Making Africa – we need new names

City Press: January 15, 2016

Kenya’s cellphone micropayment system, M-Pesa; Beninese artist Meschac Gaba’s architectural sculptures made of hair braids; Umlilo’s Magic Man music video; Zanele Muholi’s portraits of black lesbians; Nigerian celebrity and lifestyle magazine Ovation; Cyrus Kabiru’s eyewear sculptures; the Diesel + Edun’s Pantsula vs Puppets advert; Robin Rhode’s street art animations; Vlisco fabric; and fashion website That Skattie.

These are just a sample of the range of work by more than 120 artists and designers included in the Making Africa: A Continent of Contemporary Design exhibition, which is now showing at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain.

Originally curated by Amelie Klein for the Vitra Design Museum in Basel, Switzerland, it is arguably the first major museum survey show of contemporary design in Africa, and neatly avoids stereotypes of humanitarian design and cultural craft by positioning itself within the “Africa is rising” narrative.

However, as the art world learnt with seminal exhibitions such as Africa Remix by Simon Njami in 2005 and The Short Century by Okwui Enwezor in 2001, survey exhibitions are inherently flawed because Africa is not a country, and any showing of Africa in Europe will evoke the spectacle of the other, raising the question of who this exhibition is really serving, and to what end.

Nigerian-born Enwezor also played an advising role in Making Africa, which originally opened just before his centrepiece Venice Biennale show last year. There is a feeling that his name gives the exhibition some sort of stamp of approval, particularly since his curatorial fingerprint is not discernible. However, in his catalogue interview, his call for a new design vocabulary that interrogates the power relations of Western-imposed concepts such as recycling and informality is to the point.

These etymological questions about design in Africa are echoed by everyone from Joburg-based Ghanaian architect Lesley Lokko to Edgar Pieterse, the founder of the African Centre for Cities in Cape Town, in the interactive video component of the exhibition. Featuring interviews with 12 art and design thinkers and practitioners, this gives meaningful intellectual context to the exhibition and is also available as an invaluable online resource.

It is disappointing that the richness of the design etymology conversation is not continued throughout the rest of the exhibition, comprising four seemingly superficial sections – Europe’s perceptions of Africa, social and cultural identity, urbanism and products, and future visions.

Obviously, there will be gaps in any exhibition that attempts a continent-wide scope (the most obvious being the iJusi magazine from Durban), but the selection criteria for what was included are not easily discernible.

At worst, given the show’s impetus to show a perspective on Africa divergent from the usual poverty and desolation themes, the uniting thread leans towards trendiness – something Jim Chuchu of The Nest decries in his video interview.

At best, the exhibition shows how, as Klein describes in her curatorial statement, design can begin to rethink itself beyond being in the service of the market economy.

Showing this achingly contemporary side of Africa to the rest of the world is important to inspire people to look further than the doomsday headlines and stereotypes. As a South African, however, I would have appreciated more interrogation of the premise that Africa is rising.

Making Africa – A Continent of Contemporary Design runs at the Guggenheim Bilbao in Spain until February 22

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.

Trend forecaster Li Edelkoort says “Design for your selfie”

sideboard Table Contemporary Solid Wood Mirror 66899 7083341

For years now a similar message has been at the core of Li Edelkoort’s seasonal trend forecasts: the more digital and less tangible our technological lives get, the more handmade and tactile our fashion and home design. This makes her latest “Vanities: The Mythologies of Self” forecast at her annual Design Indaba seminar quite the departure. Not only does it position design and fashion as following, rather than contrasting, the dominant technological trend, but it goes against the physical to elevate the ephemeral, the image, the appearance, the concept of the self.

TrendUnion Lidewij 02“I felt that it was time for vanity because I saw all these people taking selfies,” Edelkoort said, after first reflecting on her previous year’s “Gathering” presentation. Those principles of bringing fabric together in interesting ways will remain with us for a while, but she calls out “Vanities” as “such a huge interesting new domain, where people narrate online their existence. They put themselves on a pedestal, making themselves super and glamorous.”

