A Q&A with artist David Brits

SMITH: Please can you tell us a little about your journey as an artist thus far?

DB: It is an eternal pilgrimage, a sometimes hard but always beautiful one. For me, it is an act of worship to oneself and the world, and a natural flowing. I've wanted to give up a few times, and have even stopped journeying for periods, but the art, like a wellspring, emerges out of oneself spontaneously. You cannot control it. To use a literary comparison, novelists often say they feel like they have a book inside them, and it is just a matter of writing it. I think the same is true for art. If it is inside you, it will find a way to get out into the world.

SMITH: Can you tell us a little about your creative process and approach?

DB: Mostly, the themes and images I am drawn towards are from the past, often from a time before I was born. I grew up in a Cape Dutch Homestead that has been in my family for 7 generations, so a love for history has really been woven into the fabric of who I am. I often start my creative process by looking at old photographs, books, letters, etc. from my family archive, selecting images I am drawn towards and begin work from there. By working with themes and material closer to me, it feels a truer, perhaps more authentic response to the world.

SMITH: How would you describe your work?

DB: Diverse. Artworks seem to emerge in a variety of styles and mediums, based mostly on their source material. Often I invent ways of art making as opposed to sticking in one tradition - say oil painting or etching. I am not very good at any one thing in particular, and it keeps things interesting and fresh when one has to be constantly inventive. Few things are worse than the feeling of being unoriginal, and my process seems to push me to be inventive in the way I work.

SMITH: What informs your choice of subject matter?

DB: Again, I think this arises naturally. Over and over again, like a magnet, my eye seems drawn to subjects of portraiture, the navy, masculinity, cadets, boy school, the military, World War II. These themes and my source images are mostly drawn from my family archive; books, photo albums, documents, heirlooms, and inspired by the men in my family and their personal experiences in those arenas.

SMITH: When you’re not making art, what are you likely to spend your time doing?
Working on design, painting murals, taking photographs, and making illustrations. I find that doing 'commercial' work in fields closely related to 'fine art' allows me to hone my skills as a creative person. Recently, a musician friend of mine was asked how often he practiced, to which he replied, "I don't, I practice as I work." Right now, where I am in my working life, that's how it feels. The more I work, the better I get. One field informs the other. They all are interrelated.

SMITH: What is your favourite city and why?

DB: I have three. Rome, Havana and Varanasi. Rome because of the churches. Churches combine all the highest forms of art; architecture, sculpture, painting, the decorative arts and music. No-where in the world is this done to the degree that it has been done in Rome.
Havana because of the culture. Habaneros, like all Cubans, are dirt poor. But oddly, this is a city with a richness in culture like no other. Because surgeons earn just as much as ballet dancers, from a young age people are encouraged to pursue excellence in their fields without the pressure of financial success. I have never seen dance or heard music like I have in Havana.
Varanasi because of its shimmering humanity. As is well known, in Hinduism to be cremated on the banks of the Ganges River ensures escape from the cycle of incarnation, and deliverance to heaven. Hindus, literally by their hundreds of thousands, go to Varanasi to die. Witnessing the ancient, arcane rituals and cycles of life and death in that place is moving in a way that very few things are. It changes you, deeply.

SMITH: Is there anything else you would like to add?

DB: In late 2013 I packed up my life and embarked on a mighty 42 day, 6000 nautical mile sailing trip across the Atlantic from Cape Town to St Martin, a little island in the Caribbean. Almost all the men in my family have sailed across the Atlantic, and so it was a rite of passage in every sense. Having never really sailed before, it felt far more an initiation than a sailing trip, and was one of the most remarkable things I have ever undertaken. It was as much an inner voyage it was an outer one. The sea beguiled me with her beauty - my skin tasted of salt and my ears rang in the silence. The Atlantic showed my deepest fears and my greatest strengths, and for that I couldn't be more grateful.