Right before your eyes at the KZNSA Gallery
by Julian Brown
This exhibition should have been a mess. It gathers together a selection of works from artists associated with Durban: both those born here and now left, and those still living here. The artists represented are at all points in their careers: from young artists making their names, to their teachers and their teachers' teachers. Some of the work is new, from the last two years, while other pieces date from the late 1990s. No particular overriding theme is discernable in the works themselves, although each is beautiful.
Nonetheless, the show has been so expertly curated that the way the works have been hung beside each other on the gallery walls creates a fragile network of associations and similarities that holds the diverse show together - that makes it seem like an exhibition, and not just a collection of paintings, photographs, prints and sculptures.
As you walk into the gallery, Deryck Healey's work Are black heads white has been placed next to Langa Magwa's To whom it may concern. Healey's is the oldest piece on the show; Magwa's is from this year. Healey's work is a darkly cross-sketched oval, black against the white background. Magwa's piece is sculptural: contained within the shape of an envelope, raised script spells out an address, while the stamp is a detailed thumbprint. Healey's work may not have been intended to resemble that thumbprint but - when placed next to it - a delicate tension rises between the two works, prompting thoughts about identity and politics that otherwise might not have arisen.
Likewise, two paintings have been hung together on the far wall of the gallery: Doung Anwar Jahangeer's Inkululeko Mfete is a single panel, hung just below normal eye level. Virginia MacKenny's Not for data is a 12 panel set of paintings: all but the lowest panels hang well above eye level. Jahangeer's work explicitly lacks context: two feet, adorned with anklets made from scores of red disks are shown against a thickly-painted white background. The disks drop like petals across the rectangular board. They neither fall nor land, but are instead simply suspended in white, refusing interpretation. MacKenny's paintings, on the other hand, provoke multiple interpretations: almost every panel depicts a different object - twice, from different angles, a helicopter airlifting a package, once a fish, a pair of wooden ducks, a mechanical diagram, a Christmas Tree complete with lights. These panels are painted in deep blues and muted brown oils. There is one exception, though: on the lowest level of the panels one single canvas has been painted a bright, uniform pink. Both works resonate with the other: although one is painted in acrylic and the other in oil, and although one is painted on 'found board' and the other on 12 canvases, both are deeply sensuous, concerned with the texture of things. Next to MacKenny's dreamlike work, the silence of Jahangeer's scene ceases to seem empty but is instead resonant with echoes.
Throughout the room, similar tensions are set up and sustained: for example, between Kathryn Smith's large black-and-white photographs, Twin (Diptych) - glossy on the surface and dark beneath - and Angie Buckland's Shadow Catching series of photographs, depicting the play of light and water, beach sand and small children. Next to these is Peter Engblom's series of pigment and charcoal images of naked women in shadowy spaces. Completing the wall are Gabisile Nkosi's lino-prints and Thando Mama's Souls of the Black Folk: figures drawn white against a black background.
On the facing wall, one or two works stand out: Caryn Tilbury's Sacred pengie - a sculpture of a penguin bearing the Sacred Heart on its breast - provokes an immediate, releasing, laughter. The penguin is mounted on a small bookcase, seemingly installed by the gallery - perhaps because next to it hangs Andries Gouws' miniature painting of Three books on table. (The bookcase contains three glossy copies of Peter Machen's coffee-table book, Durban - A Paradise and its People, the launch of which coincided with this exhibition.) The other work which leaps out from this wall is Michael MacGarry's clever Hu Jintao and the Scramble for Africa which incorporates the stylised face of China's Premier into an almost-traditional African mask form. Constructed from coconut palm fronds, epoxy, enamel paint, wax and - intriguingly - 'cigar ash', the mask is both politically alert and pointedly funny. Other works on this wall - such as Michael Croeser's delicate charcoal drawing - also impress, but it is this more restless humour that lingers.
The best vantage point from which to contemplate this exhibition, though, is in the centre of the room: here, Andrew Verster's latest two pieces, both labelled Waxworks II hang from the low ceiling of the mezzanine level. Verster is a fixture in the Durban art scene: for decades he has experimented with different forms and media, most recently with forms derived from Indian images. In these new works wax and pigment have been layered on thin paper, creating a translucent panel: forearms and hands are sketched in and then filled with thin images: classical Roman profiles, a bull's head, a disembodied hand. The light style of drawing recalls Verster's older work, while the colours - pink, orange and gold - seem to come from his most recent paintings with their rich textures and detail.
Both Verster's restless intelligence and his willingness to continue experimenting long after most artists have settled into a style, seem emblematic of the work displayed on this show and - hopefully - of the work that will continue to emerge from Durban for years to come. It is a delicate and restless display: beautiful in its pieces, and thoughtful in its almost illusory whole.
Julian Brown is a doctoral candidate at St Antony's College, Oxford and lives between Oxford and Durban
Opens: August 21
Closes: September 9