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Modern Primitive: An exhibition of mixed sculptures by Paul Du Toit

When artist Paul du Toit discovered a material called concrete canvas, he was able to transform his heavily textured paintings into sculpture on a grand scale

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By House & Garden South Africa | November 15, 2021 | Art

When artist Paul du Toit discovered a material called concrete canvas, he was able to transform his heavily textured paintings into sculpture on a grand scale. The monumental ‘Expanded Canvas’ will be exhibited alongside 12 smaller and medium-sized pieces at a groundbreaking exhibition at IS Sculpture on Tokara Wine Estate, Stellenbosch, opening in October.

This will be the artist’s second solo exhibition of sculpture (the first was at Nirox Sculpture Park in 2012). Self-trained, marginal, and unapologetically non-conformist, Paul’s imaginative approach to art was about inventiveness and independence. ‘One must struggle to be as original as possible,’ he said, as he chased the horizon of technical possibility.

Emerging on the art scene in the 1990s, Paul used his background as a computer programmer, and his belief in the counter-cultural punk rock ethos of doing it for yourself, to market his deeply personal art via the internet. The 'break-out artist of South Africa’s democratic revolution’ as described by author and art critic Ashraf Jamal, took up arms against what he perceived to be a stifling, tried, and tested artistic milieu. He created a series of primeval characters he called 'modern cave painting’, before going on to experiment in woodcuts and paper pulp prints.

‘Sculpture was my first love,’ says the artist, who explains his process: ‘I start out with an idea for a sculpture and have a shape and scale in mind for months and sometimes years before implementation. This starting point is physically created in the form of a skeleton or armature using materials like wood, steel, welded wire or polystyrene. I then use the concrete cloth to dress the armature by folding and moulding the canvas into a desired shape. Water is applied to the concrete canvas and once dry, I paint it with industrial paints.’

Despite the use of these heavyset materials Paul’s sculptures are, in the words of art publicist Tim Leibbrandt, ‘imbued with a sense of animation, as if they have been freed from the restrictions of the canvas frame and released into the outside world’.

Five smaller pieces from Du Toit’s Zanzibar Series will be on display. One of these works, ‘Boat People’, will be cast in bronze for the first time and shown at the exhibition.

After seeing dhows out at sea on a vacation to Zanzibar in 2002, the artist drew a metaphorical connection between the sails of these ancient fishing vessels and the human form. ‘The way the sails were controlled fascinated me. The countless shapes of their wind-filled sails and rigging were etched out against the beautiful surroundings. I started drawing and reworking these images. Using the shapes, I turned them into abstract figures based on the human form.’ He turned the figures into sculptures, using iron rods to draw the shapes. The gaps were filled with a solid compound to give the surreal three-dimensional form certain primitive qualities.

Many of Paul’s titles for his artworks came from songs or snippets of words he liked to string together. The medium-sized bronze piece called ‘The Band’ solidifies the link between Paul’s paintings and his sculptures, and captures his energetic, vanguardist spirit. From the beginning he was unashamedly sideways, and a little off centre, much like member number five of ‘The Band’.

Du Toit’s thirst for artistic knowledge took him around the world. He exhibited in Paris and New York City, where he had a studio from 2011-2013. He was generous in his charity work and collaborated with Archbishop Desmond Tutu and President Nelson Mandela to raise funds for children. Paul died in 2014.