Nontobeko Ntombela and Bronwen Vaughan-Evans at the KZNSA
by Themba Shibase
In the context of contemporary South African art, Durban is generally regarded as an incubator of talents whom, upon recognition or 'discovery' by the who's who in Johannesburg or Cape Town, are irresistibly drawn to these metropolises. It would appear that the chief reason for this is lack of financial patronage in Durban. This is unfortunate because, as an urban space, Durban oozes with potential subject matter, especially for those engaged with the ever so popular identity question and notion/s of contested space. 'Negotiated Spaces' by Durban-based painters Nontobeko Ntombela and Bronwen Vaughan-Evans attests to this.
Hosted by the KZNSA Gallery under the guidance of curator Nathi Gumede, this show breaks with the gallery's tradition of simultaneously showcasing two or more exhibitions mounted separately, with the larger show occupying the Main gallery downstairs, and its subordinates mounted in the Mezzanine Gallery and Multi-Media room. The desired effect of this arrangement, apparently, is to initiate dialogue between individual works (or the mounted shows) across the semi open-plan space.
Here, however, upon entering the space, the viewer is captivated by the boldness and peculiarity of the works occupying both the Main and Mezzanine galleries. The most striking effect is the dominance of a monochromatic palette consisting of tones varying between grays and browns with but a few suggestions of energetic colours in selected pieces. This trait is best portrayed in Ntombela's Mood Swing where an eartherly and somber toned background is contrasted with colourfully embroidered images of flowers. The tactility of these embroidered flowers against the relatively flat and plain surface from which they protrude, becomes a metaphor for the often disregarded significance of the individual within predetermined 'spaces' or categories emphasised by society.
To an audience more inclined towards a flamboyant palette, an impatient glance might be enough to deter one from paying closer attention to the meticulous craftsmanship and conceptual depth traceable in some of the exhibits. Vaughan-Evans' Portrait of a City as a Young Man (2006) series is skillfully accomplished work, conceptually well developed. Close observation of this series reveals that at its conceptual centre, Vaughan-Evans excavates her surfaces to investigate the notion of the city as a contested space defined by its inhabitants. The subject matter of this five paneled series varies from precise depictions of architecture to portraiture.
Whilst viewing each of these panels in isolation may locate them well within western conventional or paradigmatic painting, the manner in which they have been installed as a series negates that. Attesting to this observation, Portrait of the City as a Young Man III depicts two wrestling dogs, one white and the other black. This struggle seems to be ambivalent in nature, shifting between aggression and playfulness. This idea is emphasised by the audacious shadows. This lies in the foreground and does not clearly define the dogs' forms. Instead, it appears as a though the dogs have metamorphosed into solid matter. This, perhaps, is intended to draw our attention to the notion of internal struggle, not only that of the artist herself but also our own struggles to define ourselves in the context of our geographic and ethnic locations.
On the subject of identity, it is important to note that the artists' racial identity pitches a curve ball on this matter. Ntombela is a black female and Vaughan-Evans, her binary opposite, a white female. In seeking a perspective from which to conceptually navigate this show, one is irresistibly tempted to assume the old fashioned approach to the analysis of South African art i.e. to seek the demarcation of spaces within a show through the artists' racial identity, both in the literal or metaphorical sense. However, such an approach does not suffice here for a number of reasons. Amongst (and, perhaps, the most fundamental of) these is the fact that the exhibition is not mounted in the traditional KZNSA Gallery style of two or three simultaneous but separate shows. Instead, it is treated in such a way as to permit an open discourse between the artists' interpretation of the notion of identity and particularly 'space'.
It is at this point that one perhaps needs to shift focus towards an analysis which places emphasis on the similarities in the works of the two. In this way one realises that the conceptual terrain revealed by this approach is much more fertile and spacious. The artists are both young females who have were raised in Durban and they both became mothers at more or less the same time. They both work for the same academic institution (Durban Institute of Technology), where Ntombela is a curator and Vaughan-Evans a lecturer. Whilst these similarities may appear to be of little or no value in providing us with a firm base on which to critically engage 'Negotiated Spaces', they do, however, afford insight into the conceptual underpinning of the works. Both of the artists' senses of identity in the broader context of society is largely determined by these factors. Such factors become critical in how and where, in conventional society such as ours, these artists place themselves as individuals, and as such shouldn't be overlooked.
Themba Shibase is a Durban-based artist and lecturer at Durban University of Technology in the Department of Fine Art
Opens: October 31
Closes: November 12
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