Vulindlela Nyoni and Kristen Hua Yang at ArtSPACE Durban
by Carol Brown
Vulindlela Nyoni and Kristen Hua Yang are colleagues at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg who have both made a journey to be in South Africa. Nyoni is a Zimbabwean who arrived in the country to further his studies 12 years ago and is currently a lecturer in the Fine Arts Department and has participated in many exhibitions both locally and internationally. Hua Yang comes from the more distant shores of Shendong in China. She originally studied at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, came to South Africa in 2000 and recently completed her MAFA in Pietermaritzburg. She has been working prolifically as an artist, having had a solo show at the KZNSA earlier this year. She also featured in the Renault Artists' Exhibition and will be showing at the Florence Biennale later this month.
On entering the exhibition space one has the impression that the works are by one artist because certain of the conventions of drawing are shared by the two. They employ the same formats and both leave empty white spaces populated by the human figure and other emblems. However, as we walk around two clearly different visions become apparent.
Hua Yang's works are fleeting views of people going about life in an environment which appears isolated. Most of the images are of dislocated and lonely figures with the only colour in the drawings being the image of a road sign familiar to us all - emblems signifying danger, turning points, dead ends etc. This places her work in an urban context about which we have very few other clues. The figures are solid and three dimensional but they often face away from us or, if facing the viewer, their features are blurred. This removes them from being identifiable and their faceless anonymity suggests the isolation and solitude of the subjects. In her walkabout Hua Yang related her treatment of the space to early representations of the South African landscape which was depicted as untouched, pure and unspoiled.
Hua Yang brings to mind solitude within the context of a city where ultimately the individual is isolated. Her view of the passing figures is from a car window where we see the life outside but are sheltered from its reality from which we can drive away and not connect. Shadows play a large part in the work - as well as giving the figures a sense of materiality and presence they also remind one of traces left behind and how the light plays on the figure. Shadows bring many associations to mind - throughout history they have been considered to be ghostly or even, in certain cultures, a representation of God's presence around an object. Hua Yang's use of the shadow is reinforced by the yellow shafts which cut across the paper and seem to suggest rays of light. So, light and dark intrude into the open spaces, a theme seen in her earlier work such as The Nordic Forest. Hua Yang is an extremely talented artist whose technical skill is matched by an intelligent sensitivity.
Nyoni's work has previously focused on black masculinity and many of his early images have employed conventions which hide the individual, such as masks - superficial markers of identity reflecting his personal trajectory through the use of metaphor. He says that he now sees these as being too literal and he intends his present work to be more communicative with the viewer. An important milestone for him was the death of his mother in 2003 which he describes as having made him lose his point of reference. This loss is poignantly expressed in the drawing of two empty chairs with a dead bird floating below. The chairs indicate an absence and more than an absence of an individual, they also interrogate the relationship between two people which disappears when one of the people is no longer present.
As Nyoni described it in an interview, he needed to look for other markers to define himself. When a parent dies the child (of whatever age) enters into a new relationship with the world and one has to redefine this place. The works on show are the result of this quest. Nyoni describes another defining element of his work on his recent experience in Pietermaritzburg where he noticed a proliferation of dead birds falling from the sky on a near daily basis. (Perhaps we notice what is in our heads - I related this to his thoughts of his mother's passing and how, through our own obsessions, other things previously ignored become obvious. I make this comment because the day after hearing his talk I too was assailed by a small dead bird which dropped in front of me).
Nyoni's interest in these dead birds led to the ancient Greek myth of Icarus. Icarus was given wings made of wax and feathers by his father Daedalus, a king and an artist. The wings were used to free the father and son from the labyrinth in which they had been trapped, but Icarus was warned not to fly too high or low. He did not heed this and flew too close to the sun which melted the wax in his wings which caused him to fall to his death. This myth has often been used to refer to artistic creation and its use is appropriate here. Nyoni's birds are dead but sometimes they are falling and sometimes they are rising. Like Hua Yang, his space is indeterminate. However, whilst she uses road signs to give a particular context he defines his space by inserting sections of the sky into the composition. The sky itself is divided and framed within the picture, giving a sense of pictorial order and a sensation of infinity. Nyoni's works are personal reflections on life, death and creativity and the fact that they are rooted in his personal explorations lends them an authenticity.
The exhibition as a whole is a thought provoking one which explores many aspects of the human condition without sacrificing that elusive element of beauty which is expressed through deep engagement.
Opens: November 5
Closes: November 24
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