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Omo Valley - Southern Ethiopia

Background

Slingsby has been characterised as an activist artist engaging in subjects ahead of time. He represents the voice of the subaltern, a consistent thread in his art. Through the decades, Slingsby’s art has confronted matters such as Apartheid, poverty, ‘Big brother’, cultural obsolescence, environmental disasters and human marginalisation and displacement. His passion for the subject is amplified by representing a generation deeply defined by having grown up in apartheid South Africa. This has led him to confronting many aspects of marginalisation. His documentation of the marginalised began with the Khoi San of Southern Africa. Not limited to their rock art, his focus spans the socio-political and ecological fallout of Anthropocene man so apparent amidst the destructive landscaping caused by the open cast mining and the impact on the once nomadic Khoi San to settlers in ‘Reconstruction and  Development’ housing. His art effects awareness and he hopes ultimately to affect change. It is for this reason he is deemed an activist artist.

 

Omo River, Ethiopia

Creative process

Robert Slingsby has been passionate about rock art since his first exposure to the ancient creative treasures that grace the rocks of Southern Africa. Driven to try and understand the meaning that underlies their making, he embarked on a multifaceted journey that has taken him to all parts of the globe. Thirty years ago, Slingsby began systematically recording the petroglyphs of a region known as the Richtersveld, lying along the Southern banks of the Orange River. It is a barren desert landscape peppered with black dolomite rock. Dating back to tens of thousands of years, the mainly non figurative petroglyph images pecked into the rock are starkly visible by virtue of appearing in contrasting white. His fascination with their apparent manner of how the petroglyphs so consistently ‘avoid the obvious’ in terms of design, led him to seek answers to the mystery of their meaning and purpose. His interest in the non-figurative abstract engravings found relevance in his art. Slingsby is constantly re-inventing himself in terms of exploring the infinite range of materials and methods available to an artist – from the most ancient and traditional to current technology. As such, his creativity is dynamic, encompassing fundamentals such as drawing, painting, bronze casting; sculpting stone and traditional blacksmith forging to sculpture digitally rendered then manufactured using laser cutting, photography, video installations, neon lighting, digital animation to use of discarded junk, found and ethnographic objects. With regard to his current art, Slingsby is able to capture the individuality of the subject. In so doing, he communicates a range of emotions from arrogance, to friendliness and even fear. The portraits have a life force that is as mesmerising as being confronted by their overwhelming physical reality. The technique involves first applying the chalk pastel which gives the colour. Over that the detail is then made using charcoal pencils. The lines are never smudged; the concentrated detail of his mark making is created through actual drawing.

 

Robert Slingsby with Mursi tribesman, Mago Park, Southern Ethiopia

 

In 2012, Slingsby became aware of the tribes of the Omo Valley in Southern Ethiopia. He recognised in them their creativity characterized by body art much like rock engravings as well as their vulnerability through development; leading to cultural obsolescence. This resulted in journeying to the Omo Valley culminating in four years of massive portrait drawings and two significant one man exhibitions.

“On the 11th September 2013, having spent days in Kolcho, we left early in the morning for Dus. Dus is a very remote village which houses the parliament of the Kara people. Being the rainy season, our team included a tracker perched atop the roof rack, guiding the driver through washed away trails. After recording what seemed like the entire community, in the midst of the overwhelming mid afternoon heat, we accepted the gesture of an old man, Parko Biwa, the elder of the village preparing bee hives, to enter his hut. We were offered a bitter beverage made from coffee husks and served in calabash drinking bowls. It was an opportunity to ask if there was anything we could do and what their main causes for concern were. It was evident from the drive to Dus that their tribal land was before our eyes being bulldozed, to make way for modern farming methods. I did not get an answer, but a look. We were allowed to relax and recover and he blessed us. On the way back to our vehicle, I was passed by a woman carrying the rim of a broken pot, shielding her head from the heat. The sun shone through the pot top opening, radiating light on the inside. As she walked past, she shouted ‘I am Kara, I am Arka, I am Kara.’ I had been given the answer. ‘I am’ “

Robert Slingsby

 

  

UPDATED 2nd July 2016