By Sarah Rose de Villiers
Eggshells trace a brother’s smile, a girl sits wrapped in dripping paint and brown dirt falls through dangling doilies. Photographs capture sewn scars on naked feet. Burnt toast dresses in weaves and teabags map a mother’s comfort. This is portraiture at a personal level; an intimate exploration of the self and soul by second year art students.
The Portrait of an Artist exhibition, which opened on Monday evening, was created and curated by the second year Fine Art students of Rhodes University. An untimely power-outage meant the opening speech by Dr Phindi Mnyaka, a senior lecturer of Art History, was delivered under the glow of streetlights on the steps of the Rhodes Fine Art Department. But despite the biting cold and lack of light (and clinging to cups of wine), a crowd huddled around Dr Mnyaka’s words.
Feeling “a bit like a village elder that is expected to address the young with some kind of wisdom or inspiration”, Dr Mnyaka described the exhibition’s conception and discussed the artworks in relation to the theme of portraiture.
The project began last term, with students having to produce an artwork every week. The curating students then drew from this pool of a work and “decided to frame the concept in the mode of portraiture… and in their words, ‘present the exhibition as a whole portrait of the class’”. Essentially, Portrait of an Artist searches for the self’s story.
The self’s relationships with family, culture and creativity are clearly important parts of this story, and appear most obviously in the works displayed in the centre of the room. These work celebrate the importance of family figure’s roles and influences.
Mothers are especially commemorated in Amy Von Witt’s dirtied tiles, Tayla Hoepfl’s stitched teabags and Tebego Matshana’s meticulously arranged eggshell portraits of Mum, Brother, Gran.
Brothers are also intimately remembered in Lauren King’s sculptures, which consist of decayed leaves and darkened thread pooled in transparent frames. The work, Brothers, recalls embryos on microscopic slides and visually references the process of in vitro fertilization (IVF) – it is a personal story told through art.
Also displayed in the centre of the room are works that explore more transcendent ideas of identity, race and culture. Athi Conjawa’s sculpture, Toast and Synthetic Hair Forming Identities, is one such work and consists of nine slices of white bread that have been burnt and embroidered with twisting weaves. Ideas about hair colour and identity are further illustrated in Megan Moore’s painting of Charlie Chaplain donning a brilliantly blue moustache and Mosa Anita Kaiser’s Sub-culture series. Portraits of power and pain starkly contrast Kaiser’s series of vibrant hairdos crowning bold characters.
The multiplicity and violence of South African identity is arrested by Uyanda Tom’s mixed media work, Uvalekile (Stupid and Dum), in which pins pierced through a plastic lid are arranged to form the South African coat of arms. A circular mirror placed beneath the lid reveals that the pins used to form the symbol of our democracy are in fact stabbing a newspaper cutout of a man.
Other images of violence tentatively introduce the darker side of the self. Stitches resemble scars in Ashley Hogson’s photographs of feet and “a state of elegance and suggested torture”, as described by Dr Mnyaka, is expressed by the figure veiled with leaking lines in Savannah Roering’s Precipitate.
Exploring with expressive mediums and subject matter, the students have searched for the self in a world characterised by colour, culture and chance.
“After all that labour,” Dr Mnyaka mused, “One may even wonder whether the search was even worth it; whether all the training, the hours and the practice produced anything at all?”.
As teaspoons of dirt float through the tier of suspended doilies in Sarah van der Spuy’s installation, Borderline Personality Disorder, it is clear that the works produced in the process are highly personal and carefully considered. The entire exhibition is a mottled portrait that paints the artist’s heart.
This article was originally published in Grocotts (24 April 2015)