Edelkoort went on to present about 15 archetypes based on ancient mythologies from the virginal nymph girl and kidult prodigy to the twins who are empowered through a second half, and the hero who is taking physical power outside of the realm of exercise. The muse, the oracle and the legend represented inspirational figures of various ages. The courtesan, the odalisque and the amazon showed strong images of emancipated women.

“My next work will be about the emancipation of everything,” Edelkoort explained, predicting the logical extension of the selfie to its extreme. “Of the animal, of the food, of yourself, of your child, of colors, of textiles, of fashion, of everything needs to be rethought at this point, which is very exciting.”

DSC0835 Kopie Web

In the trend world, Edelkoort’s in particular, fashion is generally the cart that leads the horse and the presentation did not yet offer much insight into how these archetypes would manifest in design—besides more mirrors and the return of the vanity table. There would also be more focus on less things that are better made and more closely aligned with individuals’ archetypal tastes than dominant societal fads.

The elevation of personal identity and a move to the anti-consumer also came through in Edelkoort’s launch of her 10-point manifesto of why fashion is dead. At the core is the villain of mass-production and -consumption, a dampening force that she says has not yet reached the world of design, a discipline that is still defining and distinguishing itself.

First published in Interior Design, 13 March 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

The quiet violence of dreams: Mohau Modisakeng

MohauUntitled2012

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

Plastic post-mortality has been perfected

Having showed across the world for the past 15 years, the blockbuster Body Worlds exhibition has now berthed in Cape Town.

It runs until January 31 at the V&A Waterfront and comprises a selection of German scientist Dr Gunther von Hagens’s plastinated bodies.

From mummification to embalming, the human fascination with the preservation and anatomy of our bodies is hardly new. Nonetheless, one can’t help smirking at the appropriateness of the term “plastination” to describe the 21st-century quest for post-mortality. The process, which involves replacing the water and fat in a cadaver with special plastics that preserve it without smell or decay, was discovered by Von Hagens in 1977.

Since the first Body Worlds exhibition opened in 1997, some 35?million people in 70 cities worldwide have flocked to see it. For many others, however, the concept evokes revulsion and horror, because plastinated  “bodies” is a palatable euphemism for “corpses”. And let’s not forget the ethical and religious implications of traipsing these human remains around the world as a consumer spectacular; tickets for adults cost a whopping R140.

Von Hagens has always defended his motives as being purely educational and driven by a desire to share the wonders of anatomy with the world. Furthermore, despite ongoing accusations about the dubious origins of the bodies, Von Hagens insists that all come from voluntary donors and that the foetuses and organs are sourced from anatomical collections and morphological institutes.

In the exhibition’s South African manifestation, these educational motives come through in the curation of the sections: the cycle of life from conception to old age, the creativity and development of teenagers, how sight and vision change from birth to old age, extreme old age and HIV/Aids. The HIV/Aids section is a world premiere and comes across as quite patronising, because it appears to have been created specially for the  South African leg — there is no link between the information provided and the plastinated bodies.

Across the exhibition, all the information and text is pitched at about a grade seven level, although the bodies themselves are not shy about showing their genitals. For a doctor or medical student, the exhibition must be fascinating. However, there will surely be a large part of the population that will leave hankering after something more. Given the international status and ticket prices, one would have expected a multi-streamed exhibition catering for different ages.

Even though this is supposedly science, there is also a slipperiness between the objectivity and subjectivity displayed. For instance, all of the models have had their ears, eyebrows, noses and lips reconstructed in generic form, which is meant to make it easier for visitors to relate; however, the taxidermy glass eyes are all blue and the eyebrows all strawberry blonde.

The Aryan race aside, my feminist self was outraged that the anuses and labia were also given some reconstruction, but the clitoris not. The inherent deceit in what is real and what is reconstructed in the exhibition is not commented on and is akin to a Monet fake being displayed as the real thing.

