Not just another brick in the wall


ICONIC gestures and handcut stencils. An image from Ilka van Schalkwyk’s Wall of Song.

ART, ARGUABLY, CANNOT – or should not – feasibly exist without a difficult push and pull, on the part of its maker and its audience. Something has to give that forces an image to trip the light fantastic and become more than just a drawing on a piece of paper. It’s got to do with the muscularity of initiative, that momentum which a project running on its own sense of self sets afire all by itself and changes the nature of the world. This is what you get with Ilka van Schalkwyk’s Throwing Stones, her Masters exhibition, but one which is bold and fascinating enough to skip the boundaries of — and transcend the limits of — university rigour.

This body of 28 pieces of work doesn’t offer the grapeshot effect of a classic student’s thinking. There are no half-cocked pieces here, filling space, and there is no disparity in the 14 bold screenprints on canvas, and the 14 political speeches translated into layered sheets with ghostly images and hand cut text. The works are hung and explained with a clarity of thought that is developed and thought through with a compelling sense of detail.

Van Schalkwyk is not only a very interesting visual artist with a fine sense of texture. She also has a condition called synaesthesia which prompts the colouristic decisions she has taken in making these works. Colour takes a very particular level of meaning and interaction in her brain. It’s a physiological reality. And she is not afraid to play with it and discuss it in her work. You will see little oblong shapes of colour on the speeches, and her choice of colour wheel opposites in the screen prints speak to this, too. You may find her choices garish, but that’s not her problem – or the works’.

If you have synaesthesia, too, even if van Schalkwyk’s choice of colours do not speak to you, you may empathise more deeply with this aspect of her project.

But synaesthesia considered, this exhibition is not a medical extrapolation or a text book case study. It’s not an exhibition about a condition. The body of work, in its precision and its sense of focus and decision, is cohesive, beautifully made and articulate in a way that makes what she terms ‘guerilla’ prints – where she has created stencils out of paper and screenprinted through them – seem like woodcuts. The texture of the works, the way in which the cut lines simplify drawings with a breath-taking sense of succinctness, and the correlation of stencil and colour, image and text is remarkable.

There’s a video at the end of the gallery in which van Schalkwyk is filmed explaining the works. You feel compelled to watch this and understand her decisions taken, but ultimately these very carefully and rather woodenly expressed values are not necessary in the broader project of this exhibition, which is about cultural differentness and protests songs as much as it is about heroes and villains. It’s an astonishing and intelligent exhibition which challenges the idea of academia and its many words, as it shuts doors on the capacity of people without synaesthesia to interpret use of colour.

  •  Throwing Stones: Paradoxical Freedoms by Ilka van Schalkwyk is at the UJ Art Gallery, Kingsway Campus, Auckland Park until January 24. Call 011 559 2099.


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