Solo art exhibition: “Allow me to introduce you to … ” by Robyn Field / 19 March 2021: Upstairs @ Bamboo, Melville / Online @Kunstmatrix.com
The last few years have seen a rising tide of digitally fuelled gender activism across all parts of global society, encapsulated by the #MeToo movement. In South Africa – a country struggling with extremely high levels of Gender Based Violence (GBV) – the movement is especially relevant, and timely.
What role does fine art play in this process? Can all artists who create work around #MeToo themes be classified as gender activists? And how do the artists themselves think about the work they create around current social themes?
Robyn Field’s forthcoming solo show – Allow Me To Introduce You To… – features several works that address gender and sexual violence issues head-on. She has also made notable use of an evocative character archetype in her work named Aaliyah – a direct reference to the hip hop star who came to prominence under R Kelly’s increasingly ominous-looking wing.
In Aaliyah Under The City, Field’s painting describes the journey travelled by many young girls seeking to fulfil their life ambitions as they grow into adulthood, and who are forced to navigate sexual violence and male domination along the way. Sadly, the piece suggests, not all are successful, and as a result there are many Aaliyah’s ‘under the city’, crushed by the combined weight of their aspirations and the reality of a sexual violent world.
In The Occupation of Aaliyah, she takes a different view. This time Aaliayh is represented as a land mass turned on its side, being probed by the forces of dominance and occupation, including a Three Headed Penis and a drifting series of colonial ships modelled on the Dromedaris – the ship that brought Jan Van Riebeek to South Africa’s shores.
So, is this what some call activist art? Is Field trying to to drive social change with her paintings?
As an expressionist Field sees fine art as capable of being both a vehicle for activism and a way to engage in more nuanced social commentary. And she believes that despite its directness most of her work actually falls into the broad social commentary category.
‘When I feel strongly about pretty much anything, I paint it. More than anything I guess I’m trying to make the viewer feel something of what I felt when making the work,’ she says. ‘To me activist art often forms part of a public campaign for action and change. It’s very visible, with a clear drive to spark behaviour change. Often it forms part of a larger and very vigorous social movement.’
Art as social commentary, on the other hand, observes major socio political developments from more of a distance, and attempts to capture the ethos and spirit of a particular moment in time rather than to change behaviour.
‘I use art to personally process what I see happening in the world around me,’ says Field. ‘Channelling what I experience and observe into a visual treatment is an excellent way to think about complex subjects. And when you have a few pieces within a body of work that reflect on a theme like #MeToo you end up with an interesting record of what was going on at that time in history.’
Which isn’t to say Field is disinterested in activism or social change taking place in the here and now. Far from it. She’s been compelled and appalled in equal measures by the narratives of sexual dominance that have emerged in recent years, and it shows in her work.
In Advanced Persistent Threat, for example, she uses the language of the Trump / Russia investigation to take a worried look at the reversal of basic reproductive rights. She also believes open conversations across generations are important. Teach Your Daughters They Have Teeth speaks directly to this idea by calling on mothers to engage with new generations on subjects that have traditionally been shrouded in silence.
‘I think this is a very important era. The revelations that keep coming out about people’s experiences of sexual violence are crucial to how we move forward,’ she says. ‘My hope is that art can play an activist role and also reach beyond media headlines to act as a conversation starter between mothers and daughters, and fathers and sons. The more open and honest conversations we have about how the world really operates, the better the future will be for all of us.’