Visual art at the Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees
by Paul Edmunds
"Nkosi sikelel' iAfrikaans" read a discreet bumper sticker on a parked car. A T-shirt in a queue at the Wimpy carried a stronger message: "Praat Afrikaans of hou jou bek". Such were the offerings on the streets of Oudtshoorn, which at times seemed to be hosting a Rag celebration for all ages rather than an arts festival. The visual arts were a welcome enclave of calm amidst all the carousing and food that must have significantly altered the country's average cholesterol level.
Featured artists were the unstoppable Claudette Schreuders, painter Colbert Mashile and sculptor Peter Schütz. Following a sell-out show in New York last year, Schreuders has brought her work home in the form of a group of sculptures and two-dimensional works, at once comforting and disquieting. Standing well over half a metre tall, a bust of Olive Schreiner entitled The Writer is immediately imposing. Schreuders explores the precariousness of being an outsider commenting from a position within. The viewer is forced into a physical and tangible relationship with this work whose massiveness lends it authority as well as empathy. The Tourist, perhaps a self-portrait holding a camera, reiterates the disjuncture of identity.
The Critic is the largest figure I have ever seen by Schreuders, and caught me several times by surprise. Facing a beautiful collection of her watercolours and etchings, the figure offers a critical and questioning look at scrutiny and judgment, and implicates the viewer in this act. Two busts, entitled The Graveposts, carved into the top ends of upright railway sleepers, muse quietly and sensitively on mortality and commemoration.
Schreuders has also produced two prone figures, The Narrow Bed and The Lover. The former is an exquisite and tender rendering of a figure in a bed hovering between sleep and wakefulness, one hand protruding from beneath the red blanket and providing an object of contemplation for both the viewer and the subject. Schreuders seems to be continually refining her ability to involve the viewer in a narrative that is simultaneously personal and universal. At the same time, her technical skill is only improving.
I had previously seen just two works by Colbert Mashile and was intrigued by his visual language, which seems both naive and highly sophisticated at the same time. His show in the grand Drill Hall of the NG Kerk consisted of seven watercolours and one acrylic painting. Painting in narrow tonal registers, Mashile favours dusky earth colours, loosely applied and occasionally offset by brighter reds. His forms and use of pattern recall early modernists such as Matisse and the works repeatedly had me thinking of Philip Guston.
Mashile states that all his work stems from the intensity of feeling he experienced during his ritual circumcision at the age of 10. Sometimes the images refer quite closely to this - one can identify figures wrapped in blankets as they walk through the overwhelming stark landscapes and the dome-shaped huts in which initiates sleep. In the acrylic work (all the paintings are untitled), we see the back of a head ringed by red and white beads, casting a shadow on an unidentified gray surface. In a "window" above is a line of figures illuminated by a harsh sun and projecting their shadows towards the viewer. The works portray an individual's experience of a collective event with remarkable clarity and depth of emotion, revealing, along the way, the young child's alarming lack of self-awareness.
I didn't see Schütz's solo show but did catch a work by him on the exhibition of maquettes commissioned by Sasol for the front of their headquarters in Johannesburg. Using his characteristic carved and painted wood, Schütz presented a dumbwaiter-like figure holding aloft a constellation of silver stars - the Crane constellation, giving the work its title of The Crane Maquette and referring to the South African national bird.
Wim Botha's untitled maquette addressed the impossibility of creating an appropriate monument in a multicultural and fast-changing society. His beautiful presentation depicts a generic figure on a pedestal, tweaked and shifted to the side, resulting in a horizontally consistent but leaning figure. This was surrounded and penetrated by a scaffold-like structure, forcing the work to hover between construction, restoration and removal. Kevin Brand produced a group of three figures from "foosbal" or table soccer in his work entitled Striker-Sweeperkeeper. With Brand's inimitable formal quirks, the composition and finish on this small bronze make it a very desirable object.
Claudette Schreuders' Security is a small carving of a security guard, apparently based on a Masai man she met in Kenya. The pathos of the figure stands in contrast to both the role of a security guard and the guardian-like nature of public statuary. My favourite of the five maquettes was Brett Murray's Colon. The diminutive red figure with an improbably large spherical head is simultaneously obvious and unfathomable. It refers as much to Colon sculpture as to the pause suggested by the punctuation mark of the same name and not least to the new molecule-like Sasol logo.
In the same venue 'Once Were Painters' offered a satisfying and welcome return to an oft-derided medium. What linked the five artists on this show was the fact that they all started out their careers as painters and subsequently moved away from this medium. Penny Siopis's paintings cover one entire wall of the gallery. Using paint as a metaphor for flesh, Siopis strives to depict or discover the elusive "Pinki-Pinki", a bogeyman type character. Paint covers and reveals disturbing items like fake eyes, false eyelashes, nails and small plastic dolls. The presence of the figure both emerges from and is subsumed by the ground.
