“Painting is an exercise in place-making. It informs my process of reclaiming agency as I peel back layers of history which has been shaped by the ‘civilising’, colonial gaze that defines photographic archives and shapes collective memory”
Ravelle Pillay (b.1993, Durban, South Africa) is a Johannesburg-based painter whose practice mines the haunting reverberations of history, extracted from archival photography and inherited memories. As a starting point, the artist collects family photographs stretching back generations alongside a broader archive of portrait and landscape photography as imperfect portals into the past.
The process of meeting the canvas with unstable imagery is underpinned by an inevitable grappling with the legacies of colonialism and migration. Questions around agency to shape familial and national narratives, as well as access to power and land ownership, haunt Pillay’s polarised family history primarily as descendants of Indian indentured workers but also, more distantly, of British aristocrats, speaking to wider social issues in contemporary South Africa and beyond.
For Pillay, the act of painting facilitates an intervention between past and present, metaphorically unearthing layers of deception that brought indentured labourers to Natal (South Africa) between 1860-1911 to develop the sugar industry in this province. Excavating the role of botanical gardens in colonial expansion is a key focus in the work, closely informing Pillay’s interest in identifying visual similarities of former sugar-growing locations in former colonies:
“Pillay is curious about the ways in which the natural world is co-opted in and serves as a witness to violence and oppression – how banana trees and sugarcane thrive along with legacies of slavery and colonialism [and] how paint is deployed as a kind of sediment or residue on the canvas. Her paintings comprise heavy, lush foliage and swampy waters that threaten to overwhelm ghostly figures lodged in photographic poses. Where the landscape and vegetation are inky, bloody, textured and deeply embedded, the figures seem to be fading, wearing or washing away” – Mail & Guardian, 2022
Through a slow approach to painting, veiling the canvas in thin layers of oil paint, the artist seeks out techniques to make material the heavy humidity of regions in focus which fuse with the dense and strange imaginary scenes that she creates. The work encourages a dwelling in negative spaces, paying particular attention to areas where the visual quality of the photographic references has degraded over time, leaving partial, ghostly remnants.
Pillay is the first prize recipient of the 2022 African Art Galleries Association’s Emerging Painting Invitational. She holds a degree in Fine Art (2015) from the University of the Witwatersrand. The artist was in residence at Gasworks (London) until December 2022. Her first institutional solo exhibition, titled Idyll, opened at Chisenhale Gallery (London) in February this year.
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