CityLife Arts

Olwethu De Vos’s exhibition ‘offers solutions’ to Gender Based Violence

This exhibition by the multi-disciplinary visual artist is part of the online FNB Art Joburg (November 6 to November 18)

By Edward Tsumele

You know the feeling of guilt when you have missed an event that you had diarised and you were meant to honour. And that was what I faced on Sunday, November 8, when I went to a panel discussion with visual artist Bambo Sibiya at August House, an art hub on End, Street, New Doornfontein, at which I was a co-host with the artist.

Of course I looked forward to the discussion and it went well. However there was also something in my mind that made me to  look forward to this discussion. In the same building young visual artist Olwethu De Vos was to host a walk-about session also, an off line exhibition of her online body of work currently on at FNB Art Joburg, which virtually opened on Friday  due to the coronavirus pandemic. Like many others, de Vos also has an offline exhibition running concurrently with the virtual art fair, at which visitors can physically view the works, with Covid-19 health protocols strictly followed, including going into the studio in small numbers.

And so on Sunday I was excited to have had an opportunity to visit de Vos’ intimate studio eventually and had an opportunity to view her stunning art pieces in person, that are part of the on-going FNB Art Joburg. I also had an opportunity to chat to the artist about her work eventually after missing the opportunity to do so last Saturday due to other commitments. That Saturday, she hosted a VIP-Pre FNB Art Joburg event, at which I was invited, but could not make it due to other commitments.

De Vos is a multi-disciplinary artist, whose main background though is sculpture, and so in this body of work she draws a lot from her sculptural training to create a socially conscious body of work in pastel, staples and copper wire on board, championing a fresh approach to art making, that clearly distinguishes her from other artists.

Many a visitor to her studio that she turned into a mini gallery for better viewing experience of her body of work, was left stunned by these beautiful pieces that deal with issues of gender based violence using a fresh approach and materials she uses play a very important part of this compelling viewing experience.

De Vos’s body of work in this series incorporates portraits of naked male figures that are positioned clearly in deliberate vulnerable positions, evoking in a viewer images that are often splashed in mainstream media of women that have been abused and are left bruised, vulnerable and in desperate situations. Clearly this body of work is meant to make a viewer realize the effect of Gender Based Violence in society, which has increasingly become a scourge.  And the artist’s representation of this scourge is quite impactful, as a viewer will not miss this message.

“For me I think there is something that is missing in the messaging of anti-Gender Based Violence in this country. The message that is often sent out is about awareness, without putting solutions on the table. While creating awareness is good, but what is needed most is the solution to the problem. And so, by positioning males figures in their naked and therefore vulnerable state, is a way of offering a solution to this teething problem.

Often males, even young boys are told that they must be strong and must not show vulnerability, such as crying because that is not male-like. What happens is that they heed such advice from parents and society, and bottle up anger, pretending that they are not feeling anything, only for the bottled anger to erupt in violence at some stage in their lives when they can no longer keep the anger bottled,” De vos told me.

During this interview I noticed a number of people constantly streaming in and out of her studio to view Sta Soft, for that is what her body of work is titled.

“This is why for example, one hears horror stories of a young man that you have known to be a peaceful and well brought up young with no violent inclination, your neighbor, reported to have stabbed someone 16 times and  you are left wondering what happened,” explains de Vos.

Curated by independent curator Palesa Suthane, Sta Soft was given a nod  a  by FNB Art Joburg during Covid-19 lockdown, putting a lot of pressure on De Vos to produce this body of work within a space of four months for it to be ready for the art fair.

“This is my first (physical) exhibition, and actually I and my curator did not expect that we were going to be given this opportunity, and when FNB Art Joburg gave us a go ahead, I was excited. I had to work very hard to produce this body of work, which takes time to complete with one piece for example, taking as long a month to complete. To meet the fair deadline, I therefore had to employ five assistants to work with me,” she says.

And the result of this hard work, is a stunning body of work whose narrative on Gender Based violence is quite evocative and is as clear as cloudless summer skies

“Olwethu’s work depicts the human body in it’s purest form, without the pre imposed societal ideologies. Observing how we differentiate ourselves from each other and the source of it.

Sta-Soft is both a reminder and a call to action, to outgrow the moral conditioning we’ve grown up with. The values and ideologies imposed on you as a child stay with you throughout your adult life, and very few individuals come to the realization that they can change or completely remove these. If a child is raised in a racist family and grows up to discover that other ethnicities are in no way a lesser race, as humans we are all equally important and justifying our existence by the ideologies of segregation and race imposed on us as we grow up, is unjust, as our physical makeup is very much the same.

Sta-Soft is a popular household brand of fabric softener or textile conditioner. With this body of work, Olwethu aims to remind the viewers of their mental conditioning and how they’ve remained sheltered in their own pre imposed societal ideologies. To Sta-Soft is a decision, to see all people as equally important as you and do not conform to a hardened human experience. As time, humans and technology are constantly evolving, so should our way of thinking,” the curator Suthane states in her curatorial note accompanying this exhibition.

Essentially, Olwethu is a contemporary multidisciplinary fine artist. She works and explores both 2D and 3D disciplines of art, working with glass sculptures and mixed media drawings.

Suthane is an independent curator who produces and creates alternative ways to experience art digitally and has experience working for contemporary art galleries around Johannesburg, before teaming up with Tlotlo Lobelo to form a new contemporary art outfit that looks at alternative ways of showcasing contemporary art works.

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