Donkey Bite: Nastio Mosquito on what he is and is not

“I do think there are things in life that you must decide, but to be who you are is not a decision,” says Nastio Mosquito, following the group exhibition Positions at the Van Abbe Museum in Eindhoven.

Art Africa: March 23, 2016

AA Newsletter 23Mar INT Mosquito3Installation view of Nástio Mosquito’s work at the Van Abbe Museum in Eindhoven. Photo: Peter Cox.

It’s pitch black in the front gallery of the Van Abbe Museum in Eindhoven. After a few minutes, I still can’t see my hand in front of my face. Feeling around with my arms, there’s nothing; not even the door I came through is visible anymore. A moment of panic. How far did I walk into the room; are there others in here? A green light in the far corner beckons and I slide-walk towards it, still unsure of what obstacles the artist may have planted. The light starts taking the shape of a small screen, burning pink halos into my retina. The squeaks emitted by the screen starts sounding more and more like a voice. Up close, I can hear and see: it’s Nastio Mosquito and he is naked. Ranting about everything and nothing in a way that gives goose bumps. Just like the interview with him.

Winner of the 2014 Future Generation Art Prize, celebrated by the BBC at the Venice Biennale with a rhetoric “Is this the coolest artist at the Venice Biennale?”, the Angola-born Portugal-schooled Mosquito slips through questions and labels with the slight of tongue that has become his trademark. The award is “flattering” but he doesn’t know what the consequences are yet, and he’s “just grateful that there’s space” for him in the art world that has now opened up for him. When it comes to the labels game: he is not a video artist, he is not a spoken word artist, he is not a performance artist, he is not an artist. He is not African, he is not diasporan, he is not postcolonial, he is not political. He just is. This is Mosquito’s integrity. Then, just when you feel lost in the darkness grasping for theories, he gets very personal.

You’re part of an exhibition of four artists – with Anna Boghiguian, Chia-Wei Hsu and Sarah Pierce – at the Van Abbe Museum in Eindhoven until 3 April, called Positions. Would you say integrity is your position as an artist?

It’s a position that I am consciously trying to live from. Staying close to my sense of integrity is important and allows me not to have to make decisions all the time, by being there I am just there. I don’t have to decide too many things, I just have to be obedient to my sense of integrity. I think becoming an artist was a position that I had to agree with. There was a particular time when I had to agree. What I was available to fight for, chase and commit to, was connected to doing these things with writing, song writing, video making. It’s what kept my head going at night. I just had to agree with it. It’s a bit of a fake truth that you have to decide. I do think there are things in life that you must decide, but to be who you are is not a decision. You have to agree with it. So I just agreed with it, in small doses, I don’t think there was a moment.

You resist labels and decisions, yet your work is very narrative driven. How do you make your work?

I think it’s the most natural thing for a human being to create from his supernatural, intangible point of view. We need to organize it, but things are born out of somewhere else. Then it is about serving that idea and finding the best way for that idea to come to life – is this idea better as a song, a film, a photograph or a performance? Studying jazz [for two and a half years in Portugal after school] gave me the capacity to relate to musicians and interact with them, and be able to construct a sonic palette to deliver a particular narrative. Going to study production operations [in media in London] gave me a few insights on how certain things work from equipment to script.

AA Newsletter 23Mar INT Mosquito2Installation view from Nástio Mosquito’s solo show at the Espai d’art contemporani de Castello, Spain.

The jazz background explains a lot in terms of your distinctive sound. Were you planning on being a jazz musician?

I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. I’m just doing, I’m just agreeing with where things are. I want to know, I would like know, I would like to be connected to what I want to be when I grow up. But more than what I want to be, I want to know who I am – you know? And again, to come into agreement with that. The sense of purpose that is in my limitations – there are things that I am good at it, there are things that I like to do. So between what I’m good at and what I like to do is a natural tendency to do something. It’s not always very clear to me. But I’m still wanting to know what I’m going to do when I grow up. And I want to come into agreement with that. And be.

Wow, even the way you speak casually ripples with improv jazz-like pauses and repeated words. Are you a natural performer, when was your first performance?

Depends what you call performance! [laughs] The first ever thing I did was a donkey in the Christmas play in boarding school. I still remember it as being something relevant for me. It was not the most important role in that play, but I think it was the teachers who made me feel that it was important enough to give it my all and it felt very good. It felt very good to receive the compliments. And, strangely enough, it was a donkey. The donkey is not a very celebrated animal – even the cow gets more good vibes than the donkey. Donkeys are stubborn, ugly, smelly, extremely working class. It felt good to be that donkey, it felt good to commit to it, and do the hee-haw sounds. I don’t think I had any lines. There were just a few cues, blocking a few positions on stage and a hee-haw moments of some sort. The whole process just felt very generous. Very tangible, with people working together. There was a script, different articulations of things, things had to be working. An independence, but at the same time coordinated. There was a dynamic, but it was nice. It was not the most comfortable situation for me – some people like it I suppose – being in boarding school away from home, it was very tense. I was nine at the most. I confess I’ve never spoken about that like this. I guess I’m constructing on it.

