Archive: Issue No. 123, November 2007

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Mxolisi Dolla Sapeta at Bell-Roberts
by Jacqueline Landey

In the paintings of Mxolisi Dolla Sapeta's 'Detached' exhibition, it is not unlikely to attempt linking the variety of painting styles used to the subject matter being dealt with. These socio-political issues, as the gallery refers to them, include allusions to bestiality, paedophilia, electricity theft and perhaps a general moral corruption as a result of apartheid injustices. When the subjects depicted are of such visceral substance, alluding to them seems to be a favourable option when trying to find meaning in these works. Although blatantly relevant to the show, it would be a pity to focus on subject matter at the expense of the form - Sapeta's exploration of paint, which may be his strongest asset.

It is perhaps through a purely visual exploration that this array of painting styles can be studied in connection to possible aesthetic responses. In this light, reactions to the often controversial works need not be directly determined by harsh imagery which seems uneasy on the heart but rather on styles that simply may not be easy on the eye. In an Art South Africa review of Sapeta's previous exhibition 'Shifting the Centre', this use of changing styles is addressed. According to the article the artist regards 'being pinned down', as a 'nagging burden' (Hopwood: 2005, p49). Through challenging this burden, Sapeta has created a space for himself where the use of various styles can lead to various responses. In 'Detached' these responses could happen not only from room to room but also from picture to picture.

For the sake of clarity, the styles of the artist could be divided into groups. One being of painterly figures portrayed at the foreground of slabs of bold colour visible in Lost Light and Detached Series 1 which contrast with the more linear and highly-realistic sort of depiction seen in The Masturbator and It wasn't Me. Sapeta's style changes again in images that focus on electricity theft, in which, perhaps to his detriment, a sketchy appearance of inferior quality appears to emerge.

Moving through the gallery, besides the apparentness of issues of ugliness and controversy, a response to individual works, however, perhaps comes down to what works stylistically. As already suggested, the sketchy style of Pirate of the Cape and Shifting Centres Series 3 does not seem to do justice to the capabilities of the artist. Perhaps, a downfall of an artist so liberally displaying range is that it provides a means of comparison of adjacent works that simply could not be closer together. This is evident in The Lost Supper in which Sapeta varies his styles between figures right next to each other. Sapeta showcases an impressive range, yet the juxtaposition of such a contrasting array seems to stifle a viewing rather than enhance it. It is not merely the capabilities of an artist that impress, as the super-realism of some of these works show. In this instance, Sapeta's ability to paint goes without saying: more pertinent however, is the question of whether these works manage to move, rather than superficially impress.

Nevertheless, the artist's approach of taking on so many styles in one show does work in his favour in one regard - there is bound to be at least one style with which a viewer is delighted. For me, it is in the painterly figures on thick slabs of colour that take centre stage in this exhibition. In these portraits of sorts, I am entranced by a sense of pain and pathos writhing from the blindfolded characters depicted, as their scars, swelling and wrinkles are, as their marks of humanness, so sensitively captured.

It could be seen as significant that the most effective aesthetic response, for me, was of these images because beyond stylistic differences, these images also depicted the least blatant narrative or subjective material. Wary of modernist ideologies which reject narrative depictions in favour of more formal focuses, my own sense of escaping or ignoring issues that are difficult to address could be identified. Perhaps Sapeta would refer to this favouring of certain less literal images as a detachment from the more literal issues. Effectively, this 'detached' criticism needs critique.

Hopwood,T Art South Africa volume 4 issue 2, Summer 2005, p.49

Opens: July 25
Closes: August 18

Bell-Roberts Contemporary
89 Bree Street, Cape Town
Tel: (021) 422 1100
Fax: (021) 423 3135
Hours: Mon - Fri 8.30am - 5.30pm, Sat 10am - 2pm