Emalie Bingham is drawing hundreds of tigers, rabbits and tortoises

Emalie Bingham is a fine artist currently working from her home-studio in Bo-Kaap, Cape Town. She graduated from Rhodes University in 2011 with a Bachelor of Fine Art, working primarily in small-scale drawing and installation. Soon after the completion of her honours thesis, she participated in a three- month residency at Greatmore Studios in Woodstock, Cape Town, living and working alongside local and international artists. She has been a Design Indaba Emerging Creative and has participated in exhibitions at the Everard Read gallery in Cape Town, as well as contributing more than 25 artworks to the Nando’s Artist Society collection and hundreds for the associated Creative Block programme.

Emalie created the experimental artworks featured in this blog, with a view to developing her technique for the Surface/Subtext exhibition at Everard Read, on canvases provided by Nando’s Artists Society. Emalie is an invited member of Nando’s Artist Society, a platform managed by Yellowwoods Art to increase economic opportunities and allow focus for mid-career artists in South Africa. Canvases are provided to members to create artworks, with a monthly hand-in-date that gives artists access to a master-class curator critique. Successful artworks are selected, and paid for, at a set rate per canvas size within five days – an important economical aspect in allowing artists to focus on their careers full-time. 

Elementary Wisdom, the body of work showing at the up­-coming Surface/Subtext group exhibition at Everard Read (Cape Town) in August, features inseparable layers of process and concept, with painstaking detail that is fantastically liberating. In this video and interview to follow, Emilie tells us more about her work.

Why are you drawing hundreds of tigers?

I’m working on a body of work called Elementary Wisdom, which is a sub theme within an ongoing concept and technique I like to think of loosely as Perfecting Limitations. ‘The tigers’, titled Elementary Wisdom: Secret Swim feature as one of five paintings in this particular body, three of which will be on show at the up coming exhibition Surface/Subtext at Everard Read (Cape Town) in August. In my work, process and concept are inseparable. I begin by gathering pieces of tissue paper that I have used to catch excess paint from previous works, the way one would use something like a drop sheet. I use these scraps as the basis for a new work. Grouping them together, I form a large surface on which to draw, seeking out compositional options and arranging the random marks accordingly. So I incorporate the chaos of the spontaneous, the excess, the leftover – that which would otherwise be discarded – into the order and pattern of the figure in motion, which I begin to draw in repetitive rows over this surface. The contrast of the illusion of depth and movement on a static surface intrigues me, as if the figures are trapped in the same repetitive motions, trying to escape perhaps. And yet the canvas can also be seen as a safe confined surface, providing a framework in which these perpetually practised and failed movements can be potentially accepted as perfect within their gross imperfections. Exactly where the drawings fall on the surface is unplanned. I then layer the tissue paper, creating new images as the under layers show through. This is a process of careful planning that allows for the spontaneity of the marks to lead the painting in a direction of its own. Once everything is pasted onto the canvas, I work into the painting by blocking the negative space with a single colour of paint, carefully choosing what marks show through. Thus some of the “chaos” is pushed back and an ordered composition emerges, integrating the surprising beauty of unpremeditated markings with the very intentional drawings that form a pattern that is always adapting, interrupted, but also continuous, infinite, and somewhat ritualistically predictable. The overall effect references a wallpaper-like pattern in which one catches glimpses of repetition, but the composition in fact never repeats itself as it is painstakingly handmade and will never be reproduced. The works draw on ideas of authority, discipline, and freedom in both a positive and negative light, exploring the ambiguity of these patterns that emerge universally and personally.

Elementary Wisdom: Secret Swim (Untitled experiment II), mixed media on canvas, 1000 x 1000mm, 2016 – features in Nando’s Art Collection
Elementary Wisdom: Secret Swim (Untitled experiment II), mixed media on canvas, 1000 x 1000mm, 2016 – features in Nando’s Art Collection

You’re showing three works at the Everard Read exhibition. Each work has a complex narrative, and ties into the chapters of the other artworks like chapters in a David Mitchell novel. Can you give us a brief insight into this fascinating three-part story?

