In the world of art and design, the eye has long symbolised insight, wisdom, protective oversight and enlightenment. Writer and creative content consultant Modupe Oloruntoba interviewed makers, designers and artists from around the country, continent and globe who have tapped into the symbolism of the eye
For all of us, 2020 fundamentally shifted perspectives. If art mirrors life, what better place to turn for clues about the collective experience than the creatives who record, inspire and influence the way we live through their art and designs. Their answers, like their work, show the world its reflection and give us a 2020-shaped understanding of the eye as an emblem, observation as a practice, and perspective as an ever-changing lens.
“When I look back on 2020, I’m grateful that I got the time to reflect and curate the type of style and mediums that I have wanted to explore with my art. I’m challenging societal norms. I’m sending out a message that things don’t have to be the way that you’re used to seeing them. To me, the eye reflects the soul and the truth. When you’re happy, sad or excited all those emotions show in the eye. We’re all individuals, we all process information differently, and that’s okay. I always try to use my platform to shine a light on issues. The world is in a lot of pain. In South Africa it’s not only Covid that has affected us deeply this past year, but also gender-based violence, which is a pandemic of its own that needs immediate attention. That’s why I celebrate women and girls through my art. I’ve always intended for my art to be a conversation starter – a conversation where there’s no right or wrong answer, just a good dialogue between individuals with each one understanding each other’s perspectives without judgement.” – Khanyisa Klaas : @khanyeek
“We had some major changes in our lives in 2020. For one thing, our daughter was born, which meant a shift for us in addition to Covid. Owning one’s own voice in all the noise of the world is very important to us. It is a continuous cyclical process of inner reflection and growth, followed by outer observation and consumption, then inner reflection and growth again, and so on. When we design we go into isolation to come up with ideas before we start looking around at what has been done. This allows us a unique starting point to grow from. Life has to be fun, and designing lighting – with its endless possibilities – is fun. This object is present in your space day and night, so it needs to be well considered even when it’s not switched on. Just standing around is one of its functions and it justifies putting on some lipstick and making it look good. Like one of Dali’s clocks, our Moonjelly lamps bring the contrasts together of the structured graphic pattern and melting glass orb. Using glass as a medium opened the door for these light sculptures. Manipulating the molten glass over the structures like deflated balloons was one of the most exciting processes we have done. Things are hot, instant and fragile. You have to be in the moment, observe and make decisions fast.” – Adriaan Hugo and Katy Taplin : @dokterandmisses
“When the pandemic broke out, everything I had planned for my business got immediately cancelled. I found myself rearranging my life. I knew this was a chance to refine myself and become more precise with my artistic goals. I owe my career to Instagram. It’s a tool in which I practice my craft and share my creative thought. It’s my studio and also my Broadway where I put on a show every night and get my applause and validation. It’s a source of so many satisfying and positive aspects of my artistic life. I always say that an artist isn’t someone who has skills or is talented; an artist is someone who feels, sees and internalises their experiences and then expresses them in a way that others feel them too. We were automatically more tuned in as the noise subsided. Creativity became a hot commodity. Self-exploration has never been more in demand. As a child I was drawing on all my books and notebooks, an eternal doodler. That never left me. I humanise inanimate objects, perhaps in part due to being so sensitive. I have a very vivid imagination and see faces everywhere. It can be quite therapeutic actually. I often feel like there is more than meets the eye and it can take just an extra split-second to spot it. A small, thin line, put in the right place, can say more than an entire painting – and that’s what interests me the most.” – Shira Barzilay : @koketit
