Andries Botha at the Bank Gallery
by Robert Sember
Henrietta Hamilton and Robert Fraser bought the bank - literally - and turned it into an art gallery. Their renovation has left intact the handsomely functional façade of the former bank building on Durban's Florida road, although, now dressed in dazzling art gallery white, it looks appropriately contemporary. The stylishly minimal interior includes a large central exhibition hall and series of small side galleries, at least one of which was the bank's vault. It is a beautiful space and will host in the coming year an ambitious series of exhibitions by some of this country and the UK's most interesting contemporary artists including Matthew Coombes, Greg Streak, Paul Edmunds, Ledelle Moe, Bronwen Vaughan-Evans, and Simon Jacques. Bank Gallery is not just an important addition to Durban's art scene - it also clearly intends to participate internationally.
In name and structure Bank Gallery provides irresistible opportunities for commentary on the state of contemporary South African art relative to various local, national and global financial, political and cultural economies. In a characteristically ardent speech at the opening of the gallery, Durban-based artist and scholar Greg Streak took up some of these provocations. He alternately admonished and cheer-led his way through a review of Durban's art institutions as he honed his definition of Bank Gallery's amalgam of commercial and intellectual ambitions: art as commodity; art as praxis.
Streak's analysis touched on old disappointments that nevertheless remain very much alive, such as the fact that Durban has contributed many 'important' artists to the country while remaining a cultural underdog relative to the larger centres. He also lamented that the country's cultural infrastructure which often fails in the task of supporting and representing the vitality of the art community. He also compared South Africa's artists and sport heroes - they both share an intense devotion to their work, engage in long years of training and are emblematic of the spirit of the nation. Nevertheless, one group is celebrated by most while the other is ignored. It's hard to imagine what kind of adjustment could redress the perceived inequalities in this situation when art acts as a corrective rather than champion of the strident regionalism or nationalism which sports institutions so efficiently turn into big money.
Streak also addressed the awkward yet celebrated fact that many South African artists (like many members of the Springbok rugby team) identify with 'here', but make their money and, in some cases their reputations and homes, 'there', in the global north. Success entails and may even demand an unsettling circulation through various centre-periphery mappings. In simple market terms, this means that the prices fetched by South African artists in North American and European auctions enhance their currency within this country, a fact many South African art institutions battle with as they ride the wave of international interest in South African artists while watching many significant new works end up in overseas collections. This is the price of success.
These themes of value and meaning, particularly the many unsettling permutations of 'here' and 'there' are evident in Andries Botha's '(dis)Appearance(s)', the Gallery's inaugural exhibition. Hosting Botha's first solo exhibition in over a decade is not just an exceptional accomplishment, it is a coup, and certainly puts Bank on the map. And what a generous show it is. More than 40 works, most of them completed this year, provide opportunities to engage with a range of interconnected yet quite distinct projects. Among the small works on paper - pen and ink drawings, and appliqué and embroidery pieces - are series depicting former Boer War concentration camp sites and images of what apartheid-era assassination and so-called 'soft target' sites look like today. The detail in these pieces is surgical, the intensity of the artist's gaze slicing through the present to the historical tumor below. Indeed there is a sense that such insight will cure, or, at the very least is a necessary condition for living. Botha's method is to engage a looking so intense it extinguishes itself in the manner described in the poem, The Truth by Mazisi Raymond Fakazi Mngoni Kunene, reprinted in the exhibition catalogue: 'Only when you have reached the end of seeing,' Kunene instructs, 'Only then shall you know the truth of seeing/Only then shall your wisdom be born of dying'.
The conception and application of blind-sight and death-knowledge is astonishingly realised in Botha's large pastel and conté portrait of his father, who died on January 12 this year. This event is one of, if not the origin point for the show, which offers a substitute journey for the one father and son had planned but never took to Molteno, Botha senior's birthplace. In the portrait, Botha's father is shown from behind, his balding head and shirt collar rendered in meticulous detail. It is the light more than the detail, however, that captivates, a pure form which, like a Pentecostal flame, hovers as a silver-white-grey smudge/error/punctum a few centimetres from the left ear. In his essay for the catalogue Professor Mike Chapman describes the portrait as a 'fine-lined drawing of [Botha's] father's non-authoritarian hairline.' I offer an alternate reading: By not rendering his father's face, Botha evokes the taboo against seeing or representing the Father and renders for us the authority that lies in blindness, in the 'end of seeing'. It is this work, I believe, that confirms what I can only term a 'theological' mission on Botha's part, a desire to save, to salvage, to restore. It is a portrait of adoration, challenge, respect and humility, the latter manifest in the blemish to the left of the ear, as if to confirm that representation can only approximate the perfection of creation.
