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A Portrait of a Young Artist Series: What is in an identity

by Marilyn de Freitas posted on December 2, 2015.

Riccardo Montali, University, Plaster iof Paris, soil and plants

What is identity? Identity is the way we perceive and express ourselves through various factors and conditions such as ethnic heritage, sex, or gender playing a role in defining one's identity. The third year students from the Faculty of Art, Design and Architecture of the University of Johannesburg explored personal experiences of how they see themselves or are perceived within a complex South African identity in their end-of-year exhibition.

An individual's identity can consist of multiple and intersecting factors. Various student explored the spiritual markers of their identities. Nazeerah Jacub's work explores her hybrid identity as a young Muslim and Indian woman. She makes use of the mus'Allah (prayer mat) as her canvas and explores it as a means of expressing elements of confinement of her Muslim identity as well as a form of expression of cultural and social heritage. Philisiwe Nene also refers to cultural traditions in her charcoal and chalk drawings. Her works offer an understanding to the traditional rituals performed by sangomas or traditional healers in honoring the ancestors. Various elements are incorporated in her works such as beads, animals, bones which reiterate Nene's belief that the ancestors watch over their subjects. Riccardo Montali works deal with his own identity and the 'variety' of 'selves' or identities through various sculptural heads using alternative materials such as buttermilk and soil.

Nicole Swartz, Black market silicon and cooking oil, Arcylic, watercolor on glass and mirror

One's identity is closely linked to one's body. Our appearance shapes how we see ourselves or are perceived by others. Nicole Swartz's "Vanity Series" analyzes notions of beauty. Her images investigate horror stories of cosmetic surgery. The works deal with the extent women go to be 'beautiful'. The glass acts as a means to manipulate the portraits and expose the multiple facets of what beauty entails. Melissa Magua abstracts the inner palm of the hand in "Weaving Identity". Magua referenced these close-up line pathways as a reflection of her identity as a South African Lebanese. The works become maps of line which informs her past and present. Kelly McLoughlin also deals with the female body and societal's ideals of the feminine form. She explores the destruction of self-worth of women from societal pressures of beauty. McLoughlin makes use of Bitumen (liquid tar) in her drawings adding a crudeness to the contrasting soft female form. Her prints show the body wrapped tightly creating unattractive bulges. Wanda Mbonane's dark portraits explore her identity as a female artist in contemporary society. The faces within each of the portraits capture the primal desire of singing. She reapporiates old newspapers as her canvas as a reflection of the dependence on the media to launch one's career as an artist. Mbonane explores her fears and anxieties of failure.

Kelly McLoughlin, Size really does matter series

Identity can change throughout one's life. Identity can be influenced by the decisions one makes, for example, the friends one chooses, adopting certain fashions, and align oneself with specific political beliefs. Rankin Mostert depicts portraits of rebel and free spirited personas with tattoos, eccentric hair, and piercings. Using spray paint and stenciling as a reference to graffiti culture, Rankin explores tattoos and piercing as an alternative form of beauty just as graffiti can be seen as an alternative form of art. Mikylah Spangenberg's works explore the interrelation between the organic and inorganic, humanity and technology, with specific reference to the stereotype associated with gaming. Spangenberg's large-scale self portraits sees her portray herself with 'robotic' eyes and facial defects. The expressions are aggressive and confrontational questioning our dependence on technology in creating our identities.

Mikylah Spangenberg, Aggression towards society, Chalk and charcoal on masonite

Other students explored the identities of others and how their identities can be perceived or changed by outside circumstances. Kiveshan Thumbiran deals with notions of evolution. Using toy animals and pen drawings, he hypothesizes how various animals may evolve and reconstructs them into new forms that are absurd. Motheo Moiloa's paintings and drawings depict characters standing on the rooftops of shacks. Moiloa explores spiritual qualities where his subjects are depicted as winged angelic beings "living above the circumstances" of their socio-economic issues. Paula Schreuder's works look at how one's past can influence one's present through repression and suppression. Using medals as reference to moments in her childhood where one experiences both triumph for the achievement and anxiety at the pressure of winning.

The idea of identity, both individual and social, often comes under scrutiny in art. Our identities are shaped inadvertently by political, social, religious and cultural influences and beliefs. Evident in this year's third year collective is the conflict of what is in an identity within our diverse South African context.


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