Dave Mann is an editor and award-winning arts journalist.
Back in 2013, if you were to drive along Johannesburg’s M1 freeway you might have seen a custom-designed billboard that posed a single question to the city: Who is Anastasia Pather?
A Durban-born Johannesburger who, as a child, loved drawing birds and carried a little white suitcase filled with art supplies wherever she went, is one answer to that question.
A prolific painter and abstract artist who’s exhibited with the likes of 99 Loop, No End Contemporary, Lizamore & Associates, and at various art fairs and festivals across the country is another. Both answers are correct.
Back in 2013, Pather was not all that long out of art school and, like most art grads, was trying to figure out where to go next. The billboards, a decision partly inspired by her brief foray into advertising, went hand in hand with the decision to rent her first studio space as a professional artist – a small space at Milpark’s 44 Stanley. Since then, Pather’s career has consistently moved from strength to strength.
Previously, much of the artist’s work has concerned itself with ideas of sexuality, gender, ethnicity, rejection and more. These themes sometimes overlap and merge in her work, the resultant paintings a luminous and frenetic, but simultaneously elegant, mixture of swirling oils, flecks of goldleaf, and bits of recycled paintings stapled amidst various Hindu deities and watchful eyes. Sometimes they take the form of deep, blue seascapes awash with coral and kelp, other times her works are rich, molten scenes full of earthy reds and oranges.
‘I think, for the most part, I’ve always been quite confused about how to talk about my work. I also think that abstract art in South Africa is still not completely understood.’ Pather is seated in her home-studio, surrounded by recently completed canvases for the 2019 RMB Turbine Art Fair, as she talks through her painting process.
In Pather’s early career, finger-painting was her primary mode of application and it became something of a signature for the artist – a curious and free-spirited take on painting that she nurtured during her days as an art student at Wits University.
‘I was a really average student. I had no idea what I wanted to do and sometimes I wish I didn’t always act like I was too cool for art school,’ says Pather. ‘I did get to meet Penny Siopis while I was there, and she helped me a lot. She’d come to my studio and talk to me about inks and glues and just changing up mediums. I was very stuck at some point and we were having coffee and she was just like “paint with this, see what happens. Stop being so precious.” From there, I just learned how to do things like cut up my works and paint with coffee and let something run off the canvas. Just experiment more.’
Certainly, Pather’s exploration of the possibilities of paint on canvas have taken many shapes over the years. Her Sea of Eyes at the 2015 Joburg Fringe, the canvas she weaved out of rejected and cut up paintings for the WORK:PLAY group show, her AR work made with Google Tilt Brush for TMRW Gallery’s second Invisible Exhibition, and even the naming of her works, are all excellent examples of the artist’s penchant for play.
‘Using my fingers allowed me to speak to the canvas in many ways, but they didn’t allow me to fully understand the canvas, you know? I couldn’t make the different types of gesture and stroke that I wanted to, and I was repeating a lot,’ says Pather. ‘I started to realise that I didn’t have enough vocabulary – I just wanted to talk more. I’ve started to use more tactile mediums. I stitch onto canvas and I cut into canvas. Those are still finger-based acts to me, but it’s also interrupting the surface – going in between that initial contact with the canvas.’
Pursuing a growing interest in the ideas of costuming and nesting in relation to gender and stereotypes, Pather’s practice has veered ever so slightly off the canvas and into the realms of soft sculpture as of late. A recent group show at Linden’s No End Contemporary Art Space saw the artist exhibiting a series of works in this vein, all making use of women’s underwear.
‘I use live materials that age, sag, and change with time as a nod to the body and the fleeting nature of identity and everything that goes with it,’ explains Pather. ‘In an era of blatant sexism, women can still be reduced to constructed ideas of beauty, assembled for the male gaze. In a sense, we (women) can be pigeonholed by the underwear we wear. Sometimes sexy and skimpy, sometimes comfy and frumpy, sometimes disposable, sometimes unsightly and stained, S/M/L/XL/XXL, panties are complex loaded cultural artefacts that represent a time period and a lifestyle.’
Much of Pather’s conceptual experimentations both influence and form part of her canvas-based works. If you’ve seen any of the artist’s recent works, you’ve likely seen the hair extensions and fabric trimmings peaking out amidst the vivid colour and painted texture of the canvas. And seeing the works of Pather, if you’re an avid follower of the local art scene, is something of a given – her works are everywhere.
‘That’s because I have a problem saying no to curators,’ she says.
But it’s also down to her prolificity and her sound knowledge of the art industry through her work at the Arts & Culture Trust (ACT) over the years.
‘I enjoy the business side of the arts, the professional side. I realised that our idea of the arts isn’t limited to the disciplines we understand it through. They bleed into one another. The more flexible you are in your thinking, the more you can get out of a relatively small industry,’ says Pather. ‘If I didn’t spend time at ACT, I would have continued to believe that a gallery and art school and maybe something like a digital gallery were my only options and that that’s what the whole art world is about.’
Perhaps it’s this understanding of the business side of the art world that’s kept Pather from ever signing to a gallery and, instead, working closely with a number of different galleries while still being able to move from project to project, maintaining a strong presence on the scene.
Two years ago in an interview with VISI magazine, Pather was questioned about her self-proclaimed status as a ‘reluctant artist’: ‘Marlene Dumas is an artist, Shirin Neshat is an artist; they remind us to see and not just look. I am reluctant to give myself the same title because I think it’s something you earn and not something you fake. I am not there (yet),’ she told the magazine.
And what about now?
‘I’m still not there yet, but I’ve started to own a space,’ she says. ‘I’ve stopped calling myself a reluctant artist because I think I’ve earned some of that mantle and I think that there’s a huge commitment to sticking with this life. There’s sacrifice that goes into it and there’s a lot of hours and there’s major heartache just with the work itself – with the work rejecting you or the anxiety of putting up a show and having nobody talk about it or having the wrong people talk about it or the work not selling, there’s just a lot of that. I’ve kind of realised that that commitment is something that I should acknowledge and I should be proud of.’
Pather, the artist who loved drawing birds, played too cool for art school, put her name up on billboards across the city, and made finger-painting credible again, has found her rhythm. Soon art will become the full-time gig for her – a committed leap into the unknown, not unlike the many leaps she’s taken before.
‘Painting and having this other job, I’d be coming home and very quickly trying to make a work without giving myself the time to interrogate it fully. I just wanted to dive in and see what more I could do and I can’t get to that point if half my brain is also thinking about what my inbox looks like,’ says Pather. ‘But I’m also not fully sold on the idea that I won’t, in six months time, hate doing this full time and go back to another job. Maybe that’s just the type of person I am. I also just want to know that maybe I’m going to become full on Marlene Dumas if I give myself the freedom to. That, or I can finally go back to day drinking.’
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