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Self-Portraiture and the Army Within
Kilmany-Jo Liversage’s fine art journey began in Bloemfontein, where she grew up from a girly girl into a Fine Arts graduate. She moved to Cape Town in 1995 and, at the time, she was making layered works that incorporated found material – ribbons, precisely folded and pinned; chopsticks meticulously layered and placed. Her early work is defined by a strict sense of order and structure. These works were successful, winning Liversage a number of feathers for her cap, including a Sasol New Signatures award in the category of painting. All things considered, for that time, the rules she was following were serving her well. Fast-forward to 2003 and Liversage, with her well-feathered cap, is awarded a bursary that takes her to Medellín, Colombia, a former “murder capital” made famous by Pablo Escobar’s cocaine cartel escapades. Beginning around the time that Liversage visited, Medellín began reinventing itself with innovations that have placed it at the forefront of urban regeneration. Part and parcel of the bursary awarded to Liversage was time spent working within this process on a project that aimed for upliftment via visual art for the people living in the slums, or comunas as they are colloquially called. Former rat nests of crime and drug lord corruption, the people of the comunas still bore the brunt of the inevitable hangover of the Escobar era. Working in this context exposed Liversage to the influence of artists who use the street as their canvas, as a place to throw their thoughts, political or otherwise; the opportunity to work outside the cloister of the studio, engaging with passersby, mopping up the psychology and the human interaction the street offers. Not only did the experience explode Liversage’s practice, it gave her a taste of the power of the artist’s voice to speak out against suffering on a different scale.
Although Liversage has painted walls all over the world since then, including a large-scale mural at the 55th Venice Biennale in 2013, she does not consider herself a street artist. She trained as a fine artist and painting is her committed pursuit. Formally, she has remained true to many elements of her pre-Medellin process: she has chosen a specific format and subject matter – portraits of women – and stuck to it. Her work is still built up in layers, according to a structured plan. Her source material is deconstructed into a grid of sorts, creating the effect of pixilation in the final work. Liversage also still uses found material, but where she used to seek out the physical, she now quotes visual reference and sentiment on the street. Operating within the framework of ‘urban contemporary’, Liversage has incorporated aspects of street art into her practice – considerable scale, a predilection for working outside and, most significantly, the custom of tagging.
The most basic building block of graffiti, tagging is widely described as the artist’s logo or stylised personal signature, rendered in marker or spray paint. Tagging originated in the transport networks of inner city NYC in the late 1960s, the cornerstone of the graffiti culture that sprang up in impoverished areas and rapidly spread across the globe. Within the context of graffiti as a backlash against the inequity fuelled by consumer culture, tagging has remained controversial, perhaps because it is most easily slotted into the category of vandalism. However, the very reason why it’s so challenging is also the source of its power, because it cannot be subsumed into corporate culture the way that more urbane street art (and most subcultures, inevitably) has been. Tagging, the insubordinate sibling of mural painting, makes explicit the idea that buying into any imposed culture is unnecessary.
For Liversage, tagging has allowed for the development of the alter ego – ORDA, her own unruly twin, the status quo challenger. In Liversage’s current practice there is a constant interplay between her one self, let’s call her Kilmany-Jo, and her other self, ORDA.
In this roleplay, Kilmany-Jo is the dedicated fine art painter. She is faithful to Renaissance standards of portraiture, working within the established canon, taking into account the very same compositional considerations as da Vinci, Titian, Piero della Francesca. She makes modern-day Mona Lisas with intriguing eyes and full-lipped smiles. Her source material is skimmed from social media networks – real women looking the part that is expected of them. Kilmany-Jo has respect for the high Modernists, creating work within a framework, aiming for a specific outcome. She employs Machine Age thinking and methods of deconstruction in order to arrive at a final image: as Alan Trachtenberg put it, in his 1986 evaluation of Machine Age art-making, “The machine proposed not only a subject but a means – exact, objective and logical.” Kilmany-Jo echoes American poet Hart Crane too, who proposed in 1930 that ''unless poetry can absorb the machine, i.e., acclimatize it as naturally and casually as trees, cattle, galleons, castles and all other human associations of the past, then poetry has failed of its full contemporary function.''
ORDA, on the other hand, has no time for any of that. She grabs a spray can of luscious hot pink and tags right over Mona Lisa’s sweet smile. She breaks the mould, allowing for spontaneity of mark-making, for dripping and for glorious, generative chaos. ORDA makes it possible for Liversage to move from one source image to another, and another, sometimes using up to four images to create a composite female face. ORDA abandons a painting mid-creation, using the existing layers as a basis for another painting altogether. She is the anarchist who comes to fuck with the process, revealing in her rebellion the truth of the matter – the uselessness and the peril, for women, of colouring within the patriarchal lines.
