Intraparadox: Zyman Amien’s “Real” lives and “Ordinary” objects

» Zyma Amien’s solo exhibition at the Pretoria Art Museum, Real’ lives and “Ordinary” objects: Partisan art-making strategies with garment workers of the Western Cape – Continuation  is part of the SASOL New Signatures Art Competition’s previous winner for 2016 continues the journey from where the winning work Paying Homage left off. The exhibition is a grand gesture of what the artist was preoccupied with then in a discursive journey that has also fed into her Masters studies. Presently she goes on an all out assault discourse tackling the reality of the garment factory worker. This is the exclusive interview I conducted with her on the morning of 31 August 2017


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Zyma Amien’s solo exhibition at the Pretoria Art Museum, Real’ lives and “Ordinary” objects: Partisan art-making strategies with garment workers of the Western Cape – Continuation  is part of SASOL New Signatures Art Competition 2016 overall winner’s solo exhibition and accompanies the main 2017 art competition exhibition. A competition which historically speaking this year takes a step in an uncharted territory in South Africa with regard to this year’s winner Lebohang Khanye. Of course art by its internal nature of conception is very individualist and subjective. And as I have always said somewhere in my many conversations with both of those within the circle of this industry and those at the peripheral – it is an unfair affair from the context of competition as the artist is a product of social circumstances. The artist has to battle with social circumstances of their birth and art education in order to emerge amongst the best in a hostile industry that can proclaim you a contemporary artist at this instance only to replace you with another artist a few month later if not weeks or days. However Kganye’s win of this year’s edition of SASOL New Signatures has its merit. Talk of the charm of using a medium that was already there but pushing it further in an attempt to see what can be achieved with it. Encapsulate it with a personal anecdote and what you have is a balanced piece with both content and form intact. Although video as an art form in this country has not really taken off with the mainstream art supporting society its presence is being significantly felt here and there for its performative  mode. Like the late Dot Vermeulen before her, we are about to find out where Lebohang Kganye will take video installation come 2018 this time of the year.

But I will have to disappoint you as my present exposition is not about Khanye, I have merely usurped her latest achievements here in order to floor lay the carpet to re-introduce last year’s winner of this art competition, Zyma Amien. Amien’s ‘real’ lives and ‘Ordinary’ objects solo exhibition continues the journey from where the winning work Paying Homage left off. The exhibition is a grand discursive gesture of what has preoccupied the artist over the years with regard to the garment factory workers. A preoccupation which has also fed into Amien’s Masters studies with the University of Cape Town. Presently she goes on an all out assault discourse tackling the reality of the garment factory workers through installation art, prints and mix media works. To those unfamiliar with the artist’s work, sewing machine, pins, needles and gauze serves as base materials for Amien’s artistic production; her vehicle is new media.


Taking cue from the title and what I have just said now concerning the plight of the garment factory worker, looking at the exhibition, you would not necessarily be reacquainted with Marxism on a pedagogical level or philosophical level, so to speak, but on a more intimate practical level as the artist takes you through a journey of the exploitation of the silent worker in the context of garment production industry. Fissile, you see this succinctly in the work Re-Sil-i-ence.  

The artist here is concerned with the silence and faceless existence of the worker. Of the fourteen factory sewing machine which the artist has collected for the purposes of erecting two main installations Paying Homage and Re-Sil-i-ence only one has a personal affinity to her as it was used by her grandmother. Amien points out that just like the garment factory worker, at the end of their career the machines are discarded to make way for new ones. Symbolically through the work Re-Sil-i-ence the artist draws similarities between the machines and the worker in terms of their uniform operation in the assembly line of the factory operation and their discadure when they are old and worn out.

The gauze curtained overall in exaggerated lengths and heights adorns one side of the South Gallery. This work entitled Paying Homage is seemingly in direct conversation with the sewing machines wherein about five to seven meters of curtain is being sown with different items as if in an assembly line that forms the installation entitled Re-Sil-i-ence. We see also that nine of these machines pin down the gauze overalls in an alternating arrangement in Paying Homage while some of the seventeen gauze overalls are not pinned down; in a sense this creates rhythm. Amien speaks about how the factory worker mostly working in a ‘sweat shop like environment’ is pinned down by the long working hours, the long journey to and from work and the fact that in an assembly line setting of the factory each worker is allocated a specific part of garment construction and they may not learn other aspects of making clothing except what they have been assigned to do. For instance if one is employed as a button faster that’s the only task they will do until they retire. Sadly the worker is forced by circumstances of their employment condition to end up going for their government retirement pension without actually learning anything else except what their function has been within the garment factory work environment.    


Coming back to the central work itself Re-Sil-i-ence. Here you have a long gauze fabric making its way through five sewing machines which alter the fabric in five different ways. At one point it is just a stich patch work meticulously done in elongated rectangular shapes, next to it is a heap of gauzes which metaphorically speaking represents garments that needs to be worked on still. Then buttons of various shapes sewn randomly, and its own heap of buttons on the floor. One notices how on the floor you have a multitude of colored buttons in different sizes contrasted to the white buttons on the work station which are uniform in shape and white in colour.  This deviation from expected resonance is carried over to the last part of the installation wherein you have a heap of multi colored zips on the floor in direct contrast with those on the gauze material itself which are light beige and seem to be faded into the gauze material itself. The two installation Re-Sil-i-ence and Paying homage are in direct conversation with each other; however in particular Re-Sil-i-ence carries the discourse further as far as the artist’s practice development around the present theme is concerned.  Amien speaks about how with Paying Homage she was particularly interested in the shadows that the gauze garment cast on the wall of the gallery. The shadows casted on the wall like the old discarded sewing machines symbolizes the workers themselves. You don’t get to see them or hear their plight but what they produce, which is clothes, comes into contact with your skin.


The hahnemühle prints Trade-on and Toil carries on the shadow-ghost like presents of the garment worker and connects effortlessly with Paying homage in terms of the ladies overall the work represent. This is still gauze but prints of it; it is but prints of shadows of an overalls made out of gauze. This underlying meaning of imagery is also carried in the titling of the work of Amien in its totality. She drew my attention to the work Re-Sil-i-ence as having the word ‘silence’ within it which signifies the silence with which the worker has to Toil within the factory with only the machines making the noise as the factory garment worker Trade-on their skills for a job that does not come with benefits let alone a living wage.

Like all great art, ‘Real’ lives and ‘Ordinary’ People does not suggest solutions to the human condition but makes it succinctly bare for a keen eye to behold and ponder. There are smaller works which accompany the two installations in this exhibition which I have referred to but these serves as hoists in the exhibition; although by collectable standards they are agreeable but this exhibition is powerful from the vantage point of installation art in the light of the work Re-Sil-i-ence and Paying Homage. Amien’s work’s campaign’s work is within the contemporary notion of what should be or could be.

Real’ lives and “Ordinary” objects: Partisan art-making strategies with garment workers of the Western Cape – Continuation closes on 8 October 2017 at the Pretoria Art Museum.


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© mmutle arthur kgokong 2017