Art review: Of love and loss – Penny Siopis x Portia Zvavahera

Naturally, when one speaks of love, then one – consciously or not – conjures the terrifying inevitability of grief. It is grief, one could argue, that makes love even possible. The twinned exhibition of Penny Siopis and Portia Zvavahera explores the intimacy of love, the longing to connect with loved ones within the terrifying spectacle of grief.  In Penny Siopis’ work ‘Still and Moving’ love – for it is still love even in loss – is broken down into fragments that speak to the process of mourning. In 2012 she lost her husband, Colin Richards, and this current body of appears to be an attempt to make sense of that loss by formulating, in a tangible language, the weight of her grief.

Deliberately or not, the language which informs the imagery on canvas is that of a human soul and from this point of view one begins to get a sense of loss as a universal language, a kind of language that precedes all written or verbal form. This body of work has a burning intensity, accentuated by the use of the primary colour, red. Fragments of paper cutouts and clippings glued in precise locations within the dense canvas strike the viewer as having stumbled upon a process of meditation than a finished artwork.

The work is haunted by an elusive figure of a woman or women, in the present or the afterlife, standing still and yet moving, living in both worlds all at once. In ‘I tell myself’ the woman figure appears stone-like and bathe in fire, looking listless and longing, for a lover (one might rightly presume) whom she has lost forever.

Imbued with more hope that futility, Portia Zvavahera’ exhibition ‘I can feel it in my eyes’ is still burdened by the idea of loss, and the figures in the works seem to cling on to the present and to each other with terrible apprehension. While the figures swim in a fantastic  dreamscape, clinging to each other in loving embrace, the delicate protection proffered by the flower motif speaks of the delicate, and gnawing uncertainty of the future of this love (like any love between two people), which disturbs the allusions of carefreeness in the images. The lovers are happy in the present but concerned about the arrival of the inevitable and therefore the whites that normally signify marriage and a new start are contrasted with deep mauves and deep blues, which give that hope a tinge of dark.

This contrast reminds me of a stanza in a poem by the American poet Robert Frost in ‘Come In’: “As I came to the edge of the wood, thrush music – hark! Now if it was dusk outside, inside it was dark.” If the reader of the poem is tricked by that “hark” which alludes to some kind of music made by the wood Thrush before realising that the end of the stanza would be “dark”, the viewer in Portia Zvavahera’s work is tricked by the loving embrace of the lovers in figures to not even contemplate the very tragic fact that even this love is bound to an inevitable loss, whether it is separation of death.

Originally appeared in City Press*


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