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Artist Stephanie Neville on how her textile creations weave emotions with femininity
Artist Stephanie Neville.
Textiles are Stephanie Neville’s favourite medium when it comes to expressing her creativity. The 42-year-old South African artist touches on themes such as femininity and the role of women in her colourful, vibrant creations. A resident of Dubai since 1999, she is currently studying for a master’s degree in visual arts and is already popular in the UAE art scene. Neville has exhibited in several Dubai spaces, including ProArt Gallery, where two of her works were included in the recently held group show The Big Picture.
How would you describe your artistic style?
I began with painting only, but in 2009, during my studies for my bachelor’s degree, my art changed completely. Being introduced to conceptual contemporary art and different mediums channelled me into the direction of sculpting and installation art. My works since 2012 have been dealing with personal-relationship issues, which I found to have a universal understanding, specifically in the UAE where people deal with absence and transience. Some of the works tend to be of a confessional nature. I enjoy using a variety of colours and fabrics, and I stitch my works mostly by hand.
How are your largely varied works connected?
I would say they all have an underlying feminine attitude. By that I mean that since I am a woman and I work in an ¬autobiographical way, I tend to work with issues related to being feminine. Some of my collections can be seen as feminist, such as Confessions of a Bored Housewife (2013), where I deal with autonomy and sexuality; and Black Beauty (2015), which makes a statement against patriarchy. Femininity, I guess, is more evident in the media I use: sewing, embroidery, knitting and now ceramics. I associate these mediums with a “motherly" sensitivity of caring, nurturing, as well as concepts such as honouring, longing, memory, absence, passing time and loss.
Why are you so fascinated with textiles?
It is not something I can easily explain. Sometimes I wonder if it is a longing for a childhood affection from my mother – since I’ve been living abroad for more than 20 years. My mother is a dressmaker, and since I was born, I played with textiles in her work studio, made my own doll clothes. Maybe it is just something that was born into me and is finally coming to fruition.
Your most recent group show, The Big Picture, has two of your works: Black Beauty I and Bean Bag. Can you tell us more about these works?
I have dealt a lot with emotional and sensual aspects of the self, and these works are connected to that. Bean Bag is a fun, interactive work and it is meant to be sat on. The shape shifts as people sit on it and it can be plumped up again. The work also has an organic feel to it, reminiscent of sea anemone or blooming flora. Black Beauty I is modelled after the Burj Khalifa. I used only black fabrics for this soft sculpture, to mimic the national black dress of the women. The concept behind this work stems from the idiom that behind every successful man there is a woman.
What has been your involvement with Mangroves from the Water?
This was a group exhibition, which toured in Abu Dhabi, Sharjah, Umm Al Quwain and Dubai. When I met Zahidah Zeytoun Millie, the curator, I was not aware that the mangroves in Umm Al Quwain were unprotected. I felt it was important to do site-specific work to raise awareness of this beautiful habitat and to show people who do not have the chance to visit, what it actually looks like. I did several pieces of art, which included I’ll Keep You Safe (2015) – photographs of the mangrove trees covered in knitted blankets. For this, I drew the connection between the conceptual use of the motherly medium with the protection and care for the environment or Mother Nature.

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