Kali van der Merwe was born in Johannesburg and re-named herself after the fierce Indian Goddess of creation and destruction.
Kali holds a Fine Art Degree in sculpture from Michaelis School of Fine Art, University of Cape Town. While living in former east Berlin just after the wall came down, she developed an interest in photography and filmmaking, and on returning to South Africa, went on to an award-winning documentary film career spanning almost two decades.
Nine years ago, Kali moved from the city of Cape Town to her current location on a remote farm near the tiny village of Baardskeerdersbos. During this period in her mid forties, she became legally blind and found her world misty and blurred. After being unable to work properly, she experienced a dramatic restoration of her eyesight via cataract eye operations. Never taking her vision for granted, the fascination with beauty and miniscule detail attests to her renewed bionic vision.
We asked Kali some questions about her life, work and interests.
What does your art process entail?
I like working at night, using it as an expansive photographic darkroom. I live on a remote farm where I am very fortunate to have no artificial lights. At night, I feel the weight of the collective mind of the day ebbing away and I find my freedom in the dark silence of the early hours of the morning from 2 – 4 am.
I use a photographic technique termed light painting – which blurs boundaries between photography, drawing and painting.
I photograph nature I come in contact with in my rural settings, which includes plants, insects and animals in the form of roadkill, often they are endangered species. I have a strict ethical guideline, never to kill in the name of my art. Finding dead wild animals on the road is a tragedy for me and I create with them to honour their lives that have been senselessly cut short.
In the past 3 years I have been working towards stop frame animation taking successive photographs.
I am currently working on creating a 360 film called Animortis in collaboration with Centre for Curating the Archive and Iziko Planetarium which involved my animated up dead creatures.
I rogue taxidermy the road kill after photographing them, hence the fume mask and the sealed goggles as I work with toxic substances in the process.
What does your work aim to say?
At this historical juncture, the imbalances human destructive forces have wreaked are noticeable. We are losing so many species, in fact all that is wild has become vulnerable. I feel it is important to give image and agency to the natural world we are destroying. Beauty is a useful tool for inspiring value and emotional connection. If anyone viewing my creations can come away with a sense of marvel, mystery, deeper connection, greater affection or empathy for the creatures and plants we share our greater context with, then I feel I have made a tiny contribution to a hopefully expanding awareness of our mutual interconnectedness.
My work is also a deep exploration into consciousness, death and mystical states of being.
In essence we are all differing versions of spiraling DNA.
'Effaced Trace of Continuous Moments'
What themes do you pursue?
My work merges boundaries between art, science, biology, astronomy and taxidermy, entering into the realms of imagination and magic. I explore trajectories between real and fictional, traversing nuanced interconnections between death and life.
I see myself as a visual advocate on behalf of wild, fragile indigenous flora and fauna, encouraging people to observe, connect, and be immersed in sense of wonder.
Where do you get your inspiration for your work?
My inspiration surrounds me in the remote rural place where I live in the forms of plants, animals and insects. I never kill anything to create but rather await serendipitous gifts. Sometimes they tragically arrive in the form of roadkill. I honour each life no matter how small or large. My inspiration also comes from my own depths when I am doing figurative works and I use my own body (often naked) as raw material for sub conscious, collective unconscious, mythological inspiration.
When you start producing an art piece, do you work with some sort of plan?
Art School taught me to have a clear plan before starting to work. Ultimately I found that a plan interferes with my gut instinct and my creative connection to what I am doing as then I am approaching things from my head. Because there is no plan, I am in the moment responding to creative possibilities from intuition. It is the most alive state for me to be. Yet it can be nerve wracking for the left brain ego that wants surety and security. I find the “don't know mind” is the perfect creative state. I sometimes listen to scientific or philosophical podcasts while creating to quite an overactive rational brain. One can also have incredibly creative thoughts while driving as that operational, practical part of the mind is occupied.
What should people know about your art that they can’t tell from looking at it?
Nothing. My artworks need to be experienced. Sometimes I have information cards accompanying my exhibition, providing more detail about my subject matter – odd interesting facts like dragonfly nymphs breathe through their anus. But that is not specifically about my art.
Which living or dead artist would you most like to meet?
