South Africa

2 Stories

Liza Lou &
Lawrence Weschler

The Labor of Patience


Liza Lou rose to prominence in the art world in 1996 with her groundbreaking contemporary piece, Kitchen, which re-created, over a five-year period, a replica of a kitchen made entirely with beads. Since then, the New York native has relocated to KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa to open a studio where she has symbiotically employed local women with a mastery in beadwork, creating unique pieces that are testaments to the labor of patience. Having established herself as one of the leading contemporary artists, it was only logical for Lou to sit down for a conversation with Lawrence Weschler, the author and cultural critic who boasts long-term relationships with everyone from The New Yorker (where he was a staff writer) to other visionaries, such as David Hockney and Robert Irwin. The two discussed poetry, translating experience into art, and Zulu beadwork.


LW: Let’s start with the evening prayer. In this case, it’s part of a poem by Tomas Tranströmer, the great Nobel-Prize winning Swedish poet. I promised you, Liza, that we’d consecrate the event with a poem. This one is called Sentry Duty, translated by Robert Bly:


Task: to be where I am.
Even when I’m in this solemn and absurd
role: I am still the place
where creation works on itself.


Dawn comes, the sparse tree trunks
rake on color now, the frostbitten
forest flowers form a silent search party
after something that has disappeared in the dark.


But to be where I am and to wait.
I’m full of anxiety, obstinate, confused.
Things not yet happened are already here!
I feel that. They’re just over there:


a murmuring mass outside the barrier.
They can only slip in one by one.
They want to slip in. Why? They do
one by one. I am the turnstile.



LL: It’s kind of hard to follow up after Tranströmer. I think the idea that we are a turnstile is so interesting. It’s saying, right now, this moment is an act of creation. Not looking at finished things. But, having said that, I’m going to show you some finished things:


Kitchen by Liza Lou


The first artwork I ever made that was large-scale was 168 square feet. I made Kitchen over 20 years ago. I think part of what I’ve always been interested in is time and the idea that you change your life in the process of making work.



LW: This is all beads. This is hundreds and hundreds of thousands of beads over every surface.



LL: Yes. So around 2004, I started to think, “Man, I’ve been working in this craft métier for almost 15 years. Couldn’t I have the making make some kind of difference? Surely I could go somewhere where people work with labor intensive process and material and who have a history with beads, and the work could actually make a difference in real and quantifiable ways.”  So I started to write letters sort of saying, “I’m this artist and I work in this sort of way, how and where could I be of service?”  And it was suggested to me by the non-profit group, Aid to Artisans, that I go to South Africa. At the time, KwaZulu-Natal was the epicenter of the HIV epidemic and unemployment in the townships was as high as 70%.



LW: KwaZulu-Natal is near Durban…



LL: Yes, it’s a coastal town on the Indian Ocean. I rented a dancehall. The idea was to find women who were previously unemployed and desperately needed the work.



LW: There’s a long tradition of beading there, right?



LL: Absolutely. Zulu beadwork is among the most beautiful beadwork in the world and it is all woven or sewn. Prior to going to Africa, I never thought about beads as part of a craft tradition. I thought of beads as an art material with a starting point of zero. There was no art historical precedence for beads in Western art and that’s what I loved about them. Going to Africa changed my understanding of the material, and it changed my work.



LW: How many people are in the group?



LL: We started with twelve, and today there are 27 people. The piece Maximum Security was something we made after Security Fence. I started to think about chain link as a purely repetitive pattern. Apart from its associations with prison architecture, incarceration, and South African history past and present, I became curious about how far one would have to take an ugly symbol until it could verge on a sense of wonder or even the sublime.



LW: You wonder both at the beauty and obsessiveness of the process.



LL:  (laughs) I guess some people might think I’m obsessive, I don’t know.



LW:  I leave it to you. Describe the lives of the people who work with you…Tell people a little bit about that.



LL: Well, the difficulty of people’s lives and the way in which they work their way out of extreme situations has been very humbling to be witness to and a part of. I try very much to be of service in that situation and what has been fascinating is that all of that real life is situated within an art context.



