Vivien Kohler: Creating an Alternate Viewpoint to African Narratives

Vivien Kohler: Creating an Alternate Viewpoint to African Narratives

“Vivien Kohler is a South African visual artist who reflects on socio-economic issues and gives new life to discarded material by combining them with paintings of human figures and familiar packaging. Kohler’s work, whether hyper-realistic or his more recent abstracted pieces, has always drawn from his surroundings, the realities which make up life in Johannesburg. Kohler is originally from Cape Town, and his figurative works were born from his experience of life in the gang-plagued environment of the Cape Flats. Against this background, the influence of family and community instilled Kohler with a hopeful outlook. This has become an interwoven theme through his work and process.”

THOSE WHO DREAM, 2014, oil on board, 170 x 147 cm. Photo credit:

Kohler was born in 1976, during the infamous apartheid period. Sometimes his art reflects this heritage and reads as deeply political, but at other times it simply offers the viewer a new story about a part of their life as South Africans that held so much pain. Kohler studied graphic design and secured his first job, but instead of doing that, he spent the next year in his bedroom, painting and honing his technique. He later attended the Ruth Prowse School of Art in Cape Town and then moved to Johannesburg, where he kicked off his career as an artist.

“The human condition is the larger theme at the centre of Kohler’s artistic practice. Deftly exploring the ability of people to dream, Kohler depicts what happens when we close our eyes or imagine a life beyond our current circumstances. This is a perspective that he is very much fascinated with and that can be seen recurrently in his work. The real power of his work lies in each painting’s ability to draw viewers into a dreamlike journey.”

Like millions of other South Africans, Kohler has navigated the social geography of a racially turbulent society his entire life. This essential experience informs how he thinks and the art he chooses to make. His mid-career work, for example, features sleeping human forms surrounded by their cardboard, mattresses, and belongings. The forms look like they’re resting on the literal cardboard, but in actuality, the pieces are realistically painted, carefully rendered sculptures of the city’s finds. As such, they offer viewers powerfully re-contextualised snapshots of the shrouded figures, shapes, and materials encountered in everyday life.

Kohler grew up in Lansdowne, Cape Town. In the artist’s family, as in so many other South African families, a crucial shared story has been almost entirely erased by the pain of trauma. Through his art, Kohler offers viewers an opposite experience to the one endured by his kin, giving them the chance to explore, discuss, and share the internal and often isolated dreamscape of ordinary South African life.

Kohler does not seek to hide the realities of unfair perception, but to symbolically represent resilience and strength. The artist’s creative process involves using discarded objects. He transforms these remnants into powerful displays, reflecting his characters’ triumph over their limiting circumstances.

DISCERECLOTH, 2018, oil and cardboard on canvas, 160 x 99 cm. Photo credit:

“For instance, his 2018 piece Discerecloth is an oil painting on found metal and board. Here, a man appears to be ascending, with arms and leg raised, from a bed of cardboard. Works such as these reinforce the possibility of transcending the seemingly hopeless realities of poverty and hardship.”

For Kohler, the cardboard box represents the polarity between excess and poverty, the two extremes which are quite prevalent in South Africa. The metaphor which the cardboard represents is twofold: on one level, cardboard boxes represent economic potential, having contained something of value. On another level discarded cardboard boxes are synonymous with loss of potential and hope. Kohler references this latter form of cardboard by introducing carefully added creases, tears, and scuff marks to the meticulously painted surface of the cardboards he uses.

“The figures he paints, however, are not shown only as people who are trapped and hopeless. In works such as Those Who Dream, a woman rests on a bed of sprawled cardboard and her expression somehow conveys peacefulness and hope for a better tomorrow. This work sees Kohler use lettering in a manner which references the realness of the grungy Johannesburg inner city he engages with on an almost daily basis.”

“In Kohler’s aesthetic deviation into abstraction in his Pareidolia series of geometric cardboard constructions, he continues the conceptual threads created in his figurative work which speaks to hope and hopelessness. This he does without the inclusion of the figurative forms.”

In this body of work, which takes its name from the psychological term for the mind’s obsession with finding patterns in random objects, Kohler’s investigation of meaning and meaninglessness draws from the excess of cultural waste within this urban landscape. Works such as FRGL SML see Kohler attempting to make sense of the nonsense existing within the cityscape he inhabits. It is a body of work which sees rough sleepers living under buildings owned by billionaire moguls and interrogates the architectural appearance of a city in conflict with itself. These works also ask questions of the art market, which attaches value to the conceptual importance of objects. Kohler’s repackaging of contemporary African existence in the appearance of discarded cardboard poses enough questions for buyers around the world.

In a world of cynicism and negativity, Vivien Kohler’s creations are refreshing. His choice to provide an alternative viewpoint to the negative narrative about Africa we see regurgitated so often is an enlightening take on contemporary urban African life. He portrays the harsh realities of the common African experience while simultaneously showing how a positive mind-set is still possible. Vivien Kohler is by no means an artist who has figured out all life’s answers; his continuing interrogation of the African condition is alive in every piece he creates.

Vivien Kohler. Photo credit: Saatchi Art


Gallery Momo: Bio, Vivien Kohler, retrieved from  on July 30

Assemblage: Artist statement, Vivien Kohler, retrieved from on July 30





Oyindamola Olaniyan holds a in Botany from Lagos State University. Broadly experienced in this area, her core expertise includes social media management, content development and brand identity.

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