‘To place a VR headset over your eyes is to immerse yourself in an alternative reality. The medium of VR resonates with us. It goes beyond a love of technology to connect with a deeper desire for freedom beyond physical constraint, from reality itself. It allows us to plug into a fantasy machine and dream while awake,’ he says.
‘Virtual Frontiers’ debuts at the NAF on 29 June-9 July and features interviews with Grahamstown citizens, including tavern owners, museum workers and sports players. Into this mix, Knoetze incorporates extensive historical photography and audio recordings, blending old references with the new to create a tapestry of contesting perspectives on the past, present and possible future that shape Grahamstown.
While some may view Knoetze’s Afrofuturistic works as superficially mundane, his weaving together of stories from diverse sources highlights the multiplicity of meaning ascribed to things depending from which vantage point they are perceived – and it is in this way that he aims to destabilise the dominant historical and political narratives currently holding sway in South Africa.
Watch excerpts from Knoetze’s ‘Cape Mongo’ series, here.