Goodman Gallery presents The weight of a nail, Ravelle Pillay’s first large-scale solo exhibition with the gallery. Featuring a new series of paintings, the show offers a response to the artist’s investigation of her family’s history, oral histories and their relationships to the lush, haunted landscapes of KwaZulu Natal, South Africa. Creeping through and haunting these works are the lingering shadows of nationhood, heritage and the cycles of oppression experienced by generations of people across space and time, whose lives have been circumscribed by the dark, overt or barely noticeable incursions of colonialism.
For Pillay, painting has the potential to “peel back layers of history, shaped by the civilising, colonial gaze that defines photographic and material archives, and shapes collective memory.” The weight of a nail continues her interrogation of colonial legacies and migration and her exploration of what and how we remember. In this body of work, colonial notions of nation converge with stories of individual family members and the dispossession of a family home. Depictions of statues, the Durban botanical gardens, and architectural sites of imagined or reconstructed generational memory, are counterpointed with landscapes dense with vegetation, bodies of water and distinctively coloured compositions inspired by intimate family recollections as they collide with official Historic narrative. Central to the exhibition is an image of the interior of Pillay’s great-grandfather’s house looking outward to what would be a garden. This house, referred to by her family and the surrounding community as the Castle, and the land on which it stands was taken from her family under apartheid’s forced removals. The blue and grey tones in the painting, coupled with the now empty, dilapidated appearance of the home invoke the ghostly residue of the past and the cyclical nature of the trauma inflicted upon families by the quiet violence of the cold indifference and bureaucracy of racist policies that, in addition to financially destabilizing generations of people, obscure and sometimes erase a sense of history, personhood, or pride.
Works such as I never forgot you reveal how the interplay of illusion and memory, articulate nostalgic, emotive connections to place. Portraying a childhood memory of Uvongo beach on the South Coast of Kwa-Zulu Natal, constructed through an assemblage of recollections and Pillay’s own photographs, the painting creates a space that straddles the boundaries between reality and fiction; past and present ; memory and documentary. Across the exhibition generational memory confronts colonial and national recorded history, refusing deliberate racial disinheritance and the layered disavowal of the often ignored but unerasable experiences of people of colour. In this way, living memory shines through the gaps in the murky, and often starkly sanitised official records that populate the archive of South Africa’s past. Ravelle Pillay (b.1993, Durban, South Africa) is a painter who considers the legacies of colonialism and migration, and their subsequent hauntings and reverberations in the present. She draws from found and family photographs and the material degradation of images over time to consider agency, memory, and life-making.