Ralph Borland at blank projects
by Tavish McIntosh
Ralph Borland's first solo exhibition in Cape Town opened amid much hooting and fanfare - although admittedly the former was generated by one of the exhibition pieces. Jubilee, Borland's black automated vuvuzela, announced arrivals in its own inimical, football fashion. Attached to a movement sensor, the aggressive, mournful bark of an ostensibly celebratory instrument sets the tone for the event as its unpredictable dirge-like outbursts drowned out the surrounding hullabaloo. The exhibition, entitled 'Promised land', critically questions the gains of the current political regime in South Africa. Suspicious of the celebrations of our 'decade of democracy', Borland presents objects that highlight the ongoing struggle to realise the promises of land, wealth and prosperity blithely pledged by euphoric politicians.
His earnest political agenda is lightened by his wry mocking of a system that rewards those who reward it in turn - 'Long live the memory of Brett Kebble' indeed! In this piece, entitled Epitaph (2006), the aforementioned slogan embellished on t-shirts handed out by the ANC at Brett Kebble's funeral is printed on the gallery wall and serves as an ironic reminder of that rather ignominious association - as well as of the relationship fostered by the now defunct Brett Kebble Art Awards. The Jubilee vuvuzela, a finalist in the 2004 Kebble Art Awards, presciently bears the image of a minute skull, again undercutting an ostensibly celebratory symbolism.
Elsewhere, the relationship between art and politics takes a rather different spin: the tapestry Battle (2006), a piece commissioned from the Keiskamma Art Project, weaves together a picture of a community's defence of their homes against eviction by the infamous 'Red Ants' in 2003. The opportunity for the community-based art project to wrest the power of representation from official media results in a dynamic, moving and beautiful piece.
Similarly, a fabric bought in Harare, emblazoned with images of Nike branded caps, is fashioned into a hooded jacket. Entitled Translation, it shows the incursion of capitalist icons into locally available textile designs but also highlights the creative possibilities within tactical appropriation. The pink and red colour combination of the jacket subverts Nike's aggressive, sporty, masculine designs.
Next to the creative dynamism of Battle, Borland dryly mounts a newspaper-headline poster which announces a competition to 'Win a year's food'. Representing the commodification of poverty, Prize (2005) highlights the absurdity of a society in which an absolute necessity - food - is only for the lucky few. By refusing to manipulate the image in any way and juxtaposing it with the highly worked surface of Battle, Borland captures the conflicts arising from the juxtaposition of wealth and poverty.
Reflecting on the implications of a capitalist ruling party, Founder (2006), an enlarged photograph of Pixley Seme, ANC founder and president, is a poignant stab at the origins of the ANC in the black middle class. Precisely attired in a black suit and top-hat, holding a rather foppish cane, Seme ponderously takes up the cudgels of the Eurocentric political system. The floundering fortunes of deceased mining magnate Brett Kebble and his associates echo this ambiguous legacy.
Cramming the wide scope of the exhibits into the small exhibiting space at blank projects, Borland conceives of the pieces as 'hyper-links' that point to the fissures within this land of ostensibly harmonious capitalism. Bringing a spirit of popular rebellion into the gallery and no doubt hoping to extend it outside of the gallery, Borland's exhibition is an exercise in transposing the networking capabilities of cyberspace into tangible artworks.
As graphically condensed icons of capitalism's underbelly, the pieces subvert
the methodology of religious art, appropriating the powerful didacticism of
its iconography in order to open up alternative mythologies. The semantic power
of the title unites the exhibition's seemingly disconnected pieces, serving
as a reminder of what government would prefer the masses forgot. The promise
of land and the attendant fantasy of plenitude and wealth are issues that affect
political campaigning throughout the world and in the poorer areas of sub-Saharan
Africa are key points in power struggles. Yet the effect of political campaign
pledges on the lives of the general populace remains minimal. Living in the
'Promised Land' remains an impossible utopian vision.
Tavish McIntosh is a Master's student at the UCT History of Art Department
Opens: August 9
Closes: August 23
198 Buitengracht Street, cnr Buiten and Buitengracht, Cape Town
Tel: 072 198 9221
The exhibition is documented online at ralphborland.net/promisedland