Gert Swart was born in Durban in 1952 and matricu- lated at Queensburgh Boys’ High School. He obtained a Public Health Diploma from the Natal Technikon in 1972 and was conscripted for National Service in 1973 (South African Medical Corps). In 1980 he resigned as Government Health Inspector to concentrate on art. He studied Fine Art at Natal Technikon under Andries Botha and Jeremy Wafer.
For two decades Gert Swart lived and worked in Pietermaritzburg. His most important exhibition of this period was in 1997, Contemplation: a body of work by Gert Swart, at the Tatham Art Gallery. It expressed the redemption of an individual as a metamorphosis from the curse of death to the hope of resurrection, and how this transition affects the individual’s relationship to society, nature and God.
One of Swart’s most significant commissions was a monument erected on the battlefield at Isandlwana in 1999. In the past, only monuments to fallen British soldiers were erected there. The artist redressed this injustice and designed a monument that honoured the fallen Zulu warriors, but does not glorify war.
“Grace is a singular work. While much of Swart’s work rages with grief over the brokenness of our world, the pain and struggle of our lives, the brokenness of our technological interaction with the rest of creation, the brokenness of our political mis-arrangements, Grace goes beyond rage. Yes: it recognises this brokenness to the extremity of death in its torpedo-like coffin speeding across the river Styx. And yet it exults rainbow-like in the victory over death, festooned with ribbons flying in the wind, celebrating the exhilarating freedom gained in grace. It marks our dependence – a smaller vessel within a larger vessel. At the same time the sculpture suggests no flight from the material world.
“The base holding Grace up, and what looks to me like webbed feet, is most intriguing. These are sort of duck-like feet – earthy and humorous. They serve to me as reminders that this vision of grace is rooted in ‘our’ earthy reality – something far bigger than ourselves is at work in this liberty of the Spirit. In this sense the webbed feet correspond to the boat within a boat.” (Bartholomew 1997)
Christian faith has played a crucial role in Swart’s work. His friend Rick Andrews (1997) writes of this journey of shared struggle with art and faith, saying “We were not really sure of what we understood by ‘Christi- anity’, but we were inspired by the vision of hope it contained – the glory behind the appearance of things. The obligations of love. We awakened to a new sense of purpose. The thorns of apartheid tore us at every turn. Its laws were so patently damaging to the human spirit and to the nation. Our knowledge was limited, but our enthusiasm led to deep exploration, questioning, strength to resolve, and to times of great testing ... “Art done from this perspective has the tall order in our day of probing with exquisite finesse the hurts and hidden charms, the atrocities and wounded glories of people’s lives in our day and context that will command the respect of secular specialists, TV addicts and God’s own people ...” (Strauss 1997)
Grace (1996), wood, metal and paint, 188 x 203 x 136cm
Tatham Kunsmuseum, Pietermaritzburg
Photo courtesy of Tatham Art Gallery