I met Juan of Gallery MOMO a few weeks ago to discuss the impact photography has had on the African art market since the Gallery opened its doors in 2003. On Exhibition was the work of Jonathan Hindson who had been serving his three-month residency with the gallery. A few days later on wonderful Monday morning, I was back at MOMO, this time to delve deep into the mind of the artist who I had seen on show. I met the cheerful South African-born Frenchman Jonathan Hindson who has a very interesting approach to photography. For him, the picture is only the starting point of his process. He uses images as references for his memories which he then takes through a process of deconstruction and reinterpretation using a canvas, computer, board, and painting.
We spoke at length about his process, and working in both the European and African art market as “it has nothing to do with your art as it is how you are going to be able to live from your art” he adds. This is how it went down!
Shots011: Who is Jonathan Hindson?
JH: I was born in South Africa, grew up in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg and at the age of eleven, my mom said we are getting out and took my two brothers and me off to France. That was in 1974. We pitched up in southern France and we didn’t speak the language but I got used to it as we stayed there and eventually got a French citizenship around 1983 which meant I had to give up my South African citizenship.
On my 50th birthday, my wife said “South Africa is bugging you, you must get out there” and sent me back and that was great! Then I thought I should find a way of coming back here and that’s when I got in touch with Gallery MOMO thanks to Pierre Lombart, who has done a lot for African artists, and I got the three-month residency.
Shots011: How has serving the MOMO residency been for you?
JH: It’s been unbelievable, it’s like fairy-tale stuff.
Shots011: What is your relationship with the camera?
JH: That goes back a long time! My older brother once got talking about cameras and coming from him I thought wow this sounds good and it became this fascination. I got used to photography and developed a liking for cameras. I had a huge liking for the Olympus OM2 and that got swiped. I then got some other cheap ones since I didn’t have cash to buy the one’s I wanted. After a while, I went digital with a Pentax.
Photographers are people I admire and respect them because I have a difficulty considering myself a photographer in the same way as people who can express a whole world through their eye. It an amazing achievement and I find some of it magnificent, but it is not my job to do it that way. I use photography in a very different way and every now and then I will get a decent picture, but my process starts once the photographer’s job is finished.
I will start shooting in the streets or what I see and store the images on the computer, my little treasure trove which I visit periodically. When I go through it, I might decide that there is nothing in there or I might find something which I will find interesting and I will start working on it. My work is not so much so about taking a picture of a subject. It is about how that picture refers to the memory of what I saw. I use photographs as the closest image I can conceive of a specific scene that I saw. When I go back to the picture, I look at a “neutral representation” of my memory, so my work focuses on memory and on the gap between what I “remember”. I take the photographs through a process of deconstruction and reinterpretation using a canvas, computer, board, and painting. It is all about describing, visually, the constant drift between the facts and what we remember. We build our relation to the world on this very unstable accumulation.
When something happens, I see something that I am going to remember and a bit later I do. From there on every time I think about that thing, the cat eating a bird, for example, I will get back to the last time I remember thinking of the cat eating the bird. As I go back to these steps, the memory has a slight alteration which could be due to my mood or something else. So after a while the memory could be a ginger cat eating a canary when what really happened was a black cat eating a mossie.
It is amazing how you can have very precise memories which are completely wrong. I believe this is why police are apparently not enthusiastic about eyewitness accounts. They are not reliable because you remember what you saw, and what you saw is what you remember, but what you remember is not what really happened. My work focuses on that gap and how can you make that perceptible.
Shots011: Would you describe your work as post-modern?
JH: Would you? I don’t know. I have no idea. I had never put any thought to that or thought of my work to be post-modern. I would have to think about that.
Shots011: Being South African born and raised in France and working in both countries, are there any similarities and contrasts of the two countries?
The huge difference between the South African, American and European art markets is the buying power, the amount of money each market has, and the cultural influences of that area. I think it is very interesting for a South African artist to get into the European and American art market but I do not think most European or American artists would really bother about the South African market. If you are big or well-known in America or Europe you will probably be well known in South Africa too. It may not be the same as being big in South Africa. It does not necessarily mean you will be known in Europe or America and the ability to sell your work will not be the same.
What often happens in Europe is that as an African artist, your African-ness will be put before the art and expected to produce these nice colourful pictures of nice black people running around with animals and the typical themes. You actually wonder if African art hasn’t been inspired by Picasso or the other way around. It can be a problem for African artists who are reduced to being African more than artists and that can be slightly condescending. However, there are galleries such as MC2A in Bordeaux which I work with and it is run by Guy Lenoir who does a lot of work with African Artists. His mind is completely devoid of short sighted preconceived notions of Africa.
