Authenticity is a concept that frequently pops up in conversation with Shany van den Berg. “If I don’t live an authentic life, how can I portray the monologue from within, on my life as a woman, a mother, an artist?” she asks. “My life is my muse. Everything that happens in life influences the self and also my artistic practice.” To put it simply,
Shany’s art portrays her experience. Now working on her forthcoming exhibition, InFiltration of Time, she is grappling with a very real issue for someone of 50-something: time and how it permeates her life, and all our lives.
“The passing of time is a poignant reminder that each one of us is alone, and yet also inescapably part of the human race.”
Opening at the beginning of October and ending on the 31st of that month, Shany’s birthday, the exhibition will showcase a brand-new body of work. It will include a visual documentation of her personal timeline over 365 days, starting on 1 November 2016 and continuing through the show, where the artist will be adding to her timeline in the exhibition space. Portraits and huge 3m by 2m canvases will also form part of the presentation. As ever, Shany will be challenging her artistic barriers, investigating recurring themes of contemporary identity, family and connectedness to the world.
She works on linen, canvas and board and in acrylics, oils and water- colours as the languages of choice. Paper cut-outs, collages and bronze sculpture also serve as means of expression. Renowned for her technical acumen and subtle symbolism, she alternates between figurative and abstract forms, channelling a stream of consciousness that reflects her personal journey as well as a poetic, universal commentary.
“My subjects are works in progress, a constantly developing narrative,” she explains. “I get an idea and it evolves and continues to shift, like life. After almost 30 years as an artist, I now incorporate all the disciplines I have studied: craft, ceramics, life drawing, painting and textile design.”
Without a hint of make-up and in her work uniform of chic denim and white T-shirt, the artist confesses it was liberating to shave her dark hair (which has subsequently grown into a fashionable short grey style) as a way of embracing a new phase in her life. “It empowered me. As an Afrikaans girl from Riversdale, I was brought up to conform to certain norms.”
She has no formal art degree. “For a very long time, I felt as though I stood apart from the arts community. I trained and worked as a nurse before I became an artist.” This sensibility, together with the medical influence, continues to permeate her work in terms of imagery and process.
Shany was a creative child, forever drawing and making things. When she was six, her mother introduced her to Vera Volschenk, a Stilbaai artist. “The vision of her, behind the easel with her paintbrushes, stayed with me forever,” she recalls.
An outdoorsy child, too, she loved horse-riding and playing at the river, where she created small figurines from clay. She used to potter about in the garden with her parents, Bertus and Roché van Deventer, and won prizes for flower arrangements at the Riversdale Show. As a laatlammetjie with a much older sister, Susan Schorn, and brother, Johan, she grew up almost as an only child.
Being much on her own in her formative years, she developed a solitary life as an artist. She happily visits art galleries and museums alone: the Tate Modern and National Gallery in London, MoMA and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Louvre in Paris. “Enjoying a cappuccino, people-watching, taking in new influences, paging through magazines to gather inspiration, spending quiet after- noons in Cape Town’s Company’s Garden with its European flair; this is what appeals to me,” she says. “Whenever I have spare money, I love travelling, for the anonymity of cities and to expand my exposure to museums and galleries.”
For Shany, the intimacy of loved ones is something to treasure. “My children and a few friends constantly inspire me. It is an honour to watch their stories evolving, to see how we are connected.” Referring to them as “my blessings”, she often spends time with Theo (36), Roché (34), Izanne (32) and Sarlee (30), as well as her three grand- children, whom she adores.
“Together we have gone through real hardship. Our historical home in Paarl was destroyed by fire 23 years ago. When I read about fire and how it affects humans and animals, such as when I recently saw the movie Manchester by the Sea, there is usually a moment of remembrance and grieving for our own story.” The film, nominated for an Oscar this year, deals with the tragedy of a home and family destroyed by fire.
Hot yoga is a tool the artist uses to stay centred as well as healthy and flexible. “I try to work towards a safe place within myself,” she explains. “I love being an artist, my own disciple, passionate about what I create… Some days it is a challenge to keep focused. My concepts constantly evolve, grow new tentacles; there are new streams of con- sciousness. That is the gift of being creative.”
Some of her enormous canvases show evidence of the thinking process and the deep reflection that accompanies each painting. Her sculptures, installations, collages and cut-outs are intricate and one can feel almost overwhelmed by the time invested in their intricacy. Shany agrees: “It is challenging to pace yourself, get up every morning and work long hours. Sometimes you walk into the studio and everything feels chaotic, and sometimes you feel inspired. Creativity is really not a nine-to-five creature. You never know when it will strike or when it will be absent. You simply keep on playing and experimenting.”
She is inspired by artists like the American Chuck Close, who is dyslexic and partially paralysed, and she quotes him when she says, “Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.”
Shany also has the highest regard for the staff of the Everard Read CIRCA Gallery. “We are committed partners,” she declares, “holding each other’s hands. They are a dedicated team. When I feel a little insecure, as we all do sometimes – I’m honest and old enough to admit to bad days – I can confide in them and ask for advice.”
She equates working towards an exhibition with signing on to a process; you put your trust in where it takes you. The challenge is to always find new perspectives, she adds, and recalls the South African photographer David Goldblatt, who once said, “Art is not neutral and a landscape is never innocent. Let us look again, afresh.”
Shany’s personal environment reflects her authenticity in its explo- ration of the friction between contrasting ideas. Her home and studio is in historical Dorp Street, a double-storey Victorian house with large and airy spaces and wooden floors that combine with an ultra-modern sensibility. Cow hides on the floor and muted grey couches help her to bring off the combination of Victoriana with edgy, crisp, modern and white utilitarian fittings.
“I’ve always been fascinated by life’s juxtapositions,” she says. “In historical homes, which I’ve been fortunate to inhabit since my youth, I feel like a time traveller; many have passed through these spaces be- fore me and will do so after I’ve gone. But I am rooted here, proudly South African.”
Shany explores the diversity of life in this colourful country, the layers of humanity and the fluidity of life within her own solitary land- scape. And she’ll keep on exploring until the end of her days. V