Ellen Agnew – The girl behind the art degree

Ellen Agnew is the Irish dancing queen who doesn’t want to be tamed.

She appears over a dune in this vast desert and walks towards us. Ellen smiles and her eyes reflect this. They’re green, and she has freckles on her cheeks. She runs her right hand through her long, curly brown hair.

Like Ellen, her hair refuses to be controlled. Notice her nails; long and dark like Lana’s. “I’m obsessed with Lana del Rey,” she says looking down at them. Her makeup is minimal; red lips and mascara – classic.

Ellen is the second child, with an older brother, of an Irish father and a South African mother. The Irish genes shine through in her appearance and it’s easy to convince people of her heritage.

She was born on 28 May 1993 in Johannesburg, though they relocated to Stellenbosch after four years. Ellen and her brother, Jack, both attended Rhenish Primary school. They spent some of their childhood in the lush farms located in the idyllic Stellenbosch valley, playing in the orchards and skipping stones in the river.

In 2005 they relocated to Dubai. It is here where her love of Middle Eastern culture all started. She was educated in subjects such as Islamic Studies and Arabic.

Ellen’s father is an architect, which is why Dubai was the best location to be. He still resides in the United Arab Emirates, while her mother lives in Stellenbosch.

“They haven’t lived in the same house in almost 10 years,” said Ellen, “Yet they’re still married.”

She returned to Stellenbosch two years later along with her mother and brother. The siblings attended Somerset College and completed their high school education there.

The Artsy Child

“Ellen’s artistic spirit showed itself early on, when she insisted on painting an angel’s face blue at the pottery studio,” said her mother, Jenni. At the age of five, Ellen already had a strong will. Wanting to put her own twist on things and creating pieces that no other child even thought about.

Fashion is wearable art. Which is why Ellen’s dress sense is “unique”, according to her mother. The platform shoes, patterned dress and knitted top could be seen as hipster in Stellenbosch, but coming to know Ellen one realises she has created her own style.

You can see she’s an artist when you look at her hands. The way she holds her pen – or even a cigarette – it’s an elegant, graceful act. Those dark nails complement her excellent charcoal drawings.  The way she draws is an effortless performance, with the visage appearing out of the light-coloured haze of the paper.

What few people know is that Ellen is a talented Irish dancer, having done Irish dancing for close to 15 years.

“I’ll have to practise before I can show you though,” she says.

She took part in numerous competitions, travelling around South Africa as well as to Ireland for world championships. Not only did the Irish genes make their appearance in dance, but they found expressions in other talents as well.

“It’s been fantastic to be part of Ellen’s Irish-/-Highland dancing years, wonderful memories and experiences along the way,” says Jenni, her genuine pride is evident.

Ellen wanted to study dance but it broke her heart before she reached varsity. She doesn’t want to go into detail and you have to respect her choice of silence.

She eventually studied fine arts for four years at Stellenbosch University, which included her honours degree. Ellen majored in visual studies and English literature.

“They complemented each other because we could apply the concepts we learned in English to the work we were doing in Visuals.”

Ellen sees the complex connections between concepts and exploits them to her better understanding. According to Ellen, she ties together complicated political issues and visual art to create pieces that, “demonstrate that we’re not passive when we view […] presentational images of the media or representational images of artwork.”

Because of this political mind set, Ellen got accepted to do her master’s degree in Political Communication at the University of Cape Town. She decided to rather do an Honours degree in Journalism at Stellenbosch.

The Wild Quiet Child

“Ellen always seems to find herself on the fun and risky side of life. Which has its good and bad qualities,” says Alex, her best friend. “Though after long social encounters her favourite thing to do is curl up on the couch with her Jack Russels, while catching up on her current affairs.”

Ellen loves to read and some of her favourite books include The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Crime and Punishment and In Cold Blood. Her mother adds that both Ellen and Jack have a passion for books and reading. Once one sees Ellen’s ‘previously read’ list, you realise this is one well-read journalist-in-the-making.

“She can be firm, argumentative and sometimes impatient,” says Jenni.

Ellen confirms this. “I’m not a patient person, especially not with technology.” She looks at her phone and concedes that, yes, this device hasn’t betrayed her yet.

The wild child appears, says Ellen, when people tell her what to do. She sits back on her couch. “I’m kind of struggling in this class,” she admits. Last year during her Fine Arts degree, she didn’t have to report to anyone. She could stroll in and out of the Visual Arts Department whenever she wanted. She laughs. “It was great, you know.”

The Well-Travelled Child

“Europe all looks the same, except for the southern part.”

Ellen has travelled through a few countries in Europe, including Ireland, the Netherlands, Greece and Spain. With a great interest in American literature, like the Beat Generation authors, Jack Kerouac, and American modernist poets, Ellen aspires to travel through America and try to find a connection with these great art figures. She’s a free spirit, which is a cliché, but one that is true. An artist that is restrained, is not an artist.


Ellen is many things to many people; a daughter, a sister, a best friend, an artist.

“With a continuously surprising personality, Ellen will never to be predictable, and will always be centre stage on any of the possible ‘platforms’ she decides to brave,” says Alex Edmayr.


Author: Walter Hayward

Come bother me on social media! IG: @walterhayward Twitter: @walterplease SC: @wbhayward

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