Siopis in front of her installation 'Charmed Lives' at the Wits Art Museum, Johannesburg
|Known for||Painting, installation, and film|
Penelope Siopis is a South African artist who lives in Cape Town. She was born in 1953 in Vryburg in the Northern Cape, a little town to which her Greek parents had moved after inheriting a bakery from her maternal grandfather. Siopis studied Fine Arts at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, completing her master's degree in 1976, after which she pursued postgraduate studies at Portsmouth Polytechnic in the United Kingdom. She taught Fine Arts at the Technikon Natal in Durban from 1980 to 1983. In 1984 she took up a lectureship at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. During this time she was also visiting research fellow at the University of Leeds (1992-3) and visiting Professor in Fine Arts at Umeå University in Sweden (2000) as part of an interinstitutional exchange. She is currently Honorary Professor at Michaelis School of Fine Art, University of Cape Town.
Siopis is the recipient of many awards, including a British Council Scholarship, the Atelier Award for a residency at the Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris, the Alexander S. Onassis fellowship for research in Greece, and residencies at Delfina and the Gasworks in London, Civitella Ranieri in Umbria, the Tropen Museum in Amsterdam and the Academy of Fine Arts in Athens and Delphi.
Between 1980 and 1984 Siopis developed her 'cake' paintings which sprang from her childhood experiences of watching her mother ice cakes in the family bakery. Siopis’ fascination with the implements used in the shop gave rise to this first series of her career. Instead of the traditional paintbrush techniques, she used unconventional implements such as piping nozzles and other tools used in the decoration of cakes. Concerned with exploring the materiality of paint and its potential as object, Siopis worked with oil paint in a way that strayed from the norm, layering it thickly in high relief, in a technique referred to as ‘impasto’. This approach causes the outside layer of the medium to dry long before the interior, leading the surface to wrinkle and crack over time.
Siopis’ skilful use of form and colour within this body of work evokes associations with skin and flesh. The physical changes visible on the surface of her works serve as a direct metaphor for the all too real effects of time and circumstance on the human body which ages, wrinkles and eventually decomposes. Challenging the conventions of Western art history that idealize the female nude, Siopis suggests female body parts in states of decay, decomposition and excess, both confrontational and vulnerable at the same time. While the female body is the main focus of these works, their association with food and decay comments on larger social narratives of decay which are developed in the paintings that follow.
After her ‘cakes’ series, Siopis began to create the ‘banquet’ and early ‘history paintings’ in the mid- 1980s, extending into the early 1990s. These works coincided with the end of apartheid and South Africa’s transition to a democratic nation. They commented on the excesses of colonialism and the mis/representation of race and gender within history. In contrast to the quieter, simpler compositions of the ‘cakes’ paintings, this body of work is epitomized by dramatically crowded scenes executed in intricate detail,- with tables full of food and other objects filling the canvas and emphasizing the idea of excess.
Between 1985 and 1995 Penny Siopis produced a body of work often referred to as her ‘history paintings’. Although her interest in the materiality of paint and her experimentation with this medium never ceased, the works from this period differed in many important ways from the ‘cake’ paintings. The transition was already marked in her Still Life with Watermelon and Other Things (1985); it was even more clearly evident in Melancholia (1986). Presenting a vision of colonialism in decline, the scene in Melancholia is both a vanitas and a history painting. It combines symbols of European high culture and references to Africa, all of them piling up as the debris of history within a claustrophobic space that signifies excess, ruin and psychological malaise. In the past the genre of history painting was seen as the highest achievement of the European art historical tradition. Siopis’ ironic interrogation of its form and ideology is evident in such works as Patience on a Monument: ‘A History Painting’ (1988).
In the history works she introduced the techniques of collage and assemblage as a means to disrupt direct depiction and to bring in references to the representations of colonial history that South Africans were brought up on through history books. These techniques also allowed her to mark the significance of objects as traces of history in their own right. Through the introduction of objects and found images her works challenged the invisible but powerful structures within the ideological systems of apartheid at a time when political tensions in the country were running high.
