Colourful 'Coloured/Colored': Zwelethu Mthethwa's portraits
by Mgcineni 'Pro' Sobopha
'Coloured/Colored' is Zwelethu Mthethwa's latest solo exhibition running at the AVA until January 3, 2003. The Cape Town based artist is well known locally and internationally for his colourful pastel drawings and photographs of people living in informal settlements in the periphery of South African suburbs, Cape Town in particular. He obtained his first degree at the University of Cape Town, Michaelis School of Fine Art and later graduated with a Masters degree in Imaging Art, specializing in photography at the Rochester Institute of Technology in the USA on the eve of Nelson Mandela's release from prison. In early 2003, three upcoming shows will run concurrently in the US.
Curated by the artist himself, 20 pastel drawings adorn the red walls of the AVA's lower galleries, with Gabisile Ngcobo and Zamani Makhanya occupying the Artstrip upstairs. The scale of the works varies. As one enters the gallery one's immediate reaction is visceral. The expressive use of colour reminds one of Dumile Feni, Fikile Magadlana, Leonard Motsoso, Ezrom Legae, to mention but a few of the precursors of expressionism in South African art. Dramatic tones of greens, reds, purples, and yellows dominate and run throughout this exhibition linking one image to the next.
The AVA gallery's white walls have been painted red for the event, and the effect of this red colour is to absorb the drawings, an effect exacerbated by the artist's constant use of the colour red in the drawings. The work blends quietly and well with the background, which gives them a continuous link and a persisting strangeness that sedates the viewer.
When beginning this review, I soon realized that I was going to have to go beyond the conventional length and treatment. Not only the content of Mthethwa's work but also the dramatic rendition of the subjects left me thinking intensely about his work. I realized that I had before me a collection of compelling and layered artistic statements/visual documents.
To begin, on looking at or rather reading the title of this exhibition, my mind retrieved from its cabinet of apartheid memories a picture of "coloured" as an identity fashioned during those years of oppression. It was a word used to authenticate, in particular, all those offspring of mixed relationships between blacks and whites. From colonialism to late apartheid in South African history, colour has been given to people, i.e. Black, White and Coloured, to make sure that they keep their places in accordance with the strictures of the fascist regime.
With this in mind, I pondered upon the purpose, meaning and intentions behind Mthethwa's exhibition title - a title that propelled (artist) Tyrone Apollis to write in the visitors book "Zwelethu world class - wonderful title, but colored I am not - you're great bastard".
Is Mthethwa playing on this term's politically loaded and complex meanings to raise issues of being a "black coloured/colored artist" producing works of or about "coloured" persons with "coloured histories"? Or is Mthethwa's 'Coloured/Colored' referring to the strategies used to give "colour/color" to the mass of people who were supposedly "colourless/colorless" before the advent of colonialism, whose legacy has shaped the relations between people of European and those of African descent? However one prefers to view it, this exhibition is about colour.
Faces that one expects to be brown, according to convention, are coloured by the artist pink, blue, red, green, purple, and so forth. Mthethwa's works present themselves with an intriguing sense of inevitability, as fruitful visual documents for a serious re/examination of some of the key social issues affecting the life of people living in the periphery of urban settlements in the post-apartheid South Africa.
These colourfully coloured pastel drawings reflect, he says "on the complex histories, socio-economic and gender issues/relations, styles, and the desires that characterise the lives of contemporary black people living on the margins of suburban culture". However beautifully coloured and appealing they might be, one is compelled to re/look, and it is through this re-looking that one starts seeing the souls beyond the veil of the beautiful colours. These works succinctly reveal and reflect on the life of people living in the periphery of urban society in South Africa and make no attempt to conceal the cultural evolution, unfulfilled desires, the physical and spiritual poverty of the black people that pre/post-apartheid has left.
Housing and unemployment remain key social needs that the new ANC led government is struggling - if not failing - to address adequately. Mthethwa cobbles together the different yet shared histories and experiences of his subjects in a collage of visual language. One can say that his work is a collision of the good with the bad, the old with the new, tradition and modernity, the marginal and the dominant, the subjugated and the oppressor. The result is a non-linear narrative with many possible interpretations.
One can draw some parallels between Mthethwa's work, stylistically speaking, and that of the so called "township artists" who worked in the second half of the 20th century. (So called "township art" was a pejorative term employed by Western-styled art institutions.) This was a generation of artists who produced works that commented and reflected on the state of black people under the oppressive rule of the apartheid regime. They also catalogued apartheid's effects in a genre characterised by the use of a realist-expressionist idiom. This can be seen in the works of artists such as Durant Sihlali, Gerald Sekoto, Dumile Feni and Legae.