These are minutiae compared with the outrageous poses the corpses are arranged in: saxophone player, ship captain, ballet dancer and full-on sex scene.

Obviously these poses are for entertainment value, but that was really the creepiest part because, along with the blue glass eyes, it comes across as human taxidermy. Anyone seen the grotesque 2006 Hungarian black comedyTaxidermia?

Mail&Guardian, 30 November 2012

Afrikaner others

Jong Afrikaner
How can you tell a whitey from an Afrikaner? A dire matter in the context of international relations and national security, I know. I mean, who is a boer and who is a brother?

Bringing us that much closer to absolute racial transparency is Jong Afrikaner, showing at the Commune 1 gallery in Cape Town until 26 July. With the vim of a true ethnographer, artist Roelof Petrus van Wyk has drawn a scientifically objective sample group of Afrikaners from his friends and photographed them from all four sides with a stylistic emphasis on their surface physicality. So much beautified pinky-whiteness on a black background, I can’t say n-n-n-neo-Aryan without stuttering.

With the portraits together as a whole making up the artwork, this is the first time that the full experience of Caucasian hipsters and socialites is being shown in its entirety. Previously, a selection of the photos was shown on the Figures and Fictions exhibition of South African photography at the V&A Museum in London last year. Comprising the work of 17 photographers, it is noteworthy that besides isolated images by Jodi Bieber, David Goldblatt and Pieter Hugo, the only photos of white South Africans are Van Wyk’s.

To be frank, this is the only explanation I can give for why they were included. That and the fact that white-skinned head-and-shoulders shots floating on black nothingness perpetuates the easy-to-swallow concept of Afrikaners – and whiteys, since who can tell the difference especially if you’re not as finely tuned to racial nuance as a South African is – being completely decontextualized and not belonging in Africa.

When asked why he thinks he was included Van Wyk agrees: “All the work on the show was photographing black people and when there were photographs of white people, it was white people in relation to black people.” Okay, he’s level-headed I’m thinking, maybe I got it all wrong.

No: “My work is about white people in relation to white people and what it means to be white, not in relation to black people but within our own specific culture,” he goes on. Oh, of course you’re making art about white people for white people, what a noble cause. Not narcissistic at all. (“I’m an artist, what do you expect?” he replies to that accusation later).

“[The exhibition] is also a critical evaluation of white people and how I believe whiteness has become broken down to become much more inclusive, in an African way of looking and absorbing, and broadening what it means to be African.” Funny, seeing a whole bunch of white people in a room by themselves doesn’t exactly convey that message to me. It is also a sad indictment on South Africa that an artist would seek to “Africanise” by showing Afrikaners through a racist lens, as though being African is being the subject of racism.

Over lunch Van Wyk tries to explain by telling me the stories behind the photos: one Afrikaner married a Zulu man, another Afrikaner became a sangoma, an Afrikaner gay couple adopted a black child, and a teenage Afrikaner learnt to play the saxophone in the township. Really I’m not interested though as firstly it seems like clutching at straws and secondly no one who goes to the gallery is going to be privy to that information, since the works do not even have names, or explanations, beneath them – like old ethnographic photographs.

Unfortunately it’s a cliché, but one does tend to see this kind over-produced, under-conceived artwork coming from artists brought up in the advertising industry. Van Wyk himself boasts that he has about 25 Loeries to his name from his days as creative director and owner of Trigger, with Gavin Rooke.

Jong Afrikaner

“This is not an ad campaign for Afrikaners, you can quote me on that one,” he explicates, exasperated by questions of how this representation vindicates Afrikaners? How can he call his selection process inclusive? What preconceived ideas of Afrikaners are challenged by the work? And how would this exhibition would go down in Khayelitsha? He’s a nice guy and he bought me lunch. However, it just seems that the work simply does not stand up to rigorous questioning.

