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.

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

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

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

Nostalgic technological futures

ROWAN SMITH’S CARVED-WOOD INSTALLATIONS, LIGHTBOXES AND INTERVENTIONS WITH DEFUNCT TECHNOLOGY ESTABLISH A DIALOGUE BETWEEN OBSOLESCENCE AND THE EVER SHIFTING NEW, WRITES NADINE BOTHA.

Rowan Smith’s retro-futurist revivals of obsolescent technology are so hip they look as if they were sourced from Milnerton Market, Cape Town’s bohemian boot sale venue. But Smith’s work is not about nostalgia; his carved-wood installations, lightboxes and interventions with defunct technology deal with the nostalgias that are inherent in our projected futures.

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“The present day is characterised by the fast progression of technology,” explains Smith, a somewhat bashful, blueeyed boy who seems to hunch into his keffiyea. “The digital revolution influences every aspect of society. As a reaction to constantly having to update your skills and knowledge regarding technological advances, I became interested in looking at things that were already obsolete, and in so doing became drawn to that very early digital aesthetic – from the 1960s and 70s, at the same time as the space race.” LED-displays, big knobs, wood veneer, Nintendo handsets and dot matrix printers might seem lo-fi but, as Smith explains, lo-fi is relative to now. People back then dreamed of a future in which there would be flying cars and holidays on the moon. Instead we have cellphones, Hummers and the continuing hyperbole of technology that has not satisfied those retro visions of the future. Smith cites art critic Harold Rosenberg’s notion that futures are not so much underas over-determined, and that there are so many defined futures for them to be constantly recycled and reused. As such, our conception of the future hankers back to what we thought would be possible now – it is as though our dissatisfaction with the present and its undelivered promises drives the insatiable thirst for new technology.

Smith’s piece Dot Matrix Loop (2007) drew much interest when it was shown at the Johannesburg Art Fair in March. An installation comprising three outdated printers, with the paper feed on a continuous loop, the original chip in each printer has been reprogrammed to spit out one of 50 human characters to the accompaniment of that wailing pig sound of dot-matrix printers. The output on the paper is random and infinite – that is, until the printer jams or switches off. Peripheral devices traditionally require computers to instruct them: Smith’s self-governing printers clearly speak of autonomous technology. “These three printers are exchanging a loop of paper, creating this mini world that is generative and self-populates,” says Smith about what happens to the man-machine relationship when technology starts thinking for itself.

“The subtle relationship between the people of the loop is always random and determined by the printers, so technology is creating this world instead of us creating a world out of technology.” In a hypothetical future, humans may one day become be nostalgic about the power they currently wield over machines; Smith’s work, with its shifting tenses, however, asks whether technology has not already taken charge. With an ever-enlarging landfill of obsolescent technology, are humans really desiring of smile-detecting digital cameras, or is technology driving the constant rejuvenation of what is new? This dialogue between obsolescence and the ever shifting new recalls Theodore Adorno’s doubts about modern art and how “the new” participated as a mechanism in the generation of mass culture. “The new is the longing for the new, not the new itself: that is what everything new suffers from,” he wrote, wary that modern artists were devaluing the art object through constantly erasing the present in their pursuit of the novel. Smith’s nostalgic technological futures raise an unexpected comparison to the constant evolution of the notion of the artist and the artistic space.

“I am fascinated by the idea of the artist in the traditional sense and how much weight that has in society, what the everyday person’s conception of an artist is and how that relates to what an artist might really be today,” he says. “It’s a fascinating thing to be an artist; it’s so bizarre in terms of the trajectory of the artistic profession.” A comment befitting of his alma mater, Michaelis School of Fine Art, Smith brings the corporeal back into the debate through his incorporation of traditional sculpture, woodcarving, casting, etching and painting. Still, his work in the plastic arts is not about reviving a spiritual, cathartic or emotional connection, but again about the associated nostalgia.

“I enjoy the fact that that perception is there for a lot of people – that people think it is now imbued with meaning because my hands made it. Personally, I don’t invest in the notion though. While I can respect skill, in terms of it giving more or less meaning to an art work, it doesn’t make a difference.”

Published in Art South Africa, September 2008

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