STRIKING COMPOSITIONS

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LOCAL VISUAL ARTISTS FIND INSPIRATION

AT THE OPERA IN 2021

It is a year of exciting collaborations for Cape Town Opera, including the involvement of six visual artists to create a series of posters for each of the company’s main productions. It was a conversation between CTO Artistic Director Matthew Wild and Norval Foundation Head Curator Owen Martin that sparked ideas around whom to approach to illustrate each poster. “We’re delighted to be partnering with Cape Town Opera on their new season of innovative programming,” says Martin. “As a young, multidisciplinary institution, we value this dynamic exchange and the opportunity to bring two powerful art forms – opera and the visual arts – together.”

Norval Foundation CEO, Elana Brundyn, adds that it is through collaborations such as these “that we aim to achieve this while also fostering engaging, innovative and experimental practices that move beyond traditional creative frameworks.” Martin believes that – now more than ever – arts institutions must seize opportunities to learn from one another and celebrate their collective strengths.  “We hope this is the first of many such collaborations,” he says.  A similar conversation between Wild and Martin also ignited talks that resulted in Roger Ballen’s collaboration as designer on Hänsel und Gretel, the season’s first full-length production.

The unsettling mood that Ballen is creating for the opera is similarly conveyed in his head-turning photographic creation for its poster. Epitomising Ballen’s thematic and stylistic techniques, it draws on elements of primitive art, Absurdism, and the kind of surrealism that makes people uneasy. In his poster, the fairy-tale’s siblings are abandoned dolls, their faces covered by eerie childlike masks featuring misshapen smiles plucked from the realms of some unspeakable horror. Within this disturbing scene of broken domesticity, a bloated rat at their feet, the doll-children are flanked by grotesque white chalk figures . Typical of any Ballen picture, it’s highly seductive, luring the viewer into a con-versation with its complex, layered psychology, its suggestions of mental and physical ruin, and its dark narrative strands. It is an invitation not only to a fairy-tale opera, but to witness a theatrical unravelling of the human condition.

Aiming for a quite different psychological impact is digital mixed media artist Karin Miller whose intricate Mother Mary collage features on the poster for Monteverdi’s Vespro della beata vergine. The luminous quality of Miller’s digital collage evokes something of the majestic scale of the opera it refers to; a beatific, beautiful, serene Virgin is framed by South African plants, such as gladioli, disas and succulents, and stands on a cloud with five paper dolls at her feet.

“As a child in the 60s, I was fascinated by the illustrations in the children’s Bible that was very much part of our household,” says Miller. “They were kitschy and so sentimental, but I associated them with hope and comfort. I have always been fascinated by the female figure – as temptress, mother and saint. For this particular image, I decided to bring Mother Mary to Africa – as one can do in art – and depict her as protector of our continent’s children, represented by the figurative dolls. I added indigenous flora to really bring it home.”

Evoking very different emotional qualities is Buhlebezwe Siwani’s photographic self-portrait used to announce June’s double-bill performance of Amagokra and Curlew River. The image, a close-up of Siwani’s head doused with red clay that has begun to drip down her face, comes from a 2019 series entitled Dzumani. In it, one recognises a fierceness – perhaps even fury – coupled with deep inner strength, restraint and resilience.

The relevance of the image lies in that both operas deal with the process of women working through deep personal trauma. Siwani explains that her photo-graphic series was conceived around the idea of what it means to be a woman and what it means to be an initiated being. “The idea is that one moves through phases – the red clay being poured onto the face represents the beginning phase where one says “yes” to a metaphysical death.”

The poster for Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers is a painting by Shakil Solanki who will also create a series of artworks for projection as part of the production. Rendered in his signature palette of blues, Solanki’s painting of three arms symbolises the opera’s treatment of what is essentially a complicated love triangle. While the painting captures something of Solanki’s own upbringing in a Hindu household and his interest in Eastern classical art, he says he found inspiration for it in the poetry of late British filmmaker, Derek Jarman. Solanki says he was captivated by a few lines in Jarman’s Chroma: A Book of Colour:

Pearl fishers

in azure seas

Deep waters

Washing the isle of the dead

We lie there

fanned by the billowing 

sails of forgotten ships

Deep love drifting on the tide forever

Another convoluted love story plays out in Puccini’s La rondine (‘The Swallow’), to some extent a less tragic sequel to La bohème; its romantic twists and turns inspired digital collage artist Caitlin Truman-Baker’s poster image of a whimsical human swallow seemingly torn between a pair of bird cages. “The cages represent two different homes – in the south of France and in Paris – but they represent the two men in this woman’s life. And the cage door, either open or closed, symbolises her romantic feelings – how open or closed she is emotionally, to a potential lover.” In contrast with Truman-Baker’s saturated colours and playful wistfulness, is Kate Gottgens’s ghostly monochromatic figure selected to announce Britten’s The Turn of the Screw. Gottgens’s image of a menacing woman standing in a field is called I Could Kill You (2013). “I paint from found photographs,” she says. “Mostly vernacular, everyday images from anonymous sources and frequently photos from the 50s, 60s and 70s – and today.” She says her selection of what to paint is intuitive – a response to a specific detail or essential quality in the source material. For the artwork in question, it was the woman’s murderous expression – and those leather gloves – that excited her. Her painting, with its ethereal ambiguity, as if the woman is being viewed through some psychological filter, raises as many questions as the opera does with its uncertain menace, unreliable ghosts and deliberate blurring of innocence.

KEITH BAIN
INDEPENDENT JOURNALIST