The Scarlet & Black

The Student News Site of Grinnell College

The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

Artist ignites Faulconer with smoke paintings

By Christopher Squier 

The Faulconer Gallery will be haunted by ghosts from South Africa with its newest exhibit, Diane Victor’s “Of Fables and Follies.” South African artist Victor begins a stay at Grinnell as artist-in-residence with the opening today, of her collection of drawings made in smoke, ashes and dust opening today. Victor, who was recently recognized as one of the most important contemporary artists in South Africa by the Sasol New Signature award and won the Gold Metdal Award for Visual Art, and she will be sharing her techniques with the Grinnell community from mid-January to mid-February.

Diane Victor demonstrates her smoke painting technique. She has to constantly move the candle, so as not to light the canvas on fire – Abraham Kohrman

“What I’m doing here at Grinnell is creating portraits of Xhosa leaders, the Xhosa being a tribe of people from South Africa,” Victor said. The story of the Xhosa, according to Victor, “is one of the saddest parts of our history, and one that’s often not very well documented or spoken about. People try to hush it up. The show is ‘Of Follies and Fables’ and it’s one of the saddest follies of our nation.”

The Xhosa are a tribe in South Africa, who, during the 1850 wars on the Eeastern Ccape of South Africa, were barbarously driven off their lands by the British colonial settlers. On the verge of losing their livelihoods, they put their faith in a vision that a young prophetess, Nongqawuse, saw in her dreams.

“The prophetess who had this dream saw that the dead, their ancestors, would arise and drive the English colonials out into the sea, but what the people had to do was slaughter all their cattle and destroy all their crops,” Victor said.

Belief in the prophecy quickly spread through the Xhosa people, and eventually those who did not believe and failed to slaughter their cattle were driven out for fear the prophecy would not come true. However, when they had slaughtered the basis of their livelihood—hundreds of thousands of cattle—the dead did not rise.

“Catching smoke is catching the dead in smoke,” Victor said. “They will not arise.”

The use of smoke and ashes in her work informs the subject—Victor describes the media as “fragile and vulnerable,” just as are the subjects she portrays.

“That fragility is an important component of the work, working with portraits of people who are easily damaged … lives that are so fragile and can be so easily destroyed.”

Her original series of smoke drawings “Lost Causes” was portraits of people who were HIV-positive in her area. She chose to draw in smoke in order to give them a ghostlike quality, one that can also be seen in the portraits of Xhosa leaders.

Victor creates her smoke drawings by lying upside-down under her drawing paper and, with a candle, leaving soot marks on the paper. “You have to draw very fast, because you can’t stop, or your drawing will catch on fire,” she said.

Her ash drawings focus on another vulnerable group of people—the elderly—in an attempt to understand just what the loss of a life really means. They are of people living in frailty centers who were too fragile to pose for her drawings. Instead, she worked from photographs.

“These drawings are about how the dead do not return and what happens when people die. What happens when someone dies? It’s not just about the loss of the body and soul—it’s the loss of all the accumulated information. It’s like an entire library burning down,” Victor said. Fittingly, she draws these portraits with the ashes of burned books that were important to the subjects during their lives.

Additionally, “Of Fables and Follies” showcases Victor’s more traditional etchings, which address African and mythological themes alongside her ash and smokepieces. The exhibit opens with a reception at 4:30 p.m. today in Faulconer and will continue through April 17. As artist-in-residence, Victor will be involved in multiple events over the next month, including a smoke drawing demonstration on February 3 from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m.

Leave a Comment
More to Discover
Donate to The Scarlet & Black
Our Goal

Comments (0)

All The Scarlet & Black Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *