A Conversation with Ilené Bothma

Sarafina Magazine was created with the intention of celebrating all South African women in the arts. For the last few weeks all of our interviews have been with theatre makers. Today we introduce you to Ilené Bothma, a Fine artist whose exhibit, Veiled Threats, caught my eye while visiting 99 Loop Street gallery during First Thursdays.

Usually I start off by asking people what or who inspired their career in the arts but I think for you as a visual/fine artist, I wanted to ask when was the moment you knew you had the ability?

I was probably about 10 or something or even younger and I won a colouring competition and after that it was a poster competition and things like that. It’s always been something that I’ve done. I don’t think it was one single moment that I knew ‘wow I can draw’ or ‘I can paint’ because it’s always been something I’ve done. My mom sent me to art lessons because obviously she thought I could do something. I think it was quite early on that I thought I wanted to be an artist. I initially started studying graphic design because I thought you had to have a job and you can’t live as an artist, well I technically still can’t. It lasted about 3 months and then I changed to fine art because it just wasn’t what I wanted to do.

Do you think that was the moment when you realized you were going to do this as a career?

That’s probably the moment I wanted to be a fine artist career wise, was in my first year.

It’s interesting to say that your mom encouraged it…

Oh what was very interesting was that my dad did photography when he was young. He made his own darkroom. In our first or second year we had to select to do either printmaking or photography and he encouraged me to take photography because at least you could make a little bit of money out of that. I wanted to do printmaking but of course you listen to your dad because he says you can make money, at least as a photographer. I did photography but I ended up teaching myself printmaking so there was still that kind of thing from home where I was pushed towards something that at least you could survive on. So it wasn’t entirely ‘go be a fine artist’ kind of thing. There was still a bit of a push but my mom was the one that pushed me towards fine art. She said ‘you are not a graphic designer.Don’t even go and do it.’ My dad was more towards the financial security so there was a bit of a contrast there.

I wanted to ask about your journey as a student to now being where you are today, I noticed when I was reading your bio, that you did study initially and then you went back to get your masters.

I actually did a masters right after doing my BA as well but it was a weird difficult time in my life. I was never happy with the result. Then I started teaching high school just to start paying off all the ridiculous loans I had and so there was a bit of a gap there. I still tried to make art but when you are working full time it becomes a bit of a challenge. I then got married and my husband and I went to England together, to both go and do another masters. That was kind of a big change for me in terms of thinking about art because I don’t know if I wasn’t properly engaged in South Africa or whether I needed a bit of time to mature or whether it was the structure of the education at Stellenbosch. I don’t really know what it was but it felt to me like some kind of lightbulb went on when I was studying in England. My work changed a lot as well and that was a very important point in what I am doing now but then I had to come back and we had to survive again. My husband was studying to become an advocate so I had to be the bread-winner for a while so for 3 years I was a full-time lecturer so again your art takes a backseat. Then I quit my job and found out a week later that I was pregnant. The idea was to start making work full time and then there was another year, well I made some work. I went on a residency while I was pregnant, so that was amazing. Then had a baby and it was quite a struggle to get back to work. It took me about 8 months. Now I’ve been working on this, I’d say, 10 months full-time. I’m actually starting to do this now.

I am quite interested in what is happening in the art scene in Cape Town at the moment with First Thursdays which has opened up art to the public. It is no longer this elitist thing. How do you hope your work translates to people who are not as informed in the art world?

I think because my work is a bit more technically professioned, it’s not entirely just conceptual work. I think people who are not as knowledgeable can maybe acknowledge the skill behind the painting. Whereas if it is a completely instillation type of work where you need to read about two pages before you find out what the work is about, I think that is more difficult for your First Thrusday’s crowd. I think my work, well the work I’ve done for this show, is a bit more palatable. It’s a bit easier to digest and also because I think people can relate much easier to portraiture than more abstract things.

With this current exhibit, when I saw it my first thought was ‘please god let this have been done by a woman’ because I think if it had been done by a man it would mean something completely different.

It would definitely. I think it would actually be a bit creepy it it were done by a man because I think it would be quite objectifying. I don’t know if that is the right word. Putting something over a woman’s head and then a man painting it is way more disturbing. What I found also very interesting about making this was the actual experience of putting masks or the headpieces on because it was very uncomfortable and it was very claustrophobic. I think that if a man painted that and he hadn’t had the experience of having had the headpieces on himself, it would have actually changed it quite a lot because it’s that actual experience. It’s a strange feeling because you can’t really breathe very well. You can’t really see that great and then also trying to stand behind a camera and push a button. I think it was a very important experience that I had to do it myself. I had to be the one wearing it as well.