Do you think the memory changes?

I think it does. Between becoming more clear and more foggy. Memories have a utility to them, they’re here to serve you. 

AA Newsletter 23Mar INT Mosquito4Nástio Mosquito, Ser Humano, 2015. Installation view Van Abbemsueum, 2015. Photo Peter Cox. video installation 4’08”. video by Vic Pereiró, courtesy Nástio Mosquito ©

What has been your “donkey” performance as an adult?

I don’t know, maybe it’s my personality or something like that, but I have a feeling that it hasn’t happened yet. In terms of performance, there are moments of pure joy. I’ve had tremendous privilege these past fifteen years in terms of how I’ve had the possibility and opportunity to live my life, but I haven’t done that performance yet. There are many important things in my life, there are many things I respect, but I don’t have a story to tell my grandchildren about yet.

Maybe it’s coming up this year. What’s next for you?

Besides the Van Abbe exhibition, I currently have a solo show of new work at the Espai d’art contemporani de Castelló in Spain. There’s another show coming up at the Pinchuk Art Centre in Kiev, Ukraine, this year. I’m also preparing a new performance – I have a new collection of songs that I want to bring out, but want to try them out on stage.

On Being Couplandesque

On the occasion of his first solo show in Europe, post-novelist Douglas Coupland talks about art and digital life.

Published by DAMn magazine, 5 November 2015

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His first novel, the 1991 international bestseller Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, is what first drew attention to Douglas Coupland. The Canadian has actually published thirteen novels, not to mention short stories, non-fiction books, dramatic works, and screenplays. But since 2000, it is in the visual arts that he finds most solace. Employing a variety of materials in his work, a common theme is a curiosity with pop culture and 20th-century pop art, in particular the corrupting and seductive dimensions thereof. Military imagery is also interwoven, the result of growing up in a military family at the height of the Cold War, much to his chagrin.

Bit Rot is a term defining the decay of digital information. All electronic files are under constant decay. Did you know that the thousands of mp3s, xvids, and jpegs backed up on the external hard-drive, whether double-saved in Dropbox or not (and probably not viewed for years) – like our memories – do not last forever? That even what happens on the Internet is not everlasting?

Slogans for the 21st Century (detail), 2011-ongoing Courtesy of the artist and Vancouver Art Gallery

Slogans for the 21st Century (detail), 2011-ongoing. Courtesy of the artist and Vancouver Art Gallery

Anyway, “knowing everything turns out to be slightly boring”, quips a Douglas Coupland slogan emblazoned on a fuchsia background in Helvetica all-caps. Just one such poster amid a multi-coloured wall full of other netspeak slogans for our post-Internet brains, it barely stands out from: So. Much. Porn., Waiting For The Singularity Is Getting Dull, Too Much Information, Or I Miss Feeling Clueless…

It’s the launch of Coupland’s first solo show in Europe. Despite it being about death and destruction, the cult figure – who baptised Generation X with his eponymous 1991 novel – says it is not dystopic: “Violence is a constant in human history, endlessly reinventing itself in new forms, so you can’t really say that one year was more or less dystopic than any other.”

“I don’t think we live in a dystopia. We live in an age of hundreds of millions of people trying to put their spin on anything and everything. Depending on time zones, politics, and geography, the present is distorted in ways that can seem alarming. Remember the Grexit? Remember how important it was? It was just an overhyped blip. Part of psychic survival in the next few decades involves developing the skill to see just how short-term seemingly devastating issues actually are”, continues the self-proclaimed pessimistic optimist.

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The Living Internet, 2015 A kinetic room-sized sculptural tableau / Slogans for the 21st Century, 2011-present An ongoing body of statements Photo: Cassander Eeftinck-Schattenkerk © Witte de With Centre for Contemporary Art, 2015

Central to the exhibition is an installation that depicts the Internet as we type something into a search engine. “I wanted to create the sensation of opening a door and looking into the Internet and searching, and to give a taste of what that actually looks like. Not data visualisation; rather, a portrait of the Internet itself.”

Created during Coupland’s residency at the Google Cultural Institute in Paris, the work comprises of rudimental, oversized polystyrene sculptures of a cat, a fist, a bust of Putin, Tetris pieces, a Lego man, a dinosaur scull, an AK47, and other popular search terms, each positioned on a hacked home-vacuum robot. Moving around randomly, collisions and juxtapositions abound, with white soccer balls scribbled with lesser random search terms bumping about in the goalless field.

