Shany van den Berg: An artist emerges out of the fires from her past

A few works from Shany van den Berg’s solo exhibition which will open at the Everard Read Cape Town tomorrow.

A few works from Shany van den Berg’s solo exhibition which will open at the Everard Read Cape Town tomorrow.

Published Oct 2, 2017


On the upper reaches of Shany van den Berg’s kitchen wall hangs a small painting of red flames.

It is kind of out of sync with the slick monochrome décor of her stylish pad. Yet it is probably the most important feature of her home as it marks the end of a life she once led, as well as heralding a new beginning, leading to the one she lives now.

This seemingly arbitrary painting is also pivotal to understanding her new solo exhibition opening at the Everard Read Cape Town tomorrow.

Titled (in)filtration of time it consists of a diverse mix of works ranging from portraits, hanging installation pieces, a few sculptures and books. The latter consists of drawings, and artworks she committed to making every day for a year in the run-up to the exhibition.

“It was hectic at first,” she recalled.

“It would be 11.30pm and I would realise I only had half an hour left to do it. Now I don’t have to make the time, it chooses me.”

Over time as the drawings accumulated and the monthly “books” or journals emerged and started to take on a uniform look, she felt more confident about the undertaking, which echoed her commitment to being an artist.

They function as documents of her creative thoughts, her life and the events that stood out each day. There is a drawing of Zuma, her grandchild and a snapshot a friend sent via WhatsApp.

I suspect there are images somewhere in it of flames too, for however much Van den Berg’s art appears to deal with the fleetingness of life, its ebb and flow, she returns to that day, 24 years ago when she arrived at her home in Paarl to find it burning to the ground.

She wasn’t sure if her three children were trapped inside and, having lost her parents months earlier, she sharply felt in that moment she stared at the flames licking at the walls of her home, she had lost everything. 

Later, recalling that day, circling the trauma of it, she would paint the flames.

“They were red, like roses. I was terrified and scared but there was beauty there too that I could not help but admire as a visual person,” she said.

Fortunately, her children were safe and had escaped the burning home. However, she lost her worldly goods, the mementoes from her youth, barring a small shell, which she recovered later when she waded through the ashes of her old home. 

The shell motif appears in paintings and drawings - in one work it is depicted large in a self-portrait.

Van den Berg’s psyche was shaken by the fire.

“I went into a catatonic stage, for a year and half. It was part of post traumatic stress syndrome,” she said.

She found solace in drawing and making art, a pursuit she had enjoyed as a child.

It was a passion she would have pursued professionally had her father not disapproved. Growing up in the small town of Riversdale in the ’60s, art wasn’t viewed as a career option. While boys became lawyers or doctors, girls were channelled into nursing. 

Van den Berg followed an expected path, she married a lawyer, had children and became a nurse despite being ill-suited to a medical profession.

“I kept passing out. The matron said: ‘go get yourself another job’. I was good with sitting with people. I do get a lot of energy from people. But I was very frustrated for many years.”

After the fire, Van den Berg rebuilt her life into one of her own choosing.

Not only did an artist emerge in the process, but a more confident and independent woman - she grew apart from her husband, finally divorcing him and forging a life of her own. 

She was willing to entertain many selves, female incarnations. This is reflected in a body of works characterised by layers of silhouetted female forms.

The works present bodies inside bodies, selves, giving birth to other selves or multiple selves. These female figures are derived from multiple sources including her old medical books and fashion magazines. 

She relished in decontextualising these ideal figures, presenting fixed stereotypes of women turning them into anonymous ones. This may be linked to the way she has challenged the role and life set for women.

“Take Kate Moss (the model) now. When I cut her out it is just Kate Moss and then I trace it onto linen and it becomes a form that I can work with,” she said.

Her fixation with historical artefacts is perhaps not unexpected given she lost her belongings. This manifests in her choice of materials in the figure works: linen used to make bags during the World War II era retrieved from an attic in Belgium. She also uses old maps as the veritable canvas for the works.

In this way these female figures are irretrievably connected to the past. They are free from it too, in the sense that they are in constant movement and there are no visual markers rooting them in time. 

They leave a trace too, as Van den Berg has cunningly turned the canvas with their negative shapes into hanging and installation works, offering patterns defined by the absence of bodies.

If Van den Berg’s life story is anything to go by, this tragedy or loss has delivered them at place where they can reinvent themselves, choose their context, their lives. 

They will do so with the knowledge, however, that whatever they create will only be fleeting. 

Sponsored text by Corrigall & Co. (in)filtration of time shows at Everard Read Cape Town until October 31.

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