Triple Threat, watercolour on hahnemühle paper.jpg
Triple Threat by Ilene Bothma (2016)

I noticed that you work in a whole lot of different mediums. Is there any one that you prefer?

I love making sculptures and working a little bit more physically. I’ve started doing some more sculptural things and Lena has talked to me about doing a solo again this year. Hopefully I’ll do some of that but obviously sculptures are a lot harder to sell. It’s a more difficult market I think. I think you need to have made a bit more of a name for yourself but I’m not sure. I haven’t done a lot of it but I do love it.

What is it like being a woman in the art world? Is it balanced or do you feel as though there are more opportunities for men?

I don’t really know. I think it just seems that men get more attention if you look at the art phases and things. The names that do tend to come up are men but personally I don’t think I could definitively say if men got more opportunities than women. I don’t know. I recently saw funding specifically aimed for women with children. I thought what an amazing kind of grant for women artists who have kids because I think, I don’t know sometimes how we do it. I know quite a few women with kids but it’s such a challenge to work and be a mother. I thought that was quite an amazing thing but the fact that it’s the first time I’ve ever seen it means that obviously women need a bit of a push or people have seen that there is a gap and that women need more opportunities. I don’t think an opportunity like that would have been created if it wasn’t necessary. 

Do you think that there have been great female artists that have been overlooked?

I think there is often women artists that are being overlooked but I think there’s actually a lot of work being done now to enlighten people about women’s work. A specific one right now I really can’t think about but in history if you look at it there are a lot of female artists who were overlooked. I went to a talk a few years ago at Michaelis and they were showing a work by a young woman who was painting during the second world war. They found all these diaries of hers and it was somebody who found this work and the idea was to lift her out of history. I thought that was such a wonderful thing and these were amazing paintings that she did under extremely difficult circumstances. I love seeing things like that when people find artists that have been left behind by history and rediscovering them.

Idle Threat, oil, glue and enamel on board on paper.jpg
Idle Threat by Ilene Bothma

It’s interesting how art can survive past someone’s physical life. Going off of that, what do you want to leave in the world with your work?

That’s probably something that I should be thinking about but I don’t really because I feel that I haven’t achieved what I want to achieve in terms of creating my own language and creating my own kind of niche in terms of my style because my work is kind of all over the place but I do think I’m starting to develop a specific language for myself. When I think about leaving something specific it just feels way too unfinished and I don’t even want to think about it. Maybe conceptually, I would say, I would have liked to make people think and not just think in terms of what it looks like but just think in general. I want to have made people engage.

I usually ask this to everyone I interview, who is currently inspiring them in the arts world?

I think when we were talking about sculpture Doris Salsido is one of my absolute ultimate favourite artists. Cornelia Parker in terms of instillation art, I absolutely adore her. In terms of the more recent painting kind of work specifically in terms of texture work I would say someone like Penny Siopis. Keith Dietrich was my lecturer in first year and he actually taught us painting. He is an amazing water colourist. His watercolours are amazing and it’s probably because he told us that water colour was probably the most difficult medium you will ever do that I said well ‘screw this. This is a challenge.’ So I did it and it’s probably because of him that I did these water colours. I would say he was probably a big influence in terms of that as well.

I want to end off by asking you what question do you wish you were asked more as an artist?

I think I would like people to actually ask me less and tell me more because I find people always ask you ‘what did you try and say with that? Why did you do that?’ Without actually engaging with the work. I would rather have someone not ask me a question but rather tell me what they see because I think people are a bit like sheep sometimes and they go ‘oh lets read the artist’s statement, that’s what everything means’ instead of actually engaging in the work and telling me what they see. When I was studying in England this one girl told me one of her favourite things that she does when she has an opening, is she stands behind people without them knowing she is the artist and she listens to their conversations. Out of that, a lot of her new work develops because then interesting new questions get asked by other people and they raise new questions with you. When other people start telling you what they see in the work or how they experience it, it can often lead to new work and new interpretations. I’d rather actually have people tell me things then ask me things to be honest.

That’s so interesting. Do you not maybe think sometimes people might be afraid to say ‘I see this’ because they don’t want to be wrong. 

I do think so and I do think people are and that’s also what I think is great about First Thursdays because it makes people get more comfortable in front of the work. I think the amount of wine consumed also helps so I do think that it might help people to engage a bit more in that sense. They become more comfortable in what is often seen as elitist white cube spaces. I think that might actually help get people more comfortable talking about things like that.

Thank you so much! 

Special thanks to Lena and everyone at 99 Loop Street Gallery. More of Ilené work can be found here.

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