Writing Art History Since 2002

First Title

Penny Siopis, an artist and Professor of Fine Arts at Johannesburg’s University of the Witwatersrand, will be the subject of an extensive monograph published by the Goodman Gallery.

Edited by Kathryn Smith, the book will feature essays by Colin Richards, Griselda Pollock, Jennifer Law, Brenda Atkinson and Sarah Nuttall. The book also includes a conversation between the artist and cultural theorist Achille Mbembe. Earlier this year Siopis had her work My Lovely Day screened at London’s Tate Modern, as part of the conference proceedings for ‘Art, Identity and the Unconscious in the Age of TransNationalism’ (May 21 — 22).Sipho Mdanda: You are perhaps best known for work referencing ‘the political’. I am thinking here of the painting Melancholia (1986) and the works referring to Sarah Baartman in the 1980s. Has the dawn of democracy changed your attitude to this kind of subject matter?

Penny Siopis: At the time of making these works political readings were commonplace. Melancholia was understood as a slightly rotten mirror of the excesses of white privilege and profligacy, a decaying, self-obsessed European culture collapsing in on itself in the face ofAfrican dispossession. For me it was also a very personal work. It also commented on the psychological state of melancholia as reflected in the history of art and within the politics of sexuality. I continued this kind of multi-referencing in my works relating to the story ofSarah Baartman. Although not unhappy with these political readings I often feel frustrated that an emphasis on the political often results in reductive responses to complex and ambiguous situations. So, to answer your question: yes and no. I remain aware of the social context in which I am embedded, and continue to draw from public and private experience.Clearly what has changed is a sense of freedom, and the exciting possibility of exploring all these things more imaginatively than before 1994.

From the Shame series, 2003/4, mixed media on paper, 18,5 x 24,5cm

SM: Many South African artists who criticised apartheid through their art changed their focus from politically motivated to personal works after 1994. Is this the case with your latest works?

PS: I think this way of understanding matters is a bit of a cliché. I started working with more directly personal reflections long before 1994 so these changes were not sudden. Even mymost politically charged works were always inflected with personal references, even if these were not read at the time. History creates ways of looking as well as making, and sometimes what becomes visible later was invisible, but present, earlier. However, in 1997 I did make a film My Lovely Day, which was as intensely autobiographical as it was an engagement with conditions of postcoloniality. This film was stimulated, in part, by the Truth and ReconciliationCommission, which brought so much personal memory into collective consciousness. I used old home-movies my mother shot in the 1950s and 1960s in South Africa to make the film. Combining this spliced footage with sound and visual text — like subtitles for mforeign films needing translation — it retold an elemental story first ‘told’ to me by my maternal grandmother; a story about her journeys between Europe and South Africa and the pain of being eternally unsettled.

This film liberated something in me — something akin to the idea of seeing history from below. In this I was affected by performances I had seen of Bertolt Brecht’s plays and struck bythe aesthetic form of the political humanism he espoused. The film reflects transient affections between people through anecdote and the rueful bits of wisdom that pass between them. It’s a history different from the grand ‘struggle’ narrative. In this sense I suppose My lovely Day externalised an ongoing inner psychological state at a time when we South Africans werefinally given the chance to think more fully of ourselves as individuals, and to think about our collective identity in terms not immediately forged on the public anvil of solidarity, opposition and resistance.

SM: There appear to be continuities between your recent Shame and earlier Pinky Pinky works. Is this so?

PS: They are linked, but not straightforwardly. Both touch on fear and strong, but somehow inhibited, emotion. And, perversely, the release of that emotion. Like Pinky Pinky, the later Shame paintings give form to a deeply psychological state of distress, and violence and marginalisation. But shame is intimate, more personal, in that in it we seem to betray ourselves.

Like when we blush, we feel exposed by something beyond our control. Both express something of the complexity of feeling many South Africans experience at present. Both connect in some way to trauma, and speak ‘the unspeakable’.

SM: The colour is predominantly pink or red, and the paint stained and tactile. Does this reference a particular incident?

PS: Not a particular incident, although there are some specific references, it’s the idea of a wound more generally. In this respect stained and tactile paint operates as a physical emanation of thought, of feeling, making the work a carnal document, so to speak. It’s not for nothing that these are paintings, not photographs or any of the other kinds of image processes I use. Painting lends itself to elemental states or process of imaging. It can bring into the world something new, a ‘presence’ which is not ‘prefigured’ or representationalin any obvious way. I am not talking here about the conventional romance of painting to which many artists and viewers subscribe. Painting is for me a form of imagining itself, andthat imagining leaves physical tracks of its forming.

Sipho Mdanda is a critic and Museum Curator with Freedom Park in Pretoria

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