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Artist finds her place, in her place

First published in The Cape Times

Given how many visitors descend on Cape Town during the silly season the art pickings are surprisingly slim, or at least, superficial. Most commercial spaces opt for what they dub “Summer group shows”, boasting a mish mash of art from the artists in their stable.

As such Gwen Van Embden’s exhibition Genius Loci (a sense of place) is a refreshing prospect. Staged in her attractive Garden’s studio off Dunkley square is an embedded art experience, where art is shown not only in the context in which it has been made, but the setting itself has been exploited as a form of expression.

Fittingly, as the title of her show suggests, she has used the opportunity and the setting, to address ‘her place and context’ not only artistically but as a citizen too. As a white privileged one she finds herself assessing her ‘place’ in society in relation to the legacy of apartheid.

As such her studio is not a venue but the activating frame for her art and a space in which to contemplate her race/place in the wider world. In the vein of self-interrogation, she lays her working life bare, inviting visitors to riffle through her drawers and cabinets, which sit open. Small noteboooks, drawings, spill out of drawers and a cacophony of objects fill a capacious studio alongside conventional artworks, which are framed titled and are for sale. Van Embden has considered the arrangement of each object, treating her studio as a large installation work. She is as much a curator as an artist. An old overhead projector for example is placed on the floor, surrounded by metal trays used for dissecting small animals. Weighing, taking account, is a pervasive theme.

Book Weight (2017) consists of yellowed pages torn from old books, sandwiched between twigs, placed on a disused and rusted scale. This whole scheme of ‘weighing’, being accountable, for the past seems inefficient; the scale is outdated and how can the pages of a book, twigs can’t really ‘account’ for it.

Her ange