Wim Botha at the SANG
by Linda Stupart
Wim Botha's travelling Standard Bank Young Artist show recently caused some unhappiness in Bloemfontein. Since he has been harrying the sacred cows of Christianity, Afrikanerdom, mythology and art since he was a student, it really is about time. 'Premonition of War', as the show is titled, interrogates the really big issues of religion, truth, morality, history and the representation of power.
To begin, there is a small sculpture featuring an immense man - Abraham who is seen as the primary 'father of nations' figure in Christianity, Judaism and Islam. One of the Bible's more disturbing stories involves God's rather twisted test of Abraham's faith - a request that he slaughter his son as a sacrifice to his creator. Abraham lures the boy up to the top of a mountain, lifts the knife and then, at the last moment, is told to stop by an angel, now having proven his unflinching love and obedience to God. Botha's small bronze piece Abraham and Isaac reverses this patriarchal role, with a naked and virile Isaac astride his would-be-murderer father ready to cut his throat. Here Botha questions the particular truth of this essential narrative - would Isaac really have just lain there (out of respect for both his father and God) calmly awaiting his death, or, with a premonition of his death, would he have fought his father (and thus God) for his life? Also, Botha begins to question the morality of this particular bastion of religion - if it's essentially right for Abraham to kill his son, how does the opposite embody sin?
As this particular Old Testament story is often seen as a metaphor and a foreshadowing of God's sacrificing his only son for the trade off of human eternal life, Botha also attacks the heart of the Christian system of beliefs that base themselves largely on the ideal that God did the right thing killing his son, that Christ did the right thing calmly and passively martyring himself and that we can consequently all live happily ever after.
A more direct undermining of Christian dogma lies in the sublime Scapegoat, a larger than life anthracite sculpture of a crucified, naked Christ figure complete with satyr/puck/devil-like cloven hooves and horns. The figure hangs in front of a collection of cheesy pieced-together puzzles of sunsets with a carved banner, like those bearing the motto in a coat of arms, framing the installation. Clearly playing on visual and verbal puns, this work not only interrogates the integrity and reverence of sacrifice and its often dangerous centrality to religious dogma, it also implies through its title the very human bastardisation of religious and mythical characters that often allows for very real violence. From the crusades to Heaven's Gate to suicide bombers, the devil has only made you do it as frequently as your god.
Botha's Mieliepap Pietá, which was originally shown in the cathedral of St John the Divine in New York last year, is an exact mirrored image of Michelangelo's revered piece, cast here in a maize meal-based resin. Like Abraham and Isaac, it uses reversal as a tool for inciting awareness, a major, but potentially unnoticeable difference in a work that begins to undermine notions of authenticity, power and importance in relation not only to the religious and mythical narratives Botha portrays, but also the corresponding narratives of art history. In placing his mieliepap sculpture on scaffolding and through his continuous exposure of the exhibition's hanging mechanisms, the artist highlights the contrived structure of religion, art history or a standardised morality.
Botha's use of 19th Century paintings of pastural scenes from the SANG's permanent collection as a background for his pietá and a collection of portraits of nobility around his prints of nearly dead storm-ridden Pierneef trees Blastwave , also place his work very specificially within the white, patriarchal and colonial art canon he simultaneously exalts and undermines.
While Botha's work rarely fails to affect, this exhibition does feel a little sparse, and it would have been nice to see some of his earlier iconic works, particularly his breakthrough Suspension of Disbelief on show here. The particular hanging of Blastwave, stuck on the wall amidst gilt framed portraits also read as a little clumsy, resulting in a difficulty reading the work against its surrounds.
In essence, though, this exhibition shows a fearlessness and a technical skill that is rarely present in the Cape Town artworld with works that combine unusual phenomenological and conceptual prowess.
Opens: April 8
Closes: May 28
Iziko South African National Gallery
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