DEVIKA PILLAY: STEPPING STONES TO ART
WORDS AND IMAGES: SHIRLEY LE GUERN
Out & About chats to artist Devika Pillay about her evolution from the corporate world and the challenges of her career as a professional artist
A striking mixed media artwork featuring the Dalai Lama and Bishop Desmond Tutu together with a matching composition entitled Bygone Era and featuring Dr Martin Luther King and Malcolm X are just two of the paintings that are likely to stop you in your tracks in the foyer of the Radisson Blu Hotel in Umhlanga.
Like many hotels along the North Coast, the Radisson Blu is supporting local art – in this case, Devika Pillay, an accomplished portrait and abstract painter who is making a name for herself in the home town to which she returned in 2021.
Ironically, Devika’s diverse career in the corporate world saw her running three hotels for Eurocape Holdings in Cape Town. She had relocated to the Mother City in 201, starting out in refurbishment and facilities management with the group.
“I fell into this job where I was refurbishing hotels. Then, I started to run these facilities. Eventually, I was not only running one hotel but two, three and then four. Eventually, they decided that I might as well be the CEO,” she shrugs.
But, when Covid hit, she found herself downscaling the very establishments that she had helped grow with the added heartache of having to retrench staff members she knew well. A bad fall and head injury added to her woes.
Burnt out from the long hours and the emotional turmoil, she says she was forced to re-evaluate her life. Ultimately, she decided the time had come for her to pursue her lifelong passion for art.
“I could have stayed in Cape Town but I felt that it is saturated with artists. So, I made a bold choice to bring my art here. I think that we need more of this. Durban still has a long way to go,” she says.
Devika’s relationship with the Radisson Blu began when businessman and property developer of The Oceans, Vivian Reddy, visited her pop up gallery in the Pearls in October last year.
Unhappy about the fact that artwork in the hotel did not reflect local talent, he invited her to hang her work in some of the open spaces in the hotel, with the option to both sell her pieces and replace and rotate them to maintain interest.
“In hotels, people want something to look at. They want to see new art. It adds to and uplifts the space. I visited the hotel to see the aesthetic of the hotel. I realised that my more modern contemporary pieces were a good fit. The general manager, Marius Earle, helped to select the perfect places to display my pieces,” she explains.
Even the small sample of Devika’s work at the hotel is testament to the incredible diversity of her work. A peek at her online Define Gallery shows a kaleidoscope of mixed media, oils, water colours, acrylics and charcoal pieces as well as a combination of deeply evocative portraits and vibrant abstracts.
Prior to her sojourn in Cape Town, she also painted murals with many still entertaining patients on the walls of the Westville, Mount Edgecombe, Chatsmed Gardens and Albert Luthuli hospitals.
Both her love for art and her talent was evident from the age of five. “I could draw and paint and I literally copied things almost identically. At the time, wanting to do art as a career was not ideal, so I ended up doing nursing. But art has always been a constant throughout, an absolute passion,” she explains.
She describes her childhood on the KZN North Coast as a humble one. “My Dad was a waiter and he eventually owned his own restaurant. My mom was a dressmaker and designed all our clothes. So, we wore haute couture and ate like kings and queens but we grew up having very little and making something out of it,” she smiles.
She was also close to her grandfather, who headed up the family construction business and taught Devika how to mix cement and lay bricks at a very young age. Although she didn’t go into construction, this practical know how was to have a major impact on her career.
When combined with her nursing and various courses in interior design, it equipped her to project manage the building of a new cardio thoracic ICU, cath lab and endovascular wing for the Capital Surgical Hospital at Westridge, Durban.
” My construction background helped me to read architect’s drawings and pick out potential faults very quickly. Because I studied nursing, I understood how hospitals operated. When I look at a building, I don’t just see it from an aesthetic point of view. I look at it holistically and consider how to use the space properly,” she explains.
She says the same talents applied when she relocated to Cape Town. There is little difference between running a hospital and a hotel, she believes.
Devika will openly tell you that she has experienced a great deal of tragedy in her life. She lost both of her parents within less than a year before going through a divorce. Forced to sell her family home and caught up in the stress of winding up family affairs, she felt that moving cities would help her gain some perspective.
But it was actually Covid that gave her a good retrospective of her life, of where she was and what she wanted to leave behind as a legacy.
During her three years in Cape Town, Devika admits that she did not so much as pick up a paintbrush. “Not even once. There was no time. You can’t paint while you are highly stressed. It is therapeutic in a way, but you have to come from a place of peace. If I had painted, I would have created some really harsh pieces,” she admits.
Aware of just how risky a switch to the art business would be during the rocky post-Covid recovery, Devika explains that she had put aside some savings so that she had a year to decide whether or not her change of direction would work.
