Re:View

The ‘forgiving and excruciating’ parts of painting

with Ravelle Pillay

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Through painting, Ravelle Pillay considers the legacies colonialism and migration have left regarding agency, memory, and life-making. Her first solo exhibition titled Tide and Seed, recently came to a conclusion. Before Tide and Seed she participated in multiple group exhibitions with galleries including Goodman Gallery, P72 Projects/ Kalashnikovv Gallery and 99 Loop. She is also the first prize recipient of the 2022 African Art Galleries Association’s Emerging Painting Invitational. In this week’s Re:View, we look at the weight water carries, metaphorically, in her practice.

Ravelle Pillay is an artist using painting as an opportunity to subvert the narrative/s associated with Indian indenture. 

The offspring of indentured labourers brought to South Africa, Pillay’s practice has her investigating the use of elements to naturalise violence. Take the fields where bananas and sugarcane were farmed or the waters on which boats were used to transport labourers bound to generations of marginalisation. 

“I do think my work is inherently nostalgic but it’s also very much about a communion with those that came before. It’s a deep dive into ny roots and the way we store information and construct narratives.” 

These are the tides and seeds Pillay refers to in her debut solo, currently exhibited by Goodman Gallery. 

Lush and haunting, the work can be described as moving between landscape, still life and portraiture studies. Although oil painting is a traditional medium, developed in 15th century, in Pillay’s context it adds to the artist’s visual commentary. A stable, textured medium that enables artists to work on a painting intermittently, in Pillay’s process it materilises fluidity. “Essentially the reason why I chose painting as a medium is the infinite potential that painting has,” says Pillay. “The surface of the canvas allows you to move in so many different directions. It allows me to build and demolish. It’s forgiving and excruciating.” 

A tool to displace, to drown, erase, damage, cleanse, quench and refresh, Ravelle Pillay’s work and practice bring water and land to mind. Together they serve both thematic and material purposes. Resembling water damaged images, the people, faces and places in Pillays work are not clear. Faded and almost bleeding this speaks to the loss of memory, culture and self when a people are deliberately and forcefully displaced. 

She is an artist reconciling the space between lived and recorded histories.

Also in the obscurity is room for audiences to portray themselves in the scenes she portrays. 

Interested in what she refers to as memory objects, like her grandmother’s archive which depicts how they captured Indian life in KwaZulu-Natal from as early as the 194os. Through this archive, comprising hundreds of pictures, she looks for an answer to the question, “what does it mean to be a person undergoing and living a particular political experience. “Those kind of ideas are incredibly important for me in terms of the way I practice.”

Although referencing images from the domestic archive, in painting she inserts an element of speculative fiction: a means which artists often use to address incomplete, bias and wounding histories. “I often think of my subjects as ghosts or imprints… It’s this idea of the ghosts of the landscape.” A medley of damp hues of washed out red, beige and subtle greens, an example of resisting discernment is seen in how only a few things can be identified in Stranger (2022). There’s the three people, the banana leaves and sugarcane stalks, the subject rest are uncertain and up to the viewer. 

An attempt to feel, see and listen, Tide and Seed’s empathetic charge is effective, even for audiences whose histories differ from the one portrayed. 

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