The Pinky Pinky  body of work was created between 2002 and 2004. Pinky Pinky is the visualization of a South African urban legend in which a creature that is part human, part animal, part man, part woman, not white, not black, but an amalgamation of forms, preys on children in school toilets and threatens to rape girls if they wear pink underwear. It is visible to girls but invisible to boys who experience its presence through a slap or a scratch on a cheek. After hearing the story from her son’s school friend, Siopis embarked on a personal exploration of Pinky Pinky, producing visual representations of this mysterious figure according to verbal accounts by school children she interviewed on the topic.
Here, as in her early ‘cake’ paintings, the artist manipulates paint and form to simulate skin and flesh. The works exclusively use shades of pink, starting with the category of ‘flesh colour’, based on a problematic and conceited notion, in Siopis’ view, that all flesh is a dirty pink. Siopis tinted the flesh colour in different ways, creating tones ranging from the cotton candy sugary sweetness signifying childhood to tones that act as metaphors for violation. Siopis applied thick layers of oil paint onto canvases using only a palette knife, building up areas of relief and texture – pocking and cutting its surface to the desired effect. Found objects such as glass eyes, plastic dolls, toe nails, teeth and eyelashes were added to the wet painted surface to bring the creature in its various configurations to life. It is often only through the effects of light on painted surface that form can be determined, giving the very visceral images a ghostlike quality.
The series investigates personal and public narratives around fear and trauma in South Africa, giving form to things that seem impossible to speak about directly. It is an allegory of the nation’s deepest fears around issues of poverty, xenophobia, race, and crime, - at a time of radical social transition and uncertainty post- 1994. These at times playful configurations also serve as sites of felt and imagined traumas in a society where violence committed against women and children is far too common.
Siopis began the Shame paintings in 2002 and they became a key feature of her exhibition Three Essays on Shame (2005), an intervention in the museum of Sigmund Freud, once his house, in London. It was part of a project that marked the centenary of Freud’s groundbreaking publication Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality. Responding to Freud, Siopis’ installation consisted of three parts located in Freud’s study (with the famous couch), dining room and bedroom and titled Voice, Gesture and Memory. The small paintings shown in a grid in this room were presented as a frieze in the Memory section of the original exhibition. The artist invokes this exhibition here through the arrangement of some of the objects from the installation on a table reminiscent of that in Freud’s dining room, where she had placed Baubo, one of Freud’s objects from his collection of antiquities. Baubo is a small terracotta figurine who gestures to her genitalia in a provocative way, an act some have interpreted as a show of shame that speaks of both vulnerability and empowerment.
In the installation Siopis also evoked a complex dialogue between Freud’s ideas and her personal experiences by inserting references (voice recordings and objects) to the traumatic proceedings of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission and colonial and apartheid history. Once again she was interested in binding the traces of human vulnerability and the dramatic effects of sweeping historical narratives.
In this body of work Siopis manipulates thick and gooey lacquer gel paint, used in home-craft to create stained glass and coloured mirror effects on surfaces. For her it is a physical process that moulds anxiety into form. It translates the result of childhood trauma that we know as shame onto a painted surface. Through the reflective qualities of the medium Siopis blends the bodily sensation with the experience of being looked at, both of which define shame. The use of language in the form of ready-made rubber stamped clichés that clash with the raw power of this familiar emotion further underscores the ‘unspeakable’ character of the experience. Siopis goes on to explore this in different ways in the Pinky Pinky series in the adjacent room.
Ink and glue paintings
From 2007 to presently Penny Siopis extends her range of medium and scale of imagery to large expansive canvases encased in viscous glue and fluid inks in large, expansive canvases. In this body of work the artist’s skilful use of the associative qualities of her imagery and the inherent properties of this new medium creates scenes that are full of both violence and eroticism.
Although there is a dramatic shift in pictorial representation, the manner in which the medium acts on the surfaces remains of central concern. Embedded in the medium itself is the opportunity to work in a completely different mode where the dance of chance and the directness of the process allow the artist broader scope for imaginative association. There is also a move to abstraction where line begins to define and dissolve form and bleed across surfaces – where images appear to emerge from the medium itself.
