Castings of character

Influenced by the Renaissance painters Botticelli, Rubens and Titian, sculptor Jean Doyle’s figures are substantial and bold, their ample bodies adorned with the trappings of their culture.

December 2015

A big black Great Dane greets you at the gate of sculptor Jean Doyle’s period home in Wynberg, which doubles up as a studio and hosts a sculpture garden and art museum where she has on display a selection of her bronze figures produced over the past 30 years.
The boisterous black dog whose legs are too long and ears too large gives clues to unlocking the work of this prolific artist, who describes her work as “hyperbolic”. Her first public commission was of the famous dog Just Nuisance, now immortalised in bronze on Jubilee Square, Simons Town. Commissioned to produce the piece after she won a competition, she used one of her own Great Danes as inspiration.
From these modest beginnings the artist has gone on to win several international commissions, including a nine metre tall bronze of an Angolan general in full military kit, celebrating Angola’s freedom from colonialism, entitled “Monument to the Battle of Kifangondo”. Believed to be the largest bronze sculpture on the African continent, the 2003 piece weighs eight tons and took a year to complete. Perhaps her most famous work, though, is the “Long Walk To Freedom” statue in honour of Nelson Mandela, commissioned by businessman Tokyo Sexwale, who himself spent 13 years on Robben Island. When he commissioned the bronze, Sexwale was already the owner of a five metre high Jean Doyle elephant.
The three-metre-high bronze of Mandela was unveiled outside the gates of Victor Verster Prison, subsequently renamed Drakenstein Correctional Centre, and commemorates his release on 11 February 1990. It shows him striding confidently, beaming from ear to ear, his fist raised in the well-known gesture of defiance.
Jean modelled the piece after studying numerous photographs and videos of Mandela, ensuring that she captured not just the physical features, but the inner essence of the man. Such was the appeal of her piece that a copy was unveiled outside the entrance to the South African embassy in Washington DC in 2013.
Jean’s works are not mere likenesses of the hero or heroine in question; they strive to reveal something deeper. She says “they are a physical interpretation of a spiritual quality; a harmony between the material and the ethereal.”
Growing up in a home where creativity was part of everyday life, Jean was exposed to art making, pottery and carpentry from an early age. Her father was a painter and craftsman, so the choice of art as a career did not seem strange to her. She started as a painter, but then found sculpture, and bronze, to be a more expressive form for her talents. In 1983, she opened her own bronze foundry, one of the first of its kind in Cape Town, and was elected a member of the SA Institute of Foundrymen, something that raised a few eyebrows in the male dominated world of metalwork. Once established, she enlisted both her husband Michael and her son Anton into what has grown into a substantial enterprise.
She’s one of few women working in bronze in South Africa and has an impressive list of commemorative monuments to her name: Professor Harold Pearson, the first director of Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens; Jimmy Steele, founder of the Hout Bay Museum; President Agostinho Neto of Angola; President Hastings Banda of Malawi; and Labotsibeni Mdluli, who served as Queen Regent of Swaziland in the 1890s.
These public works are produced concurrently with a more personal body of work – bronzes of bold, voluptuous women that are avidly collected by art lovers all over the world. In these works she explores the female form as a metaphor for celebrating women’s strength and heroic achievements – and to deliver a sometimes satirical message about consumerism.
She says her sculptures of women are inspired by a woman she once saw at swimming pool: she wore an arsenal of jewellery and a tiny bikini, her pillar like thighs supporting voluminous hips. This monumental woman, who carried herself with such exquisite grace and with so much confidence, became Jean’s avatar, reproduced in her uninhibited, sensuous bronzes.
All her women are of regal bearing, even her latest “Dotcom” series, which shows confident women engaged to distraction with laptops, coffee cups and cell phones. A satirical view of the influence of technology on women, they are both humorous and a tribute to the modern woman’s ability to multi-task.
Her “Spirit of Women” series also depicts ordinary women engaged in ordinary pursuits – from the Hyper shopper and her bags displaying hyper consumerism to the Non-Domestic Goddess clutching her cell phone and designer accessories. Yet all reveal an extraordinary spirit, a strength and exuberance.
Commenting on Jean’s iconic “African Women” series, former First Lady of South Africa Zanele Mbeki says: “Her veneration of the fuller female figure has become a trademark of her work as well as a tool for social commentary. Her work is an investigation into the character of woman. The woman is presented as bold, capable and confident. Her body is as bounteous as her beauty. She exudes resilience, strength and warmth.”
Another much-loved series is “Ultimate Act”, which depicts women performing circus-like feats, all a metaphor for female achievement. Jean says they are engaged in activities she would pursue if she had the courage. “I would love to career down the main street on my bicycle, stark naked, blasting a reveille on my trumpet, but I’ve never had the balls,” she comments.
Hedonistic, seemingly defying gravity, her works gleam and dazzle on their podiums, transcending the material from which they are hewn. “I have no profound reason to sculpt,” Jean says. “I do it for the sheer pleasure of it.”

Andrea Vinassa

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