(b. 1949 Birmingham, England)
Ricky Burnett was born in Birmingham, England, in 1949, and moved to South Africa at the age of six. He attended Wits University, where he studied Medicine before switching to a BA degree in the Humanities. In 1972, he met Bill Ainslee and within a year he was making art objects. Almost simultaneously, he started to teach – and found an aptitude and passion for teaching that remains with him today. His remarkable talent for curating also emerged soon afterwards: he curated two exhibitions for the Foundation, one at Gallery 101 and the second at the Market Theatre Gallery. These were followed by two solo exhibitions of his own work at the Market Theatre Gallery and the Enthoven Gallery.
For several years, Burnett would remain associated with the Art Foundation and write reviews for the Rand Daily Mail. A major turn occurred when he started the BMW Tributaries project, which involved collecting artworks throughout southern Africa. Following the success of Tributaries, Burnett moved to London in 1985. There he worked on what would eventually become the famous Brenthurst Collection, now on permanent loan at the Johannesburg Art Gallery.
In 1989, Burnett returned to South Africa to curate a ground-breaking exhibition of Jackson Hlungwane’s work. The following year, Burnett and Mary Slack set up Newtown Galleries. This gallery was the first in the country to exhibit new work from the rest of continental Africa. Burnett curated around thirty exhibitions during this period.
Ricky Burnett moved to the United States in 2001, near Seattle, where he continued to teach and make art before returning to South Africa in 2007. He soon re-established himself as a teacher and curator – and curated the celebrated ‘Horse’ at the Everard Read (Johannesburg) and CIRCA. A series of ground-breaking exhibitions also followed: ‘Margins’ (Everard Read Johannesburg, 2008), ‘Resurrection Cycles & On Skin’ (smac, 2009), ‘Damascus Gate’ (Gallery 2, 2014), ‘Troubled with Goya’ (Everard Read Johannesburg, 2015) and ‘Goya Adaptations’ (Everard Read, Johannesburg, 2016). In 2016, Palimpsest Press published a book about Ricky Burnett’s recent work. Titled Troubled with Goya, it features photographs by Liz Whitter and contains Ricky Burnett in conversation.
Ricky Burnett has always been interested in abstraction and non-figurative image-making. He has drawn inspiration from Cezanne but cites Rembrandt and Goya as artists of great tenderness who also worked with the painterly quality of paint. His recent series have been inspired by Goya’s etchings and paintings, but the paint soon takes on a direction of its own. Often Burnett will use the pivot points in a particular composition of a Goya image as a starting point for a work. The works develop a surface tension that is derived from looking at the Goyas – so the final paintings become a derivation rather than a representation. Often all that remains of the Goya source is the whiteness of a page, the suggestion of pencil marks, the red from the bloody bullet holes on a white shirt or the colour of someone’s red garment. Burnett likes to quote the Sung Dynasty poet Yang Wan-li:
“Now, what is poetry? If you say it is simply a matter of words, I will say good poets get rid of words. If you say it is simply a matter of meaning, I will say a good poet gets rid of meaning. ‘But,’ you ask, ‘without words and meaning, where is the poetry?’ To this I reply, ‘Get rid of words and get rid of meaning, and still there is poetry.’ ”
MAFA, University of the Witwatersrand.
2019 Co-Respondences, Everard Read, Johannesburg
2018 vis-à-vis, Everard Read CIRCA Gallery, Johannesburg
2016 Goya Adaptations, Everard Read, Johannesburg
2015 Troubled with Goya, Everard Read Johannesburg
When Feelings Associate a Consciousness Forms, Everard Read Galley, Johannesburg
2014 Damascus Gate, Gallery 2
2009 Resurrection Cycles & On Skin, Smac
2008 Margins, Everard Read, Johannesburg
2007 Resident Artist, Fordsburg Artists’ Studios, Johannesburg
Black Front Gallery, Olympia.
Previous: Two solo shows in London, a group exhibition in Germany, numerous solo and group exhibitions in South Africa, including the high profile ‘Four Johannesburg Painters’ touring exhibition, launched at the National Gallery of South Africa.
Tributaries was the first exhibition in South Africa to bring together the many diverse threads of South African society.
Jackson Hlungwani, a retrospective exhibition of a virtually unknown rural artist that later earned him the status of one of South Africa’s two ‘artists of the millennium’.
Persons and Pictures: the modernist eye in Africa, an exhibition of contemporary art from countries formerly under British rule and influence.
Re-placing, held at the Pretoria art museum.
Numerous exhibitions for Newtown Galleries. This was a large +/- 6,000 sq ft venue which was used to display provocative and stimulating explorations involving many of South Africa’s most prominent artists, as well as artists from the rest of Africa and from abroad.
The New Delhi Triennale, commissioned in 1995 to curate South Africa’s entry to the New Delhi Triennale.
Horse – Everard Read and CIRCA, 2011