FNB Art Joburg
Sandton Convention
Centre, Johannesburg,
South Africa

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A blue reconciliation through queer subversion

with Shakil Solanki


A committed queering of reality, in this week’s Re:View, following a conversation FNB Art Joburg had with Shakil Solanki about his exhibition The Fishers Pearl, Reprised, we consider the way the work addresses cultural heritage marred by colonial interruptions.

Premiering on 30 September 1863, The Pearl Fishers is a three-act opera by French composer Georges Bizet where two men’s love for each other is threatened by the presence of a common lover. Encountering the plot in Derek Jarman’s book Chroma, Shakil Solanki recalls a verse where he describes pearl fishers beneath the ocean as being locked in an embrace. “I’ve been sitting with this book since my third year,” says Solanki. A text that Solanki habitually goes back to, an invitation to contemplate the opera immediately brought up the image of the pearl fishers in Jarman’s text.

“It’s these men who are best friends and they swear never to let anything drive them apart. Just looking at that I thought there’s so much untapped territory by way of queer subversion,” he goes on. Adding a melancholic edge to a plot rooted in bromance, by way of queer subversion, Solanki’s focus offers the narrative a relevance that fits his practice. “At its very base, South Asian culture is so entirely camp visually. The bright colours, the beautiful garments and jewellery. Building a queer mythology that gives the characters in The Pearl Fishers, Reprised deity status reconciles my practice with the aesthetics and visual cultures of his South Asian heritage.”

Existing in a secret garden, Solanki’s practice interrogates the dynamics of intimacy through painting and printmaking. Exploring the murky waters where the lines between tenderness, desire, and violence are blurred, the artist does this by repurposing the vernacular of classical Eastern Art. An always blue colour study, the secret garden where Solanki’s messaging manifests into scenes is consistently romantic, lush and dreamlike.

Trained as a print maker, Solanki describes his relationship with painting as a work in progress.”I still feel quite a great deal of imposter syndrome when it comes to painting”. However looking back at the early iterations of the Eastern miniatures he referenced in developing his style, the artist sees how an approach that embraces painting and printmaking together make for the dedication illustrations and striking luminations he strives towards. “Printmaking has an illustrative edge and having a distinctive mark is really important to me. With painting: its delicate marks bring life to the illustrations. They’re both necessary.”

Like The Head & the Load, The Pearl Fishers, Reprised is yet another visual response to a theatre-based opera. Parallel to the exhibition at Everard Read, a different iteration of the works colours the set of The Pearl Fishers with the Cape Town Opera at Artscape Theatre. Preparing for the presentation, Solanki looked to David Hockney whose set design practice spans decades and includes numerous operatic productions. For the Metropolitan Opera Company’s 1981 production of Parade, Hockney also worked in gouaches. “The relationship between opera and visual art has a deep and rich history,” says Solanki. “Building this relationship was instrumental in showing me the power of working with a narrative that is long standing while subverting it into my practice. It’s been wonderful to see my practice reach those heights and that scale.”

Known to work in small scale, Solanki admits to being frustrated by how audiences often gravitate towards large-scale works. Although his practice finds him exploring what scale will do to his technique, Solanki’s commitment to smaller works is an opportunity to see what happens to an artist when their real estate is limited. From the viewing perspective, the opaque intricacies of Solankis’ gouache paintings in The Pearl Fishers beckon the eye. Calling for an up-close study of the blues bleeding into each other and coming to the halt at the sigh of bold golds is equally as enthralling and escapist as an engulfing work.

Centred around the queer erotic undercurrent of the script, The Pearl Fishers, Reprised offers the 160 year-old plot a contemporality by mirroring today’s navigation of queer intimacy, suppressed desire, and tragedy that through the tides of a sapphire ocean fit neatly into Solanki’s blue practice.



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Ruth Ige. Don't hide your glory, 2022.
Acrylic on canvas. 122 x 122cm. (© Copyright 2022, STEVENSON. All rights reserved)

Friday, 8th September

Collection tour of Anglo American

144 Oxford Rd, Rosebank

8 September 2023

Event details

The Anglo American art and object collection is a combination of art collected over several decades through four different companies: Anglo American, de Beers Group, Anglo American Platinum and Kumba Iron Ore.

The collection comprises of 3600 works, with around 1000 pieces in the collection on display at the newly commissioned Rosebank offices. Although vast, the collection experienced an acquisition hiatus from the early 2000s until 2021 creating a significant gap in the collection’s representation of contemporary art. The collection now has a dedicated curator, Megan Scott, tasked with its cataloguing and digitisation, opening an exciting new chapter which will see the gradual procurement of significant works that reflect our contemporary South African and African art world.

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