The Portfolio: Robyn Field’s recurring archetypes

I use art to process what I experience going on in the world around me. From hard politics to social issues, when something engages my heart or my head, I create a painting. Sometimes this can take months, and often it takes years. 

My work features bright colours and patterns bound together with overlapping textures of charcoal, acrylic and Indian ink. Beneath the surface are repeat washes of colour, often applied over many weeks and months, including splattered and run ink, which I apply in a slow, guided process.

The result moves me visually, but painting in this way has also become an important part of how I process the complexity of being alive in this socially heated time and space. Whether it’s sexual violence and #MeToo or one of South Africa’s many long-running political debates, there’s a huge amount to think about. Whenever I try to engage with  such ideas on social media I find I quickly get lost in the noise. But when I create a piece of art from an idea or a debate I get to work slowly through many different feelings and thoughts on a subject. 

One of the ways I do this is to develop my own set of archetypes, which recur through my work. For example, I have one archetype called Aaliyah — a direct reference to the hip-hop star who came to prominence under R Kelly’s dubious wing

So, Aaliyah Under The City looks to capture the emotion of the journey travelled by many young girls seeking to fulfil their life ambitions as they grow into adulthood — forced, of course, to navigate sexual coercion along the way. The piece highlights how many Aaliyahs are trapped “under the city”, challenged by their aspirations and the reality of a sexually violent world. In The Occupation of Aaliyah, the work takes a different view. This time the Aaliyah archetype is represented as a land mass, being probed by the forces of dominance and occupation. 


Sometimes I just paint a feeling, or an idea. Taxes, Tithes and Charity, for example, delivers a colourfully chaotic depiction of the country’s commercial and government buildings, all being fed cash by its people — us — while above the scene, plastic recyclers continue their grinding path to the depot, unaffected. Here the idea is simply to reflect through art what we all hear ordinary South Africans saying every day: our social development is stuck in first gear.  

Art has a special magic when it comes to social conversations, because it creates room to talk to people about complicated subjects. Unlike in the digital world, this is generally a warm and engaging experience, no matter what’s being said — or who’s saying it. 

Allow me to introduce you to … a solo exhibition by Robyn Field, runs upstairs at Bamboo, Melville, Johannesburg, from March 19 to 28. Catch it online here.  

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