Henk Serfontein in collaboration with Keiskamma Art Project, administered by Spier Arts Trust

Ukubhala Ngesandla / Handskrif / Handwriting

Embroidered tapestry 

985 x 1350 x 35 mm

Courtesy Spier Collection

Henk Serfontein continues his investigation into the fragility of the human body. “We are our hands. The hand is an instrument of love and compassion, of violence and anger, of protection and rejection. It gives, it takes, it comforts but also fights back.” 

Serfontein worked with embroidery artists Veronica Bettani, Nokuzola Mvaphantsi, Saneliswa Maxengana and Lindiswa Gedze to co-create Ukubhala Ngesandla / Handskrif / Handwriting. This group informally started referring to themselves as the Fragile Flora team. 

After spending a week in Hamburg, exploring each other’s artistic narratives and learning from each other’s artistic practice, the Fragile Flora team started experimenting with photographic images. The idea was to expand on Serfontein’s HANDSKRIF series, where the artist worked with acclaimed Afrikaans poets (including Antjie Krog, Joan Hambidge, Wilma Stockenström and Diana Ferrus) to select a line from one of their poems and write it on their own hands which Serfontein then photographed and translated into charcoal and mixed media artworks.  

At the end of visit, Serfontein asked the embroiderers to write message of hope on the palm of their own hands in their mother tongue (isiXhosa), to ensure that the personal narrative of each artist becomes part of the final collaborative piece. These messages became a confessional – a place where they shared their inner thoughts and feelings. The text on each hand became a self-portrait without showing a face.  

Veronica, Nokuzola, Saneliswa and Lindiswa claimed their voice. Ukubhala Ngesandla / Handskrif / Handwriting artwork gives each artist agency. Serfontein was deeply moved by their messages and became acutely aware of the hopes, joys, struggles and fears of these women. 

Translated by themselves into English: 

Veronica Bettani wrote “May God help children to walk away from drugs”; 

Nokuzola Mvaphantsi wrote “The better life for children”;  

Saneliswa Maxengana wrote: “Think”;  

Lindiswa Gedze wrote “Dance to lift your spirit”.  

Each embroidery artist worked on their own arm and hand. In the background, together they created a rich narrative texture. The hand palms of each artist were traced, exploring some expressive stitching. This was framed by stitching that followed the contours of the hand palms. Serfontein says the movement in the contours reminds him of the grassy hills and koppies of Hamburg, in the late afternoon when the wind makes visible the invisible. 

The hand palms also remind him of Nelson Mandela’s “Hands of Africa” artwork, where he traced his own hands…it reveres Nelson Mandela the peacemaker. 

Serfontein says: “Hands to me have become an extension of the incredible spectrum of our emotions. You can choose to push someone away with your hands or you can draw someone closer with them. You can choose to inflict pain or to console – to heal. This collaboration was about the latter. It was about reaching out and finding each other in that space in between. It was about listening to and hearing each other’s stories and about healing the divide through our collaboration.” 

Henk Serfontein

Henk Serfontein (1971 – ) is an award-winning South-African artist. His work has received widespread acclaim and he was the winner of numerous art competitions, including the prestigious New Signatures Award. He holds a degree in Fine Art and has lectured at tertiary level. He has also published widely. He regularly contributes articles on art and popular culture to the online publication, Vrye Weekblad.

Henk Serfontein has participated in numerous curated exhibitions and presented 12 solo exhibitions in his career. Notable recent exhibitions include Winterslaap (Stellenbosch Art Museum), A Walking Shadow (Everard Read, Franschhoek) and The Topography of Skin (Uitstalling Gallery, Genk, Belgium).

Henk Serfontein came to prominence with his hyperreal paintings of nightscapes, featuring the marginal, transitory spaces of South Africa.

Throughout the past decade, Serfontein’s abstracts explored similar themes and psychological spaces, questioning the space between European tradition and adventurous, unrestrained African aesthetic as he excavates his own identity: not quite African, not quite European. A deep, enduring attachment to the landscape pervades as an intersection of identity, culture and history.

Serfontein’s Maputo Abstracts series relies heavily on confrontative colour as invoked by the ubiquitous capulanas (popular wax-printed cloths). His geometric compositions echo the art deco lines of the Mozambican city’s buildings and ceramics.

Serfontein drew on his design sensibility when creating the 10m2 mosaic concept commissioned for Nando’s Soho, produced in collaboration with Spier Arts Academy. Inspired by Matisse, Serfontein created this composition by cutting out replicas of his own existing artworks and rearranging them within highly irregular dimensions in a format reminiscent of landscape. Intrinsic to the concept is the relevance of the mosaic materials: included is stone endemic to South Africa, thus literally bringing the landscape to European soil, hence materialising the act of cultural export and intersection.

In Henk Serfontein’s recent series of charcoal drawings, Fragile Flora, he continues his investigation into the fragile, the intimate and the ethereal. In his plant portraits, he captures with his microscopic eye, indigenous plants with exposed roots in minute detail. Nature is rendered ethereal and glowing with inner light. These are portraits in the full sense of the word. It lends gravitas, dignity and grace to the sitter, and is imbued with compassion and curiosity. The work is submerged in the poetry of light and shadow but his vision is acute and goes beyond the photo realistic. It zooms in on the underlying chaos and astonishing beauty. Every mark and every erasure acts as a poetic investigation.

Henk Serfontein holds a degree in Fine Art (cum laude) from the Tshwane University of Technology (1997) and studied at the Cite Internationale des Arts in Paris, France (1997-1999). He has lectured art at tertiary level, adjudicated national art competitions and is an accomplished curator of exhibitions.