World Conference Against Racism - eight exhibitions in Durban
by Virginia MacKenny
The World Conference Against Racism has ended but the debates raised continue in people's minds and in the various socio-politically relevant exhibitions staged in Durban to coincide with the conference.
'Amazwi Abesifazane (Voices of Women)', organised by Andries Botha, foregrounded the lives of those who are triply discriminated against: working-class, black women whose experiences of life as recorded on small black embroidered cloths are a moving testament to fortitude of spirit under adversity. Accompanying this exhibition at Thekwini Business Development Centre, 'Black and White Copies' by Miguel Petchovsky (from Angola and the Netherlands) opened up discussion around identity and encouraged artists to find ways around the limited oppositions offered by their tool, a black and white photocopier. The results will be seen at the NSA gallery later this month.
The Durban Art Gallery went all out in hosting a diversity of exhibitions engaging with issues of discrimination. Most prominent of these, 'Art Against Apartheid - Artists from the Eighties' presented a collective voice against apartheid and a catalogue of the "big names" (despite the exhibition's subtitle) of the 1950s and 1960s: Tapies, Motherwell, Rosenquist, Lichtenstein, Rauschenberg, Richard Hamilton et al. However, the names seem to promise more than is given, the weakest works tending towards semi-figurative abstraction full of bold colour and vacuous pictorial gestures. By contrast South African Gavin Jantjies effectively captures the times in his silk-screened Book on South Africa 1974-75. In documentary style it coolly assesses mass burials at Sharpeville, the absurdity of racial definitions and speeches from the ruling party, supplemented by Hitler's image morphing into BJ Vorster. Christian Boltanski's studio photographs of Model Children (1981), with the smiling faces of white children in idealised settings, is effectively ironic, while Erro's illustrative political satire depicting a Christ-like Mandela, set against white socialites playing bridge and pirates with "Congo" and "Vietnam" tattoos, still feels fresh.
Omar Badsha's 'Imperial Ghetto', named after the Victorian colonial administration, photographically documents the "Indian area" of Grey Street in Durban. Badsha's project was to "forge an inclusive Africanness" and in this he has succeeded. Going beyond the heroic gestures of liberation politics he records black, white and Indian engaged in day-to-day activities. A multidimensional world embracing work, play, diverse faiths and traditional rituals, it includes generic as well as decidedly idiosyncratic moments such as Blessing Commuters, depicting an elderly white woman touching the heads of black commuters on their way to work. Collaborators and subjects interweave in this complex world that played its part in the demise of apartheid.
Andrew Ward's 'Lines of Violation - Comfort Women Survivors', supported on a designer-look plexiglass structure, was hung with sheets of paper covered by drawings of the hands of 52 former "comfort women" who survived sexual slavery under the Japanese in World War II. It was, unfortunately, not experienced by this viewer the way it was intended. As happens all too often in South African galleries, anything vaguely technological tends to suffer; here the sound recordings of the individual women's stories were not functioning, denying the richness of the piece. Instead the drawings became curiously repetitive, redeemed only by the single red fingerprint in each one, with its implications of makeup, identity and sacrifice.
'Soul of Africa - Art from the Han Coray Collection' proved rich visually while low on information. Interested viewers are given very little on the walls or cases (the supporting catalogue has not yet arrived in Durban) to guide them as to the function, status or context of these objects. While organised around such themes as royalty, proclamations of status, rituals of passage, religious practices, funerary and ancestral beliefs, the exhibition remains in that difficult terrain of objectification. In a particularly dramatic revamping of the DAG's circular gallery in red (and gratefully without the dinosaur that always engagingly pops its head up from the Natural History Museum below), the exhibition creates an instant sense of drama and mystery that unfortunately only serves to further exoticise a show already loaded with issues of colonialism and cultural imperialism. Such issues are touched on in the free educational supplement compiled by Nessa Leibhammer and Philippa Hobbs, but are not built into the exhibition directly - a pity given the exceptional quality of the objects on show.
By contrast 'The Politics of Space: Apartheid Architecture, Urban Design and Spatial Policy' at KwaMuhle Museum is intensely aware of how those in power control others through material appropriation. It is an intriguing and thought-provoking analysis of how town planning was utilised to further the ends of the apartheid rulers.
The Artists for Human Rights exhibition 'Denial and Revelation' at the BAT Centre also proved solid. Patently "issue-based", it did not fall into the kind of political rhetoric that so often affects such shows. It provided viewers with the chance to see the original prints informing the award-winning billboard campaign for AIDS/HIV awareness, as well as a variety of other works from AHR. One of the most powerful pieces on show was the AIDS banner created by the Ningizimu School for the Severely Mentally Handicapped. Under the guidance of Robin Oppermann, scholars created a work out of mirrors, beads and wooden cut-outs celebrating existence and the creative imagination - a life-affirming piece if ever there was one.