Penny Siopis, born in 1953, is a South African of Greek descent. She was born in Vryburg in the Northern Cape. She is a well-established artist and noted academic, particularly interested in the ways that national history and personal memory intersect in the visual narrative of the South African social climate. She studied BA Fine Arts at Rhodes University as well as a post-graduate course in painting at Portsmouth Polytechnic in England before taking up a lecturing position at the Natal Technikon in Durban. In 1984 she moved to Johannesburg and since 1995 has lectured in the Department of Fine Art at the University of the Witwatersrand. Until early 2010 she held the position of Associate Professor in Fine Arts but has since moved to Cape Town to work as a full-time artist.
Siopis became very well known for her ‘banquet’ paintings (particularly ’Melancholia’, 1986) and her ironical history paintings in the 1980s, the latter focusing on questions of race and gender representation in public history. During the 1990’s she extended her range of media to include monumental installations, printmaking and video. She is particularly interested in the intersection of biography and autobiography in narrating aspects of South African history through film. Her later bodies of works often deal with issues of shame, violence and sexuality.
In a conversation with the Cameroonian intellectual Achille Mbembe on her work Blush Rosea, Siopis stated, “Usually we like our symbols of belief to be pure and separate”. She was referring to an installation of African religious artifacts collected on the exhibition Figuring Faith: Images of Belief in Africa (2007), shown at the Standard Bank Gallery in her native Johannesburg. It is a revealing quote, because if anything Siopis has long worked hard to mix things up in her paintings, utilising loaded motifs, unexpected materials and demanding subject matter to confound and challenge viewer expectations.
Siopis came to prominence with her Cake Paintings of the early 1980s, which as book critic Maureen Isaacson noted in 2005, “were often interpreted as feminist statements at the time but… were just as much expressions of the complexity of feminine desire, vulnerability, exposure”. An intensely engaged artist, Siopis’ lavish “banquet” and “history” paintings, also from the 1980s, revealed her habit of locating a corrupting virus within the tradition of painting. The Nigerian art theorist Okwui Enwezor puts it slightly differently, commenting favorably on Siopis’ manner of “resorting to a composite of painterly discourses (landscape, figuration, abstraction and collage)”.
Blush Rosea, demonstrates a marked consistency in Siopis’ conceptual approach to painting, even after the watershed moment of 1990-1994. At once tender, yet somehow marked by difference, Siopis’ painting fulfills many of the criteria the painter voiced – in 2005 – as central to her understanding of painting: “I think painting shouldn’t be seen as some rarefied activity, or as something triumphantly performed on a legendary canvas. It is better seen as a practice of invention involving many forms: painterly installations, parts of sculpture, performance, marks on the body”.