'About Face' at the Durban Art Gallery
by Francesca Verga
The Durban Art Gallery's circular gallery underwent a much debated re-hang in the early 90s, where elaborate Victorian English paintings were hung alongside contemporary South African artworks, separated into themes such as spirituality, sexuality, politics and land issues. 'About Face', which is curated by acting Curator of Collections Jenny Stretton, has followed a similar hanging and selection process.
The works on exhibition have been drawn from the Gallery's permanent collection, and selection has been dictated by subject matter, with the theme of portraiture linking early 16th Century paintings to present day works. The exhibition has been installed in the same circular gallery and the portraiture genre has been divided into themes including sexuality, the body, Post-Colonialism and land issues.
It is the unexpected relationships and commonalities between apparently diverse works that capture a viewer's attention throughout the exhibition. The placing of Robert Hodgin's quirky oil on canvas Love of Four Generals (reminiscent of Otto Dix works) is hung alongside the serious, more astute Portrait of General Smuts and Portrait of Mr Hayward by Sir William Orphen. These are hung adjacent to Hentie Van der Merwe's Cibachrome print of a headless Cape Town Highlanders Officer (1921-1958) Lieutenant H. Hugo Brunt highlighting issues of colonial standing and so-called prosperity and stature. These subjects stand in contrast to Zwelethu Mthethwa's photographs of workers in the Sugar Cane Series. In the former, the male subjects are seated and clothed in their finest attire, while the sugar cane workers are at work with the tools of their trade.
Considering the notion of beauty in relation to the female figure, the placing of Michael Croeser's detailed charcoal drawing entitled Infinity versus Fertility, (2001) and Thomas Matthew Rooke's Weaving of the Enchantress (1902) reflect clearly opposing views on women in society. Croeser's image is that of a Barbie doll figure, as a recognisable icon of mass consumption, whilst Rooke's beauty is painted as a seductress and temptress, with an alluring gaze.
Dumile Feni's iconic I am Not a Donkey' which hangs alongside Wyndham Lewis' Portrait of T.S. Eliot provides a humorous break from the ever so serious nature of the typical style of portraiture of the Victorian Era. This is also interrupted by issues of democracy and South African politics with the inclusion of Sue Williamson's Truth Games - Biko Testimony (1998) and Riana Meissenheimer's Plot te Koop.
Ernest Tshiamo's painting of a pregnant woman entitled Scars (2005), together with Themba Shibase's portrait of an Aids orphan in Fragile (2005), recognise contemporary, particularly South African Aids-related issues .
Overall the exhibition provides insight into the Durban Art Gallery's permanent collection by fresh, intelligent juxtaposition of works.
Opened: October 16
Closes: January, 2007
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