Ilka Jeanne van Schalkwyk was born in 1986 and graduated from the University of Pretoria with a BA Fine Arts degree in 2009.
Ilka’s work Reading Colour (2009) is a visual reading and interpretation of Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories (Granta Books, London:1990 [ISBN 0-14-014035-2]), Rushdie's first novel after The Satanic Verses. It is a phantasmagorical children’s’ story and an allegory of several problems existing in society today, especially in India and the Indian subcontinent. It looks at these problems from the viewpoint of the young protagonist, Haroun, a character possibly based upon Rushdie’s own son, Zafar.
For Ilka, the story conjures the dichotomous nature of life: silence vs. expression; dark vs. light; the continuous vs. the layered which were the very things she wished to explore in her art. Ilka states, “if you want to understand the way in which I process my world, read the book” (van Schalkwyk 2010).
However this is not an illustrative rendition of Rushdi’s text. In Reading Colour Ilka explores her personal experiences of what is termed grapheme synaesthesia: a condition in which a person associates colours with words, letters of the alphabet, numbers, days of the week etc (van Schalkwyk 2009:1). Ilka’s bookwork exploits a personal ‘alphabet of colour’ and in which she ‘translates’ Rushdie’s text into her own colour language. Someone who experiences this form of synaesthesia claims “a fixed colour alphabet and when researchers tested synaesthetes over several years, their alphabet remained constant. Each synaesthete experiences a different colour alphabet. Still, certain letters are more commonly associated with certain colours for example the letter ‘A’ with red and white is associated with the letter ‘O’” (van Schalkwyk 2009:13).
Reading Colour gives Ilka an opportunity to exploit her synaesthesia in positive and affirming ways and, like the work of Willem Boshoff, also exploits exclusion, obfuscation, lack of access to meaning, frustration and disempowerment as strategies by which her can empower herself as an artist. Ilka came to the book as an art form via Walter Battiss and Boshoff which she encountered in a lecture on artists’ books, while still a student.
She also acknowledges that keeping a visual diary was a struggle in that, as she constantly writes, there is then a further need to extract images from her writing. Haroun had found its way into other works and was ripe, in 2009, for manipulation into her first artist’s book. Ilka scanned each page from her copy of Rushdie and painstakingly transposed every letter, word and sentence into her colour alphabet. Like Boshoff’s Skynbord (1977-79) and Bangboek (1977-81), it is possible to decipher Reading Colour given the right degree of fortitude and patience.
Accompanying the book are 12 framed Protest Songs in which the textual information has also been transcribed into colours.
Ilka won the Absa L’Atelier Award for 2010 with Reading Colour which becomes our 1st featured artist’s book for 2011.
van Schalkwyk, I. 2009. A Synaesthesic interpretation of Willem Boshoff’s Skynbord. Unpublished paper. University of Pretoria: Pretoria.
van Schalkwyk, I. 2010. Personal Communication, University of Johannesburg: Johannesburg.