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

Walter Battiss review

The Walter Battiss that lives in South Africa’s collective memory is an enchanting character. He was someone who supposedly proffered love and freedom, and art for fun – what ironically gives him the title of “anarchist” in his retrospective exhibition Gentle Anarchist.

A comprehensive retrospective, Gentle Anarchist included more than 160 oils, watercolours, screenprints, woodcuts, lithographs, sketches and tapestries, as well as a significant section of ephemera, including photos, letters and diaries, and artefacts from the fabled Fook Island activities. The work was not ranged chronologically, but rather by medium, making it difficult to trace any artistic phases. This curatorial strategy fairly reflected Battiss, an artist known for haphazardly jumping between media and styles and much of the work is undated.

The diaphanous quality of his watercolours redeems the medium. With a shimmering dreamlike quality, the landscapes, portraits and travel records are still vibrantly coloured and full of depth. The tapestries attempt to give mass to this watercolour dream. The oil paintings vary between lascivious impasto thickness, weaving strands of colour into a single stroke, and measured, smooth concrete abstract squiggles in earth tones. The screenprints are crisp, playing the negative space off the candy colours. And, not to forget, his intricate, absorbing ink drawings.

Battiss is always true to his medium, be it in the strong painterly feel of his oils, the diluted quality of the watercolours, or the hard edge of the graphic. In this he evokes a mysticism that offsets the plasticity of his medium. Even when depicting a naturalistic scene, it is the abstract nature of the medium that comes to the fore – a swimming pool in impasto oil alongside a desert in watercolour.

Some of his works do seem like studies in a style, such as the wildlife and still life pieces rendered in the heavy-handed vein of the time. Battiss has been called derivative and not entirely original. Technique-wise, however, one has to marvel at his precision, and volume-wise, at the prolific output. Ultimately, though, it is when he is seemingly playing or doodling that the fun hits you like a Fanta advert.

His visual language insists on being both abstract and witty. A tendency towards caricature and cartoon encapsulates much of his work, as for example his eight legged pets, naked bodies without torsos and then without legs, feathers cradling baby birds, multi-limbed eyes, many coloured naked bodies with rainbow coloured genitals, a flock of birds that is a tree, and even a particularly pert letter writer. However, even in his trademark squiggles, the abstraction is always humanized with a soft animism. His joyous personality creaks out of every image. A voracious sexual appetite is also evident in his large output of erotica.

Although the exhibition tried to cordon this off as a distinct section, his sexual imagination slips into far more than just the obvious ones. His images are not tempered, with great orgies crammed into the landscape of paper, but they remain naïve rather than dirty, explicating the 1970s ideal of free love without a drop of cynicism. Look to Are You a Bird Lover? as an example. It depicts lots of naked women and beaked bird heads. Battiss’s pen drawings do present an element of voyeurism and kink as one has to zone in closely to read the details.

It is interesting that Battiss apparently only discovered erotica late in his life, possibly by this time it was no longer hampered by a youthful bashfulness. Often he plays with these images distractedly, as though not related to sex at all, claiming at the time they were all about the beauty.

Underscoring the art, the large section of ephemera is significant in viewing an artist such as Battiss, whose eccentric personality precedes him. Battiss the myth lives in my own imagination from second-hand urban legends told by scholars at Pretoria Boys’ High about Battiss’s teaching stint there. In one of the first lessons, so the legend goes, he brought a branch into class and told the students they had to fill it with birds. The next day they made ketties (catapults) and shot the birds out of the tree. There were more such stories, lively counterpoints to the dry lessons on Battiss taught by my matric art history teacher. To recognise Battiss by the crazed but direct look in his eyes, even from age four, in the photos and delve into the artefacts from Fook Island, revived the fun around the mystery.

Clearly, Battiss worked from within Fook Island, a distinct but mirrored other world of which Adorno once spoke – that it makes great art. According to Norman Catherine, quoted in the well documented, lush catalogue accompanying the exhibition, Battiss created Fook Island “because he wanted everybody, children as well as people his own age, to enjoy the freedom to create art, especially at a time in South Africa when there was serious censorship”.

The Standard Bank Gallery was packed during my Wednesday mid-morning visit. A teacher was conducting a group of high-school students through the exhibition. Elsewhere, a couple had trailed off and were necking in the side gallery. A youth orchestra, tuning instruments in the upper gallery, added to the cacophony. Between the mothers drifting in to hear their performance, a handful of serious gallery goers picked their way through the splay of tog bags to view the artworks one-by-one. Was this the art-for-all that Battiss wanted out of Fook Island?

After a year of blockbuster retrospectives, including Dumile Feni, William Kentridge and David Goldblatt’s, exhibitions that generally seemed to repackage familiar artists and images that are often in the public eye, the Battiss retrospective felt truly worthy of the name. Battiss exhibitions are scarce and it seems that he has been living only in our imagination for the last few years. To remember him here was like taking a trip in a time capsule to another generation of art, a space that seemed oddly unfamiliar. Intriguing but isolated, as though Battiss had been, unfortunately, relegated to heritage.

Art South Africa, 1 March 2006

Senzeni Marasela exhibition

Senzeni Marasela’s Theodorah and Other Women is her first solo exhibition since her Fresh residency at the South African National Gallery in 2000. Her understated social bite continues to shine her move towards a personal negotiation of the public space in relation to herself. Discarding the medium of photographically manipulated images, Marasela now explores linoprint.

At first, the white line images on the black background appear to be a rather innocent form of representation. The images range from the absurdly comical to what appears to be archive-like documentation. However, on closer inspection, sinister evocations of gender, religion, public memory and dreams surface.The prints acknowledge the sublime dark space of the ink. The act of cutting away the lino to create the white lines allows symbols of understanding and light to shine through. However, the delicate, gestural lines makes them appear like momentary visions that may be lost again if the murk is stirred.

Untitled (13 Panels) uses 69 images to record the messages her mother, Theodorah, communicated to her while she was growing up. Marasela’s mother was a registered schizophrenic and her experience was relayed between presence and absence, continuity and miscommunication. The icons record pain and happiness in a mesh opened for the viewer’s own associative exploration.In the three-part Theodorah, Marasela inverts the black-white dialogue, using black to embody her mother and white lines to give her form. Her mother’s body is now the vague sublime. The blob-like shape of the black still points to her ambiguous presence. Dotted lines make her seem like a patchwork pull-together, while two strong vertical lines in all three prints slice her body into a triptych. Marasela’s mother has always refused to be photographed and she is depicted hiding her face.

The “other women” in the title refer to Marasela’s public experience and mothering by female icons. Sarah Baartman Remembered records the journey of the icon from her tribe, through Europe, and back to her memorial space in South Africa. The disarming four-part Summit Girls and Virgins emphasises the similarities between strippers in Hillbrow’s Summit club and participators of the reed dance. Maki recalls a news story Marasela saw in her youth about a 14-year-old girl who was necklaced after being suspected of being an informer.

Marasela’s prints display an acute examination of the power of the line. It is not a safe line that designates a separated position for things that don’t relate. Everything is connected — her mother’s presence and withdrawal are part of the same body, as is the public and the personal.

Published by Art South Africa, 1 December 2005