Making Faces presents work by South African artists that draws on the tradition of portraiture. The selection comprises work made in a variety of media and spans over six decades, from the 1950s to today.
The history of portraiture can be tracked as far back as Ancient Egypt and Rome, when most painting and sculpture was used to provide dimensionality for otherwise invisible entities - the deities and religious parables of the time. In Western thought, these periods mark the beginning of recorded history, before which the notion of creating a visual record of one's own life for the purposes of posterity was quite remote. The development of European portraiture in painting and sculpture can be followed from there through the religious fervour of the Middle Ages, to the humanistic tendencies of the Renaissance period, into the realm of royalty and aristocracy, in which portrait painting served to record the notable personalities of the time. By the mid-18th century, revolutionary happenings in the New World delivered art into the hands of ordinary people and the miniature portrait and silhouette were commonplace answers to the middle class desire to own one's own image. The invention of the camera revolutionised the conception of portraiture as a whole and, concurrently, painting was released from its documentary role. This did not, however, see the end of the depiction of the human form and both the traditional and new media continued to be put to use for the purposes of portraiture. Today, with internet, mass media and the moving image all streaming simultaneously, portraiture continues to penetrate ever more deeply into our everyday experience.
As we are increasingly able to view our lives in images - images of ourselves, of our friends and families, of the people that inspire us or lead our nations - we become more open to an ever-accelerating sense of our lives as historical documents and our visages as symbolic of the meaning we may find there. Our awareness is also heightened of identity as a series of narratives, a collection of fictions, a photograph album that represents a psyche, in opposition to the traditional belief that the true essence of the sitter could be found somewhere in his or her face. The phenomenon of social media platforms (and Facebook in particular) exemplifies our current obsession with our own image. This process of investigation and the push and pull between subjects and representations is familiar territory within the context of fine art. An exhibition of portraiture today, in the context of democratic imaging of the people that occupy our own lives, and open access to images of portraits of the past, presents viewers with an opportunity to do two things: 'firstly, to be able to look out into the past, and survey and re-evaluate it in terms of what we have come to know since then, and secondly to frame and fix the present in the hope of understanding it better.'
Text: Jacqueline Nurse
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