I met Martine Margoles in person at the Investec Cape Town Art Fair on 16 February 2024. In a roundabout way we were brought together by the late artist, Barend de Wet (1956 -2017).

Investec Cape Town Art Fair. 2024

Barend was on my list for Being/Present but seven months before the opening of that exhibition I had not found a suitable match for his work. The idea for this exhibition was to, through their work, create responses and/or conversations between living and deceased artists. Finding a match for Barend that could equal his force proofed to be a challenge. I saw Martine’s work on social media. I did not know her, but her use of diamond patterned expanded metal piqued my interest – there was a familiarity that I recognised. I checked with a friend. ‘They were good friends, shared a love for inking their skins and there are strong traces of Barend in Martine’s metal work.’ The friend reassured me that she was the most perfect match for Barend’s work. I agreed.

I called Martine who lives in Johannesburg. It was a long and emotional phone call. De Wet was one of her oldest friends and although a few years had passed she was still processing his death. ‘I still check in with him, you know’ she said. ‘When I am in a tricky situation and need to resolve stuff, I often ask myself how he would have resolved it – and those answers always come’.

Martine and Barend met in Johannesburg when he was studying Architecture at the University of the Witwatersrand, and she was still at school. By the end of 1979 De Wet had dropped out of Architecture school, and had moved to Cape Town to study fine art at Michaelis School of Art. They became best friends in 1982 when Martine arrived at the same art school to study Graphic Design. ‘He mentored me and taught me how to work with steel. He was so irreverent and gave neurotic me a chance at being strong.’

Hofmeyer Scholtz, Martine, Barend de Wet and Beezy Bailey. Circa 1980s.

Martine graduated in 1986. Her first solo exhibition was in 1987 at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg; all the works on the exhibition was sold. In 1989 Linda Givon offered her another solo exhibition and much like before, all the works on show were sold. Amongst the collectors were Givon herself, Rebecca Waddle (Oppenheimer) and Eduardo Villa. She got her first tattoo that same year; Barend took her to his preferred tattoo artist.

In 1990, this successful young South African artist took the plunge and moved to New York. She lived there for seven years but curiously she only participated in one group exhibition at the White Hall gallery in 1991. ‘I know, I know, there is a gap in my CV. I wasn’t an artist in New York. I worked in fashion and did other wonderful things like garment and fabric design.’

Martine returned to South Africa in 1997 and established Steel my Heart – which she manages to this day (it is now called The Iron Maiden). Establishing and managing a commercial metal-work studio did not leave much time to make her own art. She worked closely with Barend during that time, and amongst many other things produced extremely complicated metal balustrades which he had designed for one of his homes.

In 1999, a decade since her last solo show, Martine felt ready and had a solo exhibition in Johannesburg. Her daughter Scarlett was born the following year. Time for making art was again limited but she was in her studio every day, designing and producing functional metal items for clients. ‘I never stopped making art, it just took me a few years to put a body of work together’. In 2004 she had a solo show at Constitution Hill. Her exhibitions list since then is dotted with several group exhibitions.

The enforced lockdown in South Africa in 2020 due to the global pandemic enabled Martine to finally return to painting. Her colourful gouache on canvas board paintings are densely packed with conflicting narratives in which contemporary iconography is combined with elements of idealised vintaged images. ‘I am not into nostalgia, it is not my thing but it gives me a sense of comfort and fulfills the longing I have for a more perfect world‘. Martine adds that her paintings are attempts to ‘make light of the dark and dark of the light’. She does this by altering the meaning of known symbols to introduce alternative interpretations. The world remains unjust, ravaged by wars, greed and indifference, however, Martine’s paintings offer the viewer a temporary reprieve from that reality; a short pause. An important part in this idiosyncratic world of Martine Margoles is her love and use of word play – all the elements in her picture planes are pivoted around a title.

Miss Conception. 2021.
Miss Guide. 2023.
Miss Fortune. 2022

Her sculptures on the other hand are mostly inspired by tattoo drawings. Her body is tattooed with Sailor Jerry designs. ‘Not the first one, though, that was just an image of an atom and it has long been tattooed over.’ Drawing inspirations from tattoo drawing is also her way to remember Barend, and to pay homage and acknowledge the enormous influence he had on her career as an artist.

Swallow with dice. 2023.
Whale of a time. 2021.
Pair of Red Chairs. 2022.
Swallow with dagger. 2023.

Contact Heidi Erdmann for a catalogue of Martine Margoles’ available work and price.