Kentridge's Confessions tops bill at Grahamstown
by Sophie Perryer
"High art with a friendly touch" is the spin on publicity for the visual art exhibitions at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown this year. Not, perhaps, the most promising of slogans if one was hoping for a more adventurous and considered approach to the visual arts than in previous years. But as ever, Grahamstown offers an assemblage of the tried and tested with enough standout items to keep people going back for more.
The highest point on the main programme will no doubt be the South African debut of William Kentridge's new multi-media production, Confessions of Zeno, which will already have played at various European festivals including the Documenta 11 exhibition in Kassel in June. Based on the novel Confessions of Zeno by Italo Svevo, the work combines the talents of Kentridge, the Handspring Puppet Company, librettist Jane Taylor and composer Kevin Volans, and incorporates acting, puppetry, singing, a string quartet, animation and projection.
Kentridge, who directs the production, writes: "When I first read [Svevo's novel] some 20 years ago, one of the things that drew me to it was the evocation of Trieste as a rather desperate provincial city at the edge of an empire - away from the centre, the real world. I was intrigued how an Austrian Italian writing in the 1920s could have such a sense of how it felt to be in Johannesburg in the 1980s. In the years following this has persisted. And caused me to return to the book."
Kentridge continues: "Zeno, the hero of Svevo's novel, has remarkable self-knowledge. But it is knowledge that is without effect. This absolute inability of self-knowledge to force Zeno to act, or at other times to stop him from acting, feels familiar. People stuck at the edge of a historical project about to implode, stuck waiting for the eruption to happen. The teasing out of our ambiguous sense of place, and the convoluted relation we have to our own sense of self, form the starting point for the work of transforming the book from someone else's text into a piece of my own making."
Kentridge employs the device of double projection, previously used in the film Stereoscope (1999), in which a screen is split into two images that are initially almost identical but increasingly diverge, as a way of "playing with the complex ways we try to structure ourselves as coherent s ubjects". The double screen becomes the site of contest between, for example, Zeno's private, domestic life and the social world with World War I approaching.
The Standard Bank Young Artist for Visual Art this year is Brett Murray, whose pop culture-inspired wall-sculptures might look friendly at first glance but are actually dark and bitingly satirical. Murray's last solo show at the Bell-Roberts Gallery in Cape Town explored issues of religion, law, violence and morality through the icons and narratives of the Old West (see Review). Murray has created an entirely new body of work for his SBYA show, which will tour the major South African cities after Grahamstown.
Terry Kurgan's 2000 FNB Vita Award winning installation Lost and Found, comprising large-scale digital prints of 1950s and 60s family snapshots on silk organza, gets another outing at the festival. This beautiful work, which Kathryn Smith at the time described as Kurgan's strongest to date (see Review), will be installed in the Gallery in the Round, which last year housed Willie Bester's Dogs of War.
Another exhibition that has already been seen - at the NSA Gallery in Durban - is 'Coats and Coverings' by fibre/textile artist Fiona Kirkwood. Kirkwood uses various media including weaving and found objects to create garments such as Spirit Coat, Zulu House Coat and Freedom Coat that reflect on a range of sociopolitical issues.
Group shows include 'Rebellion and Uproar' by the community-based Egazini Outreach Project, which takes as its subject stories of Xhosa warrior Makana's attempted escape from Robben Island. The show will travel to the former prison island after the festival. Carol Brown curates an exhibition on gender politics, drawing on the Durban Art Gallery collection for a diversity of work exploring male identity post-apartheid. Tapestries from master weaver Marguerite Stephens' studio include designs based on works by Kentridge, Judith Mason, Tito Zungu and Karel Nel, among others. Also on view will be superb examples of African art and crafts from the Standard Bank Galleries Collection.
The Standard Bank is no longer the main sponsor of the festival, but is joined by the Eastern Cape Government and National Arts Council, with support from Shamwari Game Reserve. The 2002 National Arts Festival takes place in Grahamstown from June 28 to July 6.