ORIGINAL STORY BY KIM GURNEY (19 JULY 2018)
News about the death of one of South Africa’s foremost sculptors, Bruce Arnott, sent me straight to a public sculpture to bid farewell. His Alma Mater is an elegant and moving tribute to knowledge that is fittingly installed on the campus of the University of Cape Town (UCT). It depicts a goddess-like Caryatid figure atop a tall column; she holds symbols of learning in her hands and bears a weighted headdress with dignified aplomb.
But the telling detail – and in Arnott’s work, there is always a telling detail – is the chameleon perched triumphantly atop her headdress and its compatriot that stealthily climbs the side of the column towards the regal figure. Its beady eyes and curled tail signal a sly mischief that cuts to the heart of Arnott’s work: the redemptive gesture.
There is always something in his artworks to hold onto – a hopefulness that the future may still turn out better or, at the least, that a wry sense of humour about our fraught predicament as human beings might just be our saving grace. The playful chameleon is everything. And without it, Alma Mater would be an altogether different entity, more imperious and less appealing. It is the liberatory potential, however tenuous, of the chameleon’s disruption of power norms that Arnott leaves us in his own wake.
It is this kind of attention to telling detail that Arnott also helped instill in his students at UCT’s Michaelis School of Fine Art. He joined the teaching staff in 1978, when conceptual art was on the rise, to reaffirm technical artfulness, and he established the school’s bronze foundry. He later became the institution’s director (1989–93) and ultimately Professor Emeritus of Fine Art. Arnott was a Michaelis graduate himself: he collected the highly regarded Michaelis Prize (1961) along with an MA in Fine Art.
After graduating, Arnott joined the South African National Gallery (SANG) where he spent about a decade. During this time, he conducted a British Council scholarship at London University’s Courtauld Institute of Art (1964–65), researching the influence of Western Central African sculpture on Western art. He later became assistant director of SANG (1970–72) where he is credited with being among the first to promote African art in a public gallery, as well as defending the independence of the institution. He also curated important shows like African Art in Metal (1970).
Arnott subsequently spent several years as a subsistence farmer in his much-loved Drakensberg mountains in KwaZulu-Natal, where he was born and grew up. He built his own farmhouse and art studio, an experiment in self-sufficiency that extended to his artworks, forging sculptures from clay dug up on the grounds and melting lead roof washers for casting material. This temporary opt-out of the market economy was subversive and inspired by a deep love for nature and abiding concern with ecological issues.
Arnott then joined Michaelis staff and retired from teaching 25 years later in 2003. He also made numerous literary contributions. He regularly articulated a vital place for the visual arts in a society with pressing sociopolitical concerns, and wrote about the work of other artists, including a catalogue raisonné on his former Michaelis lecturer Lippy Lipshitz. He was the founder editor (1990) of Artworks in Progress, the Michaelis staff journal.