History paintings

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 presented in the first room of this exhibition. 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), Et Al (1989), Exhibit: Ex Africa (1990), Id Est (1990), Terra Incognita (1991) and Foreign Affairs: Arutma (1994). It continues in her installations which, in the words of Jennifer Law, represent history itself as ‘exquisite corpse’. Two of these, Charmed Lives and Will, can be seen in this room.

In Melancholia the artist experimented with the expressive qualities of paint and the tensions between process and medium, subject and object. In the later 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.

An important milestone in both the artist’s personal life and her artistic career, Melancholia won the Volkskas Atelier Award in 1986, taking Siopis to Paris. There her interest in Sarah Baartman, who died in the city and whose remains were being kept at the Musée de l’Homme, led to a series of works on the subject, which can also be seen in this room. The story of this woman whose barbaric treatment at the hands of Europeans fascinated by her anatomy led Siopis repeatedly to examine issues of the representation of the other, the politics of looking, museum display and subject as object.

Still Life with Watermelon and other things, 1985, Oil on canvas 180. 5 x 242. 5cm Setting, 1985, Oil on canvas, 100 x 120cm Unrequited, 1986, Oil on board, 119.6 x 165cm Melancholia, 1986, Oil on canvas, 175. 5 x 197. 5cm Invention de l'Hysterie, 1986, pastel on paper, 125 x 83cm Within the Picture, 1987, Pastel on paper, Approx 100 x 120cm Imaging, 1987, pastel on paper, 76,5 x 56cm Flesh and Blood, 1986, Pastel and collage on paper, 35. 5 x 45cm Patience on a Monument: A History Painting, 1988, Oil and collage on board, 180 x 200cm A History Painting: Mining, 1989, Oil and collage on board, Approx. 53 x 39cm A History Painting: Mapping, 1989, Oil and collage on board, Approx. 53 x 39cm Cape of Good Hope: A History Painting, 1989, Oil, wax and collage on board, 164 x 106cm Et Al, 1989, Oil, collage and wax on board African, in two parts, 1989, oil, collage and found object on board, 107 x 75cm and 21 x 45cm Dora and the other Woman, 1989, Pastel on paper, 120 x 153cm Exhibit-Ex Africa, 1990, Collage, oil paint, screen print, perspex and found object, 124.5 x 126.2cm History Lesson, 1990, Pages torn from South African history textbooks, and photographs 127.5 x 96cm Fortiter et Recte, 1990, Oil and collage on board Al Fresco, 1990, Oil and collage on board, 120 x 238cm Id Est, 1990, Oil, collage and wax on board, 39.5 x 60cm Esprit de Corps, 1991, Collage, photographs and oil on board, 80 x 200cm Terra Incognita, 1991, Oil and collage on board, 180 x 200cm The Baby and the Bathwater, 1992, Oil, collage, marble, steel and photographs on board, 250 x 800cm Blood River, 1992, Triptych, Photocopies, mirrors, white sugar, perfume bottles filled with the artist’s blood, oil on board, Each panel, 76 x 76cm Domestic Affairs, 1994, Collage, found objects and oil on board Foreign Affairs, 1994, Oil and found objects on board, 100,5 x 246cm Honur, 1993, mixed media and found objects on board, 20 x 29cm Tula Tula, 1994, Photocopy, found objects and oil on board, 111 x 67cm Left: Regina Mundi, 1994, Found object and steel wool domestic scourers, 125 x 84cm Right: Regent Mundi, 1994, Found object and Goldilocks brass domestic scourers, 125 x 84cm