art, Interviews

Playful communication in Jean de Wet’s Secret Messages exhibition

Jean de Wet



'Broadcast City' from Jean de Wet's Secret Messages exhibition at No End gallery. 

If you’re a fan of South African illustration, you’ll likely be familiar with Cape Town-based freelance illustrator and artist Jean de Wet. De Wet’s work is the stuff of magic. Playful line work and fanciful settings comprising monsters, wizards, cottages, the cosmos and more are the calling cards for a Jean de Wet piece. The many worlds and characters that he conjures are reminiscent of old video games, fairy-tale worlds or even dreamy comic books.

His current solo show, Secret Messages, which is up at Joburg’s No End gallery, is no different. Consisting of charcoal drawings, three-colour screenprints, illustrative works and even a few retro mixtapes, De Wet aims to explore the mystery, magic and loneliness that comes with contemporary forms of communication. We caught up with him to discuss Secret Messages, his history as an artist and the importance of play in art-making.

When did you first know you wanted to pursue visual art and illustration as a career, and when did this become a reality for you? 

I was mostly interested in music at a young age, playing in garage bands throughout high school. I discovered design and illustration through artwork from the punk scene and various other sub-cultures. The subversive nature of those visuals were vastly different from anything else I had been exposed to. I loved the DIY nature of punk, and that helped me form my attitude towards creativity, productivity and art-making in general. I think the actual moment when it became a reality was when I stared freelancing in 2012. I left my day job working at an illustration studio called Am I Collective. I had been there for four years and I wanted to throw myself in the deep end to see if I’d float. I needed to take the time to focus on larger, more ambitious projects that I wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise, so it was a bit of a do-or-die situation.

'Projected Presence' from Jean de Wet's Secret Messages exhibition at No End gallery.

Tell us about your current show on at No End gallery. 

For Secret Messages, I wanted to showcase work that was a bit of a departure from my older illustrations, but that still operates within that same world somehow. I wanted to focus on the extreme ends of my spectrum, from very raw and direct expressive drawings to more processed and considered artworks. I really enjoy developing different styles that still adhere to the same  vocabulary. I also added a music element to the show for the first time, which in this case, came in the form of a cassette tape. I enjoy seeing how the rhythms and flows of my abstract work changes subtly depending on the medium. I instinctively make these tiny decisions based on the tool I am using. It’s always surprising to me because the general movements remain consistent, but the resulting mark automatically reveals a new angle or perspective, like varying degrees of magnification.

You have a few charcoal pieces in Secret Messages. Is this a medium you’ve worked with before?

I hadn’t really worked with charcoal since drawing classes in varsity days. I picked it up again earlier this year and instantly loved it. For me, working with charcoal is all about the movement and the act of drawing. I still use it like I use a pen, but it gives me an opportunity to become a lot more expressive and interactive while still following strict ‘rules’. There is also something really enjoyable about trying to balance these delicate rhythms with a piece of burned wood in my hand. I find it to be the most raw and direct way I could make a mark. There is a vulnerability to the immediacy of that way of working that excites me.

'Listening Inn' from Jean de Wet's Secret Messages exhibition at No End gallery.

The show explores the idea of communities and communication within them. How did the theme come about? 

I think there is a romance in long-distance communication that escapes us these days. With the speed and immediacy of the internet, we often forget how amazing and wonderful it must have been for people to experience telephones or television for the first time in their adult lives. To me, things like radio waves and morse code is still like some black magic that I’ll never fully understand. Then, of course, ‘Secret Messages’ is just a further extension of that romance while also suggesting the idea of unknown forms of communication with the more abstract works I produce. I think this comes from my feelings of isolation in the world. My early life was constantly informed by this perspective… and now with the connectivity of social media and online communities, that has completely changed the way we interact. However, I wouldn’t say that social media has had the most positive effect on me personally. I still have trouble reconciling deeply engrained feelings of isolation and loneliness with this hyper accessible (micro-tribe) age we are now living in.

How important is the idea of ‘play’ to you and your work? 

It’s extremely important to me. The process of making is often all about the joy of discovery. I love to feel that ‘thrill of making’ every time I produce something new. For that reason, I often like to change things up a bit. That’s why I often end up working in different styles and mediums. I like to be able to uncover new techniques during the process, and add to the lexicon of graphic motifs.

How often are you able to consolidate your commercial work and your personal work? And is this something you consider necessary? 

It’s a funny and fairly unscientific balancing act most of the time. I tend to only take on commercial work if I have enough freedom within the constraints of the brief or if I don't have to stray too far from what I do in my personal work. In the case of accepting a commercial project, I try to focus on the positives. I suppose as a trained illustrator and designer, I like creative challenges and problem solving. And then the whole idea of working within creative and time limitations is also a great way for me to get out of a creative slump. It also helps improve on existing skill sets.

'Return to Sender' from Jean de Wet's Secret Messages exhibition at No End gallery.

You’ve said that you’re inspired by a number of different things (pop-culture, mountains, monsters etc), but what kinds of media do you consume or draw your inspiration from?

I think there is a lot happening at the subconscious and emotional level. I’m excited by so many different and specific things that I often have the compulsion to include as many different elements as I can. But if I had to name a few types of media, I’d say that I’m mostly influenced by music and films. Growing up watching as many movies as I did, it was always a monumental moment in my life when I stumbled upon something like Mulholland Drive or The Virgin Suicides because of their mysterious and unique worlds.

You’re an artist who’s involved in a number of different projects and collabs. What’s next?

I’m currently working on a bunch of projects. Simon and Mary recently launched their range of hemp-based hats, which I made some patterns and illustrations for. I have a piece for a New York-based quarterly comics anthology called Smoke Signal published by Desert Island Comics. This time it’s guest-curated by Latvian publisher kuš! komiks, and contains work from artists from around the world. I’m also busy finishing a new riso book project that collects a whole lot of unseen work I have done over the years. I normally self-publish and print these collections myself, but this time I’m collaborating with Dream Press, which I’m very excited about. Other than that, I’ll hopefully have lots of new music on the way.

Secret Messages is up at the No End gallery until Saturday 28 October. For more by Jean de Wet, visit jeandewet.com.

'Midnight Matters' from Jean de Wet's Secret Messages exhibition at No End gallery.
'Matrix' from Jean de Wet's Secret Messages exhibition at No End gallery.
'Outpost' from Jean de Wet's Secret Messages exhibition at No End gallery.