“It actually takes an insane amount of work to make the interaction of the shapes appear casual. The robots are very finicky, and the mass, centre of gravity, and harmonic potential of the shapes above them has to be correct to the millimetre”, Coupland explains. “I will brag here: it took the robotics team weeks to achieve it.”

2_ HeadCMYK Colour registration head, 2015 Acrylic on b+w photo, laminated onto canvas, 51 x 71 cm Courtesy of the artist

The show also includes prints with heavy Andy Warhol references (such as his hairpiece), lots of slogans, pixellations made with googly toy eyes (including a copy of 1984), as well as works from Coupland’s personal collection. Working with curator Samuel Saelemakers to create spatial conversations within his collection surprised even Coupland himself: “The thing about this show that freaked me out was the room filled with staged group photography. I had no idea I was so obsessed with pictorial depictions of societal collapse and failure.”

Compared to his chaotic, truth-is-stranger-than-fiction, culture-defining novels, Coupland-the-artist is far more restrained and literal. He collects, he doesn’t curate. It is neighbourhoods that are the future, not cities. Cardboard furniture means stiffened-paper desks, chairs, and shelves. And there is no typical day at Google.

It’s a rare moment when Coupland reveals his personal narrative, whence the Couplandesque turn emerges. “Growing up, my father was in the air force, so I was surrounded by pictures of jets and rifles on the walls, and my brother is a taxidermist, so the insides and outsides of dead things were everywhere”, he told the audience at the launch symposium. “I grew up, became an adult, and got my own place with the complete opposite of everything I grew up with. I thought I’d escaped my family’s hillbilly curse, but my friend said there’s no such thing”, pointing out all the fighter jets and military images on the walls.

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Warflower Number Three, 2006 Digital print Courtesy of the Daniel Faria Gallery, Toronto

This subconscious discord has always distinguished Coupland: his writing is visual and his art textual. “It depends on your genetics and whether you’re a visual thinker, a verbal thinker, or both. I’m both. The literary world is mostly filled with people who can’t, and who will never-ever medically/clinically be able to think visually. It took me a decade to figure that out, and once I did, it spooked me. I need to be around people who can think both ways. This is why I began going visual big-time, starting in 2000.”

It might also be that Coupland’s post-Internet brain is no longer hooked on the book. Since the middling reviews of Worst. Person. Ever. in 2013, he has penned three non-fiction books, including The Age of Earthquakes, published earlier this year, and has co-written with cultural critic Shumon Basar and Serpentine Gallery curator Hans Ulrich Obrist. Now, alongside the Bit Rot exhibition, a collection of short stories and essays have been published under the same name, in which he declares “goodbye to writing for the sake of writing” in the introduction.

“I have no patience for poorly framed ideas or characters”, Coupland pronounces. “And if you’re going to write fiction, please get to the point.” However, he’s quick to clarify that “it’s not a dumbing down, but there’s a lot of reformatting, and once you’re reformatted… it’s like going from Mac to PC, or learning a new language.”

As for Andy, Dag, and Claire – the main characters in Generation X, Coupland reckons they managed to escape to Mexico, known to have the worst Internet in the world. The state of their 50-something-year-old brains “remains unclear”. Perhaps it’s time to take a paperback holiday.

Bit Rot is at Witte de With, Rotterdam until 03 January 2016. 

The vandalism of photography

The Critter, 8 April 2015

As with the news, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking photography represents objective fact. It’s an image produced by a machine; how can a machine be subjective? But consider how Kodak film was standardised to Caucasian skin back in the 1960s, showing some of our best friends as indeterminate black blurs.

Teju Cole wrote about this in The New York Times recently, but South African-born London-based artists Oliver Chanarin and Adam Broomberg explored this in an exhibition back in 2012. These questions of how ownership, curatorship, technology and power frame a photographic image have remained at the heart of their work.

Divine Violence, their newest exhibition showing at the Goodman until 11 April, constitutes cabinet frames with the pages of The Bible pinned like butterflies – one chapter per frame. On each page, phrases and words are underlined with a red ballpoint pen and an image from theArchive of Modern Conflict is attached. These were the original collages the duo put together to print their book Holy Bible, which won them the International Centre for Photography Infinity Award last year.

The Archive of Modern Conflict collects photographs from wars as far back as the Crimean. However, it’s “not interested in the big iconic images of these battles that we all have in our minds. What they’re interested in are the unofficial stories.” Chanarin explains that an entire shelf is dedicated to family albums of Nazi soldiers, for instance, an unnerving expose of their everyday humanity.

Yet, even though the pictures are not of guts and napalm, the expectation given by the exhibition’s title, as well as seeing the sacrilegious dissection of “the holy book” splayed and pinned, created a heightened adrenal state, my heart pounding in my chest with the promise of spectacle, sensation, shock. The works are the literal embodiment of “using spectacular images and language to disrupt the flow of the spectacle” – philosopher Guy DeBord’s definition of detournement, described in his iconic Marxist critique of mass marketing, Society of the Spectacle.

