Jarrett Erasmus (b. 1984, Cape Town) is a Johannesburg-based artist and educator working across the media of painting and social practice. His work investigates post apartheid realities in South Africa and their effects on social dynamics, spatial aesthetics, and communities, both within South Africa and in various African diasporas. A member of the Burning Museum collective, he completed a MA in Fine Art at the University of the Witwatersrand in 2017, and in 2016 participated in the Summer School programme at the Zurich University of the Arts (ZHdk).

Erasmus has presented his solo work and collaborative projects in a variety of institutional and public contexts, including at the Zeitz MOCAA, Cape Town (2019), the Festival d'Art Urbaine, Antananarivo (2016), the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York (2014) and at the African Art Forum in Venice (2017). Erasmus remains active in several community art initiatives that were instrumental in facilitating arts education for people of colour under the apartheid regime, and is currently Chairperson of the Thupelo Arts Trust, a foundation dedicated to fostering artistic experimentation and international exchange.

A deep dive into community and painting

In South Africa artistic community is the backbone of our art history. During apartheid, community art projects, collectives and informal arts schools created a context for artists of colour – who were prevented from accessing formal arts education – to further their skills and make essential connections with other artists, often across racial lines. Some of these platforms, like the Medu Art Ensemble (1978 – 1985), were explicitly engaged in anti-apartheid activism. Others, like the Thupelo workshops (founded in 1985), created spaces for black artists to move away from the representational and figurative styles expected of them and to experiment with abstraction, which had been thought of as the province of white artists.

For years, artist Jarrett Erasmus has been deeply involved in community arts initiatives and other forms of artistic collectivism. Since 2014 he has been a board member of the Greatmore Studios collective in Cape Town, a historic organisation with international ties that fosters a “community-of-practice”.  Closely related to Greatmore Studios is the enduring Thupelo Art Trust, South Africa’s longest standing community-centred arts workshop platform. Keeping Thupelo’s tradition of experimentation and collaboration alive, Erasmus chairs the board of the Thupelo Art Trust, which continues to organise two-week-long experimental collective workshops for artists from around the world. He has also created and participated in collectives like the Burning Museum, a fluid, interdisciplinary group he founded together with Tazneem Wentzel, Grant Jurius, Scott Williams and Justin Davy. The Burning Museum has worked with themes of historical retrieval, reclamation and critique, a thread that is continued in a current collaboration with the Sites of Memory project in the Netherlands. Erasmus has produced a body of visual and sound design for the forthcoming Futures for the Past festival in Amsterdam and Utrecht (1-10 July and 2-10 October, respectively). ︎︎︎

Community has always been essential to Erasmus’ practice and his identity as an artist, but this isn’t immediately apparent from paintings, which are striking because of the sense of solitude they convey. Erasmus makes paintings in series or “bodies” of work, a way of working that requires sustained concentration, purposiveness and interest in a particular set of themes, forms and motifs. It’s probably the most solitary way of working that there is, precisely because it requires you to be alone with your thoughts over time. It demands that you show up everyday and tunnel into a private world. Some of the paintings that emerge from this practice, such as the Empty (Pool) series, bristle with this sense of isolation. There are no people, no bodies, no sense of the community that shapes his life outside of the studio.

And yet, the theme of community hums in the background of these paintings, shaping their eerie emptiness. The Empty (Pool) series is partly about the recent history of aspiration in South Africa. For a long time private swimming pools were seen as a marker of class status. To be middle class was to be able to afford a swimming pool. You had to have a backyard. You had to have money to fill and maintain the thing. You had to have enough leisure time to use it. The private swimming pool is a symbol of association with the middle class, a way of inserting yourself and your family into a particular community. It is also a symbol of the legacy of the breakdown in community that apartheid strove for and in many ways succeeded in realising. Seen from the air, the suburbs of the greater Johannesburg area are a checkerboard of beige and turquoise, the latter distinguishing historically white areas from the rest of the city. The same pattern presents itself around all of South Africa’s metropolitan areas.
A related series of paintings, The Watchers, dramatises two particularly South African manifestations of privilege and class, white leisure – symbolised most succinctly by the act of swimming – and “security” enabled and enforced by black labour. In these paintings of imagined scenes, black police officers stand guard as white swimmers leap into the water, or as white children play with their dogs. The Watchers addresses the legacy of apartheid’s effects on community more broadly: South Africa’s ongoing disparities in privilege track racial difference, a phenomenon that manifests itself in different forms around the world, but which was deliberately engineered in South Africa. 

As Erasmus says in this month’s artist interview (scroll down), his experiences of artistic community and collectivism follow him into the studio and inform what he does there. But his painting practice is also influenced by how community is threatened and yet persists in different ways in everyday life. This offers us an opportunity to imagine how things could work differently: perhaps we could lower the looming prefabricated walls that surround the scenes in his paintings and open ourselves up to life outside. Perhaps we could envision a more equitably distributed leisure economy. These scenarios are possible, and art helps us to imagine our way into different ways of being, both alone and together.