DJC Summer

From memory: Archives by emerging artist Michael Beckurts

Fearless young fine artist and design student Michael Beckurts shares his intimate memories and unique vantage point in his debut exhibition, showing at The Test Kitchen.

At just 20, Michael Beckurts is an emerging artist whose inaugural solo exhibition, entitled Archives, is a reflection on the theme of memory. Inspired by the isolation of lockdown in 2020, Michael created all of the artworks on the exhibition entirely from memory, without any photographic references. They are memories, he says, of the happiest moments of his life. “They are places I feel safe.”

In an interplay of light and dark, simple forms speak to the nature of memory – in surprising detail: a storyteller’s perspective on daily life. A dirt road on the family farm near Knysna, his grandfather’s barn, a holiday in Italy, a garden path in dappled light, night scenes in Cape Town; they are at the same time photographic and dreamlike in quality.

“No detail is unnecessary,” says Michael. 

He paints in mixed media of watercolour and coffee, whose fluidity makes them hard to control. He then works into the layers of colour, drawing in charcoal, his mark-making creating a visceral sense of rhythm. Many of the works are dark, in tone but not in mood, Michael says. They simply depict the night.

“Interlude I and II” show a street scene outside Cape Town local, The House of Machines, after a music gig, where a friend sits at a cafe table with a craft beer on the tree-lined Shortmarket Street. The images are reminiscent of Van Gogh’s impressionist street scenes in Paris, like “Café Terrace at Night”, and I’m reminded that it takes a unique eye to see the ordinary and make it extraordinary. Michael’s drawing renders a familiar scene I’ve found myself in dozens of times but never thought to capture in this intentional way, in memory and in art.

For Michael, maybe it took lockdown and the pandemic to home in on the poeticness of such memories. Some of the things we found ourselves missing and yearning for when they were taken away from us may have come as a surprise. Casual engagement with strangers. The ability to pop out any night of the week and find live music at a bar in Cape Town. Suddenly, our routine and everyday experiences shifted into the realms of nostalgia.

It’s been a notoriously difficult time for most people, and one can only imagine how hard it’s been for students and young adults primed to launch their careers and adult lives, only to be stopped in their tracks and to have much of their newfound freedom revoked. The pandemic has brought with it uncertainty about the future, and the world of work, especially for young people. The fearlessness of an emerging artist, in particular in this landscape, is a force to learn from.

Michael’s images are also a reminder that a South African story today is more diverse and complex than we may imagine, that it’s optimistic, and moving away from the type of politics we’re used to as South Africans. One almost breathes a sigh of relief at the calm instilled in his artwork. The voice of an emerging artist heralds a shifting future.

“A greater eclecticism is on the rise,” says writer and cultural theorist Ashraf Jamal, of our emerging artists and their new South African stories.

Perhaps a new and different emergency has shifted mind sets, forcing us to look beyond our own borders, outward into the world as a global crisis has unfolded in front of our eyes. This new vantage point has mostly been from the seclusion of our own homes. Our portals into the world have been our digital devices, our internet connections, our minds. As tangible experience diminishes (physical interaction, travel) so it happens that our mental transportation into the world and into our own inner depths, through imagination and memory, are heightened, sharpened. And something of this is at play here in Michael’s work.

There’s a sense that Michael, who has been in a wheelchair since he was a child because of a congenital musculoskeletal condition, always operates from this heightened mental state, capturing detail to memory where his physical body is unable to match his mental prowess.

“Because I use a wheelchair, being aware of my surroundings is a necessity. I have to intentionally observe and remember obstacles like kerbs, steps and doorways to orientate myself. While my physical limitations are restrictive, they have forced me to adapt and find my own style.”

Another consequence of his physical limitations is the type of space in which Michael feels safe. The Old Biscuit Mill, where he studies design and art upstairs at the Cape Town Creative Academy, is one such place. It’s easy for him to get around the open-air complex without the threat of road traffic and he spends a lot of time there, getting to know the people who work in the shops, having a glass of wine with the staff at The Test Kitchen, making friends.

One such person is Sandalene Dale Roberts. She’s co-owner of The Test Kitchen (TTK) and its sister restaurants with her husband and celebrated chef, Luke Dale Roberts, and more recently the founder of her own furniture business, Naturalis. Sandalene got to know Michael around The Biscuit Mill over the last three years of his studying there, and she now hires the graphic design student when she needs a new logo designed (such as the one he did recently for TTK Fledglings, her newest restaurant endeavour).

After befriending Michael and seeing the drawings he was working on over time, including one of a setting outside their restaurant, for Sandalene it was a natural progression to host his exhibition on The Test Kitchen’s walls.

For Sandalene, mentorship is important. It’s at the essence of what they’re doing at TTK Fledglings, which is all about uplifting young chefs who work (fully paid) alongside experienced chefs who mentor them and share their skills of the trade.

As Sandalene says of the mentorship dynamic and of her own relationship with the young artist Michael, “often we learn more from them”. She tells us about the launch of the exhibition, where Michael ended the night doing celebratory “doughnuts” in his wheelchair around The Test Kitchen, and she doesn’t need to say that Michael’s fearlessly optimistic spirit is one of the things she’s learnt from him.

Michael does private viewings and guided tours of Archives at The Test Kitchen on Wednesdays and Fridays. DM @michaelbeckurts to book. The original artworks on show are for sale and limited prints on archival paper are also available. For a podcast with Michael, listen here.

@michaelbeckurts | thetestkitchen.co.za

WORDS: Sarah Jayne Fell
IMAGES: Supplied by the artist
PRODUCTION: Sarah Jayne Fell and J-P de la Chaumette
DJC Summer