top of page

Investec Cape Town Art Fair | 2024 | Tomorrows/ Today


Fair Portfolio

Investec Cape Town Art Fair | 2024 | Tomorrows/ Today


16.02.24 - 18.02.24



Cape Town International Convention Center (CTICC)
Cape Town, South Africa

The dark soft languages are being silenced:
Mothertongue Mothertongue Mothertongue
falling one by one back into the moon.

Languages of marshes,
language of the roots of rushes tangled
together in the ooze,
marrow cells twinning themselves
inside the warm core of the bone:
pathways of hidden light in the body fade and wink out.

The sibilants and gutturals,
the cave languages, the half-light
forming at the back of the throat,
the mouth's damp velvet moulding
the lost syllable for 'I' that did not mean separate,
all are becoming sounds no longer
heard because no longer spoken,
and everything that could once be said in them has
ceased to exist.

The languages of the dying suns
are themselves dying,
but even the word for this has been forgotten.
The mouth against skin, vivid and fading,
can no longer speak both cherishing and farewell.
It is now only a mouth, only skin.
There is no more longing.

Translation was never possible.
Instead there was always only
conquest, the influx
of the language of hard nouns,
the language of metal,
the language of either/or,
the one language that has eaten all others.

Margaret Atwood, Marsh Languages

Beneath our feet, the trees are talking in a secret, ancient language. Through delicate, underground threads they pass messages of distress or danger, and send water and nourishment from root to root. Wisened ‘Mother trees’, who have the longest roots and the most connections, reach down to the deepest water sources so their sisters can drink.

Recurring in Marlene Steyn’s latest body of work, are images of women becoming trees, like the mythological Daphne in Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’ (8 CE). Pursued by the lustful god Apollo, she calls to her father to save her. In response he transforms her into a laurel tree to protect her from Apollo’s violent advances. Her body is safe, wrapped in an armour of bark, but she’s unable to speak save for the rustling of leaves, or signalling from her roots. She goes inward.

In her 1976 essay ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’, Hélène Cixous writes, “Woman must write her self: must write about women and bring women to writing, from which they have been driven away as violently as from their bodies…”

“To write. An act which will not only ‘realise’ the decensored relation of woman to her sexuality, to her womanly being, giving her access to her native strength; it will give her back her goods, her pleasures, her organs, her immense bodily territories.”

In ‘I Open Her’, Steyn continues to establish an expression that is truthful and fluent to her; writing her self through painting and ceramics. The paintings are a stream of consciousness conjured in a (over)flow state, one thing leading to another, compulsively filling the frame and leaving her hours later analysing what has come out of her. The ceramic sculptures are made quickly in a state of intuitive play. Unlike the brimming paintings, their forms twist around big negative spaces, vessels for possibility. Both practices are ‘of the body’, and as she moves, things that occupy her subconscious shake loose and slip to the surface unplanned. In a way, her art-making is an excavation; scratching and digging, obsessing with a little brush like brushing soil from precious bones. “It's trying to meet the thing that needs to be there.”

‘I Open Her’ is a cracking open to facilitate transformation. Going inward to find your selves. Going inward to come out whole. “Underneath your face is another one, is another one, is another one.” We carry all our younger selves with us, the visions for who we will be, the slippery recognition of self in past lives, our lineage, ancestors, the selves we are in relation to others, who we are in the light and who we are in the shadows. Steyn’s symbols speak to our depths; infinite staircases, pools of water; eggs in various states—protected by a shell or cracked open. Each layer reveals another Russian doll, related but each slightly different from the last, and some harder to twist open than others. Objects and interiors—extensions of self—are woven in, “spillovers from life”. One thing leading to another.

The faces, or bodies, are all connected. Pick an entry point and trace the outline of a face until it transforms into another before your eyes. A straight route up and a curvy slide down—snakes and ladders over lips, legs, trunks, necks, noses, and leaves. One’s left eye becomes another’s right. Intertwined. One’s existence is the possibility for another’s. Branches. Women becoming each other, becoming themselves, becoming trees.

Individual but inseparable, Steyn’s beings can also be read as community—connections, interdependence, lifelines. Spending time in the forest near her home, she thinks about networks of women; extending from root to root. Unearthing buried languages, we can learn to write our true selves (all of them), and reach each other, whether through paint, or poems, or code, or clay. “Why do we make art?,” Steyn asks, and answers: “We make art because language is limiting and we are so complex.”


Alix-Rose Cowie

bottom of page