“The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images,” Debord writes. And elsewhere: “The society whose modernisation has reached the stage of integrated spectacle is characterised by the combined effect of five principal factors: incessant technological renewal, integration of state and economy, generalised secrecy, unanswerable lies, and eternal present.”

In this society, Christians are not outraged, freaking out on the front page of the newspapers about what Chanarin and Broomberg have done to their book. Of course, we could never get away with such a “vandalisation” (their word) of the Koran. Yet, in a post-Charlie Hebdo world, there’s no need: we’re all thinking that. Beneath this dismemberment of The Bible lies the spectre of the Koran. Just as the spectre of minorities, multiplicities and terrorism lies beneath the Western hegemony in which it is “The Bible” not a bible. As Debord writes: “The story of terrorism is written by the state and it is therefore highly instructive… compared with terrorism, everything else must be acceptable, or in any case more rational and democratic.”

For Holy Bible, the contents of the frames have been rescanned, printed and bound to form a bible-simulacra – replete with red-rimmed tissue paper, a black embossed cover and ribbon bookmark.

“You can buy it and take it home to read on the toilet, which is by the way the best place to read it,” says Chanarin who, with Broomberg, came upon the idea when they saw socialist poet and playwright Bertoldt Brecht’s bible, scrawled with notes and filled with press clippings.

This is not the first of Brecht’s books to inspire Chanarin and Broomberg’s detournement. Winning them the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize in 2013, War Primer 2 (that you can download free here) entailed them hand-screenprinting images appropriated from the internet in 100 copies of Brecht’s original War Primer. Published in 1955, Brecht’s book was an interrogation of photos of World War II being a “shortcut to empathy”, that stops us thinking about what they really mean.

Recasting this in the 21st century, what does a picture of a torture scene inside Abu Ghraib mean, after the initial emotional response? As Chanarin and Broomberg discovered in attempting to republish the image legally, Associated Press, a commercial news agency, owns the right to charge for and distribute every single photo of the notorious prison. “How the hell does a photograph taken in a prison by an American soldier of torture end up belonging to a news agency who are then trading on that picture?” asks Chanarin.

“The role that photography plays in the theatre of war, how images have a life in terms of recording other people’s suffering and what happens to those images after they’ve been made?” are the types of issues that have prevented Chanarin and Broomberg from themselves reaching for a camera in years. Nonetheless, many South Africans will always remember them as being the creators of the first photographs we saw of the numbers gangs in Pollsmoor, back in 2000.

More spectacles in Cape Town: Cyrus Kabiru

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An exhibition of the C-Stunners spectacles by Kenyan artist Cyrus Kabiru is running in Cape Town, expressing the multiple, one-of-a-kind perspectives on and from Africa.

His spectacles are wild and whimsical, serious and resourceful. Kabiru works with objects and recycled materials found on the streets of Nairobi. Bars evoke prisons, bullets evoke police brutality, bones and calabashes talk to tradition, wire satellite dishes and other elaborate metal constructions comment on technology and the future. Most involve many of these elements.

The press release lobs Kabiru into the Afro-futurism box, a philosophy that has increasingly become an empty populist label celebrating everyone from Sun Ra to Outkast and Janelle Monáe.

Frankly, it’s a patronising surface-level reading, as Los Angeles artist Martine Syms explains in her The Mundane Afro-futurist Manifesto: “This dream of utopia can encourage us to forget that outer space will not save us from injustice and that cyberspace was prefigured upon a ‘master/slave’ relationship.”

Kabiru is self-taught. In fact, he started making the glasses when he was seven years old and has forged his own path.

A fellow at TED’s The Young, the Gifted, the Undiscovered in the US in 2013, he explained: “They used to tell their kids ‘Work hard. If you won’t work hard, you’ll be like Cyrus.’ I was very different. I was always in my house doing art, painting and making sculptures. And no one understood what I was doing. I didn’t study. I wore shaggy clothes.

“To them it was a bit weird. I didn’t know Sunday. I didn’t know Monday. I didn’t know.”

Aside from a selection of the spectacles and selfies of Kabiru wearing his glasses, his Black Mambas are also on show.

These are sculptures made from fixed-gear bikes that have increasingly become obsolete with the advent of the scooter. As such an expression of extreme individualism and the celebration of multiple narratives – numerous perspectives, positive and negative – and a grounded presence in the now, Kabiru’s work is far more nuanced than “black sci-fi”.

Also worth comparing with these C-Stunners is Cape Town’s favourite talking point, the Perceiving Freedom “public spectacles” by Michael Elion.