Portraits of males dominate in the AVA's first gallery , with the exception of the Young Family and Tea Party (a rare image in Mthethwa's work of a white girl in an open landscape sitting with tea cups on a table). On entering, the viewer is confronted with an image of a young schoolboy with a group of angels floating above him. He is standing in a landscape (seemingly in the middle of nowhere) carrying a small school suitcase, looking towards the viewer. In the middle background, towards his left, there are buildings reminiscent of township schools with their distinctive architectural design. Something is strange about the rendition of these buildings, a strangeness which is heightened by the angel figure that seems to be descending into the school's yard - they are just blocks of flats with no windows.
Given the country's problems with the transformation of education, particularly with black education, it seems Mthethwa wants us to reflect on these problems, problems which will have a devastating impact on future generations. Or, perhaps, his implication is that the problem is too massive for human intervention, so there is a need to look up to heaven?
At first glance, some of the pastel drawings can be mistaken for paintings. To listen to the artist, "these works of colour can neither be labelled as drawings nor paintings". For Mthethwa, he "paints pictures with pastels". The dramatic brilliance of the colour explodes in his compositions with an expression of transcendent and irresistible energy.
In Go-Go Music, one is seduced by the dramatic colour of its composition, heightened by its expressiveness and the strange soft blue used on the face and hands of the man sleeping on the table. In the background there are dancing figures, a suggestion of a party or a shebeen interior. The man (appears to be) sleeping with his head resting on his folded left arm, which is extended towards the viewer on a table that looks like a tiled floor or cloth. The table is distorted as is the figure (distortion runs throughout in most of the artist's compositions in different ways) and it is bending up on the right side of the picture plane as if pushing or resisting the man's weight while he forcefully rests on it. His right arm is extended towards the viewer in a confusing gesticulation that leaves one asking whether it is an expression of the carefree posture after having passed (a "drunken-sleep" or utiphile).
Yet again the may be begging from the viewer? Is Go-Go Music a commentary on the effects of the abuse of alcohol so prevalent among poor people (black in particular), abuse that leaves many families devastated and disordered? One is reminded of both the impressionist and expressionist genres of the twentieth century, Go-Go Music taking them to another level.
Looking at the portrayal of gender in these works, the images of females raise many questions. What is Mthethwa's take on the politics of gender equality and female representation in general? Most of his works are dominated by male figures. More interesting is that in almost all the female characters portrayed, the eyes emanate an odd sadness, as in Reading>, Old Love, Early Evening, and Young Family.
Kwa MaMkhize (or Speakeasy) , one of the two largest drawings in this show, is another interesting and peculiar composition, when considering Mthethwa's gender portrayals. It is dominated by six male figures, with one coming from the right carrying what looks like an old television set. This figure's movement are countered by a female (the only one) entering the picture plane from the left - suggested, amusingly, only by a dangling apron and arms with bangles (maybe those of MaMkhize), carrying a tray with glasses also advancing to the centre of the room, to serve her male customers. One starts to wonder if this woman is intentionally cut off from view, and whether it is for aesthetic purposes only, or if it reflects the machismo and the exclusionist tendency that characterises our society even in the 21st century of our democracy.
Many of Mthethwa's male figures have hats on which he explains as a sign of respect. Other than a recurring hat motif, other motifs abound. There is a persisting window, curtain, and wall motif. His interior compositions have windows and floating curtains, with others half opened. This not only gives a sense of perspective but also leads one to wonder about the motives behind these devices. One might suggest that there is a yearning by the artist, or his subjects, to escape their situation/environment, or a nostalgia for a distant place/past.
However in contrast to this interior window motif, one notes that when the figures are portrayed outdoors, as is the case with Dark Figure, Home coming, Guardian Angels and Secret Love, the houses have no windows. Thus, these walls divide and deny the viewer entrance. Only those people inside them can see both inside and outside, while those outside are denied access to the inside by the windowless walls.
December 2002 will go down in the history books not only as a significant month in the history of the Association for Visual Arts but also one in the history of visual culture in South Africa. In an ArtThrob news column from December 2002, Sean O'Toole commented on the range of exhibitions by well-established and successful artists around the country. Zwelethu's show at the AVA is notable in a number of ways. Indeed, this is an exhibition by one of the most successful black artists to come out of this country after 1994.
Again, 'Coloured/Colored' opened just two days after the retrospective of William Kentridge, the "white doyen" of South African art, opened his retrospective at the South African National Gallery. This raises a question as to who gets exhibited at the SANG and by who? Is the SANG still a bastion of white art, as it has been accused of by many for its staging of blockbuster solo exhibitions by white "masters and mistresses" such as Marc Chagall, the Skotnes family, and most recently Kentridge? I hope this question will receive the sort of rigorous and critical engagement it demands by art heavyweights, before they run out of time. Possibly the enquiry will fan out, leading to pressing questions about how many Zwelethu's are out there waiting to be discovered and showcased at the AVA at such a "special time" in Cape Town's art calendar - and South Africa's history in general.
Opens; 6pm, Monday December 2
Closes: January 3, 2003
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