Sketch Sketch Assembly: Merry Company is a new educational project in the Hottentots Holland cycle by Donald Gordon Creative Arts Fellow Andrew Putter, in which a group of 30 artists and designers re-imagine the history of the ‘Hottentots’ and the Dutch at the Cape of Good Hope in the 1600s by collaboratively making a body of visual sketches based on 17th century Netherlandish merry companies.

Sketch Assembly: Merry Company is the third project in Andrew Putters’ ongoing Hottentots Holland cycle. Putter’s first project in this cycle – a video installation artwork in which Maria Della Quellerie sings a ‘Hottentot’ lullaby – won him the prestigious Spier Contemporary Award in 2007. Each of Putter’s Hottentots Holland projects re-imagines the meeting of the local ‘Hottentots’ (the Khoikhoin) and the Dutch at the Cape in the 1600s. As historians now know, the arrival of the Europeans at the Cape was devastating for the Khoikhoin. As a consequence, very little knowledge of the ancient and sophisticated culture of these ancestors survives today.

Unlike the previous two projects in the cycle, Sketch Assembly: Merry Company is a visually-based educational project, not a body of new commercial artworks. The idea for the Sketch Assembly was sparked by a visit to the Jol exhibition at the Iziko SA National Gallery last year, where Putter saw Dirck Hals’s little painting titled ‘Merry Company’ for the first time. Merry companies are a kind of painting that were very popular in Dutch households in the early 1600s, a generation or two before van Riebeeck came to the Cape. They depict young people having fun: drinking, dancing, gambling, feeling each other up.

Merry company paintings – with their emphasis on the passions of youth – gave Putter the idea of making a new body of images which looked at the history of Khoikhoin/ Dutch contact through the eyes of the young. The idea was to photographically imitate historical merry company paintings – with actors, costumes, sets and props – except that these new works would have both Dutch and Khoikhon characters, and they would be set at the Cape.

Since the beginning of this year, Putter has been a fellow at the Gordon Institute for Performing and Creative Arts (GIPCA) at the University of Cape Town. At the beginning of his GIPCA fellowship, Putter had been looking for a project that would combine his interest in arts teaching (he won a National Teaching Award in 2004), interdisciplinary collaboration, and local histories of contact.

Sketch Assembly: Merry Company is that project. Instead of producing a body of new artworks, Putter put together an interdisciplinary team of artists and designers who would collaboratively produce the works amongst themselves. To intensify the educational intention of the project, Putter focused the groups’ production entirely on process, letting go of any intention to produce final, ‘finished’ works.

Putter advertised the project broadly in May, and received more than 120 expressions of interest. After looking at portfolios and conducting a series of interviews, he selected 30 people to work with, including photographers, graphic designers, industrial designers, painters, clothing designers, set designers, and an architect. Many of these people were in their final year of study at one or other local tertiary institution, or had recently graduated.

The group first met in early June, and began the process by choosing 4 existing merry company images from the early 1600s to work with. In the ensuing 4 months, they produced an enormous body of new tests, experiments and versions of these 4 works – and elements of them – in the form of photographs, drawings, diagrams, and models.

This group of collaborative, interdisciplinary sketchers is the Sketch Assembly, and it is their body of tests and sketches which comprises the output of the project called Sketch Assembly: Merry Company. Instead of the usual display of final products, the exhibition will only show these preparatory processes. This makes it particularly interesting for those who are curious about all the work that artists make, but don’t usually show – the preliminary ideas, the tangents, the playful explorations. It is an exhibition especially suited to students.

The exhibition opens at Michaelis Galleries, on UCT’s Hiddingh campus, Orange Street on Tuesday 19 October at 18:00, and will be open on Wednesday 20 and Thursday 21 October from 10:00 until 19:00. Putter will present a free lunch-time lecture on the project in the Michaelis lecture theatre at 13:00 on Wednesday 20 October.

The Sketch Assembly comprises the following members:

Paul Ward, Swain Hoogervorst, Penny Youngleson, Angela Nemov, Katryn Beaurain, Jen Bam, Leigh Bishop, Anine Kirsten, Jeanne Fourie, Claudio Massenz, Christiaan Conradie, Warren Papier, Karin Williams, Noël Platts, Claire Watling, Pieter Janse van Rensburg, Alessandro Betti, Morne Visagie, Mbongeni Dlamini, Andrew McNally, Leah Hawker, Inge Jansen, Jody Paulsen, Christiaan Conradie, Mikky-dene Le Roux, Melissa Haiden, Joshua McLean, Dylanne Powell, Chad Petersen, and Seemaa Allie.

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