It’s easy to think that showing a historically racist ethnographic grouping, in a historically racist photographic format, is ironic and that irony is redeeming. To then hang these portraits of a historically racist ethnographic grouping, who are increasingly the victims of an ironic racism themselves – even though everyone knows that they are still financially and socially advantaged – in an elite inner-city gallery and invite everyone over for a glass of wine is… I have no words. It really just seems like a mockery of the grave dehumanization of ethnographic photography!

One point that I do concede to Van Wyk is that for the photographing of white people in South Africa to become less problematic, then we need a lot more varied representations than simply David Goldblatt’s open-ended empathy and Roger Ballen’s monsters. Maybe the question to ask is why there are so few photographic representations of white people in South Africa?

Published by Mahala, 29 June 2012

Jennifer Lovemore-Reed exhibition

Remnants, Relics and Reasons by Jennifer Lovemore-Reed forms the second part of her artistic dialogy. Last year, Lovemore-Reed presented the performance piece Bag-lady, Clown, Sycophant at the Erdmann Contemporary.

This performance is said to have been inspired by the immense fear that the artist felt regarding public performance and her decision that confronting this fear would overshadow all of her other frustrations. The follow-up exhibition sets out to document the entire creative process and performance.The exhibition comprises a massive mind-map of the work, all the props from the performance, a video interview with the artist before the performance, a video of the performance, a video interview with the artist after the performance and the half-dressed artist sitting on a pedestal with her mouth taped shut, the latter performance work titled Silent Artist. The props are personal relics such as clothes, artist materials, photos, memorabilia and toiletries from the artist’s past and encompass her relationship, creative life and daily routine.

Aside from three video pieces, shown simultaneously to create illuminating composites, the exhibition is deathly boring. But this is the point, according to Kathryn Smith who opened the exhibition: once analysed or highlighted, the artistic process is incredibly banal, including the artist’s daily medication, financial records and toenail clippings. Prepared to shatter the mirage of an artistic persona, the exhibition is, to use Smith’s word, “brave”.

In her opening talk, Smith went on to compare Lovemore-Reed’s exhibition to the legal case between MassMoCA and Swiss artist Christoph Buchel in which, after funding ran out and the artist withdrew from the project, a court ruled that the gallery could show the incomplete work. This seemingly tentative connection concluded with the question of what say the artist has in the final realisation of an artwork and the way creative suspense is stripped by secularising the artistic process.

However, for the artist, this is not a fictional exhibition. After all, it was inspired by real-world burning, not an intellectual construction. For the artist, there is meaning and intense emotions in every single object in Remnants, Relics and Reasons and tackling the fear of performance in the first exhibition would point to significant character growth. Indeed, the exhibition could be perceived as a voyeur’s curatorial delight or washing your knickers in public if it weren’t for the staid world-weariness of the artistic space. This is when Silent Artist, which seems incidental to the exhibition, highlights the invalidation with which one views art.

Art South Africa, 1 December 2007

Trasi Henen exhibition

The stark contexture of the paintings in Trasi Henen’s Delicate Life Pursuer belies the exhibition title. Life is squashed out of the paintings by her layered structural conglomerations. The exhibition continues the theme of “fractured and alienated suburban spaces”, raised in Henen’s previous exhibitions, Suburbia Fantastical (2003) and Passer By 2005). However, contrary to these exhibitions, which still allowed for mythical space and a human subject, there is complete anonymity and absolute alienation in these paintings. Only impossible spaces are even alluded to, but hidden by dense superstructures.

Clustering architectural forms into absurd intertwinings that deny mathematical or physical laws, Henen creates claustrophobic monuments that seem to crowd any fragile human subject out of the canvas. Walls, pillars, balustrades, windows, scaffolding, roofs, stairs, balconies, bricks and palisade seem to weave into each other rather than hinge off each other. Shadows, layered oil work and meticulous rectilinear brushwork create a tapestry of positive and negative space that frames two- and three-dimensional planes. The theatrical fourth wall is often accentuated by a slashed brushstroke, which seems to cut the canvas surface, the painting itself crawling out onto the gallery wall.Upside down houses that are right way up, wrecks that are castles, facades that have depth and mansions floating on a string – one gets lost trying to trace an escape from these edificial webs, like a nightmare of endless doors. It is as though MC Escher’s prints of the marching minions on the circular stairs were a balloon that has been deflated. Even Henen’s few human figures resemble these faceless marching droids.

