Penny Siopis - Fundamentally disruptive
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This got her thinking critically about her medium and about the ethics of making images that reflect the pain of others. The work that emerged, entitled Flesh and Blood, though modest in scale, opened a new world of collage for the artist.
Collage, as Siopis attests, ‘is fundamentally disruptive as it puts together fragments from disparate contexts; a process that invariably exposes the violence of representation’. Collage became the chosen medium of her now famous ironical history paintings.
Andrew Solomon wrote in the New York Times, “Siopis’s mesmerising paintings and collage pieces often address women’s history and experience and the integrity of the female body. The power of her work lies in its hidden quality of empathy as much as in its technical achievement and sophisticated intellectual base. She is a rigorous thinker.”
She and her husband Colin Richards encouraged a critical consciousness of the relationship between theory and practice, art and politics, within the academy and in wider society during their time as academics at Wits University.
In 1993, she prepared for her solo exhibition ‘Private Views’ in Johannesburg. She experimented with creating a canvas on her own body on to which two instances of racial inscription were drawn and erased, the process consciously bringing to the surface her ‘whiteness’ and her complicity in the colonial history that the work referenced. This early work indicated the artist’s mode of engagement with her own practice where making oneself vulnerable became a key aspect of her process.
In 1996, she produced the powerful Mostly women and Children for ‘Faultlines; Inquiries into Truth and Reconciliation’, an exhibition presented in the Castle of Good Hope in Cape Town to mark the launch of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Siopis arranged around objects – relics of South Africa’s traumatic past – in a form echoing a museum setting but referencing an actual massacre by apartheid military forces.
She was also awarded a residency at the Tropen Museum in Amsterdam to facilitate her work as artistic advisor to the curated exhibition ‘Group Portrait: Nine South African Family Histories’. She started a series of works that would develop into what became known as her Shame paintings. The work expressed the psychosocial, psychosexual state of shame in a postcolonial context.
The installation included a sound piece, in which seven prominent South Africans spoke of their personal experience of shame in relation to the idea of public shame, which marked South Africa’s past.
Siopis has been very spe- cific in the manner in which she engages cultural hybridity and the working- through of fears within a culture caught in a moment of radical social transition, a moment in which poverty, HIV/Aids, sexual violence, xenophobia and residual white power were all too present.
In 2010, the University of Cape Town appointed her Honorary Professor and she was able to concentrate on her practice as an artist in a more fulltime capacity. In 2014, a retrospective of Penny Siopis’s work was mounted at the South African National Gallery. The exhibition was highly acclaimed and it showcases the artist’s major contribution to the development of contempo- rary African art by presenting a range of works that reflected not only an exceptional career spanning 35 years, but also a way to look at South Africa’s history in all its political and aesthetic vicissitudes.
Siopis’s iconic works have become part of the country’s cultural heritage and are studied and admired by both schoolchildren and academics. They are the subject of extensive research in South Africa and abroad. Her work has exerted a powerful influence on young artists over the years as much through her teaching as through her drive to experiment and constantly open herself up to new relationships – with people, ideas, politics and media.