The forgotten race storyteller

“That’s a loaded question,” she said when asked to describe herself. After postponing our appointment a couple of times, Robyn Pretorius humbly apologized when we finally spoke.

She is a 29-year-old artist hailing from Belhar in the Cape Flats area in Cape Town. She considers herself privileged to be an artist..

Many kids from where she is from study subjects that are not suited to their abilities or understanding and then they get lost in the system. “There are a lot of talented kids who don’t get the exposure that I got,” she said.

She paints many portraitures of people she meets and her muses are mostly mixed-race or coloured people. “I feel that coloured people in South Africa don’t have many opportunities, especially those like me, who come from disadvantaged areas such as Belhar,” she said. So her artwork is for the purpose of trying to change that narrative.

She does not consider herself a political painter, that is why she is not aggressive about her reason behind her paintings. Robyn is, however, determined to change the perspective and generalised views people have about coloured people. It is also for coloured people to challenge the narrative about themselves, she wants them to “embrace their existence”, she explained.

“I‘m also just tired of looking at the same stuff in the industry and there’s not many coloureds that make it into the art industry,” she said. It is just black people and white people predominantly.

If her artwork were to be described in a sentence; she creates: “Paintings that aim to question our existence and how we occupy spaces.”

In a further bid to describe herself, she explained that because she does not come from a privileged background, she has had to work really hard to get where she wants to be.

She has been doing art for as long as she can remember. Although she is mostly self-taught, she enrolled into the Tygerberg Art Centre after her teacher suggested to her mom to do so, since Robyn often drew in class. She attended art school after hours from grade two up until matric.

She then went to Stellenbosch University to study graphic design and changed to fine arts after two years. In her second year of fine arts, she had to drop out because of financial reasons and she started working in retail to support her passion thereafter.

Her retail seven-year work experience was not for nothing because that is where she learnt how to deal with clients and how to actually do business.

At the age of 13 Robyn was already doing big things. She was the youngest cartoonist for the Sunday Times’ S’camto Newspaper and she had her first exhibition at an art gallery, that does not exist anymore, in Sea Point.

She had an opportunity which she considers a major turning point in her career, when she was chosen, together with six others, to showcase her urban inspired artwork in New York in 2014. It was an event by the New York Trade Mission in association with the South African Government’s Department of Trade and Industry. When she came back she saw that she actually fit in in the global world of art. “I realized that I wasn’t as bad as I thought and that’s when I started gunning for my passion because I knew my place in the world with my art and I knew what was expected of me as a photo realistic artist,” she said.

Before she started working on portraiture, she used to do landscape painting. She found the stories behind landscapes and abandoned buildings very mysterious and she loved to tell the stories through her painting. Instead of just looking at a building, she would wonder why it was left like that, she would wonder about what kind of life was lived in those buildings. She, however, stopped doing landscape paintings when she realised that people did not feel connected to those kinds of paintings.

That was when she started doing portraitures with a meaningful background on the canvas. She would go out and meet her muses, talk to them and get to know them and then base the background on their story before moving into the detailed painting of their physical features.

What she thinks sets her apart from the many portrait painters in Cape Town, is the storytelling in her art. Instead of an “ahh look at that pretty face” reaction, people actually feel connected, especially when they notice familiar objects in the background.

Her favourite artwork is a self-portrait of herself, jumping out of the canvas, covered in paint, like “now is my time”. It is an important piece because there was a time when she stopped painting because she did not enjoy it anymore and she felt “let down by her inadequacies”. After a while of not painting, there came a day where she just could not take it anymore, she had been bottling her emotions and thoughts and she let it all out when she took out a canvas and started painting. After that, she became serious about her painting again.

“My goal is to create as many paintings that tell stories as possible, tell more stories about my muses and more stories about the forgotten race of South Africa,” she said. Her aim is to create artwork that will make people feel more connected.  “It goes beyond just the politics, it’s about finding that human connection,” she said. She also mentioned that she does have room for change. “It is not all about race,” she said.

She would also like to take more of her work overseas. She is currently preparing for two exhibitions, both are in Cape Town. The most exciting one will be on 4 October, where Dreamer Education and Youngblood Arts & Culture Development will be presenting Vanguard, Where Maths meets Art. This collaborative exhibition will be at Youngblood, Bree Street, Cape Town.

When asked to describe her art in one sentence, she said: “My art work aims to show the connections between our environments and identities.” – Vonani Ngomana