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The fire that birthed an artist, fleeting art

I published two articles relating to Shany Van Den Berg's exhibition (In)filtration of Time, showing at Circa Cape Town. One a review (in Business Day), the other an interview (in the Cape Times), feature.

Below is an unedited version of the feature:

On the upper reaches of Shany van der Berg’s kitchen wall hangs a small painting of red flames. It is kind of out of sync with the slick monochrome décor of her stylish pad. Yet it is probably the most important feature of her home as it marks the end of a life she once led as well as heralding a new beginning, leading to the one she lives now. This seemingly arbitrary painting is also pivotal to understanding her new solo exhibition opening at the Circa Cape Town this week (October 4). Titled (in) filteration of time it consists of a diverse mix of works ranging from portraits, hanging installation pieces, a few sculptures and books. The latter consists of drawings, artworks she committed to making every day for a year in the run-up to the exhibition.

“It was hectic at first,” she recalls standing in her modest studio at the back of her small Stellenbosch home.

“It would be 11.30pm at night and I would realise I only had half an hour left to do it. Now I don’t have to make the time, it chooses me.”

Over time as the drawings accumulated and the monthly ‘books’ or journals emerged and started to take on a uniform look, she felt more confident about the undertaking, which echoed her commitment to being an artist. They function as documents of her creative thoughts, her life and the events that stood out each day. There is a drawing of Zuma, her grandchild and a snapshot a friend sent via Whatsapp. I suspect there are images somewhere in it of flames too, for however much Van den Berg’s art appears to deal with the fleetingness of life, its ebb and flow, she returns to that day, 24 years ago when she arrived to her home in Paarl to find it burning to the ground.

She wasn’t sure if her three children were trapped inside and having lost both her parents months previously, she sharply felt in that moment that she stared at the flames licking at the walls of her home she had lost everything. Later, recalling that day, circling the trauma of it, she would paint the flames.

“They were red, like roses. I was terrified and scared but there was beauty there too that I could not help but admire as a visual person.”

Fortunately, her children were safe and had escaped the burning home, however, she lost all her worldly goods, all the mementoes from her youth, barring a small shell, which she recovered later when she waded through the ashes of her old home. The shell motif appears in paintings and drawings, in one work it is depicted large in a self-portrait.

Van den Berg’s psyche was shaken by the fire.

“I went into a catatonic stage, for a year and half. It was part of post traumatic stress syndrome,” she says. She found solace in drawing and making art, a pursuit she had enjoyed as a child. It was a passion she would have pursued professionally had her father not disapproved. Growing up in the small town of Riversdale in the sixties, art wasn’t viewed as a career option. While boys became lawyers or doctors, girls were channeled into nursing. Van den Berg followed an expected path, she married a lawyer, had children and became a nurse despite being ill suited to a medical profession.

“I kept passing out. The matron said: “go get yourself another job”. I was good with sitting with people. I do get a lot of energy from people. But I was very frustrated for many years.”

After the fire, Van den Berg rebuilt her life into one of her own choosing. Not only did an artist emerge in the process but a more confident and independent woman – she grew apart from her husband, finally divorcing him and forging a life of her own. She was willing to entertain many selves, female incarnations. This is reflected in a body of works characterised by layers of silhouetted female forms. The works present bodies inside bodies, selves, giving birth to other selves or multiple selves. These female figures are derived from multiple sources including her old medical books and fashion magazines. She relished in decontextualizing these ideal figures, presenting fixed stereotypes of women turning them into anonymous ones. This may be linked to the way she has challenged the role and life set for women.

“Take Kate Moss (the model) now when I cut her out it is just Kate Moss and then I trace it onto linen and it becomes a form that I can work with.”

Her fixation with historical artefacts is perhaps not unexpected given she lost all her belongings. This manifests in her choice of materials in the figure works: linen used to make bags during the World War II era retrieved from an attic in Belgium. She also uses old maps as the veritable canvas for the works. In this way these female figures are irretrievably connected to the past. Yet they are free from it too in the sense that they are in constant movement and there are no visual markers rooting them in time. They leave a trace too, as Van den Berg has cunningly turned the canvas with their negative shapes into hanging and installation works, offering patterns defined by the absence of bodies.

Via her cut-outs, her roving female bodies and her visual journals, Van den Berg appears to be fascinated by the fleetingness of time and existence. This could be due to her being a gifted portrait artist – she was a finalist in the BP Portrait Awards 2016 at the National Portrait Gallery in London. Portraits condense histories and identities, rooting a person in time. Her exhibition includes a number of portraits, which are compelling, yet the subjects are adrift like her other female figures. There are no backgrounds, or settings anchoring them in a time or place. They appear young, though look battered and worn, their clothing is in tatters. Could they be survivors of a fire, having lost everything, their history, their home and place in the world? They don’t look particularly optimistic perhaps only daunted, frozen. If Van den Berg’s life story is anything to go by, this tragedy or loss has delivered them at place where they can reinvent themselves, choose their context, their lives. They will do so with the knowledge however that whatever they create will only be fleeting. – sponsored text by Corrigall & Co

  • (in) filteration of time showed at Circa Cape Town until October 31


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