Unfortunately, instead of being supersized and displayed in public, Kabiru’s work is hidden away in the obscure The Palms complex in Woodstock, where SMAC Gallery relocated to at the end of last year.

Published by City Press, 22 February 2015

The geopolitical trash

“What is good for the trash is good for poetry,” reads Brazilian artist Rosângela Rennó’s artwork on show at The Poetry In Between: South-South exhibition currently on in Cape Town.

The exhibition is billed as “exploring the connections and disconnections between Africa and Latin-America”, drawing its name from the geopolitical term “Global South”.

The contested term refers to the non-Westernised world and has become preferred to “developing world” or “third world”, but still draws criticism for highlighting the political tensions between the West and the “other”, or “the trash”.

There’s another level of trash in this exhibition: other people’s flotsam.

For instance, works on display by Brazilian artists include a massive bale of hay that apparently houses a golden needle and thread by Cildo Meireles, an installation of found objects by the peripatetic Paulo Nazareth, a fabric sculpture by Sonia Gomes hanging from the rafters, and a flute embedded in a soapstone by Nuno Ramos.

Is there truth in the meme that the Global South is more resourceful in terms of repurposing waste since we always end up with the West’s leftovers, or have we fallen prey to our own clichéd platitudes?

The South African work on display is more specific – or at least more recognisably specific from this viewer’s context.

These include canvases made of correctional services sheeting by Turiya Magadlela, and a lightbox installation of Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse’s seminal Ponte City work. Ariel Reichman’s Tea for the Master, Coffee for the Madam performance that saw him don a domestic worker’s outfit and serving two chairs delivered unexpected poetry when the queue for wine engulfed his set.

And, of course, never shall there by a Goodman group exhibition without a David Goldblatt or William Kentridge – whose 1991 animation, Mine, has revealed a new dimension since the Marikana Massacre. It was Kendell Geers’s 1993 Hanging Piece that defined the show, however.

Set up in the entrance foyer, the work entails red bricks suspended from rope tied to the rafters at various heights.

Although most people tried to skirt around the obstruction, the work is revealed by people weaving their way through it, setting a brick swinging that could hit another over the head.

Although made a good 13 years before the term BRICS was coined in 2006, it seems an entirely prophetic work in its comical enactment of how clunky and problematic any of these geopolitical terms are; and how they can hit you over the head when you’re not looking.

As the exhibition promises to be the first of an annual series, one hopes that future iterations might explore these tensions and contradictions.

Since it also bears mentioning that the Goodman’s idea of “Africa and Latin-America” in fact refers to “South Africa and Brazil” (with an exception of Kudzanai Chiurai).

City Press, 15 February 2012

Changing the world of art – to click or not to click?

Clicktivism – can logging into a website and adding your name to a petition really change the world of art?

If 2011 was the year that “clicktivism” made it into the Collins dictionary, 2014 is the year it made it into the art world, courtesy of Cape Town.

In September, a Change.org petition against showing Cape Town artist Brett Bailey’s Exhibit B at the Barbican Gallery in London drew worldwide attention – and 22 988 supporters.

The exhibition – a performance artwork that recreates a colonial human zoo in which black people are put on exhibit in historical scenarios – was again petitioned in November to prevent its showing in Paris, drawing 20 433 signatories, who believe that it is racist.

Meanwhile, right in the Mother City, an Avaaz.org petition calling for the removal of the Perceiving Freedom artwork from the Sea Point promenade has received just over 1 000 signatures over the past month.

The appeal to Mayor Patricia de Lille and Western Cape Premier Helen Zille demands a full investigation into the process whereby the controversial supersized Ray Bans by artist Michael Elion was approved.

Can logging into a website and adding your name to a list really change the world of art?

The self-righteous mob

The London showing of Exhibit B was cancelled, but only after protestors created a disturbance on the opening night. Immediately, prominent theatre, art and museum curators from around the world rallied around what was labelled an act of bottom-up censorship.

Bailey has labelled the protestors a “self-righteous mob”, and decried the fact that none of them have actually seen the exhibition.

In Paris, however, the show goes on, despite protestors having smashed the door on the opening night.

Just a month since Paul McCarthy’s inflatable Christmas tree that resembled a buttplug was vandalised, forcing it to be removed, Fleur Pellerin, the French cultural minister, has come out in full support of Exhibit B, saying that they refuse to give in to censorship and intimidation.

A Paris court concurs, with a judge ruling against a collective of artists calling themselves “Against Exhibit B”, who brought a case against the City of Paris on December 8, to close down Exhibit B on the grounds of it being humiliating.

On Tuesday the judge said that: “The artistic representation in question unambiguously condemns the enslavement of black people during the colonial period and their treatment, contrary to the principle of respect for human dignity or human rights in the contemporary world.”

