Penny Siopis, Shame, 2002-2005, installation of 165 mixed-media paintings
For Art Basel's OVR: Pioneers, Stevenson is proud to present two works by Penny Siopis, made nearly two decades apart, that offer prescient and sustained analysis of the relations of power within the psychosexual and political realms. Shame, her iconic series of paintings, and a new film titled Shadow Shame Again, are both concerned with the public and psychological state of shame, and find great resonance in an era of growing discussions around gender, rape culture and consent. The works are also on view at the Cape Town gallery for an extended period following the fair.
Since the late 1970s, Siopis (b. 1953, South Africa) has worked across various media in innovative ways that merge the visceral and the conceptual, continually engaging with the shifting social and political situations in South Africa and beyond. Encompassing body politics, migration, history and memory, grief and shame, climate change and the relation between the human and non-human, her explorations have been characterised by her interest in what she calls the ‘poetics of vulnerability’.
Siopis has given form to the complexities of the post-apartheid moment as both a practitioner and an educator. Her intuitive material investigations, underpinned by rigorous theoretical frameworks and post-colonial thought, have set the precedent for a generation of young artists who employ aesthetic provocations for political intent, while challenging the tradition of painting within local and global art history.
Siopis conceived of the Shame series in the early 2000s, in the wake of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Here, she observed, shame was ‘dramatized and confronted as a state of hurt and complicity in the hurt of others’. The paintings – ‘a crowd that multiplied and grew into a grid’ – give form to the imaginative realm of shame, both as embodying the loss of dignity and integrity, and as offering fertile ground for empathy. She found many of her materials in the children’s section of the craft shop, including rubber stamps of sentimental sayings: ‘I’m sorry’, ‘Get well soon’, ‘Hug me’, ‘Hush little baby’ … She writes, ‘I thought how so much childhood hurt, real or imagined, grows with us, over and over again, as shame.’
In 2005 the paintings formed part of Siopis’ multi-media installation Three Essays on Shame at the Freud Museum in London, where they were hung as a frieze around Freud’s deathbed. Siopis described the works in a lecture at the museum: ‘The paintings are small and intimate, imaginings of childhood sexuality and dread. Imaging in paint can be troubling. Painting, for me, can materialise otherwise invisible, unspeakable, even unthinkable trauma … If the anxiety of being looked at is distinctive in shame, then the viewer is not a passive onlooker, but a sometimes uneasy witness, an uneasiness which may arise from a sense of being complicit in the shaming.’
The culture around sexual violence clearly evoked in the Shame paintings continues to be expressed in Siopis’ new film as a matter of urgency, for South Africa and the rest of the world. Shadow Shame Again speaks to ‘the other pandemic’ – the way many South Africans describe the spike in gender-based violence and femicide during lockdown. Using footage from her collection of found 8mm and 16mm home movies, Siopis sets fragments of image sequences to words – their brevity acknowledging the failure of language in response to this ‘shadow shame’ – and emotive sound. The film is dedicated to Tshegofatso Pule who, eight months pregnant, was stabbed to death and found hanging in a tree during lockdown in South Africa; ‘the mental image became a rallying cry in protest, and a locus of national shame’.
Art Basel OVR: Pioneers previewed on 24 March; public days were 25 to 27 March.
Click here to watch a conversation between Siopis and feminist art historian Griselda Pollock that took place on Zoom as part of Art Basel's OVR: Pioneers talks programme.