Hands On

It’s all gold leaves and grit at Ana Pather’s Newtown studio

Words: Serisha Letchmiah-Venter | Photographs: Chisanga Mubanga

Her parents created a South African staple found in millions of homes around the country, and her siblings are Ivy League over-achievers, but Ana Pather gets her warm and fuzzies from something a little more unusual.

Ana's finger painting and performance work has excited the appetites of the city’s art enthusiasts. She debuted at last year’s Joburg Fringe Fair with a digital-meets-real-world driven work of art. A finger-painted sea of eyes swelled on canvas with each physical viewing, as well as with each virtual engagement of her social media profiles. It was a spectacle that saw the viewer become a participant, and found Ana new inspiration. 

“My All Eyes on Me performance that I did at Joburg Fringe last year felt like it was soothing my soul. Particularly because I got to work closely with Tammy Langtry who became my publicist, insta-soul mate, then curator and now muse.”

This is finger-painting for grown ups, though. There are no primary colours and you won’t find any stick figures and sunny domestic scenes – and definitely deserve a better billing than the fridge. Her works are a result of her obsession with tactile exploration.

“The act of painting is almost like making love, during the act your two objects are connected in an intense wave, having a secondary agent like a brush just seems foreign and dishonest to me. I love the feel of the paint on palms and the roughness of raw canvas. It’s a sensual, hedonistic performance that also doesn’t take itself too seriously. I also appreciate the dichotomy of working with chance, allowing the paint to organically pool and spread and simultaneously working with absolute control translating between my fingers and eyes.” 

The 28-year-old Joburger was recently featured as one of the Next Level artists at Heineken’s pop up in Braamfontein. It’s a well-earned title for Ana, who’s been exploring unlikely paths to develop her craft.

“I also lived in the Ithuba Gallery for 72 hours with 20 other artists recreating a French experiment that was inspiring and uncomfortable and like boot-camp for my confidence – which, like every painter's, is plagued by simultaneous arrogance and crippling self-doubt.” 

Her studio is located on the edge of the CBD along the Johannesburg heritage trail, which was home to bus depots, factories and warehouses. As history would have it, Newtown continues as a meeting place for artists and activists, and as a space for exploration. Ana’s second home is part of Assemblage, a collaborative hub for artists that also exists as an online community.

“There are always empty beer bottles everywhere and dirty dishes, but being in a hive of amazing people doing amazing things that blow your mind is immeasurable. The power of conversation between artist and friends is what makes a movement and what moves me.”

When she’s not testing the limits of a work-life balance, Ana keeps strict rules about taking work home with her.

Like her father, who started All Joy Food from his kitchen, Ana finds the home a sanctuary where she meditates on solutions to her work away from the chaos of the studio.

Her environment is a key ingredient to her process, so Ana invited us into her city studio to get a better sense of it all.

Home is anywhere that has beautiful plants, a beautiful muse and my 1000 thread count sheets. The only thing I refused to have is any of my own finished art, once I’m done painting it becomes someone else’s entity. I think because I almost always have turquoise paint somewhere on my body and gold leaf glittering somewhere around me, I try and keep my home grey and calm. So that I have nutty chaos in the studio with paint to throw and fling, where I don’t think I just do and feel, and then composure in my home.

I bring unfinished work home to display working pieces, so I get time to stare at them until I work out what to do next. I think it’s a lightning bolt to my process because I get to sit on the couch or marinate in my shower and still feel like I’m working. 

I work with gold leaf in layers partly because of the connotations and implications it has to the history of Johannesburg and my personal history, as my ancestors were jewelers. Typically I lay a layer of gold leaf down, allow it to age and change, and then cover it in a thin wash of black ink. Sometimes I imagine that Johannesburg is covered in a thin layer of gold leaf dirtied by the grit and complexities that make this city so stimulating.

I've seen traffic cones, hipsters, skaters, tacky tourists, black diamonds and serious art collectors come through my studio doors. I have seen brides in gowns posing in front of graffiti backdrops, trance festivals, and once a cow walking past an active candle factory. Newtown never ceases to surprise or inspire me. Personally, my dad started his first tomato sauce factory on Carr Street two buildings away from my studio. For twenty years I've walked and now driven these streets, first as a girl and now as a woman. It’s very special to me.

I want to also extend myself. I've started using my whole body more and also started to experiment with using the viewer as a medium but I’m teasing with the idea of something completely different, intersecting with sound and Arduino, like a weird threesome between Marina Abramović, Yves Klein and Aparna Rao.

Ana has been producing works on commission to “pay for her expensive whiskey habit”. Though, I’m putting it down to being her parents’ daughter: she’s being a smart businesswoman. Love, art and serenity are wonderful for the soul but bills must be paid.

She says she becomes friends with everyone she’s painted for. 

“We share this weird and interesting relationship that is embodied in an object. Or maybe I just fall in love easily and everyone that commissions my work ends up being the best.”

So, whether you're looking for something moving, or a friend, or you want to pull your room together, find Ana and she’ll sort you out with either one – or both.