By Margarita Kataga

Lately, more specifically since December 2023, high up on the exterior of the EMST building, we find the neon title What if women ruled the world? inspired by the work of the same name by Yael Bartana (2017).

On 17/5 the public had the opportunity to see the third part of the cycle of exhibitions, inspired by the curator and artistic director of EMST Katerina Gregou, aiming to raise awareness of the general public towards the contribution of women in society, the management of governance and justice issues in society at large. The cycle of exhibitions conceived by her raises in multi-dimensional manifestations the question of how the world could be put on a healthier footing with the affection and empathy that often define womanhood.

On the occasion of the question of the role of women in history and in ” the present “, we had the opportunity to experience the major retrospective exhibition, the first in Europe, of the Greek-born South African artist Penny Siopis, entitled “For Dear Life”. Paintings, videos, sculptures, installations with personal objects, with themes focused on apartheid, the oppression of the female gender, crime and corruption in colonial conditions and the past of the homeland, make the artist’s multi-experimental model of expression a deeply political work. She delivers both tender and provocative and shocking images of the dark places and history of her country’s colonial past, which has made her one of the most active activists on feminist issues, gender violence and racism, both within and outside the African continent.

Throughout her artistic career, she has dealt with issues such as women’s rights, the consequences of colonialism, human rights and, in particular, memory. There are certain central themes in the exhibition, but there is always a common denominator, which is society, the body and memory,” says EMST director Katerina Gregou.

The South African historical paintings , welcome the public and list elements of South African history and colonialism. The works “Patience on a Monument: ‘A History Painting’” and “Restless Republic: Groundswell“, from the 1980s, resemble monuments with a chaotic flow that reconstruct a subjective, archival interpretation of the oppression suffered by the African population. She said that her historical paintings corresponded to the socio-political problems facing South Africa in the 1980s, while the more recent works focus on the feminist element and the position of women today.

As Ms. Gregou states in her introductory essay, “For fifty years she has been exploring the politics of the body, the trauma as well as the grief and shame inherent in personal and collective stories in her home country, the long-suffering South Africa. Central themes in her work include the persistence and fragility of memory, truth, accountability, the rights of women and marginalized people, vulnerability, and the intricate ties that bind the private and the public.”

In “Cake Paintings”, the first paintings of the early 1980s, the treatment of memory to which Mrs. Gregou refers is discernible, in the series “Pinky Pinky” the container of oppression in the South African regime, while in the series “Shame Paintings”, the autobiographical sense of oppression, corruption, political and personal trauma is discernible.

The exhibition is accompanied by a multi-page catalogue, which includes texts by: Sinazo Chiya, Katerina Gregou, William Kentridge, Achille Mbembe, Pumla Dineo Gqola, Griselda Pollock, Laura Rascaroli, Olga Speakes.


Penny Siopis was born in 1953 in Freiburg, South Africa and lives in Cape Town. She has a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Rhodes University of which she is also an Honorary Doctorate. She is also Professor Emeritus at the Michaelis School of Fine Art at the University of Cape Town.

Her institutional solo exhibitions include 1997 Ongoing, Michaelis Galleries, University of Cape Town (2023); Moving Stories and Travelling Rhythms: Penny Siopis and the Many Journeys of Skokiaan, National Gallery of Zimbabwe, Bulawayo (2019); ‘This is a True Story’: Six Films (1997-2017), Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa, Cape Town (2018); Penny Siopis: Films, Erg Gallery, Brussels (2016)∙ Incarnations, Institute of Contemporary Art Indian Ocean, Port Louis, St. Maarten (2016)∙ Time and Again: A Retrospective Exhibition, South African National Gallery, Cape Town (2014), and Wits Art Museum, Johannesburg (2015); Red: The Iconography of Colour in the Work of Penny Siopis, KZNSA Gallery, Durban (2009), and Three Essays on Shame, Freud Museum, London (2005).

Her major group exhibitions include Trace – Formations of Likeness: photography and video from the Walther Collection, Haus der Kunst, Munich (2023); Enduring Circumstances, Peltz Gallery, Birkbeck, University of London (2022); Shifting Dialogues: Photography from The Walther Collection, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf (2022)∙ Plural Possibilities and the Female Body, Henry Art Gallery, Washington University (2021)∙ Global(e) Resistance, Centre Pompidou, Paris (2020)∙ Indian Ocean Current, McMullen Museum of Art, Boston College, Massachusetts (2020)∙ I Am . Contemporary Women Artists of Africa, Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, Washington, DC (2019)∙ The Lotus in Spite of the Swamp, Prospect. 4, New Orleans (2017)∙ All Things Being Equal, Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa, Cape Town (2017)∙ South Africa.

Alongside Penny Siopis’ multifaceted exhibition is the work of Mary Reid Kelley and Patrick Kelley, The Rape of Europa. The film is based on the Roman myth according to which Zeus, king of the gods, transformed into a bull, forcibly seizes Europa, princess of the Phoenicians and mother of Minos, king of Crete, and, after gaining her trust, rapes her. Through mythology and with subtle shades of humour, the film condemns misogyny and gives a special dimension to the role of women today and the archetypal representation that has defined them throughout the ages.

The fourth and final part of the exhibition cycle What if women ruled the world? opens on 13 June 2024, when the EMST will be entirely occupied by women artists.




Exhibited at -1



17.05 -10.11.2024

-1, Screening Room

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