A Journey into the Abstract
Self-taught abstract artist, Yvette Chilli, has had an affinity for art from a young age. Her passion for drawing and painting started as far back as nursery school when at just five-years-old, she painted her very first mural of flowers on the walls of her school. Her love for painting continued into adulthood, and Chilli spent every ounce of her free time immersed in her artwork which was, for a long time, focused on realism and, according to the artist, rather amateur in its style.
Born and raised in Pretoria, Chilli and her family moved to Cape Town in 2006 where she worked as a computer hardware salesperson and painted in her free time. She exhibited some of her paintings in restaurants, and even sold a few, but could not commit to a life as a full-time artist.
Some say it takes a major event in one’s life to evoke change and, in the case of Chilli, this major event came in the form of a near fatal motorcycle accident in 2013. The accident, during which her motorcycle helmet split open and left her with a hole in the middle of her skull, resulted in Chilli sustaining minor brain damage, which meant that she battled to access important memories like her birthday and even the names of her sons. As a result, she became unemployed and found it difficult to perform basic duties. After the loss of her job and meaningful relationships, her personality as well as her artwork changed overnight. “After the accident, when I tried to paint, my works all came out wrong. They turned into abstracts,” she recalls.
Instead of giving up, she seized the moment of transition within herself and her artwork and pushed herself to continue painting. “I was horrified at my new works but decided to embrace the abstraction and continue with it anyway, hoping deep
Although every abstract has a hidden story behind it, for me as the artist, I want people to feel the painting on a spiritual level and not just see it.
down inside that I would remember how to paint what I used to paint.” Her new works, rich in colour and abstract nuances, captured the attention of the public, and in June of 2013, An article about Chilli was featured in O, The Oprah Magazine, giving her the confidence and courage to move forward. Courageous brushstrokes and a profound sense of emotion in her abstract works are all reflections of the artist’s own courage and journey of healing.
Embracing her new style and eager to learn more about it, she met up with master artist, the late Ernst de Jong, in 2014 and was taken under his wing as he guided and mentored her in the technical aspects of modern abstract expressionism. “Due to his time and guidance my abstracts become stronger and better,” she recalls. Sadly, De Jong passed away suddenly in February 2016, and Chilli – facing yet another major loss in her life – began to paint very dark abstracts. For nine months after his passing, her work became melancholic and moody and she believed that she would never have a mentor again.
All that changed however, when Chilli began working for one of South Africa’s leading landscape artists, Chris Tugwell, as a curator at his gallery. She moved into the home of the artist and was mentored on a daily basis. “My works started to turn into classic landscapes, but he urged me to keep my free, loose style of painting instead of becoming a tight realistic landscape artist.”
It is through her unyielding and determined efforts to find her new artistic language through her paintings that, for her, have become a spiritual and healing conversation with both herself and the world around her, that her work has truly flourished. This conversation is something that she wants to have with everyone who views her work and is an integral part of her own development since the accident. “Although every abstract has a hidden story behind it, for me as the artist, I want people to feel the painting on a spiritual level and not just see it,” she says. “I have a moment of silence and say a prayer before each painting gets started.”
Her works, which have a somewhat transcendental, ethereal feeling to them, offer viewers the opportunity to engage in a conversation in a language that goes beyond human words. This language has captured the hearts of the public and this year, Chilli embarked on her first series of exhibitions in Hong Kong and South Africa. Her works in South Africa were exhibited alongside the works of her late mentor, De Jong. Constantly reinventing her work as she, herself, evolves, Chilli’s style, though remaining true to her love of abstract, is slowing, taking on a more impressionistic style with a large backdrop of abstract expressionism still evident in her paintings.
This is particularly evident in her latest, ongoing series entitled The Imperfect Horses which is a series of 10 horses, painted over 10 years, from 2013 to 2023. Painting one horse each year, Chilli aims to reflect her own weaknesses through the imagery in which each horse painted has a defect. “In 2014 I painted the horse with no ears during a time when I did not want to hear any criticism about my art,” she explains. “For survival purposes, and maybe as a defence mechanism, I just blocked out everything people said. Similarly, when I broke my leg in 2015 and was bedridden for weeks, I painted the injured horse stuck in the waters of a creepy swamp.”
Chilli’s journey into the world of abstract art is a truly unique one and one that we are all invited to share with her. Her courage can be seen and felt in her bold work, which uses the universal language of art to speak to the hearts of us all.
For more information on Yvette Chilli and to view more of her artwork, follow her on Facebook at @chilligalleria.