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An interview with South African Graphic Artist Jamy van Zyl

September 1, 2016

ArtsDrawing | by Harry Seymour


Jamy van Zyl’s art is one that truly speaks to the soul. He reconnects disparate youthful desires and manias, and his art is not only aesthetically pleasing but allows the gap of personal experience to be bridged, and encourages true flavour to flourish. His pains and joys are so evident on his canvases that it encourages others to set their own inner-flames alight. Represented by the The Henry George Gallery – a hub of contemporary art in the leafy Johannesburg suburb of Parkhurst, van Zyl’s work is a favourite of not only the curators, but the South African community. Drawing on Japanese drawing traditions mixed with South African Culture, his work connects the tensions and troubles felt in these communities, but smashes them head on with all their surrounding glory and wonderment. Youthful, energetic and in your face – his art is raw and powerful. Candid Magazine sat down with the artist to talk about his art, and his dreams.

Jamy van Zyl - A Sketching Cyborg. Copyright the artist.
Jamy van Zyl – A Sketching Cyborg. Copyright the artist.

Candid Magazine: When did you first start drawing and what brought it about?

Jamy van Zyl: I started drawing when I was around 10 years old. My first inspiration to draw was when I started watching anime. I would try to draw the characters from memory.

CM: Where do you draw inspiration from?

JvZ: I draw inspiration from Japanese culture, films, anime and from some contemporary Japanese artists. I also randomly see images in my head which I try to remember or take note of when thinking of a new drawing. I also like watching old science fiction films like Blade Runner, The Fifth Element, The Matrix etc. I am also inspired by games, electronic music and heavy metal.
CM: When did your love affair with Japanese culture begin?

JvZ: When I was around 11 years old a Japanese exchange student came to my school. I was so attracted to the mysterious differences that seemed to emanate from him. He couldn’t speak any English and he felt very alienated in my class. I helped him with his schoolwork and tried to communicate with him. I felt a striking similarity between us and it was at this point that I realized I was strongly connected to Japanese people and culture.

CM: Most people associate Japanese culture with anime, would you say there is any influence of this in your work, how so?

JvZ: Anime is a very strong sub-culture in Japan and originates from old, traditional Japanese Ukiyoe (woodblock prints). It is a new rendition of storytelling that is still distinctively Japanese. I think that Manga/Anime is a platform where artists in Japan can create works with complete freedom. Of course there are naïve and boring anime out there, but there are some lesser known anime that are masterpieces, displaying the manic obsession of its creator. This strange obsession is not only found in anime, it is also found in all aspects of Japanese culture. This mysterious obsessive culture has a major impact on my art.

CM: Your artwork is very technical and anatomically correct, why is this important to you?

JvZ: There are many thought processes behind my creative approach, but the main focus when it comes to technical accuracy is that it simply feels good to get lost in my own space and sit for hours building up a skin or material surface. In a similar way, the creation or development of muscle fibre is a very similar process. I am fascinated with the muscularity of the human body and practice body building myself to further explore the human anatomy. I guess I want to create something that shows evidence of mania and obsession both in my artwork and on my own body.

Jamy van Zyl - Matsubara Hack. Copyright the artist.
Jamy van Zyl – Matsubara Hack. Copyright the artist.

CM: How would you describe your work and its objective?

JvZ: I would describe my work as self-expressive. My first major theme that I am still creating art about is a mix up between post-humanism and an identity complex. Ever since my first encounter with the exchange student I have wanted to become Japanese. Hearing myself say that, it sounds stupid, but it is an honest and pure feeling. Of course I know that I cannot ever fully become Japanese and this has led to a very complicated identity complex that I still cannot fully explain, but making art about it seems to act as a cure. I like to draw cybernetic beings as I believe that the Avatar or online presence deconstructs physical identity. I have taken a liking to existing online as it is a space where one can edit, reconfigure and tweak one’s identity. A lot of my works are self-portraits where I have depicted myself as a cybernetic figure going through many transformations. All the models who feature in my drawings are people with whom I have had internet-actuated relationships. My artworks are a depiction of a cyberspace in which I have complete freedom from my physical body. I can look under my skin, inside my head and I can connect with other cybernetic beings in this way. So I would say that the objective of my work is to find some kind of comfort in my state of mind that I both like and find extremely frustrating.
CM: What is your experience of art at University? Did you find it a liberating experience or did you find the rigours of academic protocol constraining?

