Penny Siopis - fundamentally disruptive
A fine artist and historian whose protagonists are women Doctor of Fine Arts, Thursday, 20 April 2017 Penny Siopis’s work takes a critical look at history, challenging dominant narratives of colonialism and apartheid. She inverts imperialist pictorial conventions by including figures of women as protagonists of history.
A Rhodes University Master’s degree in Fine Arts and a British Council scholarship to the United Kingdom’s Portsmouth University launched a political and cultural art career that was strangely influenced by a bakery owned by Siopis’s parents in Vryburg, where she was born.
Siopis produced her famous ‘cake’ paintings, with sexual politics consciously encoded in through their challenge to the idealising genre of the female nude in western culture. “Looking, with a specific consciousness, is a way of thinking for me. It is as if thoughts unfold from my eyes and attach to things,” she said.
Concerned with exploring the materiality of paint and its potential as an object associated with flesh, Siopis worked with oil paint in a way that strayed from the norm, layer- ing it thickly in high relief. Two of her cake paintings were selected for the prestigious Cape Town Triennial in 1982 and in 1983.
They also featured in her major solo exhibition at the Market Theatre gallery in Johannesburg. The City exerted a powerful influence on her life and work. Civil unrest was growing and progressive academics and artists were called upon to support the struggle for national liberation.
Siopis’s paintings began to reflect these politically turbulent times, not through direct depiction but through overabundant, layered composi-
tions allegorising the excesses of wealthy white society existing in the face of black dispossession.
She won first prize in the Volkskas Atelier award, which included a seven-month residency at the Cité Internation- ale des Arts in Paris. Paris gave her the opportunity to delve deeper into the story of Sarah Baartman, whose tragic life ended in the French capital. Baartman’s story was to become an important part of Siopis’s political consciousness and informed later explorations into the fraught representations of race and gender in which she was to engage.
While in Paris, she received a request from an anti-apartheid organisation in her home country asking her to make a work protesting the horror of detention without trial. The work was to be part of a calendar that would raise public awareness about the plight of detainees.
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