Two Shows About Contemporary Black Art Practice
by Véronique Tadjo
Bongi Bhengu's current exhibition at the Goodman Gallery (July 5 - 26) is titled 'Woman'. Although such a title risks alienating a number of people, especially of the masculine gender, it is nevertheless totally justified since the show is about a specific vision, that of a woman looking at the world from her window.
Bhengu uses old images of South African history to rewrite her own view of history. The angle she adopts is definitively womancentric. She is leading us through her own arrangement of archive pictures and headlines so as to re-read history. In doing so, she carves out a space that acknowledges black women's contribution to history.
Take for example her big collages of Winnie Mandela. In this triptych Bhengu uses the same portrait of Winnie Mandela on three canvases, each placed side by side. The paintings are all worked in different ways with various backgrounds, but it is the same image that keeps recurring. Winnie Mandela looks at us straight in the eyes and yet her shoulders are positioned sideways, not directly facing us. It creates an imbalance that points to the ambiguity of the character. Winnie Mandela is pictured here at the height of her popularity, when she was an undisputed icon of the struggle. She looks beautiful and strong.
It is interesting that Bhengu has chosen to show Winnie Mandela at this particular stage in her life. It is as if the artist wants to fix her in our mind so we never forget what Winnie Mandela meant to us before. Yet the image given to us of Winnie Mandela is not a fixed one. It cannot be. We possess another vision of Winnie Mandela, the one described in the press. Hence, only people who have no knowledge of South Africa today would interpret these portraits at face value.
When looking at Winnie Mandela looking at us we realize very painfully how time passes, leaving behind a trail of miseries and suffering. People change, are changed by the course of events. History does not stop; it evolves and takes us in its stride.
Winnie Mandela is a powerful symbol. She embodies the duality present in all of us, the constant fight against contradictory feelings, actions, and expectations. The ambivalence of what we were and what we have become, of what we would like to be and what we really are. She is a disturbing and powerful figure because we can readily identify with her. She has that inherent flaw which makes her all too human and we know it. What happens to Winnie Mandela is very important because she illustrates the complexity of the South African situation.
Let's face it, it is not all good news, far from it. There are terrible things happening here, a dark side that refuses to disappear. But South Africa is also a great country and the whole world would like to see it succeed and come to terms with its past. History will keep coming back to the present. If not, there will be amnesia. What is important is to keep looking at it from different angles, to challenge the established perceptions.
What also struck me about Bhengu's exhibition was her use of mud on canvas. I am from West Africa and to me her red mud is typical of my part of the world. It may not be so for the artist. She may see it as coming from somewhere else, which makes it interesting to see how she will continue to work in this recent medium. But I can't help thinking that some of the canvases exhibited look like small details removed from a mud wall somewhere in Mali, Burkina Faso or Guinea. They evoke the rest of Africa, a desire to be part of the continent as a whole.
I had a similar feeling when I saw David Koloane's exhibition a few weeks before, also at the Goodman Gallery (June 7 - 28). Koloane's ritual pieces struck me as very West African, meaning that 'they could have been West African'. For his show 'Rituals', Koloane transformed the Goodman Gallery into a shrine, the ritual objects in mud cloth reminiscent of traditional Africa.
Koloane is an artist with pan-African view of the world. He wants to venture beyond the confines of his (big) country to explore other venues, other possibilities. Yet, it is through the very specific treatment of his subject matter that Koloane reaches a true level of universality in his art. There will always be something very primal in all of us, something visceral that no amount of 'civilization' can erase. In all societies, at all times, rituals have existed. In this sense, Koloane explores human nature in its deeper sense. He goes to the essence of our being, to our never ending questioning of the mystery of life on earth.
His assemblages are relics of the contemporary world, new relics of our world of consumerism and fast living. They are here to remind us that times may have changed but we are still the same. We must conquer our primitive fears, our fear of the dark and of the unknown. In his recent exhibition 'Rituals', David Koloane went straight for the jugular.
Bongi Bhengu: July 5 - 26
David Koloane: June 7 - 28
Goodman Gallery, 163 Jan Smuts Avenue, Parkwood
Tel: 011 788 1113
Fax: 011 788 9887
Hours: Tues - Fri 9.30am - 5.30pm, Sat 9.30am - 4pm
Brenton Maart is ArtThrob's new Johannesburg Editor.