Judith Mason – for her ability to explore the darker side of life with such exquisite delicacy, for her hybrid creatures that come to life from two dimensional surfaces
Walter Battiss – for his unending stream of creativity and for inventing an imaginative island that oozes wild vision.
David Goldblatt – for his dogged unwavering exposure of a skewered South African society with such deep commitment and passion. I did once stand next to him as we were both recording the destruction of the NG Church in Orange Street. I was filming on a digital camera and he had a huge old fashioned wooden looking camera that took plates of film at the back.
Tell us about your studio. Location, clean, cluttered, big, small?
I work from home. My photographic studio is very portable and is anywhere I choose to make it. I particularly like working in my bedroom because there is not far to go to my bed when I hit exhaustion late at night. For my larger work and photographic work with people I have a sizeable lounge space and can suspend my camera from the ceiling. I have black curtains to instantly turn my lounge space into dark studio. For my sculptural and alternative taxidermy work, I have a separate room in the house which needs to be closed off. This is where I keep a chest freezer of dead animals, boxes of bones and all sorts of dried specimens including flowers and insects that I use for my sculptural installations. Sometimes it can be a bit smelly when taxidermy animals are drying out, that is why I need the door to seal well. A friend came to visit the other day and told me my house smells of death.
If you couldn't be an artist, what would you do?
I would be an astronomer, I love looking and exploring the night sky, stars, galaxies and the universe. My ultimate profession would be a musician as I would love to work with just pure vibration instead of visual representation but sadly I have no musical ability.
Interests other than art?
Astronomy and entheogens.
Critically Endangered Elim Conebush by Kali van der Merwe
What do you collect?
Dead animals, bones, dried flowers, dung of various animals, rocks, stones, succulents, lithops (stone plants), euphorbias, stipelias, insects, dead birds, dead snakes.
How has your practice changed over time?
I studied sculpture focusing on ceramic sculpture. I shifted into photography and film while living in Berlin. On my return to South Africa I became a documentary filmmaker while in tandem creating short experimental films. 9 years ago I returned to very personal creativity through a series of mythological self portraits. Since then my focus has shifted to plants, insects and animals. I now I find the variety of skills I have learned on my life path serve the immersive, multi-format, multi sensory installations I create.
Is the artistic life lonely? What do you do to counteract it?
Yes, it does mean spending a lot of time alone, which I actually love doing, and it is a clear choice for me. I watch a fair amount of films, because I love and understand the process of the medium and I think there is still a feature film waiting to be made inside of me. Watching series one can live with the characters in any time period so it is a great teleporter out of the confines of ones own existence. I also listen to podcasts about people who have awakened beyond the narrow confines of their ego, finding their virtual company and perspectives inspiring.
What would your autobiography be called?
'Divine Spark in Mutilated Darkness'
If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be and why?
A Quiver tree. I love their star shaped formation of leaves, I love their smooth tawny skin like bark that is like a papery skin. I love their intense life giving bright yellow flowers. They are slow growers, only flowering after 15 to 20 years growth. I fancy living for two to three hundred years which is the age of some of the bigger trees. They grow in arid conditions holding mountains together with their root systems. Sadly they are vulnerable and on the red list of species that we are loosing.
Are you a hunter or a gatherer?
I never kill anything, but I do search for things but mostly rely on chance for subject matter to come to me. I am a serendipitous collector, relying on luck and wonderful friends who know and support my strange interests and bring things to me, in particular road kill as they know I will honour the life of the animal so tragically killed.
What superpower would you have and why?
I would like to be able to turn up and turn off my sense of smell for when working with deathly smelly road kill animals and then turn it on high to smell a flower from afar in the wild.
What does success look like to you?
Success for me, means travelling the world with my work, not because I desire fame for myself but rather because my work is so much about the beautiful animals, plants and insects species we are loosing to climate emergency, overpopulation, industrialisation and pollution. It’s a world wide problem, so I would like to speak to a global audience through my work.
Critically Endangered Erica Recurvata by Kali van der Merwe
Favourite Artist to follow on Instagram?
One of my favourites is an astronomer photographer Peter Dunsby who calculates the age of the universe by day and by night photographs galaxies with his telescopes – @astrocapetown
is his instagram name.