24 Nov Lasting Impressions: Buhlebezwe Siwani on Diane Victor’s smoke portraits
In this series, Between 10and5 speaks to artists about artworks that inspire them. Here, Buhlebezwe Siwani tells us about the lasting impressions of Diane Victor.
Buhlebezwe Siwani is a performance artist and practising iSangoma. Her body is the medium through which she connects with the creative and scared. It is also a means of making the black female body visible, giving it agency and creating a new narrative. Much of her work carries socio-political undertones, exploring the tensions between African and Western traditions and how inextricably complicated and chaotic this is.
Although different in medium, Diane Victor’s smoke portraits and Buhlebezwe’s performances share an ephemeral quality. Diane’s portraits are made with deposits from candle smoke on white paper and disintegrate with physical touch. They embody a fragility speaking to the impermanence and vulnerability of human life, and have left a mesmerising impact on Buhlebezwe.
Tells us how you came across the artwork.
I was in high school. Our art teacher Ms Oldfield used to take us on tours to galleries. The kids at my school were not really interested in art, it was just a couple of creative kids that really did not want to be in school. Art class was one of those subjects that you took if you were not sure what you wanted to do and all of us had some sort of creative inclination, so it was an excuse and an escape from all the other ‘boring’ subjects. Ms Oldfield was really cool, she is an artist herself so she pretty much let us exist in that space. On one of the excursions she took us to a gallery where I first saw the work and I was taken aback. I think I stood there for the entire excursion, the work dominated the space and is still a body of work that haunts me. Ms Oldfield had shown me the work before because I was interested in how to draw using ash or different ways to create a portrait. Seeing it online was such a disservice to the work after seeing it in real life.
What’s your impression of the artist who created it?
Diane Victor used to be my art crush for years. I even considered being a print major in University because I wanted to be the black Diane Victor, but as we know, things do not work like that. I thought that the artist was so meticulous, innovative and was a very sensitive human being, who was very considerate with the medium and approach to subject matter. I also felt that the artist was in those portraits, that a part of the artist lived through the smoke portraits.
Initially, what struck you most about it?
The fluid nature of the portraits and how delicate they looked. Then I found out that they were made using candle smoke… that was such a trip. By just touching them, you could wipe the entire image away, as if the person in the portrait never ever existed – which is the point I think. Also, the skill and the fastidiousness necessary for such work. I was enthralled.
Did it teach you anything about the medium or formal elements of art?
I suppose something I learnt was that you can let the subject speak on its own, that as the artist you need to understand the material but most importantly, anything and everything can be your tool to create a material language.
What qualities does it have that you admire?
One cannot help but be drawn into the body of work, it is hypnotising and mesmerising. It is thoughtful and provocative (or was at that time).
Why do you think it’s remained inspiring to you?
I do not like the word inspire….it sounds so cheesy when used to describe creative processes and the like because art is so much more than inspirational – it’s not me going on Oprah or Lyanla and trying to teach anyone anything. Although, if we must, I draw on its survival, the idea that one can live in such tumultuous times in a fragile space and still survive. That is how I perceive the relationship with the body of work to the world. It is so fragile, so sensitive, so meticulous and detailed but at any second, anyone could destroy it by just touching it. It speaks to the social conditions of our times.
How might you describe it to someone who might never have the chance to see it?
Where would I even begin? I have no clue. I would simplify it and begin by saying: “There is this awesome body of work, created by Diane Victor, she drew portraits of people using smoke from a candle, you should totally check them out, wait, let me show you (pulls out phone and uses the internet to find images, waits for wow wow upon wow). Can you see the different variations of smoke colour? How the artist has layered the smoke? How it is darker and lighter in some areas? The detail? And how no face or body is alike. She captured a moment that ceases to exist if you choose to erase it”.
Follow Buhlebezwe on Twitter.