Position of Power in Patience on a Monument: A History Painting

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Patience on a Monument: ’A History Painting’ is a painting created by South African artist, Penny Siopis in 1988. This essay will examine the painting through a denotative, contextual, conventional and connotative analysis framework. Penny Siopis’ painting is titled Patience on a Monument, with the subtitle being ‘A History Painting’. The artwork was created using oil paints and collage on board with the physical dimensions of the artwork being two hundred centimetres in length and one hundred and eighty centimetres in breadth. The artwork is housed in the William Humphries Art Gallery in Kimberly.

Visually, as a denotative description, the artwork, in the foreground in the centre of the image depicts a human figure – an African woman, named ‘Patience’ sitting upon a large mound of various objects. The woman is sitting upright with the lower half or her body, legs and feet resting upon the mound she sits upon. She is partially nude, with her right breast, arms and legs exposed, however the rest of her body is draped with a cloth-like clothing. Her gaze looks off into the distance, to a space that is not visible to the viewer. The woman is depicted in the act of peeling a what appears to be an orange-yellow coloured fruit with a knife. Most likely, the fruit is either an orange or a lemon.

The mound on which the African woman sits upon is large and elongated in scale and consists of many various objects and items piled up and against one another. According to Sue Williamson in her book titled Resistance art in South Africa, some of the various objects and items depicted in the work include: “Fruit peelings, a stretched canvas, a dead bird, objects d’art, a skull, models of a pregnant womb and a broken heart, a little handbag, ornamental fittings, an open book, and two views of a bust of a black man.” (Williamson 1989: 20)

Behind the woman sitting upon the mound, the background of the artwork depicts a seemingly vast, almost infinite landscape consisting of earthy tones of browns, greens, greys, oranges and yellows. The background of the painting has been constructed through a collage technique as it has been composed of various illustrations and images. These images and illustrations that compose the landscape background are images that have been photocopied, enlarged or reduced in size, torn up, stuck down and painted over by Siopis. The images and illustrations used by Siopis to construct her background were taken from various periodicals, history books, high school textbooks and other documents that depict the history of South Africa. (Rycroft 1996: 8) The various images that construct the background are depictions of scenes of the Boers, missionaries, the British military and Voertrekkers in South Africa.

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At the time Patience on a Monument: ‘A History Painting’ was created by Penny Siopis in 1988, South Africa’s history and political context was defined by apartheid. Apartheid can be defined as a “policy that governed relations between South Africa’s white minority and nonwhite majority and sanctioned racial segregation and political and economic discrimination against nonwhites.” (The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica 2019). At the time the painting was created in 1988, the country’s political context was defined by a state of emergency that was first declared by the President of the apartheid government, PW Botha on the 12th June 1986—four days before the 10th anniversary of the 1976 Soweto uprising— and lasted until the 8th June 1990. (South African History Online 2012) The state of emergency limited South African’s freedoms in which “political funerals were restricted, curfews were imposed, certain indoor gatherings were banned and news crews with television cameras were banned from filming in areas where there was political unrest.” (South African History Online 2012). The 1980’s were largely defined as “a time in South African history resonant with political friction” (Atkinson in Kühl 2010: 25) where there was radical social and political turmoil. However, people resisted the state of emergency and the apartheid government, and thus, during this period resistance art would start to gain traction in South Africa. The aim of resistance artists and artworks like Penny Siopis’ Patience on a Monument: ‘A History Painting’ aimed to bring about change in the country. (Williamson 1989: 9).

The subtitle of Penny Siopis’ Patience on a Monument is entitled ‘A History Painting’ which is a reference to the genre of painting referred to as history painting. History painting was a term first established “in the seventeenth century to describe paintings with subject matter drawn from classical history and mythology, and the Bible” (Tate 2017). However, from the eighteenth century onwards the term was broadened to include and describe more recent historical events and subject matters (Tate 2017). Like many art genres, history painting is governed by a set of conventions specific to that genre. Some of the most common conventions of the history painting that define the genre dictates that these artworks should be large in scale, depict subject matters that are narratives or stories that have been taken from the Bible, mythologies, allegories or historical events and depict noble themes such as heroism and show exemplary actions which suggest didactic overtones. (The National Gallery 2009) In considering the denotative analysis of the artwork, the political context in which it was created and the genre of painting that Siopis is referring into the subtitle of her artwork, one should consider the painting contains representations of connotative elements that are derived from these factors.

French Philosopher Michael Foucault argues that the production of knowledge and the representation of knowledge is strongly linked to relations of power and “is always rooted in particular contexts and histories.” (Foucault in Hall 1997: 51). By including representations of South Africa’s historical knowledge through imagery found in sources that have been produced to function as representations of the past, Siopis is implying that there is no such thing as an ‘objective view’ of historical truth; there are only subjective representations of the past. Those who produced the illustrations that Siopis included within her collage represented historical events as history paintings; grand scale artworks depicting the British and Boers in heroic and noble light, as the protagonists of scenes of battle, conquest and victory. These scenes with the illustrations are representations of white South African history “that is not only characterized by heroic action and productive change, but which also links courage and progress with white agency” (Arnold & Schmahmann in Kühl 2010). Representations of history, such as these, were used and presented as historical truths and were used as signifiers of power in apartheid South Africa. However, in her artwork, Siopis challenges these dominant ‘historical truths’ by undermining the power and significance of the scenes depicted in these historical paintings by reducing them in size, tearing these representations up and relegating them to the background. In doing so, she is allowing a new form of historical representation to emerge in the foreground of her work, in the form of the African woman named Patience.

By naming the woman in her artwork ‘Patience’, Siopis is incorporating a signifier with strong historical connotations. In apartheid South Africa, African people adopted anglicised names and referred to themselves using said names, instead of their traditional African names, which allowed the apartheid system to have power over their identities. Alternatively, the name Patience can be viewed as a connotative name to signify South Africans’ ‘patience’ in waiting for the end of apartheid and the dawn of a democratic government.

Despite African women like Patience, historically being in positions of weakness under apartheid policies with many being confined in roles of the domestic. This is represented through Patience doing a domestic task of peeling a lemon with a knife. However, Siopis has subverted her position of weakness by presenting her in a position of power by placing her as the central focus of the artwork. By placing her on top of the mound of objects, that Siopis alludes to be a monument in the tile of her work, she is in a position of power over the said monument. Monuments are used as symbols of power to represent, idealise and glorify the past. In South Africa they are “inherent symbols of the apartheid era and represent the ideological beliefs of the forefathers of apartheid” (Rycroft 1996: 20). Hence, by placing Patience on top of the monument she is diminishing the power of the monument that represent South Africa’s colonial and apartheid past. Furthermore, the clothing classical-like clothing draped across Patience, exposed breast and frontal pose reinforces the view that is being represented in a place of power as all these elements allude to a “heroic representations of resistance, for instance Liberty Leading the People.” (Siopis in Rycroft 1996: 8) as such, Patience is represented as resisting the ‘historical truths’ that she has been subjugated to under apartheid. The connotations within the painting are subject to the meaning interpreted within the painting. However the meaning and connotations within the painting is not static. According to cultural theorist, Stuart Hall, there is no such thing as final, fixed or true meaning. Meaning and meaning making “will always change, from one culture or period to another” (Hall 1997: 61), as such, the meaning of Patience on a Monument: ‘A History Painting’, has shifted into today’s cultural and social context as it is viewed in a different historical, societal and political context that the one it was created in.

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