Marlene Steyn_South African ceramics and contemporary clay_Art Formes




b. 1989

in clay, words and space

fig. Marlene steyn, BAD HAIR DAY TRINAL (2016)

Marlene Steyn_South African ceramics and contemporary clay_Art Formes

Marlene Steyn is a painter, a sculptor of words and clay, and a holder of negative space. Steyn is also a mother, a resister-of-labels, and a real-life mermaid of the sea of unconscious processes. She completed a BFA at Stellenbosch University (2011), going on to obtain her Master’s in painting at the Royal College of Art in London (2014). Knitting figures together, Steyn’s forms speak the half-dissociated, half-remembered language of dreams, drawing on psychoanalytic theory and art historical memory. Catching the dream as it falls into the real – catching the figures of the painting as they fall into clay, and catching herself by surprise, Steyn facilitates a paradoxical release by grasping. Steyn is widely exhibited in South Africa and abroad with her work extending to London, France, and Brussels, to name a few. Her work has appeared at both the Investec Cape Town Art Fair and the London Art Fair.

marlene steyn


in clay, words and space

Marlene Steyn paints portraits of the landscape, portraits of dreams, skewed chronicles. Often, the environment she depicts is animated with a human face, reams of chins and noses and knowing eyes, smiling lips, and undulating human bodies that unfold and endlessly become something new. There is an animism in Steyn’s approach. As she works, she personifies those who are relegated to object status: plants, rocks, rivers, textiles, the weather – even the soil. Through the eyes of animism, even the notion of the “other”, the implied cleaving of matter from matter, is softened, and the self melts into everything else. In the intimate holding between forms, old stories of water sprites and vegetation deities recur. Women become trees. Lines of noses become gorges. Crowds coagulate into a single portrait. The world is not inanimate, nor could it ever be.

Out of this landscape, Steyn’s portraits in clay emerge as the literal personification of non-human matter. Steyn is a self- taught ceramicist, and she prefers to talk about her practice as “sculpting with clay”.* It keeps it lighter, with less of an obligation to be anything in particular. Her sculptures can be used to punctuate the space like question marks. Displayed in conversation with her paintings, it is as if the clay forms (often figures) fell from the painted landscapes a few minutes ago, and were caught mid-fall in the hands of the artist. The finger marks, from catching them out of the air, are still present. It is possible that they might fly or fall again soon. The air around them anticipates this.

“The striking third medium of Steyn’s practice is her use of words – almost as little malleable objects of their own. Each of her titles uses phonetic puns and word-play in a way that reinvents the sounds of the words.”

fig. marlene steyn, HER IN HER VOICES (2022)

read more with our publication

Clay Formes

contemporary clay from south africa

CLAY FORMES is the first of its kind: a survey of contemporary clay from South Africa. This volume, through exquisite photography and literary essays, showcases multiple generations of living South African artists, each innovating the potentialities of clay and ceramics. This publication offers enthusiasts and collectors a glimpse into the studios of thirty important South African artists and opens a window into the complexity of each body of work, revealing the richness of both contemporary clay and ceramic tradition within South African art.

Marlene Steyn_South African ceramics and contemporary clay_Art Formes

This publication has sought to reflect its subject: to be as fluid as water and as weighty as earth. All this is done in the hopes of leaving behind a fresh approach to this manifold medium, and of presenting to the world the previously unexplored richness of sculptural clay in South Africa.

Dedicated to contemporary clay and ceramics from South Africa. The first publication of its kind, published by Art Formes.