Archive: Issue No. 74, October 2003

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What motivates curators and art buyers to purchase artworks? This simple question is the premise for Gallery Choice, a monthly feature that aims to reveal who (public museums/corporate collections/private galleries) is buying what (artist), and why.



Institution: Durban Art Gallery
Artist: Langa Magwa (1970 - )
Title: Isiphandla, 2003
Media: Imizi, iron, wood, goat rabbit & cow skins, plastic rope
Dimensions: 123 x 141 x 65 cm

Motivation for purchase:
Is it magic or is it art? The transformation of the commonplace fascinates me as it has always fascinated humankind. Magic is a necessary ingredient of life as the alchemists of old knew. Their quest was to change base metal into gold. It is the artist however who changes the ordinary into the extraordinary. Maybe it is that transformative quality which draws me to Langa Magwa's larger than life sculpted bracelets Iziphandla.

Marks of identity run through every culture and we all use signs to show who we are, or subconsciously maybe where we are in our lives. The more obvious ones are the wearing of a wedding ring to show we are married, or body piercings or tattoos, which mark us as belonging to certain groups or identifying with different forms of contemporary culture. It is these external signs of our identity which Langa Magwa has transformed into sculpture in this work.

I have followed Langa's career since he was a young student at the Natal Technikon, where he is currently completing his Master's Degree. The second thing one notices on meeting Langa is the scarification on his face, the first is his gentle almost spiritual personality. The markings on his face form part of his complex and typically South African identity: his grandfather was a Swazi, his grandmother Zulu, and his mother Xhosa. His scarification was done at the early age, when he was three, and he acknowledges that these marks made him different from many of his friends and have been influential in his subsequent questioning of his identity.

Identity, as we know, is an unstable concept and changes according to our status in life and our relations to the world around us, so to be marked from an early age leads to complicated issues and the need to clarify one's vantage point. One of the reasons I find all Langa's explorations of identity so fascinating is his constant exploration of this aspect of his life.

An earlier purchase for our collection was New Identity (1999), where the artist used a goatskin as support, burning and scratching two self-portraits into this. One of his images was obscured by a barcode, questioning different forms of marking, particularly the binaries of Western consumerism and tracking systems and their opposition with traditional, spiritual markings.

The idea of marking can be extended to what we wear as body adornments and Langa has used the imagery of the bracelet in his Iziphandla sculpture. Bracelets, like rings, can be worn to mark different stages in life. In our African context, these bracelets are usually woven from grass and skin, and often mark various passages in life. For Iziphandla the artist has transformed the bracelet into a large two-part sculpture hanging from the ceiling.

As with his earlier works, Langa continues with his use of traditional African materials in that he has woven these large sculptural bangles from grass. The change in scale, however, gives them a monumentality, removing them from their original function into a different realm. It provides both a literal and metaphorical 'space' within which the viewer can enter, and be enclosed and sheltered.

The shape of a circle is one which indicates wholeness and suggests ritual ceremonial magic in many cultures. The circles in these sculptures have openings allowing the inner and outer worlds to connect. On entering the sculpture the smell of grass and skin surrounds one, connecting us with nature and giving a multi-sensory experience. There are many shapes cut into the skin lining, one where the various elements are threaded together, symbolising both culture and nature.

The bracelets, made from Imizi grass, iron, wood, rabbit, goat and cow skins and plastic rope, have been woven in the traditional African manner, a process which the artist considers as metaphorical, and a mark of identity and race.

This sculpture is resonant with meaning and sensations and is a wonderful example of how traditional art practice and symbolism can be transformed into art.