HOLDING STILL: Psychology and Portraiture….tracing the contours of the human soul

Images of various faces are interspersed around the SMAC Gallery in Johannesburg. At first glance, this is simply a show about portraiture —but as you walk closer and more attentively you realise that the show is about so much more…. HOLDING STILL: Psychology and Portraiture.

What makes a portrait? What do we uncover through creations and recreations of our own image? As the beauty of each image is revealed, so are the limitations of language.

This exhibition explores the idea of portraiture as a tool for charting the psychological make-up of the human subject.

Dr Ernst van der Waal

It coalesces works by thirteen South African artists who, through their work,  wrestle with notions of the self. It includes traditional types of portraiture (painted and etched) punctuated by contorted and disorienting works —Marlene Steyn’s in her feel her out her face mask (2019), an oil on canvas painting, depicts a woman’s face, she has blue hair and is wearing a  blue and white striped t-shirt or sweater. The woman’s face encompasses multiple figures and at least nine sets of eyes are visible —peculiar repetition. The image is alluring and perplexing.

Works take on different styles; from the John Murray’s clean and compelling acrylic works, Georgina Gratrix’s self portrait of altered proportions, Mostaff Muchawaya deep and tactile outline to Alexis Preller’s muted brushstrokes and palette —an all embracing rendering.

Peter Clarke. The Scowl (1973)

Portraiture is one such way of grappling with the human exterior (of grazing the surface of the body and to translate the traces of emotion into marks on canvas or a piece of paper), whilst also delving deeper, trying to peel away the layers of the human subject to explore its inner workings.

Dr Ernst van der Waal
Mostaff Muchawaya. Mai Wemethodist (2017)

Portraiture holds a very precarious position within the history of art —beginning at a time when portraits (particularly painted portraits) were reserved for the privileged few to of course now; a time when self capturing has become ubiquitous following wide accessibility of the camera. Between these two extremes, we find a language that allows us to consider deeply what it means to see ourselves and others through imagery —this becomes an inquiry into notions of beauty, desire, the self and the soul.

Christo Coetzee. The Bride (undated)

The complete list of participating artists includes; Albert Adams, Braam Kruger, Peter Clarke, Christo Coetzee, Kate Gottgens, Georgina Gratrix, Johann Louw, Mostaff Muchawaya, John Murray, Alexis Preller, Gerard Sekoto, Marlene Steyn and Simon Stone. Works will be on view until April 19th.

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About the author

Nkgopoleng Moloi

I’m a writer and photographer based in Johannesburg. I am interested in the spaces we occupy and navigate through and how these influence the people we become. Writing is a tool I use to understand the world around me and to explore the things I am excited and intrigued by, particularly history, art, language and architecture. I am fascinated by cities; their complexities and their potential.