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Materiality and meaning in the use of found objects in contemporary South African art

The shift from representations of elements from everyday life, for example in Braque’s The Portuguese of 1911, (reproduced in Arnason, 1972) in which fragments of words from newspapers and other still life objects were ‘drawn’ on the picture plane to the inclusion of an actual piece of rope and a piece of oil-cloth with a design of chair caning printed on it in Picasso’s Still Life with Chair Caning, 1912 (reproduced in Godfrey, 1998) is arguably one of the first instances of the inclusion of ‘found objects’ in Modern art.

Buskirk [2005: 95] argues that often the incorporation of found objects into Modernist artworks enabled artists to critique the conventions of art. In their evocation of the ‘everyday’, these inclusions of found objects challenged the nature of art making, the traditional status of the art object as a unique product of genius labour and they also called into question the relationship of art to everyday life (Buskirk, 2005). In the case of Still life with Chair Caning, the oil cloth introduces both the cloth and the illusionistic representation of chair canning: it is at once ‘an actual object’ [a piece of cloth] and a representation of an ordinary object [a fragment of chair canning]. The inclusion of the real rope, which sits with in the frame of the canvass, but never the less acts as a frame around the entire image ‘ties’ all together. In this artwork, the image is no longer a window onto the world; it literally includes a fragment of the world, elevating the mundane to the status of art in a way that challenged the conventions of representation at the time.

Picasso’s Still Life with Chair Caning prefigured other inclusions of objects in artworks for example Duchamp’s ‘readymades’, through which Duchamp challenged the notion of what constitutes art, and also the notion of authorship, because of their play on long held assumptions. Since then, throughout the 20th century artists have incorporated objects from everyday life in to their artworks in ‘anti-art’ gestures that were a means for artists to challenge and critique the nature and language of art. Heartney (2008) argues that “the readymades influence can also be discerned in the formulations of Conceptual artists, who, like Duchamp, reject the retinal approach to art in favour of one centred in the mind”.

Today the use of found objects has become part of postmodern art making practices from sculptures, to installations, performances, and even as props in performance art and digital artworks (see for example Bois, Buchloh, Foster, & Krauss, 2004; Buskirk, 2005; Harrison & Wood, 2003; Heartney, 2008; Johnstone, 2008). In this process the objects move from one set of social practices [the everyday] and are embedded in another [the discourse of art]. Many contemporary South African [S.A.] artists also incorporate found objects in various ways in their works. For example, found objects have been used in different ways by S.A. artists Usha Seejarim [1996] Alan Alborough [2002] and Kendall Geers [1996] as well as in installations by Kay Hassan [1995] and as props in performances by Senzeni Maresela [2004] to name a few.

The use of found objects can no longer be understood in terms of anti-art gestures such as they were in the first decades of the twentieth century, because they have now become part of current trends in art making, unlike when they were first used by Picasso and Duchamp. Further, as Buskirk [2005: 7] notes, as successive artists have made reference to artistic precedents established by Modernist artists who have come before them, they often bring together multiple sources and distinct approaches, resulting in meta-textual artworks that, while they make reference to previous works are nevertheless different from them. She refers to Janine Antoni’s Chocolate Gnaw and Lard Gnaw [1993], which makes reference to the cube like forms of the prefabricated industrial materials used in Minimalism, but Antoni has used lard and chocolate: unstable, collapsible perishable materials.

Since the use of found objects is ubiquitous in contemporary art making practices, I question what is the significance of artists’ use of found objects in their artworks today? Because objects are culturally embedded, the incorporation of found objects from the everyday world into artworks is inflected with a variety of possible meanings, related, but not limited, to the contexts in which the objects were located and their changed significance as they are incorporated into artworks. Further, of interest to me is a questioning of how the meaning of the object in the world may influence the reading of the artwork.

Through this study an understanding of how early twentieth century western Modernist practices influence contemporary art practices, and the ways in which contemporary S. A. artists’ practices build on the foundational moves of Modernism will be developed. Since little literature exists regarding S. A. artworks in this particular regard, the study constitutes primary research in the field, and will provide scholars of South African art with new insight regarding a particular practice in contemporary art.


The Semiotics of the Kitchen

Usha Seejarim
Venus at Home, 2013. Installation view, Johannesburg Art Gallery.
Image courtesy of Usha Seejarim.


The Semiotics of the Kitchen

Alan Alborough
Beautiful Objects: Ellipses and Asterisk 1997.
Installation view, University of the Witwatersrand Art Galleries
Image courtesy of Alan Alborough.


The Semiotics of the Kitchen

Penny Siopis
Sympathetic Magic, 2002.
Installation view (upper level), University of the Witwatersrand Art Galleries.
Image courtesy of Penny Siopis.



  • Arnason, H. H. (1972). A history of modern art (2 ed.). London and New York: Thames and Hudson.
  • Bois, Y.-A., Buchloh, B. H. D., Foster, H., & Krauss, R. (2004). Art Since 1900: Modernism Antimodernism Postmodernism. London: Thames and Hudson.
  • Buskirk, M. (2005). The contingent object of contemporary art. Cambridge Massachusetts: MIT Press.
  • Godfrey, T. (1998). Conceptual art. London: Phaidon.
  • Harrison, C., & Wood, P. (Eds.). (2003). Art in Theory 1900 – 2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas (New Edition ed.). London: Blackwell Publishing.
  • Heartney, E. (2008). Art and today. London and New York: Phaidon.
  • Johnstone, S. (Ed.). (2008). The Everyday. London and Cambridge, Massachusetts: Co- published by White Chapel Gallery and The MIT Press