Shaky future: Baboon sculpture is this artist’s steely call for change

Meet award-winning South African sculptor Jean Theron Louw, whose baboon sculpture connects to nature with boldness and compassion.

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Julius, a member of a baboon troupe, has his eyes glued to a telescope lens looking out to sea. Behind him, his partner Jane is lazing, lethargic and apathetic on a teak ship’s deck that rocks when you touch it. This odd couple are in a state of frozen expectation – fearing perhaps for the future.

No, they are not real but fashioned out of stainless steel and mesh. Their agitation is almost palpable. Their orange life jackets, also made of steel, suggest survival is not guaranteed.

Titled The View, the life-size baboon sculpture by Jean Theron Louw, was installed at Gearings Point in Hermanus as part of an exhibition of Fynarts Sculptures. It encourages the viewer to look through the telescope’s viewfinder and see a selfie — and a short ‘alert’ clip about the state of the environment. 

Watch a video of ‘The View’ here:

Self-reflection at heart of baboon sculpture

After the work went public, Louw explained her aim was to draw the viewer into moments of self-reflection and soul searching. 

“I see it as a metaphor for the precarious situation of planet Earth, and how we need to either change our ways or we’ll tip it over the edge.”

Yes but why a baboon sculpture?

“Baboons are not always our favourite creature, I agree, but they are part of our eco-system and a part of our planet. That’s important. What we don’t realise is that they look at us too – and wonder what makes us tick and why we are so aggressive!

“What I try and achieve is to highlight the conflict between humans, nature and vulnerable species, as well as the shaky state of the planet.”

‘Baboon sculpture should be seen on international stage’

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Louw’s work places a spotlight on pressing environmental issues. Image via jeantheronlouw.co.za

Louw has taken part in numerous exhibitions including at Tokara, Boschendal Estate and the Cliffs in Hermanus. 

More recently, she won the 2019 Woordfees Artist and the 2020 kykNET Best Artistic Presentation awards.

Cape art connoisseur, curator of Gallery Intethe, author and mentor for emerging South African artists, Barbara Lindop, believes the baboon sculpture deserves to be on the international stage.

“It’s a stark and frightening reminder of what human behaviour has created. It’s a cry for attention, conceived with pathos, humour and sensitivity. Louw is an artist of our time that should be recognised internationally.”    

Powerful messages in steel and mesh

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Artist Jean Theron Louw in her studio in Somerset West. Image: Supplied

Back in Louw’s Somerset West studio, there are few easels, no neat rows of paint pots and brushes. Instead you will find steel cutters, welding machines, chisels, large screw drivers and heavy-duty gloves and eye shields. These are the tools that turn her creative – and often soul-searching energy – into artworks. Some are small, others large, but each piece conveys a powerful message.

The messages in hard-duty steel and mesh could be about an elderly woman sitting on her own, a solitary figure staring at the horizon, a wild dog, a frightened horse. 

With all this heavy-duty stuff, one wonders how she manages to focus on detail.

“That’s where the living part emerges,” she said: “The look in an eye, the flare of a nostril, the sinews and muscles that speak of movement, an arbitrary person mid pose, mid thought. Those are the things that speak to me.”  

In the same way that the creatures of George Orwell’s Animal Farm awakens the reader to the frailties of human nature, so too does this sculptor’s work. Haunting is the word that comes to mind. For more about Jean Theron Louw’s work, visit www.jeantheronlouw.co.za.

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