LW: We were talking about the creative process, but before we do that, can you talk a little bit about what it is like to show your work in the first world… in a gallery or a museum. Is it important to you that the process, which you’re talking about, be understood by the people who are looking at it? Or how do you feel about people who might just see it as formally beautiful, or whatever other things they might think of it as?



LL: For me, the beauty of sculpture and painting is that it doesn’t speak. I really love that silence. It should exist for its own reasons, and ultimately, should stand on its own without explanation. Viewers should be able to have their own personal experience with the work and hopefully it’s a springboard to their associations and experience, which they bring to bear when looking at art.  Of course it would be wonderful if everyone took the time to dig deeper and to find out more, but one has to be realistic. And anyway, a little bit of mystery and silence is not a bad thing.



LW: Let’s be clear. Your workshop is a workshop. There are 27 people whose families now have educations, healthcare, and so forth. So that’s happening in your studio every day. But come back, though, to how strange it is that people might go and see your work and not experience or know any of that. Does that matter to you?



LL:  I’m not making art to illustrate a social issue, because the making itself is a social issue. One of the first reactions to seeing my work is often, “how was that made?”  And even if I tell them, there will still be a sense of the unknown. We can never really see how much thinking or love or labor goes into anything. We can never truly appreciate how a rug or a piece of clothing was handmade. There is a kind of silence around labor. There’s kind of a heartbreak that we’re not connected culturally, or in any way, with all that’s made on the ground beneath our feet. I try to weave that disconnect into the work. I did a piece called The Book of Days, and it’s 365 stacked woven sheets. Every single one of those sheets is woven, in this very, very slow labor intensive process that over 30 people worked on for a year. I was just really interested in only being able to see the edges of the stack and the very top sheet. It’s that shimmering around the edges Joan Didion talks about when she describes writing. She could also have been talking about a field of awareness. I mean, how much do we ever really know or see?


Portrait Photography: Tyler Nevitt for NeueJournal 

Title Page Artwork: Color Field (2010-2013) by Liza Lou

The Haas Brothers

Freaks & Fearlessness
with Nikolai & Simon Haas

Hass Brothers21578 copy

The Haas Brothers function with a freedom, enthusiasm and fearlessness that socialization often degrades. This quality comes across the moment they walk into a room, and is, of course, evident in their art, where they hold back nothing back and shirk cynicism. Their refreshing mentality has made them two of the most sought after design minds in the world — recent collaborators include the likes of Lady Gaga, Versace and Peter Marino. With their new project “Afreaks” out this fall, NeueJournal caught up the Haas Brothers after their talk at NeueHouse Madison Square and they gave us some insight into their work, and the thinking that births it. 


NeueJournal: Where did the title “Afreaks” come from?


Nikolai Haas: It was was a 70s Prog Rock record made by this band “Demon Fuzz.” I always loved the cover — it had an African wrestler on the front. It was just beautiful, and we were going to Africa, listening to this record, and then we were just thinking about the idea of a “freak” and what it means to be a “freak.” What you realize is that’s like 90% of people.


Simon Haas: I’m not sure there is a statistic, but most people can say that they have been a freak at some point, or felt like one. We like to advocate for outsiders, and reclaiming words is a great way to take control of them, so using “freak” proudly is a cool way to do that. Our project also has some social meaning: It has a lot to do with women’s rights and racial rights, so we really wanted to title it something that reclaims the identity of “freak-hood.” Also, we wanted these things to be completely unbounded by any design constraints so being freakish means that it can be whatever.


NH: You probably identify as a freak


NJ: For sure! But what first attracted you to the beadwork of the women you met in South Africa, and how did you establish such intimacy with your collaborators, who now call themselves the ‘Haas Sisters’?


SH: We first stumbled across their booth at a craft fair while we were there, and their work it was so expressive. They made really beautifully done animals and we are really attracted to animals in our own work.


NH: We were attracted to the aesthetic too. We got their card and started to email back and forth, and I then I think eventually we were like, yeah, let’s do a project together.  We were in Africa again for work, so we decided to stay for an extra two weeks to try and make a little bit of a collection. We got really close with them super quickly. We started learning all these stories, gaining a tremendous amount of respect for these people. It’s a pretty racist place, and it’s hard for them to be taken seriously, even just as humans, so no way could they ever be taken seriously as artists.


