Karlien de Villiers | Figuring The World
Written by Layla Leiman on
Karlien de Villiers‘ work is playful and irreverent with a gloriously dark subtext. Her almost child-like style belies a depth to the two-dimensional subject matter, which touches on keen insights into human nature. Anamorphic characters permeate her work like archetypal figures from a mix-match of different and invented mythologies. Narrative also forms an important part of Karlien’s work, as well as a wry, incidental sense of humour. In addition to creating works across a range of mediums that include oils, watercolour, sculpture and illustration, Karlien also creates comics, and has published a feature-length graphic novel in Europe, with another due to launch later this year. Karlien makes work for grownup children, or grownups who haven’t forgotten that they were once children, and acknowledge that life, at the best of times, is a bit strange.
Karlien de Villiers. The Knowing Little Grin. 2013. Watercolor, ink and gouache on paper. 22 x 31 cm.
What’s the earliest comic strip or narrative picture you remember making?
When I was about 9 or 10, my sister and I used to draw adventure stories set in kingdoms we made up on the back of long rolls of recycled accounting papers from a 1980s dot-matrix printer that my mother used at work. We worked together on the characters, storylines and backgrounds – so I guess it was a type of early comic book collaboration. The first serious or ‘adult’ comics I started drawing were during my final year at varsity and they were first published in Bitterkomix around 1997-98.
What’s your creative thought process – do you think in words or pictures?
Both. I find when I speak (or write) I often need a picture to fully explain what I’m trying to say and vice versa … that’s why comics were an almost natural progression for me, as it uses the tension between words and images to communicate.
Your style varies quite considerably across different mediums as well as within. Can you please tell us a bit about this?
Yes. Even though I think it’s very important to develop your signature style and identity, I tend to feel stagnant quite quickly and try to pursue/push new possibilities with everything I make.
That said, I do think there are common threads between the work I make when I paint vs. the more stylised images of a longer narrative. For example the stylistic choices I make when working on a graphic novel over 140 pages often has a lot to do with consistency, characterisation and clarity of reading, whereas an exhibition of paintings and drawings are also narratives, but the stories are more hidden and they function slightly differently in relation to each other and as individual works. I often don’t want to ‘explain’ these works as I like the ambiguity and possibilities for varied readings of the works, whereas in a graphic novel there are other forces at work – you are dealing with characters, plot, timing, sequence, emotions, dialogue – what you show in the images and what you say (or don’t say) in the text are equally important and requires constant writing, re-writing and editing, whereas my paintings and paper works are more intuitive, spontaneous and expressive.
Karlien de Villiers. Hoekom Blaf die Honde by die Hekke van Paradise? II. 2015. Oil Monotype on paper (1/1). 70 x 100 cm.
Are there recurring symbols, motifs or themes in your work? Please tell us about these.
Definitely. Mark-making for me is a type of ritual, a part of survival – I am quite lost if I can’t scratch into something, but there is also a type of violence in making a mark on an object or paper… as a kid my mother took away my pencils and crayons after I drew all over the walls, curtains and furniture, and I ended up making carvings into the wood of my bed with a kitchen knife. So, drawing has always been a type of coping mechanism and communication for me, and a lot of recurring images come from quite a subconscious, emotional/symbolic place which I can’t really put into words. There are recurring ‘characters’, animals, human-animal monsters that often represent an emotional state rather than ‘real’ people or beings.
Karlien de Villiers. Banana Republic. 2015. Watercolor, ink and gouache on paper. 30 x 40 cm.
How does literature inform your work?
I’m an avid reader (although since I’ve had children I don’t have as much time for reading as I used to), and sometimes it’s the plot or dialogue of a specific novel that sparks an idea for an artwork or exhibition; sometimes it’s a title of a novel or a specific line of text that I heard or read that stays with me and I jot it down in my sketchbook and make a doodle or drawing next to the text, and sometimes there’s an interaction between the image and the text that just gives a whole new meaning to the original texts – it twists or subverts and it often surprises me even, and that’s nice when that happens as it changes my own reading of the original text.
Karlien de Villiers. Die Stoutstoeltjie. 2013. Watercolor, ink and gouache on paper. 22 x 31 cm.
Is the humour in your work deliberate or incidental?
Completely incidental. I don’t consider myself to be funny at all, and I’ve always had a subversive, a-moral sense of humour – so I’m often surprised that other people find my work comical… I’m really bad at telling jokes.
Karlien de Villiers. Jelly G-Spot. 2013. Watercolor, ink and gouache on paper. 22 x 31 cm.
What’s the relationship between your illustration/graphic novel work and your other painting?
They’re different, but they inform each other in many ways. For example, with a graphic novel I have to work more strategically and write and plan a longer storyline so that all the threads (plot, character development etc.) come together seamlessly as well as trying to achieve a fine balance between visual and textual storytelling – so it’s closer to filmmaking in a way, as you need to have a more or less clear vision of where you want to take the characters, what makes each character ‘tick’, and what emotional journey/experience you want your readers to have … that said, I am not actually very exact or analytical when I work on a graphic novel, as I leave a lot of things to chance and also let the story develop itself through the process – which is closer to how I work when I make a series of illustrations/paintings where I often don’t know what the outcome is going to be beforehand, and through the process of working I let myself be surprised by what comes out – and most often it’s very different from what I imagined the end product would be.
Your second graphic novel, Les Femmes Sauvages is due next year. Can you please give us a hint at what it’s about as well as a little insight into the process of creating it?
Les Femmes Sauvages is the French translation of Die Wildevroue – a term which has a specific historical root in South Africa. During the Anglo-Boer war the Afrikaner women who were never captured by the British were called die Wildevroue as they often fought on commando alongside the men, left their homes and survived by living in the veld. The novel is set in the present, and the main character’s great-grandmother was one of die Wildevroue. Of course being a ‘wild woman’ also has other stereotypical cultural and sexual connotations which is something the novel explores through the main character’s struggles against convention, and also deals with her coming of age during the ‘90s in South Africa; relationships, marriage, motherhood, sexuality amongst other topics.
Why are there so few (if any) graphic novels published locally?
I don’t know – it’s a more complex issue than I have space to go into here, but probably a compound combination of culture and commerce? It can take years to make a good graphic novel, as it is a very emotionally draining, time consuming, labour-intensive task, and putting years of sweat into it, you are not guaranteed sales or financial success – i.e. there is no instant gratification and you might wait a long time for spin-offs, royalties or dividends from your hard work to pay off – so it’s also a risk for publishers if they are not sure of a readership or buyers. It’s also a cultural thing – in France for example, people grow up with a very wide variety of comics, graphic novels and BD (Bande Dessinée) and it’s as much part of the reading culture as any other type of literature or media.
There are also just a larger quantity of publishers in Europe who specialise in picture books, comics and graphic novels, and there are a lot of festivals, such as the Angouleme Festival in France or Fumetto in Luzern that promote this medium – so the public is also more aware of comics and graphic novels as a popular and also potentially serious form of literature. On the creation side (although I can’t speak on behalf of all comic artists or the entire industry), I think very few people have the available time or resources that they need to complete something like a graphic novel. I’m rather fortunate that I have a (very patient) publisher in France who provided me with the necessary financial support so that I could take time off work for three months to focus on my next book – and even so it’s hard going and I’m still not finished with the project. I guess if there are more lucrative bursaries/advances or grants available locally and more publishers were keen to promote graphic literature in South Africa, then more illustrators would be keen to take on the challenge.
Finally, what inspires you and what might someone be surprised to find out about you?
People who succeed in spite of failures or setbacks. I hate drawing cars and buildings and almost failed my first year at art school.