Grocott's Mail

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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