'Distant Relatives/Relative Distance' at Michael Stevenson Contemporary
By Linda Stupart
As the unnecessarily pretentious title suggests, 'Distant Relatives/Relative Distance' seeks not only to physically bring artists originally from the African continent but now resident elsewhere to South Africa, it also takes as its premise notions of home, distance, travel and hybridised African identities. This proposes an exhibition of African artists living overseas that should cohesively negotiate these terrains and the artists' links to the continent.
Though the exhibition has wowed Capetonian audiences with works that many of us have never seen in the flesh before, it appears to lack the curatorial dynamism that is to be expected in such an important show, with the spaces between the artists often causing the works to float alone rather than trace any kind of thread.
On entering the gallery, one is confronted withBarthélémy Toguo's installation which includes photography, watercolours and banana boxes and is undoubtably the highlight of the show. Even as the remnants of his opening night's performance - theatrical painting on the wall, an empty barrel and flattened boxes on the floor - the space emanates an absence that leads to the intriguing question of what kind of body should full it.
On the night on the opening, Toguo performed an Abramovic-like piece involving the ritualistic drinking of water while standing in a barrel. Alongside him Trans-Cape curator Gabi Ngcobo sang. Without this presence, the space evokes the home of a mythical sexual and non-denominational omnipresence with Toguo's watercolours of dangerously entangled nymphs that are not unlike Japanese hentai in their dark eroticism and child-like whimsy. The erotic fantasy is counterpointed by the statement 'Aids Around the World, Condoms in the Vatican' in a print on the wall which points out a distressing absurdity of power and place.
On another wall in this space is a series of lithographs, one of which features the entertaining, yet mildly disturbing, 'She said I would be very handsome in iroko'. This sentence, suggesting the artist would be handsome as a static African version of himself (iroko is an African hardwood) alongside images of the artist in various stages of transforming his body into such a wooden sculpture, is a witty interrogation of the difficulty of maintaining a fluid identity, particularly encumbered by the dark body and its baggage of Africanness.
Kwesi Owusu-Ankomah's huge iconic Movement paintings are fantastic to see in the flesh, particularly as they are executed with an emotive painterliness that is entirely absent from the numerous reproductions of his work in catalogues. The paintings show two naked figures, seemingly locked in a perpetual movement that is part dance, part combat, immersed in and obscured by a field of flat symbols and glyphs. Like Toguo's, Owusu-Ankomah's pieces fit well with the themes of this exhibition, seamlessly mixing Ghanaian symbols with inoffensive, and often unnoticed, symbols of Western culture, such as the 'radioactive' or 'CND' sign. Rising out of this semiotic quagmire are the naked male bodies - at once buried in their conflicting cultural symbols and emerging virile, strong and moving forward.
The classical nature of the naked figures, as well as the scale, black and white colour scheme and abstraction of the paintings all incite a decidedly Modernist response. While this might function as a satirical commentary on Africa's position as a presumed static (as opposed to moving) culture within progress-obsessed Western ideologies of the time, the image of naked virile men fighting heroically as they emerge from forms that represent the trappings of 'culture' retains, seemingly without irony, much of the heroic machismo of the Modernist painter that has been so criticised by those excluded from the movement, here referring to both women and non-Westerners.
Continuing on the big Modernist painting theme are Odili Donald Odita's large abstract paintings, Attention and The Space Between Things. Odita is possibly the most famous of the artists on show and in what appears to me to be an 'Emperor's New Clothes' scenario, critic after critic explains that while Odita's paintings may look exactly like hard-edge abstract paintings from the 60's, they're actually not at all similar. Olu Oguibe, for example, stated: 'Odita rejects as vacuous, indeed non-existent, the kind of formalist or so-called "pure" abstraction promoted at mid-century especially in America, and insists instead that "all visual materials are culturally grounded, and it is important to recognize where their meaning is derived from."' As such, the artist may denounce notions of 'pure' abstraction, acknowledging that colour and shape itself induce culturally coded responses; however, he is still producing big abstract paintings that communicate to me little other than big abstract paintings.
In the catalogue to the exhibition, Odita states that the paintings come from the artist's 'intellectual rumination for television [as a] cultural brainwashing device' and also points out that his images, unlike traditional abstract paintings, 'refer to something outside the work', an assertion justified largely by the artist's compositional devices that lead the eye to the outside of the picture frame. While it's likely that Michael Stevenson Contemporary included this artist in the show for his international renown, the fact that his paintings contain shapes that sometimes lead off the edge of the picture plane does not seem enough for him to fit thematically into an exhibition that is ostensibly about its artists' relationships to home, Africa and their own personal, cultural and political identity.
Julie Mehretu, with her imploding cityscapes and mapped out dystopias seems an obvious candidate for an exhibition involving distance and the mechanisms of identity. However, the prints from the Heavy Weather series, while beautiful and affecting, refer very particularly to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. While this tragedy did literally displace people and precipitate questions about home and status, Mehretu's memorial jars both in its specifity and non-issue with identity, African-ness, distance, geography and the like.
Conversely, Senam Okudzeto's exquisite nudes aptly discuss the intersection of femininity, African identity and the art historical canon. Through large classical watercolours of her own body, Okudzeto evokes the political and her personal journeys from Africa to the west and back again.
Wangechi Mutu's video, Cutting was filmed in the US-Mexico border town of Presidio, an area that is rife with political conflict, in a desert that could be anywhere or, more believably, exists nowhere. The video shows Mutu methodically hacking at a piece of wood with a machete, a jarring metallic sound accompanying each stroke, her body becoming more silhouetted, more like a simple caricature of herself as the sun sets over the barren wilderness. The piece quietly and simply places the artist's own body at a point of uncertainty in time and place through her ambiguous setting and painful yet steady ritual, a portrait of displacement that subtly and poignantly evokes Mutu's tenuous connection to Africa and her fragile non-geographical notions of identity.
This show is quite possibly the most important to be hosted by Michael Stevenson thus far. It is fantastic to be able to finally engage with a group of artists who have already exhibited extensively all over the world. The problem, however, is that these artists' works seem to have been lumped together in a manner that is often thematically and curatorially incoherent with 'Distant Relatives/Relative Distance' not really living up to its potential as a concept-driven, curated show.
Opened: June 7
Closes: July 8
Michael Stevenson Contemporary Gallery
Hill House, De Smidt Street, Green Point
Tel: (021) 421 2575
Fax: (021) 421 2578
Hours: Mon - Fri 9am - 5pm, Sat 10am - 1pmp>