It’s midday and the breathless heat is stirred only by an occasional gust of hot air – as if a mighty oven door had been opened briefly to observe the cooking process. A troop of vervet monkeys lies around the rocky koppie in various poses of listlessness slumber. In the shade of his studio, Keith Joubert is absorbed in applying paint to a new canvas. The monkeys look on with gentle curiosity as if hypnotized by the process of complete concentration and the air of meditation that surrounds the open thatch studio.
Born in South Africa with the DNA of pioneering French Huguenot families in his genes, Keith Joubert moves easily through his world, where others tread more cautiously. An endless restless traveler, Joubert faces extreme frustration when hampered by mundane event. Freedom is all-important and the African continent beckons. The more remote and removed from urban development the destination, the stronger the call. On an open map, his eye is drawn to the area with the least venous network of roads marking city sprawls – where the blue lines of rivers can still be distinguished between the contours of land.
Driving over thousands of kilometers of meandering roads and tracks from heartland to coast, he is never happier than when he is on the move. Often driving in silence he absorbs images that present themselves, however fleeting to his view. A ragged notebook nestles on the dashboard, amongst the shells, and bones and porcupine quills that make up conglomerate mulch at the base of the windscreen. The notebook contains several pages of hastily scrawled shorthand, barely decipherable, as an aide memoir to recapture concepts and compositions once back in the studio. It could be a sketch of a figure draped in coloured cloth; or a particular shadow pattern on an elephant’s back.
There is silence as he constructs the painting in his mind; or is he perhaps designing a bicycle powered maize grinding machine? A silent Keith Joubert represents an inner jungle of creative thought from which he can emerge at any angle.
Many people have met the garrulous, extrovert Joubert. To be in his company is like a roller coaster ride – exciting and vibrant, veering towards awesome and terrifying. At full throttle he specializes in the grotesque and monstrous. The creation of beauty and perfect line appears to necessitate the periodic release of chaos and disorder, in order to restore harmony. Few have seen the contemplative, insular Joubert who studies Africa minutely. Who aches with the loss of its precious environmental resource – pristine wilderness.
Joubert is preoccupied with the conflict between the survival of man versus the survival of all endemic species. The grandeur of African landscapes is their battleground. The nobility of ancient cultures that have evolved alongside larger creatures, plants and microorganisms, who together share the threat of dissolution, is a recurrent theme to Joubert’s paintings. He watches closely as the steady march of global homogenization seeks to overwhelm and structured societies crumble in its wake.
Born in 1948 in Germiston, South Africa, his early years were spent exploring the open veld that then surrounded the southern gold mines of Johannesburg. On horseback or bicycle, he would disappear for long hours to a fishing hole, a far off friend, or to chase paradise whydahs – birds burdened by elaborate breeding plumage, but still versatile enough to elude a horse. It was a world of freedom, wonder, and boyish adventure that set a tone for the man, who has a deep love for his country and for Africa.
His father was a surveyor on the ‘mines’ who specialized in closing down gold mines that were no longer viable. The family moved house often, necessitating changing schools and social groups, and no doubt contributing to an attitude of self-reliance. They were social times however, and a highlight of the week would be the mine dances, when miners from different tribal groups across the subcontinent joined together to perform their own traditional dances. The exciting rhythms and vibrancy of the dances told of far off places and deep African roots, that stirred the imagination of the young Joubert and awakened in him a need to explore forever the world that waited beyond the secure boundaries of the gold mining community.
He learned stick fighting from the African miners. Meeting for contests that left him thoroughly bruised but invigorated. He listened to the words of their songs, of love and longing for their homes that were so far away. The beginnings of the paths his life would take were laid down there.
Keith Joubert began drawing and painting from an early age. Annual safaris to the Kruger National Park with his family instilled in him a love and respect for wildlife and the landscape. He went on to study at the Johannesburg School of Art, following a course in Industrial Design mainly to assuage his parent’s fears of a career in fine art alone. Working for a time as a book illustrator, designing covers for romantic novels, he soon moved to start his own sign writing business in Phalaborwa. He freely admits that this move was inspired purely by the proximity to the Kruger National Park gate rather than a calculated business decision. Although he knew then that he needed to be closely involved in the wildlife areas of the lowveld region, it was some time before he gained the confidence enough to live solely from the sale of his paintings.
When this time came, it coincided with an opportunity to care-take at a camp in the Timbavati Private Game Reserve. His only requirement was to keep the baboons off the thatch roof, and chase the elephants out of the camp. In return he was able to live and paint within the reserve.