The process involves a mix of ink, glue and occasionally water which are manipulated through splashing, dripping and moving the canvas to direct the flow. There is a strong element of surprise in this manner of working, as the final image only becomes apparent when dry. This openness to risk and the ‘accidents’ that happen as a consequence is what ultimately animates each work.
In the 1990s, Siopis extended her range of media to include monumental installations, film and video. The main focus of Siopis’ works is often visualised in existing objects, as she states: "Long I have been intrigued with the idea of an object as narrator. As the saying goes, "If walls (chairs, lamps, cutlery, or bowls) could talk, what tales they would tell?" Siopis has always been interested in objects as carriers of meaning beyond themselves. Her installations have taken different forms but Charmed Lives, exhibited in 1999 at New York’s Museum for African Art, became the core form and concept that shaped versions that followed. All the objects in the installations are from Siopis’ collection. In Charmed Lives they are arranged into sequences that speak of the fragile and unstable quality of memory, both personal and collective, asking probing questions about the nature of the archive and the relative truth of a historical record.
Occasionally, some are singled out to become part of the ongoing Will project. The installation Will, started in 1997, functions as an ultimate time piece. Siopis sees it becoming alive only on her death: she has singled out objects from her vast collection and bequeathed them to individuals all around the world. Upon her passing they will be sent out to their recipients. Seen as an autobiographical project, this particular collection also functions as an archive and inventory of both personal and collective history. The work comments on the lives and perceptions of objects that could function both as art and heirloom, representing different values for those who possessed them before the artist and those who will end up owning them in the future. The installation presupposes an end through its own fragmentation. It will continue living as a memory; at the same time the objects, having been dispersed, will acquire new meanings that have the potential to continue to evolve forever.
Siopis began working with film in 1994 with her film Per Kind Permission: Fieldwork. However, in 1997 Siopis found her niche in film making through the work My Lovely Day. She has continued to work with film throughout her career and describes the videos as montages, cut-and-paste images that move and unfold over time. Combined with text and music, film offers a wonderful opportunity for narrative.
In My Lovely Day Siopis cuts sequences from her mom’s 8mm home movies that she took of their family life in the 50s and 60s, and the more public events that were caught in the sweep of her camera. She combined these with music and the remembered words of her grandmother, presented as subtitles. She wove the story of three generations of women, as a kind of transgenerational haunting. The story compresses historical time into one day. The historical moment of her telling is apartheid South Africa, but her references to social turmoil and catastrophe are to earlier times: the ‘exchange of populations’ following the Greco-Turkish conflict of 1919–1922, the massive migrations sparked by the two World Wars and the beginnings of the decolonisation of Africa.
Her mother’s home movies led Siopis to the home movies of strangers, which she finds in flea markets and thrift shops in South Africa and on her travels abroad. She now has a huge archive of found film that she mines continually. Siopis sees the film as a ready-made in that it brings its own history and context into the scene. She cuts sequences from the film which she connects to the text in mostly allusive ways. So, whoever views it will shape their narrative too.
All the videos take a very particular story from South African history that has an elemental quality and speaks beyond its historical circumstances; two of them, Obscure White Messenger (2010) and The Master is Drowning (2012), look at the actual and attempted assassinations of apartheid Prime Minister H.F. Verwoerd. Siopis draws on various archival sources to construct the narrative, and use different modes of address, but she prefers the first person. In Obscure White Messenger she uses a question and answer format, which she drew from the psychiatrist’s report of the interview he had with Dimitrio Tsafendas, immediately after the murder. In the beginning of the film it is not easy to work out who is talking: who’s the ‘you’ and who’s the ‘I’?
- Colin Richards, ‘For want of (An)Other World’, in Penny Siopis, Johannesburg: The Artists Press, 1994.
- Clive van den Berg (ed) Panoramas of Passage: Changing Landscapes of South Africa, Washington and Johannesburg: Meridian Center and Wits Art Galleries, 1995.