SH: They expected to be told what to do, but it was really important to the project that they were expressing themselves and not just fabricating. It took them a while to come out of their shell, but then they were actually competitive with each other, because each person had different techniques and but also because they are all very economically depressed. They didn’t trust us either because we are white. So we just worked with them, treated them like we would treat anyone else, put them on salary and asked them to experiment. They actually started calling themselves the “Haas Sisters” because we got so close.


Artwork: Haas Brothers – Monkeybiz, Tail-or Swift and Tail-or Splif, John Lith-Cow


NJ: Sex is a theme that seems to penetrate almost all of your work. How has your sexual identities as people informed your creations?


SH: I think that because I’m gay and he’s straight, and we’re really open with each other, we have both experienced the other one’s reality. Also knowing each other as children, like pre-sexuality, and then watching what sexuality does to your personality. Being straight actually requires a certain amount of theatrics, and so does being gay. So, I think we can see that layer added to the original personality.


NH: I feel like I experience Simon’s sexual reality as much as I do my own. I would consider myself queer as well, and I feel like it’s such a gift to understand Simon’s side of the coin because what you start to understand is that there is no side.


SH: It’s a bummer that straight guys are shamed for being emotional because a lot of them want to be emotional. I don’t get it — it is very restricting. People don’t talk about that a lot because men, in general, have it easy, but they do have a restricted reality.


NH: And women are not really allowed to be very sexual, and if they are, they have a pretty good chance of being shamed. I make a conscious effort to call my dude friends  who have a lot of sex “sluts” and my girlfriends who have a lot of sex “players.” I think the engagement of our sexual identity is also like an effort to negate it. I’ve been in a monogamous relationship with my fiancee for eleven years, but if she wasn’t in the picture and I wasn’t in love with her, I would be totally open to having a relationship with a guy if I felt like it.


SH: I’m unlikely to have a relationship with a girl, but it might happen.


NH: I think that would be unlikely, but there are certain people that I could see you being with.


SH: Oh my god, there was this Lebanese girl that I met in Cape Town who I was actually extremely attracted. That was cool.


NH: But, by the way, the sexuality of relationship is really just 10% or something. I mean, it’s important that it is a healthy 10%, but there a lot of relationship that are not gay or straight — they are just not sexual. It seems so stupid to try and define what a relationship is just by those 20 minutes you have once in a while.


NJ: If you could live within the reality of any TV show, which would it be?


NH: I would want to live in “Adventure Time.” That’s an incredible universe. If I could be Fin or Jake, I would be so stoked.


SH: I would probably live in a nature show like with David Attenborough. If I could be narrated by David Attenborough I would be really excited.


NH: How about ‘“The Kardashians”?


SH: I wouldn’t want to live in that reality.


NJ: How would you explain reproduction to a six-year-old?


SH: I would be frank about it. I think that a lot of problems come when you try to simplify the world for a young person.


NH: My goddaughter is six. She’s been in our studio a million times and has seen all the sexual work we make. It’s not a big deal.


SH: Also, if you explain it to a kid birds-and-bees style, you’re implying that there is something vulgar. But it’s such a natural part of life.


NH: Obviously, they shouldn’t be watching something too explicit, but there is nothing wrong with the naked body.


NJ: Simon, what is something people don’t know about Niki?


SH: I think everyone knows that he’s a really good guy, but I think they don’t know that he’s such a doer, and people don’t immediately what a deep thinker he is. He surprises me all the time with his ideas, and the shapes he makes. He’s a genius with expression.


NJ: Niki, what is something people don’t know about Simon?


NH: Simon never, never, never lies to anyone. Sometimes he’ll get flack for being too frank, but what you realize is that he just doesn’t lie to people. Sometimes I’ll make up white lies, but Simon will never, and so I know that anything he says is the truth.


SH: I want people to like me for who I am, so I don’t present something else.


Photography: Manolo Campion for NeueJournal