“The huge city block-sized building is completely sealed off by 300 policemen. One has to go through a labyrinthine security rigmarole to enter the cultural centre.

“We are performing in the bowels of the building with no access to what’s going on outside: apparently 100 or so protesters … Somebody in security said to me: ‘Its costing a fortune, 300 policemen, outside, in the rain, on a Sunday’.

‘Is the centre paying?’ I asked. ‘No. We are. Our taxes’.

“‘Hmm’, I thought. Maybe if your taxes were used to provide better opportunities for disenfranchised second-class citizens in the first place, the harvest wouldn’t be so bitter,” wrote Bailey.

Yes, just 100 protestors from 20 433 petitioners.

The number game 

The organisers of the Perceiving Freedom petition, John Nankin, Candice Breitz and Lizza Littlewort, know that they can’t “play the numbers game”, given the niche interest of visual art.

Instead, they have aimed to make their 1 000 signatories really count. Rather than a self-righteous mob, they have curated a who’s-who list of art experts as supporters.

“Many really well-known and influential academics, curators, critics, artists, as well as prominent people in other fields of culture signed,” says Nankin, making a special point to highlight the support of the original selection committee of Art 54, the project that Perceiving Freedom forms part of, as well as other artists involved in the project.

Nonetheless, the fact that the petition calls for the removal of the artwork may be why there are not more supporters, since it can be perceived to be censorship.

However, despite the widespread criticism of the actual artwork and concept, the organisers stipulate that they are not calling for its removal because of the nature of the work, but because it has become clear that due process has not been followed.

As one of the original Art54 curators, Farzanah Badsha, explained to the Daily Maverick, neither the artwork in its current form nor its location is what was originally approved. In other words, the petition calls for some form of justice, not an insurrection of popular opinion.

Will that give the petition more clout? Now we wait. Nankin says that they hope to present the petition to the City of Cape Town early next year, and it is still open for signatures – uh, clicks.

Mail&Guardian, 10 December 2014

The quiet violence of dreams: Mohau Modisakeng

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A black riempie chair bristling with erect sjamboks is hardly what you expect to see when you walk into a colonial museum. Then again, who still walks into those dusty old mausoleums of white power?

Well, there’s one in Cape Town that has replaced its mothballs with a retrospective exhibition of work by Mohau Modisakeng: Chavonnes Battery. This site-specific installation of the 29-year-old artist’s arresting race, violence and power-infused work is, frankly, profound.

Dug up in 1999 by the V&A Waterfront construction team, Chavonnes Battery was a heavy artillery fortress completed in 1726 to protect the Dutch’s Cape outpost from potential invasion. It remained in working condition until about 1860, when construction on the harbour saw it slowly demolished and covered up in warehouses.

The museum’s ground floor is currently home to more than 20 of Modisakeng’s sculptures, videos and photographs, 17 of which form part of the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art’s permanent collection.

Curated by Mark Coetzee, the installation is arranged as a linear story emphasising the tools of control and power used as symbols of repression in Modisakeng’s work.

The first floor is little more than a passageway around the building, allowing viewers to peer down into the basement below the art installation. Gangplank-like glass walkways allow one to explore the museum’s story of “shipwrecks and isolation wards, soldiers and slaves, exiles and explorers, locals and settlers, knechts and convicts”, according to the website.

It’s hard not to see the fort’s crumbling foundations as a representation of colonialism, and Modisakeng’s lavishly produced work of art as a sign of a new era, literally floating above it. In his photographic and video work, he engages the viewer with a smirk, a cocked eyebrow, nonchalantly swinging a panga. There’s no blood or guts or gore. Everything is in perfect control; it is only the threat of violence and a sense that the tables are turned.

This potential for violence draws an interesting parallel with Chavonnes Battery, which, according to its website, only once actually fired a single weapon in anger. The strategy to build the biggest fortress with the flashiest canons to deter invaders seems to have worked.

The Quiet Violence of Dreams, the title of K Sello Duiker’s seminal novel exploring the divisive social geography of Cape Town, comes to mind. In a city that continues to struggle with spatial apartheid and the lack of redress to its predominantly colonial public sculptures, memorials and museums, this exhibition visualises ways in which a revisionist history can be realised without erasing or replacing.

As for Modisakeng, he’s one to watch after having both his first solo gallery exhibition and first museum retrospective in one year.

Published by City Press, 7 December 2014

Tokolos Stencil Collective: ‘Crap’ art designed to unsettle

Guerilla art group Tokolos Stencil Collective poses dirty challenges to audiences and the art gallery.

Defacing the Mandela Ray-Ban sculpture is not all that the Tokolos Stencil Collective, who most Capetonians know for the ubiquitous “Remember Marikana” stencils throughout the city, has been up to lately. A soiled government-issue porta-potty filled the Brundyn+ gallery in Cape Town with the stench of human faeces on the opening night of the Plakkers group exhibition of street art.

