The Birthday Party II (above) is the painting that helped young artist Ravelle Pillay win first prize in the Emerging Painting Invitational competition this year. Pillay works primarily with drawing and painting, exploring themes around family, migration, nostalgia, and memory. Although oil painting is a traditional medium, Pillay has developed a contemporary ‘language’ within it, which she uses “to hit at truths or deceptions on the surface of the canvas in ways that words cannot do”. Her intention as an artist is to provoke and prod at the ingrained ideas we hold. She is interested in the way we remember things, whether it is history, ourselves, other people, as well as the interplay between personal and collective memory.


Ravelle Pillay

Ravelle Pillay was born in 1993, in Durban, although she grew up in Johannesburg. Her family were initially quite unhappy with her decision to study art “it was hard to get them to see that it was what I was meant to be doing, but eventually they did. Their trepidation came mostly from the fact that they had hard lives and they didn’t want their children to go through the same when they had sacrificed so much to give us better opportunities”. Despite this, her family have always been supportive of her choice. She obtained a Fine Art Degree from the University of The Witwatersrand in 2015, and currently lives and works in Johannesburg. Her work has been exhibited at several group shows and art-fairs in Cape Town and Johannesburg.


Ravelle Pillay acknowledges that getting an art career off the ground can be challenging, necessitating her having to work on the administrative side of the art world, as a studio manager and cataloguer while also trying to make art. It is only recently that she has acquired studio space and been able to work as a full time artist. She believes that it takes time, access to materials and opportunities, as well as the space to think and work to be able to be an artist. 

 Pillay’s paintings draw heavily on archival material to recreate images of past events. She says, “I…borrow from my family’s personal archives and many of the characters and scenes reference family photographs. I am quite interested in the process of life making post-indenture and the intertwining of individual lives, cultures and senses of place and belonging…I borrow from the personal family photos of friends, or from research, off the internet or from television shows or newspapers. I think what I am doing with painting stems from this idea of interconnectedness” 

The ‘process of life making post indenture’ that Pillay talks about is really an attempt to understand how South African Indians fashioned a social, cultural and economic life for themselves in a foreign country after indenture ended. 

Ravelle Pillay, Black Water (2021) oil on canvas. 100 x 120 cm.

The image above, titled Black Water features a hazy image of several people in a boat on the water. In Hinduism the ‘black water’ (kala pani1) refers to the belief that leaving India and crossing the sea into a foreign land would result in a loss of caste and social respectability. When Indian indentured labourers came to South Africa, they feared this loss. Although this painting is not necessarily just about the experience of indentured labourers, Pillay concedes that it is related;

“I am quite interested in what it meant to sever yourself from the Ganges and your mother country, partly due to my own heritage…I am greatly concerned with the natural world, especially bodies of water and the connection of people to the ocean, as well as to migration and mass movement over the sea. I am also interested in the significance of rivers and other bodies of water to groups of people, and similarly to the idea of a hungry, desirous landscape – bodies of water that hold things. Memories, ghosts, bodies, vessels etc”(Pillay)

Ravelle Pillay, Untitled (2021) oil on canvas.

Consider the two paintings, Untitled (above) and Passage (below) which feature people within the landscape and allude to Pillay’s beliefs about memory, land, colonialism and migration. As she explains;

Ravelle Pillay, Passage (2022) oil on canvas, 91.5 x 91.5 cm

“I am very interested in the landscape(s), its agency and its desires as well as the traces of people who have walked through them. I think the plant life and landscapes in the work are as alive and autonomous as the individual human subjects are. In a way I consider the painting process or the act of looking to be communion with the ghosts populating the imagination, our histories, and the landscape today. The past in my mind is a living thing, never finished but sort of hanging about us”(Pillay).

Ravelle Pillay, Tender Things (2021) oil on canvas, 91.5 x 91.5 cm

Pillay is reluctant to assign fixed meanings to any of her paintings, since she believes that each viewer should bring something of their own to the understanding of the piece. While some works, for example Tender Things, are quite straightforward depicting what appears to be a young father with his baby, others can be more layered with meaning.

For the older generation, paintings, like The Birthday Party II (featured image) and Untitled (below) can create nostalgic memories of large family gatherings, while for younger viewers they may offer a glimpse of a past that they do not know. She believes that in this post-colonial moment, many young people are interested in ‘excavation’ and discovering more about who they are and where they come from. She states, “now… more than ever, work is being done to understand the past, understand the legacies of Apartheid, or indenture or Empire, or even family. A lot of young people are making this kind of work that resonates with me in the thirst to unearth or to understand”(Pillay).

Ravelle Pillay, Untitled (2021) oil on canvas

 According to Rosa Boshier, when used by diasporic writers, nostalgia becomes a tool for cultural resiliency and restoration (https://lithub.com/for-diasporic-writers-nostalgia-is-a-powerful-tool-for-engaging-home). Ravelle Pillay uses nostalgia in her art, allowing us to re-examine and remember the past. As a group, South African Indians have had a fractured and contentious history determined by indenture and apartheid. The emphasis on strong family bonds, together with religious and cultural support systems, allowed the Indian community to create a life for themselves in South Africa. Pillay holds up images of our past lived experience as a means of helping us restore our cultural heritage, and identity.


  1. Desai & Vahed, Inside Indenture

Email interview with Ravelle Pillay (25 /03 /2022)




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