These two aspects of Liversage’s persona are opponents and allies simultaneously, allowing her to address the issues that are closest to her heart – women’s issues, and specifically violence against women and children. In work of recent years, Liversage has challenged the status quo relentlessly, speaking up and speaking out. A most memorable example of this is Liversage’s stand – both physically and in her paintings – against discrimination in the media coverage of the trial of Zwelethu Mthethwa, the established artist who was (eventually) convicted of beating Nokuphila Kumalo to death in the street in Woodstock, Cape Town. Throughout the long and drawn-out process of arriving at a conviction, Kumalo was mostly referred to as the sex worker, while Mthethwa was not only named in the press, but readers were also regularly reminded of his accolades. “Her name was Nokuphila Kumalo” appeared stenciled on both placards and paintings in Liversage’s life and work during this period.
Multiplicity is another effect of the interplay between Kilmany-Jo and ORDA in Liversage’s practice. Her oeuvre seems made up primarily by an army of female cyborg soldiers, acid-coloured femmes fatale or the work force (sex work not shied-away-from) turned army in the Second Machine Age. In another way, what is called to mind is the work of Cristina Nuñez, who over the course of 25 years took pictures of herself in order, as her artist statement puts it, “to explore herself in every possible situation, to stimulate her creative process, to improve self-knowledge and self-esteem and thus, empower herself.” Splitting into two allows for splitting into many more.
At the intersection of Liversage’s deference to Renaissance portraiture standards and her choice to glean subject matter from social networks lies self-portraiture. Self-portraits first began to gain canonical traction during the 1500s, as a result of the development of high-quality tin amalgam mirrors. The selfie, a contemporary version of self-portraiture, is the currency of social media. The kinds of images depicted by Liversage are the kinds of images often taken and posted as selfies, with pouting lips and sexy almond-shaped eyes. These images are edited and approved in the same way that women’s bodies and psychologies are edited and approved on all scales from local domestic to international public. This is not something of the past. Explicit examples of violence against and abuse of women and children are sickeningly easy to find, and one only has to look to Alabama and its recent abortion bill to understand the level to which it is also implicit and unspoken in culture the world over.
In taking up the project of self-portraiture, even in a veiled way, Liversage leverages the power of the self-portrait as therapy, the self-portrait as activism by reflecting the world in the image of oneself. Cristina Nuñez again sums up very well that the “self-portrait is a profound dialogue with oneself, guided by the author's vulnerability. In the self-portrait…we are, at the same time, author, subject and spectator, and the powerful dynamics between the three roles stimulates the unconscious creative process and allows us to transform our emotions into artworks…the self-portrait project is a "mother project"”.
In Liversage’s work, the masculine Gaze, to which all feminine is subject within a patriarchal framework, is plain to see. However, revealed as self-portraits, the feminine, cast in the roles given to her by the Gaze, stares knowingly, ferociously, straight back. In her current work Liversage is not overt in reference to events, happenings and realities outside the studio. However, through her own vulnerability and the exposure of her inner self as an archetypal feminine citizen, they are inferred. By summoning the army within, Liversage takes up the mantle for all women, and all children.
Jacqueline Flint is a writer, editor, curator and print specialist. She writes for periodical publications, including The Lake, and has contributed to numerous books on South African and international artists, including Faith47, Deborah Bell, Matthew Hindley, Stephen Hobbs, Kate McCrickard and Jacob van Schalkwyk. She has gotten to know the insides of the arts working for organisations like David Krut Projects and Warren Editions, where she has had the privilege of working closely with a diverse range of artists practicing in different media
Kilmany-Jo Liversage and the Stealthy Subject
The street is an endlessly productive motif for the modern age. From Jim Morrison crooning ‘the streets are fields that never die’ through to British rapper Mike Skinner’s long-term project named, simply, The Streets, these strips of asphalt and concrete that connect us are more than just useful pathways. They’re conceptual arenas in which the dramas of contemporary culture - fashion, advertising and graffiti - play out. And so, it is significant that Kilmany-Jo Liversage’s oeuvre has unfolded as a kind of homage to street art, to advertising culture and to fashion images. Hers is an avowedly urban practice, even though it almost always happens in the traditional art studio.
Liversage began working with spray paint around 2003, and almost immediately it transformed her methodology. Her previous interests had been in repetitious work; Jacqueline Flint wrote in 2018 that the artist’s earlier works from the mid-1990s “incorporated found material – ribbons, precisely folded and pinned; chopsticks meticulously layered and placed”. And although her work since then has shown gutsy looseness and painterliness, one can detect that this slow building up is still a key part of constructing images in her mature work. Pixels, almost-submerged tags, truncated arabesques of spray paint mark – these all become the replacements for individual units in Liversage’s large-scale portraits and still life paintings.
Liversage is quick to point out that she isn’t a street artist. Rather, like the Pop Artists of the 1960s, she is concerned with elevating the ubiquitous visual culture of contemporary life to the status of art, and in the process flattening the divides between them. Hers is an art that seeks to create something permanent out of the temporary, the fleeting. In fact, it is this impulse that makes hers a powerful way of working. In a work from 2020 titled HERRA1220(), the rendering of a very contemporary face and figure in progressively fluid sprayed marks results in a portrait of Mannerist poise and timelessness: it echoes the regal bearing of Parmigianino’s sitters. Furthermore, the layers of history seem to find a very modern metaphor in Liversage’s method: some passages in the painting resemble the palimpsestic nature of layers street art accrued over time. Liversage’s works seem to move back and forth through time and history, collapsing centuries of painting traditions into one another.