This intervention by the Tokolos Stencil Collective was unsanctioned by the gallery, as were the “dehumanisation zone” stencils and scrawled “bourgeoisie gallery” slogan spray-painted on the building façade in the dead of the previous night.

“The intention of our ‘Non-poor Only’ stencil sprayed directly on to the ‘porta-porta’ was a critique of the highly problematic nature of the Brundyn+ gallery and bourgeois spaces like it across South Africa,” reads the anonymous collective’s statement, which described the gallery’s immediate removal of the toilet as censoring “the smell of decades of indignity and oppression meted out against Cape Town’s poor”.

The intervention was simultaneously replicated during the Open City event held in the public space of Church Square during the First Thursdays festivities. “We feel that the entire #FirstThursdays initiative is an exclusionary space meant to help the middle class pretend that their culture is significant and relevant,” reads their website, tokolos-stencils.tumblr.com.

“Instead, First Thursdays merely serves to exclude the poor black underclass. Many of the art installations talk about the poor but rarely, if ever, do they actually build space of inclusion.” Of course, this is hardly the first toilet in contemporary art. Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain – a urinal signed simply “R Mutt 1917” – was voted the most influential art work of all time by more than 500 art experts in the run-up to the 2004 Turner Prize in Britain.

“Poor only” 

The work raises a number of questions, most basically: What is art? Is it whatever the artist says it is? A number of artists, including South Africa’s Kendell Geers, have pulled out all the stops to answer this question by urinating in Duchamp’s gallery-reified urinals. Artist, musician and original producer of U2 Brian Eno stored his urine in a test tube that was poured through a crack in the sculpture’s protective Perspex case.

In a less egotistical response, British pop artist Alex Garnett commodified the question with his “Conceptual Crap” sticker that sports a “R Mutt 1917” signature. It can be bought at most gallery shops in Europe for (relatively humble) £6.50 and encourages everyone to turn their lavatory into a replica of the work.

It is, however, unclear whether the anonymous collective considers their porta-potty art, as the statement reads: “Tokolos made no claim to professional artistic intervention. We are not engaging in this conversation as artists but as an anonymous and universalised image of the worker wearing gas masks and blue overalls, and carrying our luggage of shit to disrupt spaces in which poor blacks are not welcome.”

Unlike Garnett’s commodification, Tokolos’s “poor only” slogan is available as a stencil for free download with instructions from its website. Everyone is encouraged to get involved, anyone can be a tokolos. When I contacted Tokolos for comment, I was informed that I had to be complicit in the collective – spray a stencil somewhere or another agreed-on action that I could think of – before it would co-operate.

‘The motives also come under scrutiny’ 

This raises the question of who the Tokolos Stencil Collective is. According to an interview with Dave Mann in Archetype Online magazine, the collective itself is not entirely sure: “We are a loose collective. We don’t really have members, just participants.” If not even the participants know who is in the group, how does one control what the group stands for, or prevent enemies sabotaging its directive? The motives also come under scrutiny.

If it is not money or artistic acclaim, then it is presumably to raise awareness. Yet nowhere in the media generated has Tokolos highlighted the organisations rallying against the poor sanitation infrastructure in Cape Town. Just over a month ago, the Social Justice Coalition released its toilet audit to a defensive City of Cape Town. And the night before Tokolos’s intervention, controversial leader of the “poo protesters”, Ses’khona People’s Rights Movement, Andile Lili, was shot outside his house.

Without this element of social pragmatism, Tokolos limit their effectiveness to the art realm. However, unlike Duchamp or Michael Elion – artist of the Mandela Ray-Ban sculpture – who declare art is in the eye of the artist, Tokolos stipulates in its statement that “real art makes those with privilege feel uncomfortable”.

Mail&Guardian, 21 November 2014

Rhode to fame well travelled

Incognito, Robin Rhode uses South Africa’s streets as his canvas – but his path to renown was international.

“Contemporary artists see me as a street artist and the street artists see me as a conceptual artist,” says Robin Rhode, sitting in the atrium at the Stevenson gallery in Cape Town. Around him, his “crew” is setting up his first solo exhibition in South Africa in about 13 years. “I use the same space [the street] but I use it so differently.”

The last time South African audiences saw a dedicated Rhode exhibition was at the Market Theatre Gallery in 2000, where half the shoes from his installation were stolen. That was the same year he moved to Berlin “for love”, where he still lives with his wife and two children. However, if you are to read his life according to the international press, they would have you believe that his first solo exhibition was in New York in 2004, shortly after a residency at the Walker Art Centre in 2003 where his performance brought the house down and saw his first work sold straight into the prestigious Rubell Collection.

