by Sue Williamson (July, 2007)
Since graduating from the Michaelis School of Fine Art, Cape Town in 2001, Zimbabwean born and schooled artist Dan Halter has taken as his major theme and the focus of his mixed media work the descent into near anarchy of the once stable country of his birth.
Deconstructing various aspects of the economic meltdown which followed the chasing of white farmers off their land and the steady erosion of human rights in Zimbabwe, Halter has drawn on local craft processes to make a body of darkly humorous and conceptually cutting work.
Key pieces are maps of Zimbabwe (once the British colony of Southern Rhodesia) which Halter has incised into narrow vertical strips, weaving in horizontal ribbons of information from another source, thus rupturing and texturing the once smooth surface and making the previous place names and topographical data all but unreadable. At the same time, a new layer of pertinent, if partially hidden, information has been added.
Thus, More Fire 2006. A map which in a previous governmental life showed land classification, has now been interwoven by Halter with names from A-K of the Rhodesian database (http:www.rhodesian.com/names/names.html). Across the altered surface of the country, in black thread, a cautionary African proverb has been stitched: MANY MILLET GRAINS DO NOT MAKE PORRIDGE. Lack of farming skills and infrastructure has meant the farms given up by white farmers no longer provide the abundant crops which fed not only Zimbabwe but neighbouring countries as well. Half the population is close to starving.
Another popular Zimbabwean export which went around the world were stone sculptures, the product of cultural collectives. Halter's Stone Tablets/Bitter Pills are hand carved from cobalt, black springstone or soapstone drawn from different parts of the country. Symbols such as the dollar sign cut into the upper surfaces reference the Ecstasy tablets of the rave culture once popular with the youth of Zimbabwe. The scale is different, though. These pills are landmine sized.
'I don't have a particular moral stance, or any over-riding beliefs. I am interested in people, in humanity as a whole. I am not religious. I am an observer of the world and the things I make offer a social commentary in a somewhat ambiguous way. Coming from Zimbabwe, I am no stranger to the corrupting effects of power and the irony that so few people or just one person can have a hold over or affect so many.
'In my art, materials are very important, and the materials I choose resonate for me as part of a culture..
I also like to play with methods of production, preferring to appropriate styles and play down my "artist's hand" in the creative process. I have taken typically Zimbabwean modes of art production, which in the case of Zimbabwe often tends towards the curio. I play with local sayings and expressions and also with meanings. Hopefully, the end products are potent combinations that are often open for interpretation'.
Halter's video Untitled (Zimbabwean Queen of the Rave) has been chosen as one of two South African entries for Videobrasil 16, to take place in São Paulo later this year.
Writes Kathryn Smith in a catalogue essay on this work:
Untitled (Zimbabwean Queen of Rave) provides a strong orientation from which to access (Halter's) collection of works. The opening refrains of Everybody's Free (to feel good)', that anthem of early 90s dance music, are unmistakable. The driving beat and club diva Rozalla's assurance that 'brother and sister, together we'll make it through' are insistently buoyant, yet somewhat at odds with the accompanying visuals. White kids, the protagonists of 90s rave culture, dance on flatbed trucks and in open spaces, worshipping the gods of deep bass emanating from giant speaker stacks.
Cut to images of mass protest and uprising, multitudes of people toyi-toying in the streets ... The heaving bodies pound the ground and raise their arms with similar resolve. Stripped of their ideological disparities, both scenarios speak of a desire for an alternative reality. Both harness the psychology of crowds to shift individual sensibilities to mass consciousness. The song's chorus seems to suggest a political imperative camouflaged in an otherwise bubblegummy dance track.'
Halter's mesmerizing Untitled (Zimbabwean Queen of Rave) video was also shown in Berlin earlier this year, on 'Zeitgenössiche Fotokunst aus Südafrika', at the Neuer Berliner Kunstverein (NBK), on a show curated by South African National Gallery new media curator, Pam Warne.
Halter had his first solo show at the João Ferreira Gallery in Cape Town last year, for which the catalogue was a small, green, passport sized booklet with TAKE ME TO YOUR LEADER in gold on the cover.
Two of the most shocking works looked reasonably innocuous. One was a pool table situated over a heap of silver coins - 10 000 Zimbabwean twenty cent pieces. Once, one could play a game of pool in a bar for a single coin, a game which in South Africa costs R2 to play. Now, all 10 000 of those coins would be needed to equal R2 - or the cost of one game.
Visiting home in 2005, Halter persuaded a local supermarket to let him commandeer a till, and ring up a basket of white, and black items - like white beans, black hair dye - 26 items in all. The total cost was far beyond Halter's means - $1,600,707,409.73. Well over a billion Zimbabwe dollars. 'Thank you for shopping with us' concludes the till slip.
The scanned till slips were prints on the show.
Halter is the choice of Cape Times art critic Melvyn Minnaar at a Critic's Choice exhibition at the Association of Visual Arts in Cape Town in July. Halter has stopped making his map pieces now, and new work references the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Zimbabwe - a red AIDS ribbon spells out the slang phrase safe as fuck Halter is also working with women who are HIV positive to make a beadwork piece spelling out the words 'Henry IV' - a euphemistic expression for AIDS.
AND AFTER THAT
The Swiss cultural agency Pro Helvetia has invited Halter to undertake a two month artist's residency in Zürich in 2008.
1977 Born in Harare, Zimbabwe
Lives and works in Cape Town
2001 BA (FA) in painting. Painting prize. Michaelis School of Fine Art, University of Cape Town
1997 One year foundation course at the Schule für Gestaltung,
2006 'Take Me To Your Leader', Jo&tildea;o Ferreira Gallery, Cape Town
2007 'Zeitgenössiche Fotokunst aus Südafrika', Neuer Berliner
Kunstverein (NBK), Berlin, Germany
2006 'Second to None', South African National Gallery, Cape Town
'The Cape Town Biennale', Blank Projects, Cape Town
'The Last Braai 666', in collaboration with Christian Nerf and
Ed Young. L/B's Lounge. Cape Town
Next Wave Festival, Melbourne, Australia
14th Annual Art Salon at The Bay, Bay Hotel, Cape Town
2005 'Black and White Poster Project', Dirt Contemporary Art Space,
2004 'Contra Mundi', Association for Visual Arts (AVA), Cape Town
'Exchange Views on.../ Echange vues sur...,' Espace Croix-Baragnon,
France and Michaelis Gallery, University of Cape Town
2003 'Picnic', Bell-Roberts Gallery, Cape Town
'Meeting: Art in the Water Closet'. Gallerie Puta. Cape Town
2001 'YDETAG', South African National Gallery, Cape Town
'Emergency', Bell-Roberts Gallery, Cape Town
South African National Gallery and UNISA (University of South Africa)