Archive: Issue No. 73, September 2003

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Penny Siopis

Penny Siopis
PASSIM, 1990
Pastel on paper
147 x 85cm

Privileged Witness: Seeing and Being
by Suzie Copperthwaite

'Witness' at Warren Siebrits is an exhibition that includes the work of nine prominent South African artists: Barker, Boshoff, Dumas, Labuschagne, Langa, Mainganye, Preller, Shelly and Siopis. Here, personal histories are recontextualized, drawn into a kind of consciousness that reflects on the artist's contribution to the piecing together of collective and cultural memory. 'Witness' traces threads of our South African past; it offers insight into our present, it helps us make sense of the time in which we live.

The model - artist as commentator, narrator, as presenter of 'truth' - no longer anticipates objectivity. Rather, the somewhat paradoxical nature of subjective and affected commentary embodied in any re-presentation has allowed particular (concealed) 'realities' to be made tangible and tactile. In this way, complex visual vocabularies may facilitate the communication of the unspeakable, the elusive and the fleeting. The concept of individual and subjective witnessing, of commentating, situates the maker as first subject of our tangled South African past.

Many of the works engage the aspects and injustices that are now synonymous with our history. In one way or another, various didactic strategies here appear to offer a particular (encoded) message or critique of the past. Identity, race, subjugation as well as personal and political struggle are put forward in diverse historical works which, when read in this context, bear testimony to and ultimately present compelling visual archives in their layered configuration of experience and events.

The content of Penny Siopis' The Witness and Passim seems to epitomize the construction of this identifiable narrative. The Witness reworks and inverts Anton Van Wouw's The Accused (1907). Both works, long separated from the 1990 series History Paintings, are absolute eye-candy. Moshekwa Langa's Word Tower (2001), a documentation of personal encounters, is described by Siebrits as "a powerful contemporary self-portrait". Marlene Dumas has addressed and translated, into aesthetic terms, notions of prejudice and exclusion.

The exhibited paintings, drawings and collaged images/objects span 45 years of production and although it feels quite academic, it was of interest to see the specific dynamic that exists between these works when exhibited together. It is this recontextualisation and relocation that I find so compelling about the shows at the Siebrits gallery: the fact that the works are unashamedly 'dealable' commodities simply adds to the way in which they are viewed and experienced. In their accumulation of value and of new significance: at the interface of public and private, bought and sold, these paintings and drawings destined for recollection and re-collection.

Opens August 22
Closes October 25