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Krisjan Rossouw

Interviewing Krisjan Rossouw: ‘I remain fascinated by the interplay of darkness and light’

With the recent opening of his solo exhibition spanning a series of decade-long works, art photographer Krisjan Rossouw chats with Benn Ndzoyiya about his background as a self-taught creative, his artistic practice and influences, and the decision to make a fresh, visual departure.

Krisjan Rossouw

What is your background and how would you describe your art? 

I am Cape Town born and raised, from the Northern Suburbs originally. I’ve had a series of jobs after studying litho printing after high school. I wouldn’t say there was a decisive ‘moment’ when I wanted to be an artist. I’ve always had a need to try and express myself creatively, unfortunately, I did not have the opportunity to pursue that field of study.

I had thought about taking photographs for some time before my mother graciously gifted me my first camera, a Nikon D5000. From there it really was a process of trial and error, teaching myself how to use the camera and experimenting with a different way to capture light. I think that has come to define my work…that chiaroscurist approach to portraiture that creates a distinct mood in my work.

What is the focus of this exhibition? Is there one particular artwork you’ve created that you’re most proud of or close to?

KRX is a capsule retrospective covering select works across multiple series and projects over the last decade. For me going into this year, working on my new project, Obscura, it was a great opportunity to take stock and look back on the last ten years. This is also the first time works from across these eight projects are shown collectively.

Can you tell us what Obscura, your new project, is about?

I knew I wanted to make a bold departure with my next project. I had been thinking of shooting a monochromatic series for some time. I was researching the transition period from classical / impressionist painting to contemporary works, and it struck me that there was a significant influence of Africa in the early movements, from Fauvism to Expressionism, and specifically Cubsim. Picasso’s Les Demoiselles D’Avignon, so heavily influenced by African masks, was a seminal work in the movement. I wanted to combine the Cubist concept of fracturing the view, but also inserting a distinctly African object, like a carved mask, placed at the center, rather than as an ‘inspiration’ device – into what may otherwise seem a pose taken from classic marble sculpture.

Models were covered in clay and ash to texturise the skin, with African masks as a focal point. The idea of obscuring the viewing experience of the image was also important. So the works are presented with a variety of privacy glass, diffusing, fracturing, and creating movement. As a viewer, you often have to move your gaze around the work rather than viewing from a stationary point. I like this idea of active interaction with what would traditionally be a two-dimensional work. The selection on view at The Gallery at Grande Provence is a small introduction to the greater body of work which will be shown later this year.

Krisjan Rossouw

Could you explain the creative process of your work, and how you start?

It makes sense that most of the work is created with only myself and the model present. I create and light the environment. Sometimes there is a simple prop – a flower, leaf, or piece of fabric. The model’s free interaction with these objects, their movement, and expression is a result of an ongoing dialogue between us throughout the shoot. 

I am usually working on several concepts at the same time since it’s a fairly lengthy process. As with everything, it starts with an idea that I want to explore. My research involves referencing everything from classical paintings to books on botany and experimenting with various materials. For example, the backdrop used for We never Dreamt Of Seas was a steel plate that I aged, rusted, and stained for several months before taking the first shot. I suppose from there it’s a matter of working to resolve those concepts in a final series of images. 

What led you to develop your unique artistic style of fine art photography and what does your work aim to say?

I remain fascinated by the interplay of darkness and light. How the absence of light can reveal, rather than conceal. How it intimates strength, creates mystery. Metaphorically, I am also drawn to the idea of subtle light as almost having physical heft, like a cloak, or a shroud, except felt rather than seen. And rather than hiding, empowering. 

My technique of layering light sources from lamps, light tubes, and even torches was not a result of the study, but experimentation. I have no interest in creating a sharply focused and technically ‘correct’ photograph. Rather, the medium is used as an altered device to create a painterly aesthetic where expressing mood is paramount. I would like to think that this is similar to how painters of classical works approached their subjects. I strive to achieve my own version of this with light instead of paint.

Krisjan Rossouw

Who are some of your influences? 

The Italian painter Carravaggio rates way up there, along with several of the classical painters. Locally, painter Cinga Samson is a favourite. I also loved Trechikoff’s use of colour. There is also a great young Dutch contemporary photographer, Laura Hopes whose work I find particularly powerful. As well as Afghan-born Rada Akbar, who I met recently in Paris. Kristen-Lee Moolman, based in Johannesburg, is another photographer whose work I really admire.   

On the complete opposite end of the spectrum, I love David LaChapelle’s cheekiness and use of colour, English photographer Nick Knight’s dark opulence, and Italian Paolo Roversi’s dreamlike antiquity. My friend Per-Anders Pettersson, a Swedish photographer who has lived and worked in South Africa since 1994, has shot several amazing projects across the continent over the years. I have several of his books. 

What are some of your favourite spots in Cape Town?

I enjoy driving out of the city and exploring different towns on short stays. In Cape Town, I love great restaurants – FYN, Belly of the Beast, and Bodega to name a few. Having a drink anywhere with an ocean view is always a treat. And of course, we have a great selection of galleries and design stores worth regular visits. Cape Town is a great city that really does compare to any other place I have been fortunate enough to visit.