Presence in Absence Catalogue
Nicky Marais, 2017
The content of this most recent body of work by Nicky Marais essentially continues a long conversation with specific and significant shapes and colours, but also indicates a departure from her established practice in terms of a personal engagement with history and silence.
In the past Marais employed a vocabulary of abstract forms and colour relationships that originate primarily from the Namibian landscape, and the social and political history of the Namibian people. Through the layered use of flattened symbolic images she recreates the patterns inherent in natural landforms, pathways and human settlements – urban and rural, traditional and contemporary. However in this body of work we see the emergence of new forms inspired by texts, dreams and conversations.
The shapes and forms in this exhibition are drawn from a wide range of sources. Describing her work as a “constant hunt for significant shapes”, Marais has frequently used shapes derived from the ancient rock paintings and petro-glyphs in the Namib which describe and depict the relationships between people and their spirit worlds. This interest in the relationship between the physical and spiritual continues in this body of work and extends into an investigation of the relationship between the tangible and intangible, the real and unreal.
The history of Namibia, both recent and ancient, is a tale of loss and dispossession, as well as fortitude and opposition. Deserts and graves, genocide and oppression have contemporary consequences. The presence and absence of these stories in Namibia have created a space where it is possible for Namibians to live in the presence, or in the absence, and for it to be unclear which is which.
This conversation about the spiritual and physical, much like the conversation about abstract and figurative art, has often been framed as a strict binary. In the words of Laura Hoptman: “Abstraction as an essential expression of an idea... rather than as a representation of an object from the real world, is the most straight-forward binary definition”. This binary is disrupted in Marais’ work through the use of representational symbols, drawn from recognisable sources, to create layered compositions that span our traditional notions of figurative and abstract art. In a similar manner her subject matter runs counter to the binary of spirituality and intangibility; divergent and at times conflicting narratives are brought together to create physical artworks. The presence/materiality of these works stand in place of what is absent/immaterial.
‘Presence in Absence’ explores the relationship between abstraction and non-representation in this collection of paintings and found shapes. Using stencils and collage to build areas of painted pattern, Marais juxtaposes various forms to create vibrant, diverse surfaces. In describing the work of Tomma Abts (an artist whose work Marais admires), Laura Hoptman says “to create rather than to represent can be seen as active, even activist, because the artist herself is positioned to communicate the most profound, if inchoate, ideas in a language that is nonspecific and timeless”. In many ways these words characterise the continuous development of Marais’ work, as the continuing hunt for symbols is an active process that is frozen for just a moment in these paintings.
Nicky Marais is a Namibian painter who has lived and worked in Windhoek as an exhibiting fine artist, arts project coordinator, arts educator and activist since soon after graduating in 1987 from the Port Elizabeth Technikon in South Africa. Marais has exhibited in Namibia and internationally. She is currently the Head of Department of Visual Arts at the College of the Arts, where she teaches theory of art and builds local content into the diploma qualification courses offered by the College.