Guy works with artists and specializes in African art in its diversity. African art is really the same as European art but with a slight difference, it is more direct. I find that European art reaches a stage where it is just spinning on itself to an extent where nothing is happening anymore and that can get extremely boring. I can get bored with some African art too, but I find African art more puncheon and alive. However, there is also some crap African art and some magnificent European art and all the shades in between. In general and from the position of the spectators there is still a lot of life in African art, in Europe as well but it may be less.
Shots011: Looking at your career, what is the one thing you wish you knew at the start of your career?
Oh Yeah, definitely. I just didn’t fathom completely– I still don’t– how important it is to be good at networking. It has nothing to do with your art as it is how you are going to be able to live from your art. I think am completely useless when it comes to networking. I think it would have been so much easier for me if I had been able to go into a crowd and feel at home. To have a nice thing to say to everyone and just be the cool guy. When I get into a crowd it’s either I get sloshed or I go away. It makes me feel absolutely terrible and I do not like it at all. I don’t get networking at all and that is unfortunately very important.
In the art world – in any circle I suppose – there are times where you will be pressured to be nice to a person. In France, you get a lot of government funding so you have to be nice to a person because they are in charge of current affairs for some party or institution. You need to remember that the art market is a market and you need to sell yourself. I just knew I wasn’t going to be good at that. I am not good at networking and fitting into the circles neatly because it usually requires some amount of brown nosing and I am not good at that either.
What I have done for years is made sure that I was financially independent and had a job elsewhere. It is not necessarily a bad way to go about it. If you have the luxury of focusing solely on your art that’s lovely, I have friends who are very proud to say they have never “worked” a day in their lives, which is good for them. I am also glad that I didn’t have to compromise either. If necessary I will have very long days and long hours, it has taken me years to do what I could have done in months. I did it my way and that’s okay.
I went about it that way because as a normal citizen you have to put up with your job, you have to put up with your bloody colleagues, bloody boss, and the clients. You have put up with all of that, just so you can be able to have a paycheck at the end of the month, pay your taxes, have food to eat and survive. The job market then becomes a big part of your life. I know and have been through all of that. I am glad I have been in it chin-deep and know what it’s like for the 90% of the population and what they go through. As an artist, it helps to be in-sync with the rest of society. It is important to know where you are coming from, and if you don’t, know where you are going.
Shots011: Who has been you greatest influence?
JH: Giacometti, you wouldn’t necessarily think so, for years he has been an artist that has continually blown my mind. Nicolas de Staël has done some really amazing stuff and I can see the influence in my own work, I don’t know if it can be seen by anybody else. I also find some of the old Russian and Italian icon artists, dating back to the fourteen and fifteen hundreds, absolutely magnificent. There are also many others – such as Bacon, Turner, Jean LeGac of course – but these are the first ones that come to mind.
These 10 questions originally came from a French series, “Bouillon des Culture” hosted by Bernard Pivot. They’re better known as the questions that James Lipton asks every guest at the end of “Inside the Actor’s Studio”. Their addition to this questionnaire is to get to know a bit more about Jonathan the person, instead of the artist, a bit more about Jonathan outside of photography.
What is your favourite word?
It’s a verb: To Be.
What is your least favourite word?
What turns you on creatively?
I don’t think there’s anything specific. It would have to be something inside, an internal movement that makes it possible for you to interpret or get you going on something external. It could be a leaf on the ground or a woman walking by. It’s something inside that makes you react to what’s coming from the outside.
And regular work, do it regularly until it becomes better.
What turns you off?
What is your favourite curse word?
It’s a French one I guess, the French have a different relation to curse words, Merde, and it just means shit, it’s just different in French.
What sound or noise do you love?
There are a number of those; I love the voices and sounds of my wife and kids, I love those. I love the sound of the piano. When I was young my mom would take us to the Kruger National Park often and you could hear the distance between where the sound comes from and your ear, and that’s the sound of the bushveld. In Bordeaux there is a submarine bunker that was built by the Nazis. It served a docking station and is covered by concrete. Once you visit there you can hear the water drop from the condensation and the sensation of the long space with the drops falling into the water is just incredible.
What sound or noise do you hate?
I think the sound of Gun Shot is as awful as it can get.
What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
Had I known if medicine was such an amazing job before I went into art, it would be medicine. Everyone has to go to hospital sometime and you realise the amazing job that these people do.
What profession would you not like to do?
There are a number of those. Where do I start? Finance, Insurance, Politics, any job that is based on the power I can have over others is not for me.
If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?
Never Mind this was just a joke, it doesn’t really exist.