Shany van den Berg: nōs / ons
‘nōs’ is the Latin word for ‘us’ and, in my mother tongue, ‘ons’.
In nōs / ons, her latest solo exhibition running from 7 to 30 April 2021 at Everard Read Cape Town, Shany van den Berg meditates on what divides and connects us as humans.
‘As an artist,’ Van den Berg comments about her experiences over the past year, ‘I imagine I should be comfortable with being in seclusion.’ As with most fine art painters, Van den Berg is used to working alone in her studio, surrounded by her tools and immersed in her thoughts uninterrupted. The pandemic and consequent lockdown, however, amplified the negative aspects of enforced separation from other people, who had previously provided a counterbalance to the solitude of the studio. The daily glut of news and mis/information germinated for the artist frenetic anxieties, a fluttering of dark wings. Uncertainties compounded her sense of loneliness. Feeling a deep longing to connect with her family, while not being able to, the world as Van den Berg knew it came to a standstill.
Among the many pandemic visuals online, Van den Berg found one particular range of references that provided a counterpoint to the other images of devastation and loss. In early 2020, millions of farmed flowers had to be dumped. Both beautiful and tragic, this captured on many news sites. With no one allowed to venture out, purchases limited to essentials, and aeroplanes grounded, the many bouquets which had before been picked, arranged and delivered daily around the globe became instead chaotic mountains of mingled colour. A poignant example of a world deeply altered, these images pollinated her artistic investigations for nōs / ons. For Van den Berg, the petals, stems and leaves, as they decomposed into the ground, became reminders of the cycles of life and death. The incongruous decay and exuberance formed the starting point of a series in the artwork elegos…song of mourning to the fallen flowers.
As the months of lockdown went by, Van den Berg’s creative process evolved into a gentle safe space – a kind of therapy for herself, symbolised by figures enfolded in the safety of a mass of vibrant, impasto flowers. The thickly tactile layers replicated her multisensory yearning for human contact. In the ‘Familia’ series, Van den Berg collaged old linen and charcoaled figures behind the blooms of a protective hedge of sorts. ‘Knowing the artwork would at some stage go out into the world allowed me to envisage this personal healing process as a remedy for my fellow isolated humans,’ Van den Berg explains, ‘who I hoped would engage with my work, find connection and reflect on it.’
Her desire to connect with others and to the outside world also finds expression in the range of bird paintings. Inspired by quiet lockdown mornings, where birdsong had returned to replace the noise of traffic, the birds of Van den Berg’s exhibition use flight to break through limitations, moving swiftly towards freedom.
At the root of nōs / ons is shared human experience. As physically separated as we have been over the past year, we are not alone. The canvases of together-alone-together exemplify this. Here, we find a multitude of figures drifting like small islands in voids of darkness and silver – all in the same situation, reaching out to each other. Van den Berg outlines them in a golden aura, shielding them from the onslaught of foreign experiences, fear and solitude.
Each work in this exhibition is unique and embraces its own story, but together they make up a louder and more universal impression of humanity united despite the distance.
December 20, 2021
December 13, 2021