“My process really slowed down dramatically during the hard lockdown, which left me feeling quite anxious. Wanting to be fully present in this time of rapid change, but having a looming deadline, set in what seemed like another time, was pretty unsettling. After months of feeling blocked, I finally found a joyous seam to explore. Once I did things started to flow and I found the process of making the work a kind of therapy; a colour therapy. I have always been attentive to the detail in the inanimate and animate world around me; the colours, shapes, textures, patterns, shadows and how they play with or off each other. Contrasts. My child has such a fresh approach to it all, a natural sense of wonder. I have found that while spending time with him exploring the world around us, I am able to reconnect with this state that’s sometimes dormant inside. He helps me to slow down, dawdle, wander and get lost in the magic of it all. What a joy! I felt a strong urge to witness the ebb and flow of nature, of Mother Earth breathing, during lockdown. The conscious act of quietly witnessing without wanting to change things feels important. I feel that awareness is an act of love. A reciprocal one. The eye in my work, or many eyes in many shades, symbolise us all – all unique yet part of the whole. Togetherness. Oneness.” – Chloe Townsend : @missibaba
“2020 forced a career shift for me that was coming for some time. I’d been at a company for five years working on the same brand. It was time for a change and it’s been really good for me. It’s challenged me and evolved me. The transition between full-time and freelance has been quite an adjustment. It felt really weird at first, sort of like I was floating, and I didn’t really know what I was doing. Things slowed down, but for the better. As difficult as 2020 was, I think it was an important ‘internal’ year for everyone: It’s changed a lot of people for the better because we’ve been forced to deal with our thoughts and issues, instead of going out the whole time and distracting ourselves. Everyone has grown this year in some weird way. I see the world in colours. I’m obsessed. I struggle to watch movies and series because I just get distracted by colour palettes.” – Xee Summer : @xee_summer
“Before Covid, I went every week, sometime two times, to Brussels to buy antiques and vintage pieces for my projects. I miss the inspiration. I miss the travelling and seeing things. But I must say, I have more time for my books, and maybe if you cannot visit in real life you get empty. And when you get empty, you have more space for inspiration. I’m not so into smell or touching, and I’m not auditive, but my eyes are the most important things in my life. If I had no eyes, my life would not make sense anymore. I started collecting eyes when I was doing a project in Malta. I visited the Malta Maritime Museum, and at the souvenir shop I bought a replica of an eye the fishermen paint on their boats to protect themselves from evil spirits at sea. For my book of interiors, titled Fearless Living, I made a fabric of eyes. The eye is a symbol against fear and for me living without fear is daring to choose. Most clients I see don’t dare to choose anymore, and that’s why they all end up with white interiors. People are afraid of choices, afraid to say they would love a red dining room or a floral bathroom; afraid all the time. For the Limited Edition carpet collaboration I did in 2020, I collected some eye artefacts and souvenirs from all cultures and then gave them to a friend of mine who is an artist. I chose a selection with Limited Edition and we decided on colours. I wanted pastels and for the shape of the carpet to be a little eye-shaped. I believe beautiful things – heritage, landscapes, museums and art – connect people. Inspiration has no limits; it is everywhere; it connects people. ” – Jean-Philippe Demeyer : @jpdemeyer
“Due to spending so much time at home in 2020, I became more structured about my time and had more energy to produce. Nothing about the artistic process changed, but the systems around it did. I believe an artist never stops observing the world. It’s a 24/7 practice, both conscious and unconscious. My influences aren’t static, but they change with how the world moves and where I find myself in it. For example, as we become more conscious of the importance of nature, so has my attention shifted there. I find a lot of humour in the small things, and it usually comes out of a period of over-seriousness. Like a dance, I move between the two. Tightness to looseness. With the cushions and rugs I made at the South African Patternlab, it was the first time I allowed myself time to think about my own home, and not just for others. The home is really an expression of self, and a space that one actually needs to want to be in. I’ve created all sorts of different rooms in my flat for my different interests. A play/studio room full of colour and toys. A zen bedroom with wood and white for just relaxing. A fun living room with music and plants. I love seeing my cat finding her different favourite spots, too. She loves the wool rugs.” – Renée Rossouw : @reneerossouwstudio
