Gail Iris Neke and Nadja Daehnke at the Goodman
by Kathryn Smith
It's always good to see new names included on the exhibition schedule at the Goodman Gallery. With a stable of established artists, some of whom are fast becoming darlings of the international scene - William Kentridge has got that in the bag, with Zwelethu Mthethwa, Moshekwa Langa and Tracey Rose gaining increasingly high profiles - the gallery could easily rest on its laurels. But then, would it have the profile it has earned over 35 years in the business without some risk-taking?
This two-person exhibition is installed with Nadja Daehnke occupying the central, open space and Gail Neke in the side galleries. Neke's exhibition, 'Killing the (M)other', needs this more intimate spatial arrangement, comprising framed and boxed works, ceramics and text pieces that deal with the impetus to rape - that is, men who rape women. Daehnke's body of work, entitled 'Borderlines', is made up of large, layered panels that interrogate apartheid geographies, conditions for asylum seekers, questionable urban "planning" - in general, the politics of the dispossessed.
Put simply, this two-person show is an exhibition of social consciousness issues. Seldom at the gallery have I seen work that states its respective concerns so clearly, so fundamentally.
Daehnke's 12 individual panels are titled Migrant Worker, An Ideal City, Citizens and Aliens, and so on. The complexity of the issues she tackles is matched formally by textures, over-painting, excavated and filled surfaces, but nothing really penetrates deep enough.
The work is aesthetic. Tonally, it is sombre and brooding, especially in pieces featuring photographs of hulking mountains overworked with pre-existent texts, architectural floor plans, population and class statistics. Daenhke says of the work: "These borders delineate physical space, but more importantly their function is also to determine the identity of people within and without these spaces. Borders serve to define the identity of people (such as nationality) and thereby to determine their status and privileges."
In countries that are attempting to reconstitute their autonomous identities after years of colonial rule, cultural production is marked by these issues, which are raised and reformulated ad nauseam in seemingly endless permutations of personal history, and broader historical revision. I battled to "locate" Daenhke herself in the work, as a result of which the conceptual aspects of the work seemed unresolved with their formal qualities.
Neke's project, which is academic as well as visual, is stated as interrogating why men rape, rather than looking at the issue from the victim's perspective. In a lengthy artist's statement, she employs a range of references to feminist and psychoanalytic texts to explicate men's propensity to such violence. While acknowledging that not every male is a potential abuser, Neke can't avoid speaking in terms of a generic male (the same "male" on which the Oedipus complex is based), which in turn seems to deny any cultural or contextual specificity in her discussion.
But this is a review of visual art, not a deconstruction or critique of theory. The strongest body of work on Neke's exhibition is a collection of figurative - although partial, maimed and at times "malformed" - ceramics that go under the collective title 'Facing the Vagina'. Where were these when so much fuss was being made about Kaolin Thomson's piece Useful Objects? Fired so that their surfaces appear charred or smoked, they are based on pelvic forms that have been modified. In one case a screaming or leering mouth manifests just above the pubic bone - a new vagina dentata. In another, a large fishing hook loops between the legs from behind, resulting in an aggressive, "castrating" object. These pieces are tough, but at the same time quite absurd, and their "take-no-prisoners" content is belied - and enhanced by - their choice of medium.
Installed opposite these shelf-mounted pieces is Continuum, a series of paired-in-a-frame photographs of men's faces with text replacing blanked-out eyes. Reading from left to right, the piece tracks male on female violence from its most "normal" manifestations (stereotypical comments about female "nature") to the pathological (rape and murder). Each "portrait" is like an identikit, obeying the codes of photographs shot for identifying purposes - mugshots and ID pictures.
Some of the comments are not unlike those you overhear in bars, especially ones with sport on big screens. Others are just plain chilling. Given that they are placed over the faces of particular men, I was prompted to ask the artist whether these are, in fact, real misogynists of varying degrees, and whether the comments match the man, so to speak. If so, then a range of ethical questions enter the game - not to mention the added titillation of "truth" and "confession". If not, some of the same questions still apply - these men still appear to be recognisable. Thankfully - or not, depending on what it takes to convince you - they are generic stand-ins, and the texts were either written by the artist herself, or taken from newspaper and criminal reports. However, in the context of the artist's statement, I worry that similar stereotypes about masculinity to those employed by her faceless identikit men in speaking about "the female" are being paradoxically perpetuated.
The other side gallery contains the boxed works Did You Destroy? and Under-wear (ammunition boxes containing tacked and inscribed male and female underwear respectively); Baby Toys and Children's Stories (explosives boxes, dolls and other items); Your Myths Are Our Destruction and Greetings to Freud (ammunition boxes, transparencies and bronze plaques); and finally, Theory and Practice, panels with medical and legal accounts of rape cases from source books, with handwritten, anecdotal accounts pinned on.
Neke's work straddles a difficult line between artistic interpretation, politicisation and education. Her work would sit comfortably alongside that of feminist artists like Barbara Kruger (whom she acknowledges for the title of a work) or Judy Chicago, and it should probably tour schools and other institutions under the auspices of an organisation like People Opposing Women Abuse.
Neither Daehnke's nor Neke's work can be criticised for not recognising contentious and relevant issues preoccupying both visual art and the broader social realm. The two shows are complementary in this regard. But, as Sue Williamson has pointed out elsewhere, good intentions don't guarantee great art.
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