“A lot of things happened – but they were stepping stones. This wasn’t something I planned. I went with it fearlessly. But, since I’ve made this decision, I’m happy,” she continues.
A SPACE FOR GROWTH
Although Devika gave herself a few months to find her feet in Durban, she admits that she soon became bored and decided that she needed a studio space. Without enough room to paint in her small apartment, she set up at Community ZA in Umgeni Road where she had her first exhibition – entitled Catharsis on Canvas – in May 2021.
But, concerned about her safety when she left her studio late at night, she soon started looking for another space closer to home.
Whilst chatting to management at The Pearls, she discovered that they had an empty space on the ground floor and took them up on their suggestion that she do a pop up gallery in July 2021.
“Initially, there was paper on the windows, so I couldn’t see just how big it was. But, when I got inside, I realized that it was huge. At first I was a bit scared, but then I knew that I had nothing to lose,” she says.
She quickly got started, drawing the space out on paper and then completing a digital plan with the help of her niece Cameron Jade Naidoo and her sister Naomi Lutchman.
With her trademark grit and determination, Devika took on making the partitioning and doing all the signage herself. She also built all the easels. With the help of Pastor Craig and some of his church members who held things in place so that she was able to drill and assemble everything, the gallery quickly took shape.
Within a short space of time, people began visiting the pop up gallery and connecting with the artist who, more often than not, met them at the door.
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
Devika believes that art is unique to each person and comes from within, reflecting their journeys through life, their experiences and their passions.
“My earlier works have a political undertone because I lived through apartheid and have to be true to myself as an artist and where I come from,” she explains. Her later works speak more to both her personal struggles and those of the people around her.
She says that her nursing career kept her grounded and put her in touch with people from all walks of life. Many of her patients were women who had endured abuse or rape and she often addresses issues like women’s empowerment, mother and child nurturing and poverty in her art.
An example is her colourful painting depicting Indian tea pickers.
“We drink tea and don’t think about the fact that these people are in bondage on these farms from generation to generation. Yet, there is beauty in it as well because they wear these beautiful saris. The women do the work. They are the workforce globally and yet we don’t recognize it,” she notes.
She admits that her first exhibition, Catharsis on Canvas, was about conquering fear and reclaiming power.
“Part of that exhibition was about breaking free. So, in one painting, you have the birds as a metaphor that break free. The other theme added as a subtitle is Unleashing Your Potential. As women, we have to do that,” she says.
Devika’s work can be divided into two – her portraits and her abstract pieces – although, occasionally, the two do merge.
She explains: “As much as I have issues and things to address using this platform, I also realise that to survive as an artist, you have to do commercial pieces too.”
A lot of her strongly narrative pieces sell to the international market, especially when it comes to works depicting global leaders such as Nelson Mandela, Bishop Desmond Tutu and Mahatma Gandhi.
All of her abstracts sell locally. But why?
“Because locals seem to have divorced themselves from the environment in which they are living. They wish to live in homes that are globally neutral. Clearly, people find themselves in a place where people are starving, in a space where democracy has not reached many and where there’s a lot of conflict,” she answers.
Devika understands why people want their homes to be their refuges. At the same time, she argues that not reflecting the reality around her in her portraits would mean that, as an artist, she would not be true to herself.
My first meeting with Devika was in her pop up gallery which allowed her to merge her virtual gallery with real time retail in a mall.
She spoke about some of her pieces, starting with the dancing Zulu maidens. “I took the picture myself. I wanted to show the movement and the energy that’s in the dance. So, the focus is on the energy in the faces as well as the movement. It comes through in the colours I chose.”
Then there’s her painting called the Choo Choo Train. It depicts youngsters playing with old tyres. “It’s about children who are the future generation. If we don’t mold and shape them in the right way, our future generation is totally lost. I used charcoal to bring life to those little kids’ faces and their bodies. Then, I thought about the tyres that they have made into a choo choo train. If they are recycled, this is a train to the future.”
Devika also discussed three paintings under the Unleashing Your Potential subtitle from her exhibition. They merge abstract and portraits.
Devika explains that she started with the abstract.
“So, these are layers – like an onion. When I looked at that painting, it was just an abstract. It took a few days before I realised that I needed faces to depict different stages of a woman’s life. So, the first face is of a woman just being conscious of herself. Then, you have the faces as this woman journeys through her career and life and, finally, realises that she has achieved everything that she has wanted to and exhales.“
There is definitely an autobiographical element here – Devika’s journey from a very structured stage of her life, through her fears and then to the point where she is independent and reaching towards achieving her full potential as an artist.
She admits that her own journey is about negotiating one stepping stone at a time and, most of all, staying humble.
The possibility of hosting more pop up galleries is on the cards as is an opportunity to open and arts café – but most of all, she is now focusing on raising her profile as an artist and identifying the right opportunities in a struggling economy that is not kind to creative businesses.