“I’ve been making ceramics since 1975, and have been able to support myself and others over the decades. We rely on the tourist trade and that has dried up completely, so 2020 was a very challenging year. In order to stay afloat we are reinventing all the time. I’m revisiting earlier themes in my work and reinterpreting them into a more contemporary context. This has resulted in something fresh and cheerful called the Fusion Collection. I think colour and pattern are important to inject into the zeitgeist right now. I am greatly inspired and influenced by abstract painters of the past mid-century, including Miro, Kandinsky, Malevich. I work in a haptic, intuitive manner – it’s not conceptual. Spiritual, esoteric, emotional portraits, perhaps. There’s a renewed value of living and valuing every moment to the full, ‘carpe diem!’ A realisation that everyone – even the experts – are fallible. We’re all just ordinary human beings trying to survive. I still produce my work with the motto to ‘seek the sacred in the ordinary’. Everyday life and its experiences are what interest me. This has been affirmed by the way we are living now. In a sense we are very much involved in how we spend our days, in an intimate, slower way. Because that is all there is. Just this day, this moment. And so drinking a beverage from a favourite cup or eating from a particular bowl in a highly focused way encourages mindfulness and enhances living in the moment.” – Clementina van der Walt : @clementinaceramics
“I have been photographing solitude ever since I started photography, mainly because I realize how lonely a man can become when imprisoned in his own mind. Some of my pictures show two people together, but each one is generally drowned in his own thoughts. The problem, the real problem, is that we do not conceive our planet as one big family. If we did we would have been stronger together against any potential threat. We lack communication. We fear one another and we do not realise we could gain so much by just reaching out and learning how to trust and share. But this is how we are and this is what I want to show. We are all this lonely man, lost in a world he created with his own hands. The pandemic has kept me home, that’s really the only thing that’s changed, but a photographer’s imagination is limitless. Especially when he is sensitive to details like light or textures. I love capturing geometry and architecture seems like the perfect battlefield for that purpose. I could spend days watching the effect of light on a specific surface, contemplating its different tonalities. This is how obsessed I can be by details that would seem ridiculous to others. So yes, the pandemic may have changed my ability to leave home whenever I want to, but instead I can fly away with my mind whenever I need to.” – Serge Najjar : @serjios
“I feel like this pandemic has been a crash course in what matters. Health matters. Mental health matters. Black lives matter. Freedom matters. Nature matters. This planet matters. Family and friends matter. Work matters. I’ve seen a surge in support of my work and the work of artists around me. I launched #1000loverseyes on Valentine’s Day 2020. The first batch of 12 commissioned pendants sold out in minutes. I had been putting this project together for over two years and had no idea whether it would be well received, so the support was overwhelming. Reading through the stories behind why each person was commissioning a specific eye was simultaneously heartbreaking, affirming, tragic and beautiful – mothers who had lost sons; a tiny premature baby who had made it after months in the NICU; a woman in love with the crinkles in the corner of her husband’s eyes and the crazy way his eyebrows sweep up at the corner. The pandemic hit straight after I started taking orders. I was hesitant to release another set of slots when it felt like the world was struggling financially. But again, they sold. And I got to work, painting these little eyes with the stories behind them. It’s hard to express my gratitude for this project. Every piece feels like a gift – the fact that I get to make a precious heirloom for someone. I ended 2020 completing 40/1000. The eyes are quite a bit smaller than my usual paintings, but this hasn’t really been the challenge for me. The hardest thing is trying to capture the eye of someone who has passed away using only very grainy, out-of-focus pictures. In these cases, rather than relying on specific lines or colours, I try to express the person’s character. I want the recipient to get a real sense of the person behind the eye. I think artists have a precious opportunity to present a different version of the same reality. That’s where a lot of the magic lies, in the shifting of perspectives. 2020 put a macro lens on all of our lives, and it’s never been more important to examine our place and purpose in the world, the way we live our lives and the effects that our actions have.” – Lorraine Loots : @lorraineloots
Modupe Oloruntoba is a writer and creative consultant whose lens is focused on beauty and fashion. She was introduced to fashion media after graduating as a fashion designer in 2013 and has been writing ever since for the likes of Vogue Arabia, Refinery29, Man Repeller, GQ South Africa, Fashionista.com and more. Find her on Instagram @drivingmsdupsie.