Marli Steyl; Artist Statement

Last edited: Oct 2020

Marli Steyl in Studio.jpg

I am a fine artist working mainly in oils and alcohol ink. My point of origin is my place as a young, white, Afrikaans-speaking female in post-colonial,  post-Apartheid South Africa.


I have been sheltered in my parents’ middle-class, suburban home in Randburg, Johannesburg. As I venture outside this privilege I was born into, I am frequently challenged to question my identity and the advantages I have been afforded.


Family photographs are the source material for many of my paintings. They are snapshots of the joyous experiences and memorable moments of my parents and grandparents from the 1930s to the early 1990s. I return to these images with difficulty as they resemble the memories and histories of many Afrikaner families during the Apartheid years. Documented moments of joy that appear to disregard political and social wrongs of the time. 


In post-Apartheid South Africa, I feel that many white, Afrikaans-speaking people need rehabilitation. I, therefore, use my art to explore the past and present to reconcile the privilege of my birth, and the pride and love for my heritage, with being truly South African in our new democracy.  


Family photographs are a continuous source of inspiration, as well as conflict, as it is in the family environment that beliefs and attitudes about race, gender and sexuality are fostered and perpetuated.


To illustrate the above, I would like to introduce two of my works: in the painting Sitting Pretty, my grandmother is sitting on a park bench wearing a red sweater with her hands neatly folded in her lap. Her figure is detailed and realistic but the brushstrokes around her are harsh, almost devouring the tiny woman.

Sitting Pretty, Oil on Board, 2019

The fragility of the woman depicted in the painting represents the ideal for femininity during the Nationalist government years. Women were expected to be well-groomed and put together and to perform the role of submissive wife and full-time mother. It was this “ordentlikheid” (Van Der Westhuizen 2013) that defined femininity but in the same breath gave way to the acceptance of gender discrimination and violence.

Volksmoeder, Marli Steyl, Oil on Board,

In another work titled Volksmoeder/Mother of a Nation, the subject matter (as in the previous work) was taken from my grandmother’s photo album with the baby in the painting is my mother. I drew my inspiration from the desire to explore the family as an institutional source and perpetuation of Afrikaner nationalism during the Apartheid years.

I hint at two thoughts: the first being that the family environment was the foundation for the teaching and internalisation of Apartheid dogmas. The second examines the woman’s role as a mother and the belief that she had only fulfilled her purpose when she bore white children from her breadwinner husband.  ​


In creating these two works not only as a young, Afrikaans-speaking artist but also as daughter and granddaughter, I was left confused with conflicting emotions. I love and admire the women in these works; they have raised me and love me fully. But could they, and could I, move beyond the conditioning of the Apartheid years?

Thus, my art practice is aimed at constructing a new identity by exploring the past and challenge heteropatriarchy and racism in my past and present.

Marli Steyl Art 2021 (17)-min.JPG