The theological quality of Botha's work is especially evident in his manner of address. His work is very unsettling, it instructs us in so many ways that all is not well and that we face great challenges and it insists that we assume grave responsibilities for the past. The future Botha points to is one of great and solemn labours. Those who attended the opening experienced this tone of address from the man himself when, dressed in dark shirt and pants with his long silver hair pulled back into a tight knot, Botha ascended a small step ladder at a corner of the room. Already a tall man, he now towered over us. From this elevation he described our collective faults and instructed us in the remedy.
It was a reiteration of the exhibition rationale he provides in the catalogue: 'It is my opinion that men are increasingly absent from their structural roles in society. For some reason, they no longer participate as functional partners with women. As a result, relationships have become dysfunctional, family structures are breaking down, societies are fragmenting, nations are in conflict and the world is ecologically damaged.' This is a provocative argument, uncomfortably close to conservative and traditionalist calls for a return to clearly differentiated gender roles. It is a call for the return of the Father, the patriarch. I am not sure this Father ever, in fact, left.
While this reactionary impulse comes into play in the work, the contradictions and ambivalences Botha lays out point to a far more complicated set of ideas about historical redemption, which he has nurtured in his many monumental sculptural and installation works, two of which are on display at Bank Gallery. The 2004 work, History has an aspect of oversight in the process of progressive blindness, fresh from 'Africa Remix', is grand. If you have not seen it yet, go and see it. And if you have, see it again.
Like language, it consists of repetitions, ruptures and citations. It is a text and a reading of a text with History holding the place the Father does in other pieces. On first look and following the prompting of the title, the work can be considered a simple reiteration of the adage, 'History is written by the victors' and is therefore rife with errors and absences. Such an analysis only leads to the false promise of a complete History. But by doubling the installation - it consists of two similar but not identical scenes divided by a large wall - Botha homes in on that moment in a text where repetition is difference, either in the form of a slight shift in meaning or simply as a temporal displacement. As we move from one side of the piece to the other, we engage the question: if we tell the identical story at a different time or in a different place, will we have the same story? The installation tracks the progressive disintegration of visuality in the work of time, which is to say, that it is not enough to look: one must analyze, one must engage and critique, destroy and create.
As a counterpoint to these grand themes of fathers and history is a series of works that engage a very different energy, both in theme and form. The Boerekappie series consists of eight small renderings of the bonnets worn by Boer women. They bring a piercingly sad respect and profound love into the exhibition. They also literally bring women's hands and work into the show, as some of the renderings are done in appliqué by Jane Zietsman and some are embroidered by Jane Guffley, Janine Zagel, Sue Hobbs, Jill Lowe, Colleen Robert and Linda Shorten. This stitching in time is a poignant homage to the silent and historically unrecognized labours of women and makes true on Botha's instruction that, 'We need to live our lives closer to home, pay attention to the particular and acknowledge that our lives are shaped more by the idea of collectivity and less by individuality.'
But these works do not simply lie in a comfortable sentimentality. Situated as they are in the context of the never complete (dis)appearance(s) that is the stuff of this land, they provoke contradictory feelings. A fond tenderness when one thinks of the particular lives that may have once filled the fabric of the bonnet and a significant dis-ease at the historical project of which those women were a part. None of us is innocent, a statement with theological overtones appropriate to Botha's work.
Robert Sember was born and educated in Durban and now lives in New York. He is a member of the arts collective, Ultra Red based in the United States and is currently in Durban researching policy related to sex workers' rights and the development of sex and gender issues in contemporary South Africa
Opens: October 25
Closes: November 22
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