Philiswa Lila, My School Days - Half Card 170x 170cm. Oil on canvas
Philiswa Lila, My School Days - Half Card 170x 170cm. Oil on canvas
Image: Supplied

When a paintbrush is allowed to flow like gossamer across a support, but never lose the sense of volume it describes, something happens in your sensibilities that is beyond the simple act of looking. In your mind’s ear, you can hear the susurration of whispering feathers and leaves evoked, in Philiswa Lila’s solo exhibition Dear Nogolide: Have I taken this name for myself?, on show at the Pretoria Art Museum.

It’s a curious, ordinary oblong space, located on the far end of the museum, on the other side of the permanent exhibition of the trajectory of contemporary SA art. When you reach Lila’s show, it’s like emerging into a sacred space, containing a complicated essay on beauty.

The floor-to-ceiling window on one side of the gallery enables light to pour up against the colour and filigree of the works. Lila’s use of fabric to dress the room adds to the exhibition’s sense of the ceremonial. She doesn’t stint on her use of gold leaf, beads and delicate chains in her pieces and yet, their collective aesthetic is never allowed to slip into idle preciousness for the sake of preciousness.

The eponymous Nogolide, you learn, from the catalogue and texts, drawings and framed letters on paper covering one gallery wall, is a childhood neighbour of Lila’s. Someone who appeared after many years amid the spilt secrets of a family photograph album that contained the texture of the past, more than relatable images. And there is an ongoing conversation — or soliloquy — in these letters, which are self-conscious in their evocation of diary pages and confessionals. In many respects, these pages beg for the dignity of being in a closable artist’s book and not being individually exposed all the time in their pondering, their tentative ideas and vulnerable nostalgia.

With an understanding of form that is more evocative than descriptive, Lila’s paintings glow from within with a muted intensity, and they hold your eye even when you are not looking at them directly. Like a rushed calligraphic rendition of a crowd of people, or cursive text allowed to go rogue, the line work is consistent but not mechanical. The works on paper and the installation — including an array of humble beauty cosmetics, oval mirrors that are significant to the narrative of the exhibition, and basic tools for polishing the floor — support the ruminative nature of the collection of work which is about the self and its moorings in the world. It is however the seven large paintings on show that leave you aching for more.

Smashes together

Most of all, it is the scumbled texture that speaks of layers that embrace, veil, mask, protect and stretch over other portrayed and implied forms that gives this exhibition its extraordinary sense of moment. Lila’s texture resonates with that of early work by the SA artist Penny Siopis — in which she collaged photocopies from history textbooks over and over one another. Lila’s approach is repetitive but never hardboiled. Her evocation of human form relates to those deeply spiritual images of SA printmaker Cyprian Shilakoe, from the 1970s. There’s a humanity to them, but not a pinpointable specificity. And this quality makes them more substantial than if they were slavishly articulated portraits.

Philiswa Lila, Onobuhle 300 x 170cm. Oil on canvas
Philiswa Lila, Onobuhle 300 x 170cm. Oil on canvas
Image: Supplied

And then there is Onobuhle, a canvas mounted at the space’s apex. Like German Expressionist Franz Marc’s 1914 confrontation of red against black in his work Fighting Forms, this painting takes two nebulous forms, defined by their colour, and smashes them together, with acuity, wisdom and dizzying subtlety. The result is transfixing.

Nogolide is a beautiful achievement, about nostalgia and childhood love, disappointment and poignancy, with a sociopolitical narrative in the background. In some respects however, it offers too much. There is such rich poetry in Lila’s use of colour, her mark making and her engagement with form, that other words and commentaries about herself feel overstated, if not redundant. With her brush on her canvas, she is saying more than she is with her anecdotal drawings and collages, and you yearn to be able to drink of these exquisite paintings and works in bead and chain without the interruption of personal detail. These works need to have permission to fly beyond Nogolide herself and into your own experience and understanding of what makes the world tick.

You leave the space eventually, as you must. But there are parts of these powerful paintings that will hold you. Forever, perhaps.

Born in Mthatha in 1988, Lila has effectively paid her dues to the art world. She has studied in Pretoria, Cape Town and Makhanda, honing her skills as an academic and curator. She has written, presented and published widely. Her emergence into the art world proper has been comparatively slow, but driven by awards, acknowledgment and residencies. Not a sensationalist and clearly not one to kowtow to the frivolities of trend, Lila is a strong painter with much to say. She remains a significant name to watch.

Dear Nogolide: Have I taken this name for myself?, is on show at the Pretoria Art Museum, until May 5. An entrance fee is payable in cash — R25 (adults), R12 (pensioners and students), R7 (learners) and R2 for all visitors on Wednesdays.

© Wanted 2024 - If you would like to reproduce this article please email us.