In Her Wild Imagination: Natalie Paneng’s digital art practice

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By Mamelodi Marakalala


Sometimes we look at an art piece, or an artist’s practice as a whole, and wonder about the mental depths from which its story came. It makes us want to enter the artist’s mind and explore the imagination behind their work. According to an online essay in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “To imagine is to represent without aiming at things as they actually, presently, and subjectively are. One can use imagination to represent possibilities other than the actual, to represent times other than the present, and to represent perspectives other than one’s own.” 

It is imagination that has been running the art world since the first aesthetic object to be created. It has given us plenty to analyse and contemplate, various ways of looking at the world. Imagination has given us the golden universe with the blue or purple herdsmen in Regina Buthelezi’s Once There Came a Terrible Beast (1968) tapestry, the animalistic figures in Josephine Ghesa’s The Meeting, Table, and Beast and Riders clay sculptures, and the motifs of Diane Mabunda’s Twenty Rings (2000) embroidery works. These historically and culturally significant pieces have proven just what artistry people can be capable of working with their various mediums of making. 



We have now entered the digital age – a world in which technology has advanced to a greater degree than we could have ever imagined when it was 2000, and it keeps advancing. Artists are working in ways that are seemingly boundless and taking their imagination to newer heights. Natalie Paneng is following in the footsteps of the aforementioned legendary women and many other innovators who used their imagination to take full aesthetic advantage of their place in time. Paneng is using the digital sphere to tell stories that have never been seen before, to build worlds that her audience can enter and even interact with, and to create universes which make speculations that transcend beyond our measurable and mundane reality. As such, she is that artist whose artworks we stare at in awe, wondering just where this imagery came from. How one can look at a screen and develop such scenes? 

In 2018, Paneng obtained a Bachelor of Arts Honours in Dramatic Arts from the University of the Witwatersrand and was awarded the Leon Gluckman Prize for best piece of creative. This prize acknowledged her as a brilliant mind of this generation and marked her as the future of theatre and performance. Her academic background flows and intertwines with her digital capabilities, enabling Paneng to turn simple lines into complex environments and her images into characters through which her stories gain life. 

In 2019, Paneng joined a residency by Floating Reverie, from which she created Hey MTV, Welcome To My Crib (2019) – a project that was aimed at playing with and interrogating the contemporary culture of occupying online spaces, in which we then start curating and sharing parts of ourselves with those who are online with us. It was referencing the MTV Cribs American television show that featured celebrities inviting their fans for a tour of their homes. Paneng, through her series of collages, was essentially inviting people into her mind. 



For Episode 9, wherein the central figure is her head on an outer Matryoshka doll, she says, “I live inside myself. Deep inside. The layers and layers of me are my friends and my home… I am her and her and her and her and her and her.” The symbolism is that this doll comes in a set of seven. They get stacked inside each other with the smallest one nesting at the core and the biggest one covering them all. These dolls are designed like an onion, and the particular piece speaks to the intricacies and multiplicities of being. This is a stark reflection of this digital practice – there is layering and sharing and then exploring the layers in search of something within them. 

Taking her new-age art practice even further, Paneng has taken us back to classical art history. Firstly, by reimagining Sir John Everett Millais’ 1852 iteration of Hamlet’s Ophelia through what Flood House describes as a “witty, fun, and important” immersive installation called Ophelia Does Backstroke (2022). When the artwork was showcased at Play Braamfonetin for the 2022 FNB Art Joburg Open City event, one was met with a puddle of LED lights on the floor that went back and forth between blue and purple. There were silkscreen images printed on plexiglass hanging from the ceiling, portraying Natalie Paneng taking the role of Ophelia submerged in a body of water – hands in the air or holding flowers. The image moves like water in the way that it seemingly plays with light and gives off some illusions. In another room, which could be seen through a window, the image was enlarged and filled up the floor and wall. The whole installation felt as though you, as the viewer, were in the water, with the character. 

Secondly, Paneng reimagined the work of Leonardo da Vinci for a digital initiative in collaboration with Google Arts and Culture. The project, Inside a Genius Mind, took da Vinci’s complex ideas, codices, sketches, and other masterpieces, and gave them a more direct online presence, making the works better understood in a contemporary context. For this massive project, Paneng created an image with digitally edited versions of da Vinci, with some scripts and symbols from his work. The colours in the background are green and purple, bold and techno – reflecting the graphical imagery of when we started relying on computers for communication and functioning. 



One could refer to the digital practice of Natalie Paneng as techno-imaginative or techno-creative. Through technological devices and capabilities, the boundlessness of imagination shows its truer, more intense colours. The artist’s hand stretches as far as manifesting objects in new ways or making entirely new objects, redesigning figurations, expanding realities and reconceptualising histories. In turn, audience members reinvent their ways of seeing and feeling an object and play a significant part in giving the art its meaning. They also expand the place of art in their lives, becoming enriched with and relating to historical events or circumstances that had been previously inaccessible. Finally, they build reconstructed speculations about the relationship they have with their bodies and minds as well because of their encounters with mixed realities. 

Where will Paneng’s imagination, and advancing technological opportunities, lead her in 2024? We can’t wait to see. 

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