Anton Karstel showed oil paintings made from archival photographs of old South African cities. His gestural brushstrokes and sombre tones are remarkably descriptive, the paint used in both generous and economical measures. Marco Cianfanelli's Passenger is a startling collusion of phenomena merging the sublime with the ephemeral. On an acroglass surface, white paint is pierced by holes of various size. By means of clusters of lights on either side of the work, shadows are cast on a white surface above which the acroglass is suspended. The white masking and background work together with grayscale shadows to recreate an image, taken from a Friedrich painting, which emerges and disappears as the viewer passes.
The sheer whiteness of Cianfanelli's piece leads it into a relationship with Sandile Zulu's exquisite work. Zulu has partially pierced, from behind, a large sheet of masonite painted smooth white. The raised bumps are arranged in a series of horizontal bands and bring to mind the amasumpa on Zulu beer pots as well as scarification marks. Lastly, Joni Brenner. shows two large photographs of a favourite sitter placed next to a small, heavily worked impasto painting. The reds, browns and physicality of the work suggest a visceral relationship between painter, medium and subject matter which transcends the typical triangular relationship between the three.
'8760' is the title given to an ambitious project by the Bell-Roberts Art Gallery. The title refers to the number of hours in a year, with their spanking new mobile gallery to be occupied by a different artist's installation every week. First up was Jo O'Connor who produced a work titled Spare Change. The glass cube was situated in the forecourt of a car dealership and got pretty hot in the Karoo sun as O'Connor finished her work on Saturday. She suspended small change donated by friends from the "ceiling" of the gallery, with numerous glossy nylon cords holding the coins at carefully determined heights and reflecting the surrounding signage at night. O'Connor is obviously questioning the value of this money, freely given and now assuming the status of an artwork. It was interesting to contemplate this in the face of the gross consumption all around and the impoverished children singing songs and begging for change on the streets.
Just behind the mobile gallery, Jan van der Merwe's 'Red Carpet' led into a darkened room. The carpet spread from a narrow strip into a splat-like form, on top of which was clothing made in Van der Merwe's typical fashion. Patched together and oxidised tin cans suggest camouflage and uniform and are used to depict both adult and child-sized garments. On a table are a number of gloriously weighty military hats also made in this fashion. In front of each is a pair of gloves. The table is covered by metal gauze and through this you can see an upturned monitor. A video shows hands repeatedly putting on white gloves. Such symbols of authority, power and ritual pervade the exhibition and the dim light lends it a rather frightening, disempowering air. The fresh video works are markedly clean and clinical in contrast to the aged and preserved air of the other artifacts.
Having recently declined to participate in Christian Nerf's 'Fashion Shoot' project, I was interested to see the resulting exhibition, titled 'Slightly Soiled'. Much as I'd enjoy the thrill of blasting holes in designer clothes, I am reluctant to indulge that part of my character. In retrospect, instead of being part of Nerf's study, other people became the subject of mine. I suspect now that Nerf and I both reached the same conclusion. The shot-riddled clothes are presented in a darkened room which the visitor approaches from a stage. The clothes, Levi's T-shirts, jerseys and underwear, are hung on lines extending back into the room. How far you can't tell, as several spotlights are trained on you. On your right are two monitors which seem to play the same video loops asynchronously. Footage from shooting range sessions is cut up, sped up and slowed down. Various art world familiars are seen aiming at ridiculously close garments and posing with shotguns on their hips. They know just how to strike the poses, or perhaps we know just how to recognise them. In the same way that Terry Kurgan has shown up how one learns to be photographed, Nerf, not without having a little fun, demonstrates how well we have learned the clichéd conventions of Hollywood violence.
Which brings me to the last show I saw: Jacques Coetzer's 'Tydsgees'. As irreverent and enjoyable a piece of Afrikaans pop as there ever has been, Coetzer's exhibition is fresh and fun, the title untranslatable (the closest you can really get is the German "Zeitgeist"). One work, open to any number of interpretations, is entitled Hollywood Confessions. Here Coetzer presents, at breakneck speed, characters from 45 Hollywood movies - from Hair to Pulp Fiction - saying "Jesus" or "Jesus Christ". This raised a few conservative eyebrows. I couldn't help but note that under South Africa's old censorship laws, this would have been a silent movie.
Coetzer primarily makes objects, which are often brightly hued. A sofa fashioned from a yellow life-raft sits alongside a combination electric guitar/chainsaw. The guitar is plugged into an amp and really works, which makes you wonder about the position of the chainsaw. A pair of clogs with rollerskate wheels is called Euro-American, while a Superwood cut-out map of Africa painted blue and adorned with a white star and red and white flourish is called American-African. A long black-and-white digital print presents seven ID pics of Coetzer taken between 1986 and 2001, including all the dodgy haircuts, glasses frames and creative shaving. White Minority is a Superwood cut-out which represents South Africa's demographics as a pie chart and doubles as an angry-toothed Pacman.
This is as good a collection of South African visual art as you are likely to see in one place and is thankfully out of kilter with what was going on in the streets of Oudtshoorn. I didn't see many theatrical productions, but the publicity material revealed a remarkable lack of critical approaches to Afrikaans culture. The visual art, although obviously not all relating to Afrikaans culture, certainly represented a wider range of cultural responses to South African society and was well worth the journey, even if you did have to hear adults singing along to theme tunes from 20-year-old dubbed television programmes.
The festival runs until April 5