Archive: Issue No. 74, October 2003

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Re-cutting the fabric of the modernist dialectic
by Brenton Maart

Robert Botembe, artist and academic, was a recent resident of the Bag Factory in Johannesburg. Known in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) for his monumental murals, his works at new Johannesburg art space Gallery Momo are visually powerful primary colour constructions. Produced during 2002 and 2003, his 17 oil-on-canvasses are modernist, formal abstract explorations in hard-lined geometry.

Botembe's paper collages generated during his Bag Factory residence draw on a range of source material to provide complex constructions. In a similar vein his oil on canvas works seem to be constructed of frames alongside, and within, other frames. Here the works are shown to full advantage in Monna wa Mokoena's new gallery, where bright white cubes and long panels of natural light provide further framing.

Botembe's framed compartments seem to function as quotations, calling on a number of examples to provide a fuller picture. This provides for the viewer the possibility of multiple readings.

Frames within frames may be an attempt to provide detail within detail. Frames alongside frames may be an attempt at a sequential temporal description. This holds when we consider that a key political, academic and artistic concern of Botembe's is the working method of Pan-Africanism.

Pan-Africanism, related to Negritude, is an intellectual movement borne in the era of Western modernism. It became the intellectual and emotional sign of opposition, rejecting racial humiliation, rebelling against domination and ultimately leading to revolution. The changes brought about by this movement are especially evident in the DRC, where a severely violent form of colonization by the Belgian aristocracy led to rapid changes, and then equally rapid and violent counteractions by native Congolese.

Many art critical writers identify the Pan-Africanist strategies of pastiche, parody and quotation as the forerunners of postmodernism. Okwui Enwezor, in the catalogue for his exhibition 'The Short Century: Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa, 1945-1994' writes that the Negritude movement - started by process of internal reflexivity - insisted on the originality of an African culture in the making of modernity, in this way linking with Pan-Africanism.

Chika Okeke, in the same catalogue, writes that foreign methodologies were mixed, ideological and aesthetic propositions were ordered and reconfigured, all building upon an anticipation of fluidity and hybridity and new permutations of possibilities and influential realities within this postmodern ethos. It is this liberation, writes Enwezor, which "recuts the fabric of modernist dialectic of progress and change". A key to this point is the changed ethic of African modernity that places Africa at the centre, instead of its Western-designated position at the periphery.

In addition to a direct transfer of agency, these interventions acted practically in altering the traditional canon within which their critical assertion occurred. Ivor Powell writes in Persons and Pictures: The modernist eye in Africa, the catalogue to the 1995 exhibition of the same name, that art, like everything, carried, "both in its infrastructure and in its overt and covert content, the imprint of [the] political system."

These practical philosophies are evident in the work of Botembe. He interrogates colonialist Catholic values in his rendition of African crucifixions, and his almost compulsive use of rectangles makes reference to the Catholic, and also to the French Belgian, colonialist notions of perfection.

His visual language also makes overt, albeit abstract, reference to African mask iconography. In the African traditional sense, masks are paths between the wearer and the gods, between the physical and spiritual. Masks thus function as conduits between dichotomous worlds. They act as pathways to allow dialogue between and across.

Botembe re-works these African symbols, providing for them new contexts within the post-colonial reality in the DRC. The masks in the paintings can also thus be read as conduits between inside and outside, between colonizer and colonized, between traditional and contemporary, between self-referential internalisation and externalisation, between the violent process of colonisation and the intellectual healing of post-coloniality.

Enwezor writes that the insistent paradox of all modernities is that they are simultaneously inward looking and totally receptive to all influences. It is this two-way flow that Botembe harnesses. The artist puts to use his powerful technique and urgent visual language, providing a conceptual intelligence as the counter currents for synthesis.

Opens: September 18, at 6.30pm
Closes: September 31