- Okwui Enwezor (ed) Trade Routes: History and Geography, Greater Johannesburg Metropolitan Council, 1997.
- Jennifer A Law, ‘The Story Teller: Penny Siopis’, in Liberated Voices: Contemporary Art from South Africa Frank Herreman (ed), New York: Museum of African Art, New York and Prestel, 1999.
- Brenda Atkinson and Candice Breitz (eds) Grey Areas: Representation, Identity and Politics in Contemporary South African Art, Johannesburg: Chalkham Hill Press, 1999.
- Olu Oguibe and Okwui Enwezor, (eds) Reading the Contemporary: African Art from Theory to the Marketplace, London: Iniva and MIT Press, 2000.
- Kathryn Smith (ed) Penny Siopis, Johannesburg: Goodman Gallery, 2005.
- Jennifer Law, Three Essays on Shame, London: Freud Museum, 2005.
- Griselda Pollock, ‘Three essays on Trauma and Shame: Perspectives on Visual Poetics’, in Asian Women’s Studies, 12:4, 2007.
- Claire Pajaczkowska and Ivan Ward, Shame and Sexuality: Psychoanalysis and Visual Culture, London: Routledge, 2008.
- Sarah Nuttall, Entanglement: Literary and Cultural Reflections on Post- Apartheid, Johannesburg: Wits University Press, 2009.
- Brenton Maart (ed), Red, The Iconography of Colour in the work of Penny Siopis, Durban: KZNSA Gallery, 2009.
- Colin Richards, ‘In Human History: Pasts and Prospects in South African Art today’ in Thembinkosi Goniwe, Mario Pisarra (eds), Visual Century: South African Art in Context 1907-2007, Vo 4, Johannesburg: Wits University Press, 2011.
- Sue Williamson, South African Art Now. New York: HarperCollins, 2011.
- Gerrit Oliver (ed), Penny Siopis: Time and Again (monograph), Wits University Press: Johannesburg, 2014.
- Olivier, Gerrit (2015). Penny Siopis: Time and Again. Wits University Press. ISBN 978-1-86814-695-6.
- Olivier, Gerrit (2015). Penny Siopis: Time and Again. Wits University Press. pp. 58–78. ISBN 978-1-86814-695-6. Retrieved 21 May 2015.
- Gershenson, Olga; Penner, Barbara (2009). Ladies and Gents: Public Toilets and Gender. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. ISBN 978-1-59213-941-5. Retrieved 30 August 2015.
- Olivier, Gerrit (2015). Penny Siopis: Time and Again. Wits University Press. pp. 139–146. ISBN 978-1-86814-695-6. Retrieved 25 May 2015.
- Pajaczkowska, Claire; Ward, Ivan (2008). Shame and Sexuality: Psychoanalysis and Visual Culture. East Sussex: Routledge. pp. 143–155. ISBN 978-0-415-42012-9. Retrieved 15 June 2015.
- Smith, Kathryn (2005). Penny Siopis. Johannesburg: Goodman Gallery Editions. pp. 104–116. ISBN 0-620-33546-7. Retrieved 3 June 2015.
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- "SAHO - Pippy Siopios". Sahistory.org.za. Retrieved 2017-08-28.
- "A R T T H R O B". A R T T H R O B. Retrieved 2017-08-28.
- "Video: Penny Siopis Discusses Her First Retrospective Exhibition | Wits University Press". Witspress.bookslive.co.za. 2014-12-17. Retrieved 2017-08-28.
- "Wits University Press Presents Penny Siopis: Time and Again, Edited by Gerrit Olivier | Wits University Press". Witspress.bookslive.co.za. 2014-11-20. Retrieved 2017-08-28.
- "Penny Siopis". Artthrob. Retrieved 2017-08-28.
- "Subverting history painting | IOL Cape Times". Iol.co.za. 2015-02-02. Retrieved 2017-08-28.
- Stevenson. "Artists | STEVENSON" (PDF). Stevenson.info. Retrieved 2017-08-28.