South African artist Leila Rose Fanner talks about symmetry, race, getting in flow, and more. Look for illustrations from Leila throughout the January/February 2022 issue.
You’ve talked about ten years of financial struggle as an artist. How does it feel to have turned the corner, so to speak—does it show up on the canvas? And how has your art changed in the years since you really committed to being an artist?
It feels like I’m truly just at the beginning. Those years were a steep learning curve for me. I was teaching myself how to paint and how to run my own business. I feel as if I am now ready to go somewhere more significant with my work—not sure where that will take me, but I finally have more of a sense of my style. Instead of going into more innovation, I’m settling into exploration of what I already do. Almost like a retrospective look at what it is that I’ve created that still pulls me and finding out that I want to go deeper into creating.
One specific thing I’m curious about: Some of your works are symmetrical and some aren’t. Does the creative process of making a symmetrical piece feel different than the creative process of making an asymmetrical piece?
Symmetry has a special appeal to me. I love the balance created by equal weighting of form and color on all sides. Add to this the exciting appearance of new forms and patterns created by the negative spaces and the places where the images join up. I find it quite magical.
All my pieces start off asymmetrical. For one series of art prints, Imanipulated them digitally to mirror the original. I have only done two large works that were actual mirror-reflection paintings. Even though they had many small differences, they looked symmetrical at first glance … and they were incredibly difficult to do!
“In some instances the figure is definitely a black woman in features, but in other works she is a silhouette, and not necessarily of a black woman. She is then a symbol of the Feminine Energy, the creative potential, and the Soul or the Astral Body.”
—Leila Rose Fanner
I read that you are part Navajo, which I assume is pretty rare in South Africa. Is there some value in being in that “other” category in a country where race has been so important historically? (And please forgive me if I’m totally off.)
I am definitely “other”—my South African passport literally categorizes me as “Other Coloured.” And no, I don’t think there is value in that, no matter where you live. People are drawn to and feel comfortable with people who look like and speak like themselves. Being an anomaly has been a lifelong lesson in self-sufficiency, creating my own sense of belonging, and learning to enjoy solitude. I am, however, fortunate to have some very special friends—just a small handful—because being an artist, I tend to want to spend a lot of time alone. Friends who stick around are OK with long absences, long phone calls, and low-maintenance friendships.
Following up on that: Your black figures (your figures painted in solid or almost solid black) … one could look at these images as negating or omitting skin color altogether, saying skin color isn’t part of the narrative. Or one could go the exact opposite direction and say, no, these are clearly black people. Do you have a preferred interpretation?
That’s a lovely question. Yes to both.
In some instances the figure is definitely a black woman in features, but in other works she is a silhouette, and not necessarily of a black woman. She is then a symbol of the Feminine Energy, the creative potential, and the Soul or the Astral Body.
My mixed-race heritage made me a target for racism in the 70s South Africa as a school student in an all-white primary school. But I had white sisters and a white mother. So, the identity of myself as “black” didn’t make sense to me. Not knowing my black father added to this identity confusion. I think that perhaps in a very personal way, the black figure symbolizes the missing black heritage that was left behind in the United States, when my mother moved us to South Africa as a single parent. I’m claiming and expressing that far removed culture as part of my psyche through these representations, but also infusing it with a South African ethos.
Thank you for that answer. One last question. Do you have any self-care or spiritual practices that work particularly well for you?
Yes. I have meditated for two and a half hours daily since I was 19 (I turn 52 in December). I walk or dance and do yoga. I try to eat lightly and mostly a whole food, vegetarian diet. I am very picky about what I spend my attention on, whether its conversation, movies, books, or thoughts—as these affect my moods, my sleep, and ultimately what I create.