The Bruce Arnott book project

Although not intended as a biographical study, the book aims to paint a rich, varied, and complex picture of Bruce's life and work.

Farmhouse in KwaZulu-Natal (1973-1974)

Bruce with solo exhibition Bronzes (1981)

Bruce and Kevin Brand working on Citizen (1986)

Bruce's Sketch of Juggler (2016)

Work has begun ..

In 2015, Bruce and I began discussions about a book that might articulate his life's work. He requested that I project manage it, taking on the role of editor and writing the introductory essay. It was decided that the earlier sculpture catalogue that Bruce had worked on with Kim Gurney would be incorporated into this book.

I am happy to announce that work on the book has begun. Sven Christian – co-editor of Five Bhobh: Painting at the End of an Era and Why Should I Hesitate: Putting Drawings to Work – will assist with its design and production. The book will include essays by authors involved in different spheres of the visual arts; a selection of Bruce's own writing; and a compilation of archival records, preliminary sketches, and 'behind-the-scenes' insights.

Although not intended as a biographical study, the book aims to paint a rich, varied, and complex picture of Bruce's life and work — his intense concern with the human condition and the environment, his dedication as an educator, and the scope of his research. His interests, concerns, and his approach to life in general, were key to his creative outputs, particularly his sculptural work. This is most apparent in his deep interest in Western and African art, in particular the creative impulse for making images and 'portables' common to widespread early material cultures, which gave rise to symbolic and emotive form (Arnott, 2003).

Primordial and original

These material cultures include those of Oceania and Australasia, as well as North, Central, and South America. Bruce's primary interests, however, were in the material cultures of West and Central Africa, the Celts, Cycladic and archaic Greece, and the rock paintings and engravings of the San in Southern Africa. In Bruce's words, "All these forms may be categorised as 'primitive' – that is to say, both primordial and original (but certainly not inferior)" (Arnott, 2003). Although the use of terms such as 'primitive' have become synonymous with colonial other-ing in Africa, it is important to note that his use of the term was not exclusive to artistic production from the continent, nor was it used in a derogatory sense. On the contrary, he goes on to say that, "objects and ideas" from these material cultures provide "an antidote to the dead hand of Classical formalism in Western sculpture" (Arnott, 2003).

Bruce was an artist, first and foremost. However, other than his lifelong occupation with the "shaping of ideas and the visual forming of meaning" through sculpture (Arnott, 2003), his interests were broad. The issues that he dealt with would be of interest to a diverse, 21st century audience, both locally and globally. Amongst other things, Bruce had an interest in sustainable design. He built his farmhouse in the early 1970s, using traditional methods and local materials. At the time, he also designed a low-cost, low technology hydraulic ram that was easy to make, and could be used by communities in underdeveloped rural areas worldwide.

Meticulously recorded

In 1962, Bruce was appointed as Professional Officer at the South African National Gallery (SANG). In 1970, he became the Assistant Director, a position that he held until 1972. During his years at the SANG he formed a lasting habit of keeping meticulous records of his work as a sculptor and other practice-based creative outputs, such as creative/design research writing and all of the publications he authored and edited.

He has left a collection of primary and secondary source material, ranging from diaries and journals (written in his own hand and accompanied with drawings), as well as scrapbooks with newspaper clippings, photographs, and a detailed photographic record of his sculptures from the early 1960s until 2018.

I have been ordering this material from different phases of Bruce's creative career (his years at the SANG, on his farm in the Underberg district, at the Michaelis School of Fine Art, and from his retirement until his death in 2018).

It is my hope that the book will be published at the same time as a retrospective exhibition of Bruce's work, with the two complimenting one another and leading to a greater understanding of his 'raison d'être'. The intention is to approach appropriate galleries or museums for a retrospective exhibition once the book is at a more advanced stage of development.

December 2019