After that, Rhode was the youngest artist to participate in the Venice Biennale in 2005 and has been included in high-profile group exhibitions around the world by institutions that include the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In 2008, he presented a solo exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in London, alongside a retrospective of Andy Warhol.

“What has brought me back is not ‘South Africa’ or the people, it’s the work. The concept of this exhibition, which I’ve been engaging with for the past year or two, had to be realised in South Africa.”

Titled Paries Pictus, which means wall drawing in Latin, the exhibition turns half the gallery into an oversized colouring-in book. In the days leading up to the exhibition, kids completed the images on the walls using oversized crayons. From the Cape Town-based arts education programme for disadvantaged communities, Lalela Project, the children were all “strictly under the age of eight”. At the opening, the audience saw only the completed work, not the children or any other form of performance or intervention.

The evolution of the project first began in 2011 at the Castello di Rivoli in Turin, where Rhode worked with Italian kids. It was realised again this year at the Lehmann Maupin Gallery in New York. “Working abroad made me realise how much my own country needs to access this working process, especially our youth. To plant a seed in their minds that visual arts or contemporary art is a way to nurture their growth and creativity.”

When Rhode talks with such philanthropic zeal about the impact of an isolated two-day gallery intervention on the youth of South Africa, I become sceptical. Who is this prodigal son of South Africa with his contemporary art cure-all? Is he even still South African — besides his 100% Mzansi accent?

Beyond the gallery

As the interview continues Rhode explains the origin of his art — the signature street art illusions that he has become known for. The second half of the exhibition comprises this work — photographs, drawings, moving images and sculptural works, ranging from abstract drawings made in Germany in 2007 to a new photo series done in Johannesburg in 2013. From talking about this work, I begin to understand the self-referential significance of Paries Pictus and the true impact of Rhode’s work being beyond the gallery.

The fact is that Rhode is making about 90% of his work in South Africa. About five times a year he returns incognito and heads straight to the Jo’burg streets to make work for eight- to nine-day periods. Berlin, he says, is too risky with the cops — he feels much more comfortable engaging in the local graffiti crew turf wars.

“It’s more theatre than graffiti,” says Rhode, who is known for whiting-out his work after he has captured it on film. Nonetheless, for the brief time in which he is executing it, he amasses an audience of “other street art crews, kids coming home from school, workers coming back from the factory, the junkies, the homeless people,” all who watch him.

“When I started out as an artist, I wanted to change the notion of the audience, so I started working outside on the street” — which makes one wonder whether the work, the photograph hanging in the gallery, is actually the real art or just a souvenir. But it’s impressive that such a high-profile artist still manages to keep such a large aspect of his work completely underground, beneath the radar of the art scene or the blogosphere. I ask why he doesn’t tweet it, secretly hoping in the future that he will at least tweet me. But Rhode is not into spectacle, he says, which is also why he has almost completely stopped doing performance art.

The invisibility of this rich community context of his work is part of the theatrical quality of his work — it’s the backstage of what the audience sees in the gallery. Just as the audience did not see the kids completing Paries Pictus, it is up to our imaginations to fill in that aspect, says Rhode: “Invisibility is the narrative that the audience needs to make.”

Generally, in his work the South African — and Jo’burg — context is completely framed out by the camera. It could just as well be Mexico City (which is where some of them were created). But Rhode is fundamentally a South African artist. “My art has to come from a lived experience. The only way I can make it is to find something inside myself that leads to my visual language.”

Childish pranks

This struck him in his second year at art school when he was learning about Duchamp, Dada and performance art. He recalled a teenage experience that has become the conceptual basis of all of his work: the Americans call it “hazing”, he says. The matrics in high school initiated the new kids by forcing them to interact with life-size drawings of everyday things — a bicycle and a candle, for instance — drawn with chalk on the bathroom walls. The kids were humiliated and then accepted. (It has nothing to do with William Kentridge’s stop-motion work, he claims, adding that he has started looking forward to interviewers asking him about Kentridge’s influence on him when actually he slept through that part of his art school lectures.)

“That moment meant so much,” Rhode says. The chalk was apparently stolen from the classrooms. So it makes reference to the basic material of education. The drawings were life-size and rendered on a wall, so somehow they also take us back to the historical art of the Bushmen. Furthermore, the physical act of engaging with his drawing leads Rhode into performance art.

One of the recurring images in the childish pranks he recalled was a bicycle, although none of the kids could afford one. The significance of the two-wheeler in the work of Duchamp, and throughout art history, shines through. Rhode marvels that “all of those [contemporary art] discourses formed my subcultural experience as a South African youth”.

He relates it to Paries Pictus: “I’m working with children, to educate them about artistic processes and introduce them to the notion of creativity. Contemporary art is a space that is overly refined, more adult, learned and institutional. I thought that working with children could inject a new energy into the process.”

Mail&Guardian, 12 April 2013