At times lonely and isolated, Joubert began to truly live the life he had envisaged. Listening to night sounds; awakening to follow tracks. Learning to read the signs that tell the stories of the night. He was hungry for this knowledge and devoured all new information that came his way.
The opportunity to work with research scientists and rangers offered new aspects and the chance to examine sedated animals closely. To feel their fur, their muscular structure, and even to smell their breath, brought him that much closer to the essence of the animals he was trying to capture in paint on canvas.
Joubert entrenched himself deeply within that vital area. He was in the right place at the right time. At first grudgingly, the small community of lowveld bushveld people soon embraced him. An eclectic mix of people, drawn together by a common quest for the romance and adventure of the African bush.
Such a restless sprit cannot stay still for long however. There came a time, some years later, when he felt the need to venture north. He had heard tales of the extraordinary characters living in the small towns of Botswana, and the great game areas there that exceeded the bounds of even a fertile imagination. Before long he was on the move again.
At first seduced by the paradise he now found himself in, it was while in Botswana that Keith became aware of the struggle for survival that rural villagers had with their environment. An elephant became a crop raider, and destroyer of livelihoods, beyond its image of a large essentially passive land mammal, and remnant of a Jurassic period. A giant herbivore that could threaten the life of herdboys or women tending the fields. A lion call at night, which reverberates, to the bone, took on a new, more vital, and awesome presence. Human figures crept onto the canvas alongside herds of animals. Their interplay implied by scale and use of colour.
Splashes of red often symbolize power or potency; a flake of fine gold leaf reflects the preciousness and fragility of a creature or scene. Both are redolent of Africa suggesting the vulnerability, yet strength of the continent that is in danger of being overshadowed by contemporary values. Joubert uses deep swathes of pigment to create movement across the canvas leading the viewer on a journey to unravel disturbing details, awakening an often-dormant recognition in those that share his passion.
Today, Keith Joubert lives and works in the Selati Game Reserve, in the lowveld region of north-eastern South Africa – close to Kruger National Park. His studio is an open thatched construction overlooking a waterhole. He is revisiting the lowveld after many years of living in remote northern Botswana. In the cycles of life that he so often refers to, his own has brought him back to the place where it all began.
However, the importance of being constantly able to view his environment with ‘new’ eyes keeps him from settling down in any one place. Living closely with his subject matter promotes immediacy in his work – it is a working ethic that he believes in implicitly.
From his current studio base, Joubert now travels north, west and east – perpetually seeking little known corners of the continent. His vehicle is a working tool that has been adapted for travel over often rough and unforgiving roads in remote areas. It is a matter of survival that it be reliable.
Whilst travelling he keeps his notebook to hand and continually jots down notes and sketches in his peculiar shorthand. On return to the studio he then works directly onto the canvas. Sketching in the main subject mater with bold, courageous brush strokes. Once the structure of the composition is laid out in this way, he continues to lay on colour filling out the background and creating textures with the thickness of the oil paint. Having structured the composition in his mind and notebook, Joubert’s working technique is relatively fast. This enables his paintings to capture and exude the freshness and energy of spontaneity – often enhanced by chance and accident in the behavior of the paint.
Delicate line work overlaying the main theme has become a hallmark of Joubert’s work. Designs flow seemingly effortlessly from his brush as he picks out the exquisite forms that combine to suggest the specific atmosphere of a particular area. Mythical totem figures co-exist with finely drawn elephants, lizards or birds – suggesting the spiritual and historic involvement of man with his natural environment.
“The graphic images selected in conjunction with the focal subject matter must enhance the image and even tell a story,” explains Joubert. “For example, images like the chameleon, serpents, lizards, or frogs are all images of power and sometimes of sinister change or transition. Some other images like ammonites, skulls, or footprints, are just indications of a much older African evolution. Possibly, by explanation, a set of symbols relevant to a warrior or male lion would be very different to the images related to a fisherman or soft antelope herds.”
On Joubert’s canvases, earthy and abstract imagery intermingle with the mysterious and magical – offering both reality and the transcendent together. The contrasts inherent in Joubert’s treatment of both ideologies perhaps reflect a deeper conflict within himself.
Joubert does not talk easily about himself, preferring to talk about his creativity as an almost separate entity. Ever thankful for the opportunities it has brought him; he belies the years of uncompromising dedication and hard work that have honed his skills.
Although he is African born and raised, there is nevertheless a vestigial pull of genealogy that is fundamentally European. He is continually grappling with the conflict between his own history and traditions, and his deep fascination and longing for Africa. This dichotomy, does however enable him to view Africa from both standpoints, and thus to sense intuitively, and pinpoint, the very characteristics that depict the essence of the place.