An even more recent work, 2021’s FERVA (which is also the tile of the artist’s latest show) makes an even stronger link between art history and pop culture. The head-and-shoulders figure, jutting suddenly into the canvas from the bottom right upwards, has something of Caravaggio’s drama about it. Especially in his single-sitter portraits, the Baroque master knew how to compose the picture plane to maximize the effect. He was also no stranger to the thrill of the androgyne: his Boy Bitten by a Lizard and Boy with a Fruit Basket are arguably early statements of gender fluidity or, at very least, a sexually ambiguous bodily- and facial aesthetic. The figure in Liversage’s FERVA skirts a similar divide, not clearly male or female, a factor amplified by the intentionally gender-blurring haute fashion item the figure is wearing.
The notion of ‘the gaze’ is one which many of Liversage’s works unpack. A familiar tenet of feminist theory as it pertains to art is that, for centuries, the male gaze dominated, and that it engendered (pun intended) an asymmetry of power, since it was almost always women who were being looked at, recorded, ‘consumed’ by male artistic eyes. The mere fact that Liversage is a woman, claiming the role of portrait painter, shifts the dynamics somewhat. Add to that her ability to get her over-life-sized faces to fix the viewer with confrontational stares, and one begins to see a subtle feminist thread of meaning running through the artist’s painting for nearly two decades.
There are other ways that this feminist project manifests. Tagging, that building block of street art and graffiti that bedecks buildings and lonely urban corners around the world, is also an avowedly masculine visual language. It seems to speak, at best, of male street artists one-upping one another in friendly rivalry, while at worst it’s a system for demarcating gang or criminal territories. In both cases, it serves as an aggressive way to mark presence, and maybe to warn rivals. Liversage’s use of tagging morphs it into something quite different. It becomes a glyph, a fragment of a larger story about contemporary life. Also, it’s an invitation to decode and deconstruct fixed identities and gender roles. By appropriating this form of mark-making from the male-dominated graffiti/street art subculture, the female artist surely pushes against the notion that any artistic language can be owned by a single gender. And by thoroughly exploding the colour palette from the blacks and reds that tend to prevail in tagging, she touches on a fascinating side-alley in the contemporary reconsiderations of some aspects of art history.
Writer and artist David Batchelor speculated in his 2000 book ‘Chromophobia’ that trends in art and architecture in the 20th Century, most notably Bauhaus-style modernism and, later, Minimalism, relegated colour to second-class status. Expressive colour, he theorized, had come to be considered less pure, more superficial, and crucially, more feminine than ‘serious’ culture allowed for. In a parallel sense, Liversage’s work challenges graffiti’s default to a narrow palette, playing off startling fuchsias and corals against deep turquoises and sky blues. In fact, it is Liversage’s instinct for colour that is contemporary but never saccharine, that activates her work.
In recent years, the artist has broadened her output to include numerous still life paintings, specifically floral arrangements. One such work from 2020 is called FLOWHER620(); this title makes it clear that these works aim to transcend mere decoration. In fact, this subsection of Liversage’s output is a stealthy means for challenging the women’s objectification. Why stealthy? The explosion in contemporary home and office spaces has resulted in acres of new walls to be adorned. Next to the large-scale portrait, decorative floral works must surely rank highly as palatable subject matter. Simply put, in a flower painting, a contemporary audience doesn’t see the critique or confrontation coming. But by presenting her floral displays as seething, dripping morasses of marks, Liversage does something quite different. She suggests that contemporary femininity won’t stay put and shouldn’t be content to simply be on show. More than most works in this genre, even those by Vincent van Gogh, Liversage’s flower paintings seem alive and anthropomorphic.
In FRISSON (2021), a centralized vase presents us with an unruly bouquet. Each flower is reduced to a set of essentialized shapes: dots, concentric circles and ovals, suggestions of spirals; many bordering on the anatomical. And yet, in the bottom third of this painting lies a key to the artist’s thinking. The hot pink that dominates the background has been applied so enthusiastically (resonating with the title of the work: Liversage reminded me that ‘frisson’ means a sudden strong feeling of excitement) that the spray paint drips down in uncontrolled beams, engulfing the institutional green of the tablecloth. In this part, as in much of her oeuvre, Liversage seems to urge her viewer to not only accept but revel in the gendering of colour. ‘If you’re going to teach me that pink is a girly colour’, the artist seems to say, ‘then I’m going to deploy that colour, and that girliness to upend your system and your comfort.’
Michael Smith is a Johannesburg based writer, teacher and artist. He has worked as Managing Editor of ArtThrob, and has been published in Art South Africa, The Mail&Guardian, The Art Times and Independent Education. He has written catalogue essays for Sanell Aggenbach, Connor Cullinan and Lyndi Sales, and he was commissioned to pen an essay for the book Brett Murray, published by Jacana Media and Goodman Gallery in 2013.