The one clear human figure on this show appears in Qufhbnmk; an enlargement from a magazine photo, he is also defaced by a mask formed by architectural elements. Forming the back of the man’s head on the opposite side of the partition is another enlargement: a long mop of blonde hair – it clearly does not match up. However, along with a video work from one of her earlier exhibitions, these works are incongruous with the rest of the exhibition.Anecdotally, this is the first exhibition that Henen has created and exhibited in the Western Cape since relocating from Johannesburg earlier this year. The severe architectural claustrophobia of her paintings might be considered incongruent with the stereotypical perceptions of Cape Town’s airy geography. Indeed, Delicate Life Pursuer resists any anecdotal, social-political or contemporary reading, despite seeming to echo the suburban fear, anxiety and alienation so very topical in South Africa. Instead, without a view of the subject, the object of fear, alienation and hate is erased too. Rather than a subjective assertion of, “I am alienated from…” the works assert “I am alienated” – unlike the typical South African rhetoric that always includes an other.

Akin to Jean Baudrillard’s “violence of indifference”, the overarching universal has failed, creating disarmed, impotent singularities. It is not about South Africa at all. Instead, alienation is itself a stance activated by the very fragmentation and isolation constructed by her sometimes clinical, sometimes violent brushstrokes. There is no trace of sentimental longing towards the mythical elements of Henen’s earlier work.Of course, Baudrillard is dead and it’s about time that someone wrote a new requiem to modern day living. One mostly hopes that an artist will bring a new ring or a glimmer of hope. However, I fear that all Henen manages is to trap a body’s worth of the suburban alienation in each of her knitted buildings.

Published by Art South Africa, 1 December 2007

From Here to There exhibition

To stage a group exhibition on the premise that the artists all share the same geographic location is problematic. At best it might display a unified creative engagement with localised issues, at worst appear as a means of encouraging artists from an under-appreciated region. From Here to There, an exhibition of 15 KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) artists, curated by Nontobeko Ntombela and Storm Janse van Rensburg, treads a path safely between these two strands.

The exhibition’s press release states that KZN’s art scene is “often marginalised”, but the show does not intentionally explore possible reasons. The selected works also provide few clues. Of the trends manifest in these works none seem strikingly localised. Langa Magwa, Themba Shibase, Gabisile Nkosi, Clive Sithole, Vulindlela Nyoni and Zama Dunywa engage in issues of identity and heritage; Michael Croesser, Rike Sitas, Carla da Cruz, Vaughn Sadie, Peter Rippon and Lindsay Phillips display a quirky conceptual flavour. Other arrangements are possible. Bronwen Vaughan-Evans, Sitas, da Cruz, Nyoni and Phillips all use a multitude of smaller pieces to produce something bigger; Magwa, Shibase and Sithole are better viewed in conjunction with photographer Angela Buckland because of the abstract textural quality underpinning their work. And so on. Thing is, while it is possible to see affinities, the artists on show all possess their own autonomy. There is also no obvious visual aesthetic that binds them to their geographic location and it is limiting to place too much store in bogus categories. After all, Phillips, Vaughan-Evans, Magwa, Sitas, Shibase, Sithole, Da Cruz and Dunywa all use brown.

One artist whose work exhibits no bogus associations is Doung Anwar Jahangeer. In his video work City Walk, the artist walks along a pedestrian path next to a Durban highway pouring a luminous pink powder onto the ground along his route. The work exhibited a contemporary societal engagement that made it stand out from the rest.

Published by Art South Africa, 20 May 2007