South African Artist Lynette Swanepoel Talks About the Controversial Initiation Ritual Depicted In Her Portrait Art

"The Initiation", 100 cm x 70 cm. 2014, Acrylic on Paper, Lynette Swanepoel, Thabo Mofutsanyane, South Africa.

The Initiation, pastel painting on paper, Lynette Swanepoel, Thabo Mofutsanyane, South Africa

I recently chatted with South African artist Lynette Swanepoel about her portrait art. Lynette lives about three hours from Johannesburg, on Libanon Farm next to Libanon Mountain which is close to a small town named Bethelhem–“so it almost sounds as if I am in the Middle East, but I’m not. I’m in the middle of South Africa,” she says. Lynette farms dairy cattle with her family and they also have Arabian horses, and plant maize and wheat. Before farming Lynette taught Graphic design at a University for many years. “I wish I had time to just do art, but the farm takes up some time and I also teach visual art at local schools as well as digital photography.”

Since she is in rural Africa, I asked Lynette if she encountered wild animals on her farm. She said, “There are some bucks here, but no, no wild animals, except the occasional jackal or wild cat.”

Depending on where you live, that may seem a bit on the wild side! I also asked her if there were villages nearby. Lynette told me that there are many villages all around her, and that the young man in her portrait(above), “is a South African but from the South Sotho tribe which originated in Kingdom of Lesotho our neighbouring country right in middle of South Africa. We stay near the border. It is also known as the Mountain Kingdom.”

Photo by Lynette Swanepoel

Photo by Lynette Swanepoel

As we continued our chat, I found out that Lynette is fascinated by both the ceremony and the juxtaposition of the ancient elements of the ritual and the contemporary elements–as in her painting Initiation, the young man’s mirrored shades and cap contrast with beaded headgear and traditional blanket that he wears.
She said, “Yes, that is what I liked most is how the indigenous culture was mixed with the Western influences. Also it shows that the indigenous culture is fading and slowly being replaced by “cheap” probably Eastern imports of plastics instead of the pride there once was in handmade artifacts. In the reflection of his glasses (in her portrait painting at top) you can also see he is standing on a skin of an animal that was slaughtered for the occasion (full view of figures in photo above).” Lynette said that she wasn’t sure what animals were sacrificed, but perhaps “a deer and a Blesbuck. They also get a wooden weapon called a “knopkierie” long stick with rounded head and beaded decoration to carry with them to signify that they have completed the ritual initiation. The stick is something they can carry with them from then on, I think it has been carried over from history when young men could then be warriors and were old enough to fight. The blanket, with a pin to hold it together, comes from their Bashoto culture and Lesotho the mountain kingdom is close to us and because it can get very cold here the blanket is often part of dress. They come in an array of colours and designs. Even the King of Lesotho will dress in a traditional blanket on occasions.”

Lynette explained the details in her pastel painting titled Initiation–“Yes. We had to get special permission to attend the final day when they are washed from the clay that covered them and they are dressed in traditional Bashoto blanket. We could attend the end to take some photos. This particular boy (I know him) looked traumatized and not very comfortable. He must have endured quite a lot.”

The next logical question to ask is–What is the young man in your portrait being initiated into?

Lynette Swanepoel's pastel portrait of "The Old man with cap. He is a introvert and one can see in the way he almost does not allow you to see into his eyes. He is a cattle herder and looks after all the cattle on the farm."

Lynette Swanepoel’s pastel portrait of “The Old man with cap. He is an introvert and one can see in the way he almost does not allow you to see into his eyes. He is a cattle herder and looks after all the cattle on the farm.”

Lynette says that the “Initiation is part of many African cultures and this particular boy belongs to the Sotho culture. The initiation leads to or gives them their ‘passage’ into manhood. In these tribes it is part of becoming a man. There is however also a lot of controversy around the whole ritual and process.”

What is the controversy?
Lynette explained that the initiation ritual takes places over several days in camps specially set up to complete the ritual– “These camps are makeshift tents in the bush, with little to eat, no contact with family and the rest “teaching ” them to be men. One can only guess what it all entails as they are not allowed to speak about it. Many boys have died in these camps. The rituals are kept secret. Nobody is allowed to visit these rituals while it is being conducted. One of the things is that the boys get circumcised during this time and this is where things often go wrong.”
I asked Lynette is her portrait Initiation is part of a series?
She replied–“I did only one on initiation but plan on taking some more photos on the same ritual on the girl’s side and add that. I try to portray more of the emotion and spirit of the person. Try and get the viewer to almost understand who they are as person.”
Lynette Swanepoel describes this portrait, "The Old lady has an aristocratic air about her, being a very simple person leading a life i n rural area , she still shows a lot of pride and strength in character."

Lynette Swanepoel describes this portrait, “The Old woman has an aristocratic air about her, being a very simple person leading a life in rural area, she still shows a lot of pride and strength in character.”

 Lynette Swanepoel also accepts portrait commissions as part of the Portraits Africa service. To inquire about a commission you can contact Lynette on Facebook here.
Lynette Swanepoel pastel portrait, " This is a portrait of my mother-in- law, I am busy with, she loved roses and always pruned the rosebush before spring. She has died and this is a tribute to her."

Lynette Swanepoel pastel portrait, ” This is a portrait of my mother-in-law, I am busy with, she loved roses and always pruned the rosebush before spring. She has died and this is a tribute to her.”

Of her process, Lynette says, “The reason I am using pastel is that I like drawing and do some oil painting as well, and coloured pastel to me is like the two in one– painting and drawing simultaneously. It also allows me to create realism without it being too formal but using more of an “impressionistic ” technique where colour is mixed optically. I had to import pastels from the UK because it was difficult to find here. Have not yet tried to make them. I use Rembrandt pastels at the moment.”
Lynette Swanepoel's tea-stain and pencil portrait." The girl with tea stain (In my mind) Is a pencil drawing , I wanted to make it more feminine and soft. The tea refers to tea-time when the lady takes out the porcelain and have leisure time and the print of the "crochet doily " refers to a tradition among White South Africans, The grandmother with crochet these little tray doilies and pass it on to the girl as part of her give away when she gets married. For a long time it was considered as "kitsch" and hidden away but now crotchet items has become popular again. ( this is part of an series.)"

Lynette Swanepoel’s tea-stain and pencil portrait. “The girl with tea stain (In my mind) Is a pencil drawing. I wanted to make it more feminine and soft. The tea refers to tea-time when the lady takes out the porcelain and have leisure time and the print of the “crochet doily ” refers to a tradition among White South Africans, The grandmother will crochet these little tray doilies and pass it on to the girl as part of her give away when she gets married. For a long time it was considered as “kitsch” and hidden away but now crotchet items has become popular again. ( This is part of a series.)”

I enjoyed interviewing Lynette and thank her for the wonderful chat.

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