On a creative whim I started to explore the five Chinese elements: wood, fire, water, earth, metal, and water. I am intrigued by universal patterns and the play between literal patterns within visual design, and the concept of pattern in our systems of thought, science, mathematics, music, psychology etc, that they can represent. ‘Wu Xing’, the Chinese name for the elements, means ‘moving’. As I researched the elements (to be honest this consisted of a glance at Wikipedia) I found that my instincts were beginning to add up to my more linear, cognitive approach to creating. Apparently “The Wu Xing is a fivefold conceptual scheme that many traditional Chinese fields used to explain a wide array of phenomena, from cosmic cycles to the interaction between internal organs, and from the succession of political regimes to the properties of medicinal drugs.” I also found that each element is affiliated with many symbols including particular animals. I began to think of the way in which we have come to use the term ‘element’, and what we refer to as being ‘in’ or ‘out’ of our element. So I started to play with these animals and the elements they were associated with, but also the ones in which they didn’t seem to fit, in which they would not be at all comfortable in ‘real life’. I have taken a lot of poetic license, using some of the Chinese animals as well as the female nude and animals I just had a sense needed to be there. A narrative between each creature began to develop, and I pictured each one featuring one way or another in one of the other paintings, ‘visiting’, or interrupting the pattern. I situated each in an element which I have roughly indicated by the colour in which they are set. So each animal interacts with the other, trying to adapt to their new element. In some cases they get a kind of second chance, like the dead rabbit, which comes back to life in ‘the tortoise work’ (Elementary Wisdom: After the Fire/You, Immortal Diamond), but takes a nap because he’s so far ahead in the race, and ends up losing because of his pride. He just seems to keep dying and losing and failing no matter what element he’s in, and yet has the potential to model a pattern of perfect sacrifice and vulnerability, but refuses to submit to this inevitability! Or the tiger, being made to jump through rings of fire that refuse to be quenched by the water she is set in, doing her very best to please, but miserable as ever, smaller than she should be. I have then set her free in her original element, metal, in which the female figure is trapped and by which she is abused. But where the woman is burdened by the weight of this torturous element, the tiger, in stark contrast, is given back her power and dignity. So I play these games and try to find moments of humour in what can become quite dense, serious works.

Elementary Wisdom: After the Fire / You, Immortal Diamond (detail), mixed media on canvas, 1000 x 1000mm, 2016
Elementary Wisdom: After the Fire / You, Immortal Diamond (detail), mixed media on canvas, 1000 x 1000mm, 2016
Elementary Wisdom: Secret Swim (detail), mixed media on canvas, 1000 x 1000mm, 2016.
Elementary Wisdom: Secret Swim (detail), mixed media on canvas, 1000 x 1000mm, 2016.

Tell us about Nando’s Artists Society and the role it plays in your professional life? Specifically, in the lead up to this exhibition the programme enabled you experimental space to develop your concept, while being able to earn an income.

I’ve been involved with making work for the Nando’s collection for just over a year. The programme allows for a relatively reliable monthly income which provides the stability necessary for consistent and fearless creativity. I find it is impossible to create without goals. I also find it impossible to create without a measure of financial structure and certainty. In addition to this sense of structure, routine, and security, NAS does not stipulate the nature of the work, aside from it being canvas based, and it is therefore a platform to earn whilst at the same time exploring themes that one can later develop in greater complexity and detail. For example, I had a vision for Elementary Wisdom in my mind’s eye, but needed to see how it would translate onto canvas, as I hadn’t explored these figures or colour palette before, and I couldn’t afford to go straight in on the massive scale that I envisaged. So I utilised NAS for the experiment, which proved both helpful and, fortunately, successful. This was an effective way of using time and energy which is so important when working as a full time artist and needing to constantly reinvent one’s approach and remain sustainable and economical with time. I have also appreciated the challenge of resolving concept and composition on a limited, framed surface. I worked predominantly in small scale drawing and installation before embarking on this project, and I have found it an opportunity to gain confidence in a medium that is a little more commercially viable for the time being, as well as being more short-term and contained in its process. It keeps me on my toes.

Surface/Subtext group exhibition at Everard-Read, Cape Town – 18 August to 11 September, 3 Portswood Road, V&A Waterfront. Participating artists include Emalie Bingham, Ricky Burnett, Bronwyn Lace, Zwelethu Machepha, Thania Petersen, Pamela Phatsimo Sunstrum, Elize Vossgatter and Barbara Wildenboer.   

Elementary Wisdom: You, Immortal Diamond  (Untitled Experiment I),  mixed media on canvas, 2016, 1000 x 1000mm – features in Nando’s Art Collection
Elementary Wisdom: You, Immortal Diamond (Untitled Experiment I), mixed media on canvas, 2016, 1000 x 1000mm – features in Nando’s Art Collection
Elementary Wisdom: Secret Swim (detail), mixed media on canvas, 1000 x 1000mm, 2016
Elementary Wisdom: Secret Swim (detail), mixed media on canvas, 1000 x 1000mm, 2016
Elementary Wisdom: Sweet Denial (detail), mixed media on canvas, 1000 x 1000mm, 2016
Elementary Wisdom: Sweet Denial (detail), mixed media on canvas, 1000 x 1000mm, 2016
Surface Subtext (detail)
Surface Subtext (detail)

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