Hot, Barbie, baby, light or piggy – its significance varies in cultures, but most would associate pink with sweetness, romance, it’s role in queer culture and childishness. In Yolanda Mazwana’s paintings, the use of pink is neither sweet nor childish, rather, it is immediately strange and unsettling. The first time that pink elicited this feeling and response was seeing Penny Siopis’ famed series ‘Pinky Pinky’ in a classroom years ago. Siopis’ paintings are based on a mythical and grotesque monster, with a fetish for young girls, that haunts the South African psyche. It is interesting to think about the common use of pink in Mazwana and Siopis’ work because they use the colour to create feelings of discomfit. More specifically, there is a certain commonality about their use of the colour to speak to anxiety – as it relates to political and social violence and to internal struggles, traumas, or desires.
In Mazwana’s Leave Us Be the artist tightly layers multiple figures within the same frame creating what appears as an intertwined multi-headed creature. Soft, saggy and human-like their pink forms float ominously in an opaque background made of a solution of blue paint and water. The artist didn’t intend for the figures to be the unsettling and grotesque forms that they are, ‘it just sort of happened’, Mazwana says. These creatures and landscapes are in fact richly personal to the artist who has endowed them with emotions. She describes them as feeling ‘more afraid than they are scary’. The source of their fears being the internal struggle caused by experiencing heightened levels of anxiety and exaggerated or irrational thought patterns related to hypochondria.
A hypochondriac is someone who pretends or wrongly diagnoses themselves as having an illness. Those who imagine they have a disease, or pretend to imagine that they have a disease are actually suffering from a disease (hypochondria) – just not the one they think to be suffering from. The work Leave Us Be is one in a body of works where the artist deftly combines textures of paint and shades of pink to express the intensity of living as a hypochondriac. ‘I think that going through something that you don’t fully understand and are new to can be scary and it can heighten your anxiety. Which is quite remarkable for the imagination,’ says Mazwana.
An important aspect about hypochondria is that it afflicts its sufferer with the sense that their lives are a sham or simulation and they live in an endless anticipation of the onset of a disease. This is a feeling that we can all empathise with because of the emergence of this terrible virus and its consequences, which has led to paranoia, fear, worry, and anxiety. Our heightened anxiety about getting ill (and maybe dying) is a vague sense of dread that defines the contemporary moment: we are in a perpetual state of waiting for the worst to happen.
To counteract this fear and anxiety, Mazawana’s figures are big and boldly painted in shades of pink that are hard to ignore. In The Frantic Period, Mazwana paints a figure that is borne out of the remarkable consequences anxiety has for the imagination. It is familiarly human shaped with unsettling organic protrusions – all outlined in a bloody shade of red and swimming in a sea of pink. Pink is a defining and overwhelming characteristic of her paintings – the colour suggests human flesh and the fear that the flesh is always in danger of illness. The elastic, deformed, or monstrous bodies populating Mazwana’s paintings place her in the arena of the grotesque. A genre contemporary women artists employ not for what images look like or represent but rather with what they do and evoke in the viewer. Even though the notion of the grotesque is subjected to historical and cultural fluctuations, when it comes to depicting flesh, like the figures of Mazwana’s paintings, so long as we have bodies, we can be affected to some degree by her works.
This is a good point to speak about Penny Siopis’ ‘Pinky Pinky’ paintings which uses the urban-legend of the same name as their starting point. There are so many different accounts about this legend’s appearance and disposition: apparently Pinky Pinky has mottled skin and a bald head, it has one claw and one paw, it’s a white tokoloshe and a demanding ghost always seeking material things. Everyone says he is not a he, even though his actions are like those of a real man. According to Siopis, there is no fixed identity for Pinky, no stable reference. It’s a process-based thing, changing its form with every telling.
Most people who know about Pinky Pinky remember it from their childhood as a bathroom monster that cautioned young girls on the danger of going to the toilet without a companion. Pinky Pinky, waited in toilets for girls (especially those wearing pink underwear) and sang songs to lure them into a trap. Once caught, the monster attacks his prey. It is a rather terrifying story about a grotesque figure so it would follow that stories about it are unresolved, and impure and that Siopis’ representations recognise the most salient feature of the monster that it is not fixed.
Siopis translated the story of Pinky Pinky into paintings that draw attention to the surfaces – body parts such as eyes, nails and teeth emerge out of the thickly painted surfaces that evoke skin. In Pinky Pinky: Puffy, the artist uses layers of pink oil paint to sculpt empty eye sockets and small lips with a mouthful of teeth – the suggestion of the monster’s flesh and it’s hot breath is anxiety-inducing. The works have been reflected on several times in the last decade, and to invoke them again in a society where sexual violence is simultaneously traumatic and ubiquitous is important.
So entrenched in this type of violence is our society that it made it into popular culture and urban legend and reflects the mass anxieties of communities. Siopis’ works are a way to talk about sexual assault that doesn’t dwell on the brutality of the act itself on women’s bodies. To reflect on Pinky Pinky today, is saddening because it was never about being harmed by an imagined monster but rather a tale of caution against the real threat of being preyed on by real men when travelling alone or in the bathroom. A threat that makes Pinky Pinky an enduring figure, one that is alive and present in society
Another reading of the myth is that Siopis is allegorising the anxiety of a society in radical transition where Pinky Pinky is a figure that emerges out of the anxieties about the other – he represents the fear that rose because of the upheaval and inequality found in South Africa at the end of apartheid. Siopis has employed this reference as a means to critique white complacency towards oppression.
Mazwana and Siopis use pink in a way that emancipates it from sweetness and innocence, to give it an active and powerful role in reflecting on our combined anxieties. Siopis and Mazwana work to interrogate the overlapping of private and public fear which renders anxiety so prevalent. At present there is a lot to be anxious about – illness and death, sexual violence, systematic racism and police brutality. This vague and pervasive sense of fear, insecurity and uncertainty has settled in and seeped into our daily routines. As much as anxiety is a debilitating condition that hampers the ease at which we can enjoy life, arguably it can compel us toward change and instigate action.