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NWR Issue 101

Shani Rhys James and The Rivalry of Flowers

The Rivalry of Flowers runs at Aberystwyth Arts Centre until 11 January 2014. Shani Rhys James was the subject of a BBC4 TV film on 13 November, What Do Artists Do All Day?, and gave a talk at the Arts Centre on 20 November

Having emigrated to the UK at the age of nine, Australian-born Shani Rhys James studied at St Martin’s School of Art in London before moving to Powys in her early thirties. Awarded the prestigious Jerwood Painting Prize in 2003 and made an MBE for services to art in 2006, James continues to be one of Britain’s most exhilarating painters.


I have spent this last week totally immersed in the world of the painter Shani Rhys James. On Tuesday I made my first visit to her Aberystwyth Arts Centre exhibition, The Rivalry of Flowers, while on Wednesday night I watched a BBC Four film about her, from the series What Do Artists Do All Day? On Friday I went to the official opening of her show and after interviewing her yesterday afternoon, 20 November, attended her evening talk at the Arts Centre.

And what an overwhelming world it is: enormous canvases of painted interiors made opulent with flocked wallpapers, huge chandeliers, roll-topped baths and immense vases filled with cut flowers and those signature, brutally big-eyed girls staring out at us, embedded in the patterns and sumptuous colour. ‘These faces are not scary,’ said Lord Dafydd Elis-Thomas, one of the two speakers at the opening, ‘Yes, they are!’ shouted someone in the crowd. (In the film, James had said she wanted ‘to create a disturbance’.) She tells me how the work in the exhibition recalls a three-month period when she was nine and had first arrived in London from Australia. She and her mother, then an actress, lived in a series of dingy bedsits. ‘Mummy made wonderful homes,’ she says, ‘she always transformed places.’ The wallpaper, the light fittings, the baths of these rendered spaces symbolise her youthful anxiety at having to navigate the strangeness, the otherworldliness, of this foreign land.

We are interrupted by her husband, the artist Stephen West, bringing her a gigantic hummus sandwich and a cup of tea, ‘How am I going to eat all that?’ she asks, laughing.

Brought up surrounded by actors, artists and writers (her mother and step-father ran their own small theatre in an old bake-house in Melbourne), James recounts how, at the age of seven, she had been asked by a devoutly Catholic friend how she was going to serve God and had declared, ‘Well, I am going to paint.’ We talk of Victoriana, of the automata she has devised (such as a spinning hooped petticoat and a quivering cot); of plays such as Ibsen’s The Doll’s House in which her mother played Nora (‘It took her over’, she says); Jane Campion’s film The Piano; hysteria; the repression of women; corsets, and motherhood. She expands passionately upon these themes during her official talk, remarking, ‘I’m getting a bit like my Uncle Edwin – he was an evangelist.’ Just as with viewing her work, talking to her makes my mind run off in all sorts of directions – association after association tumbling forward.

James tells me of her home in Llangadfan, Powys and how it reminds her of her early life in the Australian countryside. ‘London was so distracting,’ she says, ‘here I can’t drive, I can’t easily escape… it gives me time to listen, to dream, to watch the sky, to think, to listen to my inner voice.’

We talk about 'Florilingua', the little painted room installed in the centre of the gallery here. I ask if she considered giving it a door, making it a private space. No, she wanted there to be a ‘slither of light, a portal’. It is a potent, mesmeric space, with its lurid yellow chrysanthemums and tiny peephole of a mouth reciting poetry that she had specially commissioned, including the poem that appeared as a preview in NWR's current edition. ‘The voice, the word is important,’ she tells me, ‘I want it to be heard.’

I am exhausted, whereas, James, I suspect, like her automata, endlessly tapping and turning, could go on and on and on. Marvellous.

Ellen Bell is an artist and writer currently living in Aberystwyth.

Shani Rhys James' image-essay, 'Wallpaper Samples from the Rivalry of Flowers' appears in the current issue, NWR 102, together with a review of a book about her, The Rivalry of Flowers, and a poem, 'The Boarding House' by Jasmine Donahaye, exclusive to print, which appears in the 'Florilingua' installation at Aberystwyth Arts Centre















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