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The pretty ponies of Nicolene Swanepoel
Posted on October 22, 2015.

Pretty Pony series (untitled) 2015
Pencil and other materials on Fabriano paper (45 x 54cm)

Nicolene Swanepoel's latest solo exhibition Pretty Ponies, at IS Art in Franschhoek, features paintings, drawings, and ceramic and bronze sculpture that frivolously paints unencumbered, pretty ponies, rather than serious, embattled steeds. We asked Nicolene about the use of horses in her work and her exploration of various media.

[ART.CO.ZA]: Pretty Ponies explores imagery of horses. What do you think is the importance of horses as symbols in art?

[NICOLENE SWANEPOEL]: Horses do not symbolise a specific one thing to me, in that they do not stand for anything outside themselves, in particular. The meaning of the horse in my work depends on the individual artwork. Historically animals have been used to symbolise human attributes like "loyalty" (dog) or "nobility" (horse). The still common utilisation of animals in art as symbol of a human quality reflects the human tendency to also utilise animals as objects of use, thus not only as artistic / symbolic but also as physical vehicles. It accentuates our inability to admire the animal for its own self, its own animal qualities, but shows that we need regard it in terms of usefullness to us, in art to infuse it human qualities (like nobility) in order for it to be worth our respect.

Very seldom are horses depicted without a rider, or load, on its back. A human, whether proud warrior or broken soldier, naked woman, another animal (monkeys and cats are favourites), or even a nose (in the case of William Kentridge) is mounted on the horse. It seems that while we admire the creature, we seek to dominate its power and break its spirit in order to bear us, or whatever we choose to put, on its back. My "Pretty Ponies" depict horses without any human load, frivolous, just "pretty". They are attractive, unburdened, but also not over-burdened, as some my "heavy horses" of the past might have been.

Pony with Beaded Numnah
Ceramic (28 x 38cm)

[A]: Your background as veterinarian sees animals often feature in your art. How do you use animals in your artistic expression?

[N]: I am fascinated about how humans interact with animals, often unthinkingly so. Being a critical thinker about the process of creation behind an image, and having an understanding of animal behaviour, a frequent cause for outburst would be the "adorable" memes on popular media, where an abundance of cute animal pictures flourish.

Had the viewer thought a bit more before sharing it so lavishly, s/he would have realise that the "adorable kitten" has been pulled away from its mother, put into a studio or other traumatic situation (even thrust, frightened to death in the arms of a gorilla) to be photographed, or the "cuddled, cute lion cub" is held captive and will grow up to become a canned-lion. Before long many animals are being forced to do things that compromise their welfare to a lesser or greater extent, merely to amuse us and to gain us millions of "likes". I aim to have people realise that we need to take responsibility for the results of the images we create, buy, support or "share".

As a veterinarian, I have been conditioned to develop a "clinical distance" from my subject and can tolerate more blood and guts without turning away from it than the average person. It is, however, important not to ever become unaffected by it - rather - share these images in order to remind ourselves about responsible living. If we hide images of abuse, we increase the chance that they develop a voyueristic quality, and perhaps even encourage some psychopaths to seek to create or enact such gory images. While unburdened, my "Pretty Ponies" are puns about our need for the pretty, our denial or the "real", the often ugly reality.

Refusing the Hurdle 2009/2015
Oil paint and other materials on Fabriano paper (61 x 97cm)

[A]: The works on exhibition feature paintings, drawings and ceramic sculpture. Which medium do you most enjoy?

I was trained as a painter and printmaker in the 80's. In the 90's I did mostly only small serigraphs. However, I always wanted to work in three dimensions, and around 2000, got to working in clay. Clay is an addictive medium, but not always an easy mistress. She demands respect and pampering, and takes a physical toll on the body of an artist that is getting older. Ceramics is also a capital-intensive process.

While I have worked almost exclusively in ceramics for the last decade and a half, I have recently returned to painting and drawing. I find myself being lured back to her more subtle charms: the gracious sweep of a brush on paper, the flow of the line of a pencil, the delight of immediate gratification of a bright cadmium yellow from the tube. (The ceramic process is timeous - and colours can only be seen for what they will become once the firing is complete).

My work in the three different disciplines (paint, print and sculpt) have been clearly separated in time (80's, 90's, "naugthies") with periods of inactivity in between where I focused on veterinary work, and thus have all developed into their own different styles. Since I have committed to become a full-time professional artist fairly recently, I am curious and excited to see how the three disciplines will fuse or interact, perhaps even struggle with each other, to develop into new modes of expression.

View the exhibition [here].


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