The line between purity and simplicity in the artistic space of South Africa was examined by two of Pietermaritzburg’s most active artists at a joint ArtSPACE exhibition this week.
Kristin Hua Yang and Vulindlela Nyoni’s work is very similar when you first enter the Durban gallery, which is fast becoming recognised for its ability to draw the province’s most talented artists. However, after the initial greetings and race to the bar, the differences of “Pure of Simple” slowly creep out, until you can’t understand how you could have mixed up the two styles of work. That is because, having decided on a set path, the two artists kept their style completely consistent, although there were many different compositions and subjects.
Through repeating the way they construct their pieces, the artists have been able to construct images that are, if examined closely, made easy to disseminate. Once seen in this new light, they are actually quite different in their meaning.
Nyoni’s and Yang’s works are made from a combination of media such as linocut, silkscreen and charcoal. The simple but bold compositions sit on sheets of Fabriano paper with large white negative spaces that the artists have left untouched to maintain their pursuit of the pure and simple.
Nyoni’s work deals with a variety of issues, but aims to highlight the importance of personal narrative, while Yang’s work was inspired by what she saw while travelling the country, but which hits on a cord of fear and distrust in the “land of the free”.
What both artists achieve is that, although their work has been inspired by their own thoughts of society, it becomes independent from the artists.
Leaving the exhibition hooked by the clear move to simplicity, I decide to interview the artists the following day.
Nyoni, from Zimbabwe, and Yang, from China, are both masters graduates from the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Pietermaritzburg campus.
A few years ago, they decided to start an artistic partnership, where they would co-exhibit with each other under the same theme. The end result was “Pure of Simple”.
“We had wanted to work together for a long time,” says Nyoni, rather fresh considering the opening exhibition and celebratory dinner the night before. “We have similarities in how we think and have a common sense of what is visually interesting to us.”
Nyoni says their working relationship helped them as artists when they endured tough times. “We work very well together,” he says. “We feed off each other’s energy.”
Nyoni, a lecturer at the Centre for Visual Art, said they often carried the load for each other. “Kristin did most of the administration for the exhibition … which in a way was great because I then was able to spend more time in the studio sorting out the problems we had in printing.”
Yang, whose striking road warning signs haunt her charcoal drawings, said the joint exhibition was a very good experience. “The truth always comes in a pure and simple form,” she says. “My aim was to express a pure experience and uncategorised feelings about our surrounds.”
Yang embarked on a process of observation, looking carefully at people walking South Africa’s streets. “I either photographed them or sketched them,” she says. “They were then decontextualised from their setting to enable the viewer to dissociate from the rest of the clutter. The people were drawn with charcoal, while the signs were made through a process using primitive methods, such as colour rolls, inscriptions and, at times, silkscreen.”
Sharing some of her experiences that influenced the works, Yang said: “The most shocking thing my husband [maths professor Siu-ah Ng] and I noticed was near Rustenburg. There was a sign warning us that the road we were travelling on was a ‘hijack hotspot’. I really wanted to take a photo of it for this exhibition, but I later had to draw it from memory as we wanted to get out of the area as quickly as possible. These signs are a symbol of South Africa,” she says. “In Chase Valley, where we live, there is a park that has a similar sign warning us that criminals are active in the area. We can’t walk in that park, which is very sad.”
Nyoni’s work has three elements to it. A triptych of silk-screened clouds placed either at the top or middle of the format is combined with a linocut image of a bird and person balancing the rest of the piece. “I have come full circle with my work in that it is simple,” Nyoni says. “Printmaking helps you find your clearest compositions.”
Nyoni has worked with bird symbolism for some time, but this exhibition has been a move away from the visual form. “I have attempted to find symbols for many things using the metaphoric image of birds,” says Nyoni, whose family name means “small bird”.
Nyoni set about his task of looking for dead birds by taking photos of them around the area. “I found so many birds dead on the ground, which I found really interesting,” Nyoni says. He points out that he doesn’t want people to think he has an obsession with the death of birds. “I am more interested in the symbolism of birds living in the sky and then falling to the ground. People wake up each day with the desire to fly to their dreams and often they fall down to the ground. But we have the ability to get back up.”
Nyoni says there are lots of references to classic mythology. “In many forms of mythology, birds are important symbols … I am trying to see if animals signified in art relate to our own experience, if they reflect our own consciousness and integrity.”
The bird as a symbol of Nyoni’s family name is also important. “At times I am taking the mickey out of myself, but really I am asking: ‘Who the hell am I?’ and at the same time others can ask themselves who they are.”
The artists’ synergy is evident and, the good news is, it won’t be the last time they co-exhibit. Nyoni says Yang and her have agreed to hold this duo-exhibition every two years.
Yang is preparing for an exhibition in Italy. “I am doing two-by-two metre oil paintings for a series titled: Into the sky, time flies, which deals with my husband’s recovery from cancer.”
•Yang and Nyoni will be giving a walkabout of “Pure of Simple” at artSpace in Durban on November 17. Phone 031 312 0793 for more information. To see Yang’s exhibition work, visit http://kristin-yang.com