What’s the message behind your artwork, ‘Why?’
It’s about how we give away our power to something or someone outside of ourselves in order to feel safe.
Where does the idea of powerlessness come from?
The sense, or lack of it, of being and feeling safe in Johannesburg. Because of all the talk about crime, I started feeling very vulnerable when my husband went away and I was alone in the house at night. This got me thinking about how people try to protect themselves: electric fences, alarms, dogs, and so on. There is a psychological feeling of safety when one is surrounded by one’s dogs, but unfortunately, what happens most of the time when animals sense danger is that they run as far away from it as possible. I was trying to find a way to represent how we give away our power in order to feel safe. This particular artwork is part of a series called ‘The Protectors’.
What led you to this theme?
To confront my own fears I went on a ten-day Vision Quest workshop, a Native American ritual that helps you confront and transcend what troubles you. This involved spending four days and nights on my own in the Groot Winterhoek Mountains with 20 litres of water, no food, and a sleeping bag. There were seven other participants in this ritual. We spread out across the mountains and our only means of communication was to leave a message at a designated point once a day for the closest neighbour, just to let them know we were safe. Being totally alone in the mountains at night was quite daunting, especially because there were so many baboons around. And where there are baboons there are leopards. By the time I woke up on the fifth morning, something had shifted in me. I knew if I could do this, I could do anything. Well, almost.
So the message you are communicating is…
The transformation of fear.
What emotions do you think you evoke within people when they look at this image?
I want people to wonder ‘why?’
How has living in Johannesburg affected you as an artist?
In the nineties I spent almost a year working at the Santa Monica Fine Art Studios in Los Angeles. One day one of the artists mentioned to me that I’d been at the studio for nearly a year and that I was still painting images from South Africa, not what I was seeing and experiencing around me. I am rooted in Africa. It’s who I am and where I come from. I find living in Johannesburg stimulating. I don’t know what it is about it, but Joburg has a creative energy that really pushes people, not only in the arts but in business as well.
How would you describe your painting style generally?
I tend towards magic realism.
What exactly is that?
The figures in my paintings are not located in real-world streets or in recognisable everyday architecture. Rather, they are suspended in abstract plains of non-referential colour. In much of my work I touch on the mystifying paradox between the poetic and prosaic that many of us encounter in everyday life. Magic realism allows me to take ideas out of the ordinary and imbue them with a more transcendent meaning. I take people out of their expected contexts so that they no longer inhabit the social documentary realm but rather seem to float in the half-rooted, half-ethereal realm of dreaming. By removing characters from their predictable environments, I find they can become emblematic of other states and feelings, rather than purely representational records of the seen and known.
Where do your ideas spring from?
My art is intuitive. It’s almost as if it chooses me and I suddenly find myself drawn to certain images and ideas, which I then develop.
Where did you study?
I studied at the Johannesburg Art Foundation under Bill Ainslie, and then I did a few years at Unisa.
How do you think your work has changed over the years?
When I joined the Bag Factory studios in Newtown in downtown Joburg in 2002, my work started changing. For me, working in a city environment has really been stimulating and exciting. Also working with a group of artists has helped bring about a change in the way I work. Before I joined the studios I was creating paintings of large planes of colour with one or two images in them, but once I moved to the Bag Factory, things changed, and I became more interested in narrative art. I also started experimenting with the interrelationship between photographic and ‘painterly’ representations.
If you could meet any artist, who would it be?
I’d like to meet Susan Rothenburg and her husband Bruce Nauman. I think they are both really interesting artists. Rothenburg is one of the most important contemporary painters. She was initially well known for her paintings of outlined horses, often against a white background. What appeals to me is her nervous expressionist brushwork, and her indistinct, minimalist, mysterious images. Bruce Nauman, on the other hand, has explored a whole variety of mediums: from sculpture, photography, neons, videos to drawings and performances. Nauman once gave her 120 tubes of different red paints for her birthday. I think that’s pretty imaginative.
Diana lives in Parktown and is married to David Heitner, a filmmaker.