The Insider SA met Johannesburg-based visual artist and professional photographer Hannelie Coetzee, who’s ecological art aims to understand the world better and spark conversation. Hannelie’s work throughout her collections, reflects on the past of both the materials and history, and tries to reinvent it for a more inclusive future.

Tucked away behind the Johannesburg inner city, we joined acclaimed artist Hannelie Coetzee at her studio in Victoria Yards. It is here where she contemplates, crafts and contextualises her pieces which are scattered across the city.

“I fell into visual arts as part of a long journey,” reflects Hannelie. “I grew up in Apartheid South Africa on the wrong side of the railway, where I had to unlearn all these really very traditional Afrikaner things. So I’m using that kind of history of unlearning.”

Hannelie’s work showcases her interest in what art can do for society, and aids her in reflection of history to understand it and produce meaningful ecological works that kickstart conversation and introspection.

Her current project focuses on hyenas. “ In Johannesburg, there’s a lot of waste around and wood is not actually recycled like other things so when I started building earlier works, I would just collect all sorts of interesting wood and actually make artworks with this layered history in the wood,” shares Hannelie.

Sculpting and shaping her designs from nature, Hannelie carefully plans her pieces using video stills to aid in the design and present movement in her designs. She shapes her hyena’s from curves of wood, to create a likeness.

The process requires an intricate understanding of the material, but also how the animal actually moves. Hannalie works on the skeletal shape that holds the animal’s form and then creates just enough lines to represent it.

“Art doesn’t have a recipe, and I think that’s the freedom that it gives you to understand very complex problems,” Hannelie reflects. “The freedom that you have as an artist and as an outsider, is that you can ask difficult questions and you’re not the expert that’s supposed to solve it. That kind of space is a very creative solutions orientated space.”

Hannelie’s creations are displayed across the city and across the world, in many iconic settings including her piece entitled ‘ Klipkoppe’ which is on display in front of the Westcliffe Four Seasons Hotel in Johannesburg. The work reflects the often stubborn manner in which people misunderstand one another.

“That’s what my mom used to call my father and myself, because we always disagreed about everything so we were always bumping our heads.,” shares Hannelie. “These sculptures are about how the older generation did things very differently from the younger generation and how it’s a good thing to keep evolving and keep developing new ideas.”

The sculptures were created from polished ends of mining core, and are pixelated with the ends. The core’s were sourced from geologists across South Africa, and is deeply embedded with mining history.

Another piece, which towers above her other works is a mural Hannelie was commissioned by City Property to do three-years-ago in the vibrant suburb of Braamfontein. The mural spans 14 storeys on a building in the suburb, and is a tribute to the Nzunza Ndebele people who embraced the spirit of cultural diversity and lived in the Highveld around the 1680’s.

The mural was created from more than 2000 dinner plates, side plates and ceramic seconds. The piece was made intentionally to reflect the cultural mix of Jo-burgers, with the hairstyle depicted showcasing Zulu headgear, a Ndebele hairstyle and a strand of hair floating down. This ebb and flow of culture is depicted in ancient Nzunza pottery.

Hannelie’s prolific pieces make a statement in public spaces and plays a pivotal role in sparking imperative conversations around issues such as healing, the environment and adapting to new ecological scenarios. Through her exploration and perpetual curiosity, Hannelie provokes critical thinking and reminds us that through learning and conversation, we can grow and reinvent ourselves.