Art Career Museum

Ravelle Pillay. Idyll

Chisenhale gallery. London 24 February 2023 – 23 April 2023

Idyll – a peaceful or picturesque scene, typically idealised – is the title of Johannesburg-based artist Ravelle Pillay’s first UK solo exhibition. Eight new oil paintings on canvas, ranging from near life-size to smaller portals, are hung alongside a series of Indian ink drawings on translucent acetate. Connecting sites of enduring personal interest to the fallibility of memory, Idyll continues the artist’s reflections on how we remember – history, places and people.

Ravelle Pillay, (Production Image) (2022) Commissioned and produced by Chisenhale Gallery. Image courtesy the artist

Working primarily in painting, Pillay’s practice evolves from a personal process of archiving, drawing equally from family photographs and found imagery to map life-making in the wake of mass migration. As a descendent of Indian indentured workers – a system of contracted servitude, by which Indians were transported to European colonies for labour, following the abolition of slavery in the 19th century – Pillay’s paintings are haunted by a personal relationship to legacies of colonialism and migration. 

The instruction (A gathering of friends) (2022) Oil on canvas 250x200cm

“I am descended from indentured labourers – a story that’s not really told in South Africa, even among descendants. Indian indenture started in the 1830s when people who had been affected by famine and poverty in colonial India were transported all over the world – Trinidad, Guyana, Natal, Réunion, Mauritius, Fiji and elsewhere – to fill the labour shortages that resulted from the British abolition of trans-Atlantic slavery in 1807. In terms of my own familial history, the first person I could find traces of was my paternal grandmother’s grandmother, Athilatchmy Velu Naicken. She came from Chennai in India, travelling with a sister and a brother to South Africa on a ship called the Laurel. From what I could find, she was from a village called Yathavoor in a province called Salem. Salem is in the South of India, in Tamil Nadu. My mother’s family are from the north of India, and were a different caste of people with a different language, but they arrived under the same circumstances”, Ravelle Pillay says

Victory (flesh that weeps) fragment. (2023) Oil on canvas 250x200cm

Attuned to the ways nature can serve as both a witness to, and host of violence and trauma, Pillay’s landscapes are punctuated by plantlife that hold complex histories – banana and palm trees recur throughout. Thick with lush vegetation and flooded by swampy waters, each panorama threatens to engulf the ghostly figures that haunt it. Where viscous bodies of water pool deep and canopies cascade and conceal, figures fade away – spectral but ever-present. 

Untitled (2023) 10 drawings on truegrain acetate 297x420mm

Throughout the exhibition, motifs repeat to create an uncanny familiarity; bodies of water are doubled and forms are tirelessly reworked. By concentrating and layering paint, whilst simultaneously diluting and rubbing out, Pillay exercises her own agency in reshaping familial and national narratives. Merging the archival and imaginary, this new body of work considers the material possibilities of the medium, offering painting as a mediation between past and present, memory and experience.


Ravelle Pillay is a South African artist living and working in Johannesburg. She holds a degree in Fine Art from the University of the Witwatersrand and is the recipient of the 2022 African Art Galleries Association’s Emerging Painting Invitational for painters from the African continent. Her work featured at Frieze London 2022, and she was in residence at Gasworks, London from October to December 2022.

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