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.