Nontsikelelo Veleko at the Goodman Gallery
by Anthea Buys
Every so often an artist emerges whose work manages to bypass the disobliging filter of the critic's eye and to find its way, inscrutably, into prolific collections and unprecedented commercial success. Nontsikelelo (Lolo) Veleko is one such artist, and 'Mute!Scream!Mute!', her most recent solo exhibition, and second appearance at the Goodman Gallery, is testament to this critical anomaly. (I should mention here that there seems to be some uncertainty on the part of the gallery as to what the show is actually called: from the press release and the Goodman Gallery website I was under the impression that the title is indeed 'Mute!Scream!Mute!'. However the slick flyer calls it 'Scream!Mute!Scream!'.)
To express dislike for Veleko's work seems to be a decidedly unstrategic move for anyone who hopes to remain afloat in the South African art industry. She seems either to know a lot of the right people or to have attracted an influential patron or two: since 2002 she has exhibited at the Kuppel Gallery in Switzerland, at the Johannesburg Art Gallery's old X-Gallery, was a major attraction at Afronova during last year's SA Fashion Week, and this July, sans friends, exhibits at the Goodman Gallery. When confronted with the raw mediocrity that is her work, however, one has the impression that merit alone may not be at the seat of this success. It is fascinating though, and to her credit, that she has survived years of this sort of bewildered criticism since 2003, when Ann-Marie Tully astutely remarked that Veleko's photographs are just plain bad (incidentally, Tully's challenge was sidestepped by a certain 'JAG agent', who in response preferred to accuse her of racial ignorance).
'Mute!Scream!Mute!' traverses the difficult thematic territory of racial and sexual identity and purports to explore the role of clothing and self-presentation as a means by which identity is constructed. This would indeed be a worthy thematic endeavour, if it were in fact realised in the work. The notion of identity, in this case, seems to be the convenient explain-all that has been pinned onto this vaguely correlative assembly of photographs in the earnest hope that they might somehow hold together. Certain works in this exhibition hark back to American Feminist photography in the 1970s and 80s - Veleko's costumery certainly smacks of Cindy Sherman - but her compulsion to frolic in the Emmarentia Rose Garden compromises the confrontational élan she begins to exercise in Lulu's Tie, for example. Furthermore, it is unclear to me precisely what the title 'Mute!Scream!Mute!' has to do with either the theme of identity or this strange conversation between frivolity and confrontation. I am tempted to suggest that it alludes to Gilbert and Gubar's Mad Woman in the Attic (1979), although Veleko's weak theoretical engagement in the work does not inspire much faith that any such allusion is intentional.
The exhibition presents three photographic series, each offering a slightly different approach to portraiture. The earliest of these, www.notblackenough.lolo, is a sporadically kitsch, altogether disjunct set of images of black women (Veleko herself and others) implicitly doing or wearing 'not-black' things. Although this series goes some way to unsettle essentialist assumptions about the imposition of white culture on black identity, it is not clear that this critical gesture is developed or resolved. I am what I am is an amusing portrait of the artist looking tragically like Whitney Houston, her figure flanked by text that reads, 'I am what I am. I'm all that u need!!', an embellishment of the refrain of the Gloria Gaynor cult hit I am what I am. Here, Veleko may be referencing, and claiming solidarity with, a tradition of black female artists, although when this gesture is considered within the context of the artist's alleged thematic objectives for the show, it does not seem particularly relevant.
Nor does the work show any evidence of the artist's alertness to existing discourses to which her use of text, and particularly her choice of phrase, might allude. For instance, the text, although embarrassingly juvenile, suggests two potentially interesting avenues of thought: the work might have addressed more directly the themes of gender, control and possession, or, if this would have been to the detriment of Veleko's interest in superficiality, it might have pursued the subject of language and communication in 'sms culture'. However, it does neither, since the Houstonesque image fails to draw the text into a conversation that would move the work from the mere quotation of a tradition into a critical engagement with that tradition. If Veleko were to heed any art historical trajectory she should recall Adrian Piper's work with text and photography in the 1980s and 90s (also concerned with identity), and stay well away from this style until she has found something to say that is original or at least retrospective.
Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder is a slightly stronger series of street-fashion photography, in which the selection of garments worn by her subjects, supposing they are susceptible to her artistic direction, are evidence of some creative process. For fashion photography, these images are pleasant, though not particularly innovative (the novel outfits are Veleko's saving grace). Perhaps because of its prior appearance in a number of other exhibitions, which will have allowed for ample criticism and time for poor presentation to be remedied, this series is certainly the most polished. However, it is vastly under-utilised in the exhibition with its most convincing work Sibu IV hung in the doorway as if entirely incidental to the rest of the show.
Veleko's series of self-portraits is a peculiar assortment of ditsy snapshots, deliberately Orientalist (in the Saidian sense) images and a number of dire Photoshop fiddlings. The Chinese/Japanese series is a group of images I find particularly problematic. In some of these works, Love for Self for example, Veleko has her face painted like a geisha and is rolling in a patch of grass. Her donning of the face-paint seems a rather facile reference to the 'whitewashing', or extreme Westernisation, of contemporary Black South African identity (whether this is not an unwarranted generalisation is open to debate), while her posing as a Japanese courtesan identifies her, as a black woman, with the ultimate other to the white, male 'West'. Since Said though, these gendered notions of East and West have been revised extensively and it seems inadequate for the work to have addressed the matter without following it through. Moreover, her appropriation of 'Chinese' and 'Japanese' imagery seems indulgent - an excuse to wear a kimono shirt - rather than critical. Tracey Rose, who in 2004 ruffled many a conservative feather with her exhibition 'The Thieving Fuck and the Intagalactic Lay', presented a similar interest in the destabilisation and appropriation of identity, and delivered a subversion of the 'blackface' tradition that was attentive to the complexity and historical weight of an interracial dialogue of this sort. By comparison, Veleko's venture is bungling.
My doubt concerning the eligibility of Veleko's work for display in high-profile galleries, or at all, has nothing to do with its close dialogue with fashion photography. We are long past excluding other creative genres from the umbrella of fine art. Jenny Saville's collaboration with high-profile fashion photographer Glen Luchford is one good example; locally, another is the genre-hopping work of Jillian Lochner. Even as fashion photography, her work is conceptually naïve and aesthetically clumsy, and her processing is either very lazy or genuinely amateurish. Although, the background of Madam Lolo Let Them Eat Fruits does suggest that she has recently learned to use the 'rubber stamp' tool. The majority of the photographs included in this exhibition are either pixelated or grainy, the reproduction of Scream Black Lips on the notorious flyer being evidence of this. The print quality, laid bare by the absence of framing in all but three works, is extremely unprofessional.
What I find particularly unforgivable is that Veleko need only flip through a good local design magazine to see that she has been outdone by a number of contemporary fashion photographers who are not enjoying a fraction of her publicity. Judging from this demonstration in photographic entropy, the Empress' new clothes are wearing thin.
Anthea Buys is a Johannesburg-based writer who works for the Mail and Guardian as an art journalist. This is her first contribution to ArtThrob
Opens: July 19
Closes: August 12