By Shannon Wilson
Her shirt was striped with orange, turquoise and purple. Her nails were painted blue. Her dress was green and her eyes were shining. Her short brown hair was still wet from her morning shower. She walks through Delizzia, her eyes wandering over the various tables. Madelize Van der Merwe is a teacher at the John Carinus Art School. She moved to Grahamstown after finishing her Fine Art degree at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU).
“I haven’t had my morning cup of coffee yet so what is the biggest cup of coffee that I can get here? Grande Cappuccino? That sounds big, yes that’s what I will have,” says Van der Merwe.
Growing up in Pretoria with both of her parents until the age of seven, life was simple. Her dad a businessman, her mum a teacher and her older brother, a technical wiz, who took apart possessions only to try -sometimes successfully- to put them, back together. Life seemed blissful. That was until; she found herself, her brother and her mother on a train to visit her grandparents who lived on a farm in the Eastern Cape. Perplexed as to why her father was not traveling with them, she assumed he would join them for the visit in the following days. It was her brother that fitted the puzzle pieces together and told her what was happening. Her parents were getting a divorce and life was about to be very different to the one she had grown accustomed to.
“My grandfather became like a dad to me,” says Van der Merwe. The memory plays in her mind and a smile appears on her face. We woke up early with him and learnt about the farm, he was caring and he taught us a lot,” she reminisced. The idyllic days she spent on the farm with her grandparents were short lived. After two years of living there she and her brother moved to East London to live with their mother.
At the age of seventeen Van der Merwe was diagnosed with manic depression, and in later years it became known as bipolar disorder. This did not stop her. Van der Merwe worked diligently throughout school, excelling particularly in art. Because of this, she was awarded a bursary to study at NMMU in Port Elizabeth. To help her mother, she worked three to four jobs. She dabbled in waitressing, working at a clothing shop, teaching part time and posing semi-nude in art classes at an all-girls school in East London to support herself through University.
After completing her Fine Arts degree, Van der Merwe moved to Grahamstown to be a teacher at the John Carinus Art School. She wasted no time getting involved in charitable organizations. Finding rotary too formal, her group of friends decided that they would start a charity that was very action based. This became known as the ‘Grahamstown Goodwill Gang’.
“Things happen for a reason, good or bad you have to make the most of them,” says Van der Merwe. This is exactly what she has done. Having been institutionalized five times and booked off school four times because of her bipolar disorder, she never gave up. “The last principle told me before she left that she was happy to have worked with me, to have learnt to understand me,” says Van der Merwe.
Having finished her large cup of coffee, she orders a new one, just as big, reflecting the larger than life character she is. Never shying away from a challenge, always giving to those who need and not allowing her disorder to define her.
Q and A with Madelize Van der Merwe
SW: ‘Do you think cats can smell loneliness?’
MVDM: I think they have a sixth sense and I definitely know my cat understands me. I live by myself hence there is the tendency of loneliness but there is a difference between being alone and being lonely.
Shannon Wilson: How important is sex as a theme in your work?
Madelize Van der Merwe: We deal with gender issues, like the portrayal of gender in artwork.
SW: ‘Would you mind telling me if you had any imaginary friends as a child?’
MVDM: Many! Oh many [laughs]. Oh my word I had a whole lot of friends. I literally grew up with imaginary friends. I didn’t name them, they were around me to be able to play and imagine. I know many people gave them names but they were just nameless, imaginary friends.
SW: ‘What is the purpose of art to society?’
MVDM: ‘I think art should be a means to communicate a message and I think it should be something to symbolize and also intrigue. I think art can be used in many ways. Personally I would like art to be used for a cause.’
SW: ‘What has been the scariest moment of your life?’
MVDM: ‘This! [Laughs] When I cut my finger while I was framing. I was going to go to a two month internship at Warren Editions Printing Studio in Cape Town and I cut my finger off and I knew I had to go and use my hands because I was going to be an intern. I just thought, “I’m going to lose my finger because I’m an artist” [laughs].
SW: What is your opinion on matching your underwear to your outfit?
MVDM: ‘I think that’s utterly stupid! [Laughs] I don’t do it myself. I think some people do it and it gives them pride to do that. I have recently been in Argentina, there they take underwear seriously. When it comes to underwear it must be good quality and pretty.’
SW: ‘Tell me, is there a book that has influenced you most?’
MVDM: ‘Alice in Wonderland’. Two reasons, Lewis Carroll was bipolar, that’s what they say, and many of the characters come from a mental institution and his own imagination.’
SW: ‘What is your solution for world peace?’
MVDM: ‘Communication between people but also patience, being able to listen. Conversation instead of debating. Every person trying to understand another person. But really understand because we are all so different. To listen and understand one another.’
SW: ‘How would you describe your cultural heritage?’
MVDM: ‘I’m Afrikaans. I’m from France and Holland. Culturally, I have always been the odd one out in a very traditional Afrikaans family. I went to an English school. I dyed my hair funny colours. I don’t know how to make a koeksister. I don’t have all these Afrikaans recipes. I don’t know how to sew like my cousins can. They know how to do all these awesome things. I’m now finding my Afrikaans roots because for so long I have been embarrassed to be Afrikaans in this country, you know, apartheid. But from the beginning I was different. I didn’t take a name from my grandmother or mother or I would have been Madeline Elizabeth but my mother called me Madelize. So culturally I’m a bit confused. I’m a very adjustable person. I also like learning about other cultures.’
SW: ‘What is the song you slow danced to for the first time?’
MVDM: ‘Oh my gosh! Meat Loaf’s ‘I Would Do Anything For Love’ 12 minutes of slow dancing! Standard Five with Roody. He must have been a year older, out of primary school. It was at a school dance function. And ja, we slow danced for 12 minutes! I just remember it was so long.’