JvZ: I never thought of University as ‘school’ or as a place that I would detest, but rather as a place where I could finally be around other creative maniacs. The most liberating part of university was making small but significant discoveries that would help develop me as an artist. I would say that being able to go to University and draw, investigate and develop my art and thought process for four years was a great privilege.

Jamy van Zyl - Buppon CD Cover Art. Copyright the artist.
Jamy van Zyl – Buppon CD Cover Art. Copyright the artist.

CM: What do you believe makes good art, and how does one nurture an interest or talent in the field?

JvZ: I think that good of art should have some kind of powerful impact. To me, this means that there should be evidence of the artist’s raw obsession in the work. The work should express something unique and abnormal that can be easily associated with the artist who created it. I think that in order to mature your interest in the art field or your ability as an artist, you should be able to define what it is that you like looking at, your interests, obsessions and fetishes. These will keep on changing, but it is important to know your tastes as they will have a great influence on your creative process.

Jamy van Zyl - Plugging in. Copyright the artist.
Jamy van Zyl – Plugging in. Copyright the artist.

CM: We all know about the struggle of being an artist, how supportive were your family of your decision to pursue art?

JvZ: My family was very supportive of my decision to be an artist, but even if they weren’t, I still would’ve become an artist anyway. My particular approach to art has little to do with money. I am not making art with the sole purpose to sell. I believe that if this is the focus of your creative process, your work will not reach its full potential and will lose its raw power. During the day, I am an English teacher and at night I draw. By doing this, I don’t have to rely on my art to be able to live which allows me complete freedom to create anything I want within any time frame. I think this is a good thing to do as a young artist. Until I can create works at my highest level, I don’t want to be a full time ‘selling’ artist. I like to think of being an artist as a way of life, rather than a career choice.

CM: If in one hundred years your artwork becomes renowned as a “classic” what would you like to be known for?

JvZ: I think I would like to have people see in my work what I think good art is. I was talking about that powerful impact and evidence of the artist’s raw obsession in the work. Rather than looking at a pretty picture, I would like people to look at my work and be intrigued by what they see. I would want them to look at my work and think ‘This guy must have been psycho’ or ‘what was going on in this guy’s head?’ That’s the level I want to achieve. I would want to encourage art students to think more deeply about themselves and to have them take pride in their obsession and make art about it.

Jamy van Zyl - Laser Construction. Copyright the artist.
Jamy van Zyl – Laser Construction. Copyright the artist.

CM: Do you find it ‘ironic’ that whilst your artwork is done in pen and ink, the content is very futuristic, new-age? Is there symbolism in using such an “old” art medium to portray such new ideas?

JvZ: I was using ballpoint pens before I discovered my theme. So I guess it was just an interesting combination. Lately, art that deals with cyborgs and cyberspace is mostly digital, and while I like the digital medium I also have a strong affinity for old, traditional art making. I like the value that original, handmade artworks carry. I also use traditional Japanese Washi paper as flat areas of colour in my artworks. This references traditional Japanese culture in my futuristic drawings. I like the marrying of the old and the new, particularly with reference to Japanese culture. As Japan becomes more and more globalized, I don’t want its traditional culture to be forgotten by young people.
CM: How did you come to exhibit your work at the Henry George Gallery? Where else have you exhibited your work and what upcoming exhibitions are you taking part in?

JvZ: I was referred to Daryl at the Henry George Gallery by an artist friend. I spoke with Darryl online and we organized to meet and discuss the works. Working with Darryl was a pleasure and having my first official exhibition at his gallery was a privilege. He is also my official connection to the South African art scene. Once I have created a new body of work, I am planning to send the works to him and have another exhibition at the Henry George Gallery. I haven’t been in many exhibitions yet, but I have exhibited in a few shows in South Africa, New York and Japan.

Jamy van Zyl

By Matthew Hoy