Coljin Strydom • Ogygia

Coljin Strydom • Ogygia

Coljin Strydom • Ogygia

"Untitled’s mint green wall populated by pastel-coloured works by the hugely talented Colijn Strydom was a visual highlight of the Centre Court." Mary Corrigall



RMB Latitudes

Sneezing for You

There’s a strange visceral tenderness and familiarity to sneezing. Every time we sneeze, we bring our inside out, showing it in droplets and speckled breath that comes from our deepest recesses. Sneezes are made to be shared, albeit involuntarily. They form an irrevocable part of our olfactory landscape, allowing for exchanges (immediate, intimate, wet) that we share with loved ones and strangers alike. Whether we politely tuck them away in the nook of an arm or blast them forth in loud proclamation, they remind us of our body’s predilection for those forms of discharge that often leave us red-faced and slightly moist.

Generating plumes of up to 8 meters and carrying up to 40,000 droplets, we have come to know sneezes as harbingers of disease. Historically, they were largely read as omens of death, as a fatal expelling of air from the lungs that affects the sneezer and those around them. Less fatalist but equally dramatic, ancient Greeks believed sneezes to be prophetic signs from the gods. In Homer’s Odyssey, for example, Penelope takes the sound of a sneeze from her son as a divine message from the gods, promising the safe return of her husband, Odysseus. Whether we read them as warnings of disease or DMs from the gods, sneezes are powerful portents that, despite their lightness and brevity, carry much weight. 

In Ogygia, Strydom draws on narratives taken from ancient Greek mythology, which has long inspired his practice, with Homer’s Odyssey aptly serving as the conceptual backdrop for this particular body of work. Homer’s epic poem follows the Greek hero Odysseus, king of Ithaca, on his arduous journey home to his pining wife and sneezing son. In a tale marked by desire and loss, the theme of nostos, of a hero valiantly returning home, is put on full dramatic display, with Odysseus spending seven years of his journey trapped on the island Ogygia, imprisoned by his lover, the nymph Calypso. This is a lush, fragrant island with meadows of iris and parsley, succulent grapes and sweet water, with the scent of cedar, juniper, alder, poplar and cypress hanging thick in the air. A more lavish and perfumed prison is hard to imagine. 

With a light touch and tongue-in-cheek approach, which are key to his art practice, Strydom lifts motifs and fragments from the Odyssey to situate and make sense of his own position as wanderer/wonderer. In his reflection on themes of belonging, desire, and intimacy, fantasy and reality are playfully interwoven, with Cape Town reimagined as a local Ogygia — as a contemporary paradise (or prison, depending on your perspective or access to its abundance).


Described by Strydom as a hay-feverish body of work, we see paintings filled with sneezing subjects. By drawing on a range of expected and unusual triggers for sneezing – from seasonal allergies and bright light to sexual arousal and the experience of orgasm – he finds inspiration in those moments when an involuntary bodily response intersects with larger cultural discourses. It’s interesting to note that the nose contains the very same erectile tissue found in the genitals, causing some people to sneeze during sexual arousal. What a lovely example of our body’s idiosyncratic wiring! Such points of reference are strategically harnessed by Strydom to investigate the impulses, desires and spasms that mark human life. 

In these paintings, we see bodies suspended and frozen in time in lush, beautiful environments, surrounded by gardens or flower-filled vases. Eyes closed, hands drawn to the face, they wait for a release that never comes. I’m reminded of John Keats’s Ode on a Grecian Urn, a poem exploring the temporal tension that exists between art and the human subjects it often represents. By meditating on the images adorning an ornamental urn, Keats suggests that, while human life is fleeting, art is everlasting. “Forever panting, and forever young”, Keats reads the human figures decorating the proverbial urn as both victors and victims in this game of enduring suspension – forever preserved but never finding release. As a contemporary counterfoil, we have Sex and the City’s Samantha Jones reminding us that, when it comes to matters of desire, it’s perhaps better to “spray it; don’t say it”. It somehow feels as if Strydom’s sneezing subjects fall somewhere between the extremities these cultural icons hold, caught in a moment of release that is forever unfolding (or spraying it and saying it). 

If I ever had to be immortalised stifling a yawn, scratching my butt, or picking my nose, I’d trust Strydom’s delicate humour and sensitive brushwork to do the job. For who would not want to be remembered in these wistful, whimsical paintings as the person who sneezed for love? 

Text by Prof Ernst van der Wal, Department of Visual Arts, Stellenbosch University.

More about Colijn, the artist

Born in Pretoria, Colijn Strydom now lives and works in Cape Town. In 2008 he obtained a MA (Visual Arts) from Stellenbosch University. His practice is focused on drawing but extends to painting, photography and performance. His work has been exhibited widely throughout galleries in Cape Town and Johannesburg. 

Through his art he engages with gender and Afrikaner identity and he often uses humour and other self-reflexive strategies. Strydom’s subject matter is varied and he frequently finds inspiration in poetry, history and folktales.