The first time I encountered the work of Philiswa Lila was at Melrose Gallery in Johannesburg. The work looked like something out of the spiritual realm. It looked like wisps of smoke emanating out of a canvas, floating above it. It looked like whispers, like how one would represent hushed tones using a paint brush. It felt like a prayer, the kind that you feel in the gut; a glimpse through the veil into another world, eerie, full of mysteries and possibilities. The work I saw was a set of five unframed paintings called Umcimbi, 30cm x 40cm in size. The paint work is abstract; peculiar shapes that resemble sheep’s wool, except with fluidity, in brown, amber, yellow, white, grey and black. The shapes are deliberate and captivating, and beholding these artworks, you can’t help but think, art is indeed a higher form of prayer, a divine chant, in oil, on canvas.

That initial reaction made sense when I looked Lila up and read about her and watched her interviews. She consistently says her purpose is to do artwork that lives to her name;  a Xhosa name, derived from the verb ‘phila’ which means ‘live.’ But her name means more than just living, though. It communicates the intention of healing on another, by another, in the sense of one breathing life into another. It speaks of a transition, from being unwell, to not only being better, but to being alive.

Lila’s work heals by interrogating the individual stories that make us. The works are a personal pilgrimage that connect a person to generations. There’s a strong sense of agency that she gives to emotions as a legitimate part of our personhood, and there is an acknowledgement of individuals’ stories as singular truths in a collective narrative. This approach brings nuance to histories that are often told in broad strokes. It brings specificity to histories that lean on simple narratives which omit much of the depth of African experiences. Her work is a reverence of the self that sincerely asserts individual bodies as ancient scrolls with the sacred text of personal lived experiences. It’s personal, yet so grand. In capturing these stories, she is interested in remembering by way of oral tradition, using memory – a craft that leans on trust in oneself, trust in the others and trust in the community.

Born in Mthatha, in the Eastern Cape, her interest in art started at an early age, although the possibility of a career in art then seemed far removed from her primary school going reality. She loved drawing illustrations and as she grew older, the realisation that her talent could be honed in as a skill led her to an art institution. She enrolled at Tshwane University of Technology in Pretoria in the Faculty of Fine and applied Arts. In her career so far, she has worked in spaces that echo the place of art in the community. She worked as an education assistant at the Pretoria Art Museum where her interest in art history was fed. She has lectured, curated exhibitions, facilitated experiential workshops and been an active art critic in the media. She ran an art workshop for children to help secure for the future, citizens with an appreciation for art – future artists, consumers, supporters and investors in the arts. She has had three residences in Paris, Johannesburg and Cape Town. Her first solo titled Skin, Bone, Fire: The First Album, opened this year and traveled around the country before the COVID-19 lockdown. 

Skin, Bone, Fire: The First Album features beadwork, sculptures and paintings. Much like the Umcimbi series, the paintings are gripping. Many of the canvases are composed of unusual, flowing shapes in colours that relate to the elements of earth, fire, water and wind. The shapes are the result of circular strokes that are not perfect circles, but have a fluidity that relates to wisps of smoke, the fluidity of water, and wind, and clouds. The effect is wispy and the shapes seem to be hovering just above the canvas. There is also a point of view that would see these shapes as the marbled  and bleeding colours of earth, made up of different colour clays. The shapes could also be seen as the thick flames of a potent fire. They seem to ebb and flow with a quiet power that draws you in and infects you. The work has a particular aura that secures its otherworldliness, its sacredness. It feels like it meets you at a metaphysical point, and draws you into a place which is safe enough for you to interrogate your own self.

The beadwork is reminiscent of traditional Xhosa beadwork, both in structural sculptures and in freeform. The sculptures are beadwork and found wood. The freeform beadwork features interrogations into women and their place in society, particularly traditional Xhosa society. Each of these freeform pieces is named with a feminine name, and is presented in its fluidity to take the shapes of our stories. 

Prior to this successful solo, Lila has been part of a number of group exhibitions at galleries and art fairs around the country which include the Joburg Art Fair, Bag Factory Artists’ Studios, Fried Contemporary, ABSA KNKK Festival. In 2018, she won the prestigious Absa L’Atelier Gerard Sekoto Award and in 2019, legendary South African artist and cultural icon, Dr. Esther Mahlangu, selected Lila as a her ‘artist to watch’ in the 2019 SEED auction. She is represented by the edgy, Melrose Gallery, in Melrose Arch, Johannesburg. 

The layers in her work peel off to reveal more influences, such as domestic animals and their place in African culture. For instance, the inclusion of the shapes that look like sheep’s wool make for interesting interrogation. In capturing and representing part of their physical form, she also presents their symbolic presence which connects to spirituality, ancestry and connection. Umcimbi is when a family or clan gathers for traditional rituals, and at these events, a sheep is killed and used for the traditional ritual. The spilling of its blood is a key part of the ritual that connects people to their ancestors, and the meat from the slain animal is the meal for the day. You get this depth in the work, in its interaction with memory and therefore, meaning. Lila has the gift of taking subjects that seem commonplace in African memory structures and elevating them to a transcendence of sorts. It’s so personal, yet so grand and affirming. It reminds us all that we are archives, unto ourselves, of the stories that make our people. 

Lila makes art that compels people to reflect on the their time. Whether it be a sculpture or beadwork or a painting, there is an interrogation of memory that uncovers the truths of the past as held by people, decodes the present as lived by people. The result is a meditative, transcendent experience that heals, and promises a future.  

You can view her portfolio here>>> 

You can view the catalogue for Skin, Bone, Fire: The First Album here>>>

Her first solo, Skin, Bone, Fire: The First Album, can be viewed in 3D here>>>

For more information on Philiswa Lila, her Instagram profile is here>>>