Corrugated iron was first patented in 1829 by Henry Robinson Palmer, a British architect and engineer to the London Dock Company. The oldest sheets in existence are therefore just under 200 years old.*
This means that when two different coloured sheets of different ages and sources are stitched together, they are invariably compatible. Just like old friends. It would be impossible to try and recreate the multitude of random nicks, chips, scrapes, blemishes, bruises and tears that texture every sheet. It is precisely this unpredictability that keeps the viewer’s eye engaged and the artist’s eye enthralled. We are drawn to erratic shapes and patterns, if only to make sense of them.
I search for and collect discarded sheets from a metal scrapyard in Khayelitsha, Cape Town. These sheets can be anything up to a hundred years old, perhaps even older. Out of 100 sheets that I find, only 10 or even less are suitable to be used in the studio. I look for interesting changes in colour, pattern, texture, grain and patina, although I won’t know what I have found until the sheets have been flattened and cleaned. At the studio the sheets are sorted by hue into a ‘library of iron’. Every sheet, no matter its age or the colours it has been painted, is unified by two hues. The first is the iron itself – a neutral dull-silvery grey colour that occasionally reveals itself where the layers of paint have flaked or chipped off. The second is gnawing rust, which comes in a wide range of browns; from warm orange to near black umber – sunset to midnight.
To many, rusted corrugated iron is a cast away material to be used only in the absence of alternatives. To my mind, it is endlessly complex and gloriously imperfect; something that time alone can create. Corrugated iron is a material at the mercy of the elements. Bleached by the sun, torn by wind, worn by rain, scorched by fire and repainted by man, each sheet bears its unique history proudly. The layers of paint, patina and rust are finally unified into an authentic and exhilarating surface – a palimpsest in metal.
The more I study corrugated iron, the more I realise that the metal itself should dictate the composition of each artwork – that the artist must not get in the way of the medium. So when people look at my work, I hope they will appreciate the beauty of the material
that I love so much and perhaps understand why I use it as an artistic medium.
*From “Corrugated Iron: Building on the Frontier” by Adam Mornement and Simon Holloway 2007, Frances Lincoln Ltd.