Leora Farber 'Dis-location/Re-Location' at Durban Art Gallery
by Sally-Ann Murray
'Dis-location/Re-location' is a travelling exhibition by Leora Farber that premiered at the Albany History Museum during the 2007 Grahamstown Festival, and showed at the Durban Art Gallery in May 2008. The exhibition comprises work in various media, prominent among which are three suites of photographic prints - A Room of Her Own, Ties that Bind Her, and Aloerosa. There is also a collection of plant sculptures constructed from a combination of living (ie dead) plant material, plastic, wax and candle gel, and a claustrally-contrived 'living room' installation characterized by reticent grotesqueries: the set is spiky and melting, sumptuous and bare, contradictory qualities further reinforced by the tracking of the infinitesimal female 'busyness' featured in two wall-mounted video screenings.
The exhibition centres on Farber's photographic staging of her own physical body in an attempt to embody imaginative links amongst the lives of three female protagonists. Bertha Guttman came from England circa 1885 to Zwartkoppies outside Pretoria, an immigrant passage in the service of a marriage to the Rand entrepreneur Sammy Marks. Freidela Kagan journeyed from Eastern Europe to South Africa just before World War II; she became 'Freda Farber' – and the artist's mother. And then there is the made in South Africa Leora Farber, the artist, though acting in art she tries to become other than herself. The narratives form an imaginative 'family tree', in which any individual story is but one branch of an extensive whole. (The biological mother is strangely absent, though, as if the daughter has had to reach over the painful figuration of modern Jewish history towards the more distant 'alter' ego of Bertha Marks as 'imaginative mother'.)
Aside from some somber old black and white photographic portraits – a reference to genealogy which is ambiguously poignant and blandly gestural - it is contemporary photographs of Farber which struggle to animate the women's experiences. The prints are assemblages or enactments, and in them is a visual insistence on the female self at work upon herself in a traditionally feminine repertoire of actions: needlework, beauty, flowers, dressing....activities which simultaneously appear to transcend time and place and to manifest the impossibility of making present other women's imagined lives without facile narrative over-simplification. The prints are often hazy, soft-focus. The subject matter is disquietingly frothy and steely. Lace, hide, heed, straitlaced, hidebound, hideous bind, unlaced. Here, the corset is Farber's familiar metonym, and followers of her career will grapple with the present treatment of 'craft', allowing that its discontinuous manifestations: as a minor female felicity, a queasy social constraint, and a time-honored cross-cultural skill that can be grafted onto new contexts.
In the photographs of Farber's persona there is none of the established iconography of a gritty South African realism, and this lack of local referent might incline some to dismiss the images as irrelevant. And yet Farber's oddly de-located display is not merely playing with pretty pictures. In one portrait, the protagonist is heaped in stupefied disarray upon the floor, skirt hiked up, the fussy, over-decorated walls weeping a waxy, all-too-fleshy floral abundance. In another, the woman sits alone in her conservatory, working down to her last skin with a clinically-incisive fastidiousness. I will do whatever it takes, the woman's sewing of the plant into her body seems to imply. She is taking heart, in order to take root.
The costumes are the product of Farber's collaboration with the dress designers Strangelove, and make for a para-artistic signature borrowed from the parlance of women's glamour and beauty magazines, the fashion location, the big 'white' wedding….Strangelove are known for their quirky 'concept garments', and enable Farber's revealing of raw edges, complement her interest in fabricating meaning by 'disclothing' what is habitually naturalized beneath socially 'tailored' surfaces. The clothing is constructed from culturally-incongruous materials – parachute fabric and cowhide, for example - and there are petticoated confections which narrow tightly into the cinched waist. In places, sections of the thin, scanty bodice evoke skin as a material like any other. In all of the photographs, Farber's body cannot be other than categorically 'white', a determinism she exacerbates via the voluminous, luminously white dress: it threatens to bleach out every chromatic possibility, even as it re-materialises race as a cultural construct, feminizing whiteness as now vulnerably denuded of authority.
Similarly, each of Farber's unpredictable plant 'cultivars' – naturalistic, yet artistically engineered wax mutations of roses, aloes, bromeliads ... - is a 'plant', a clever substitute for an elusive human hybridity. Leaves. Stem. Leavings. Stammerings. Each, like 'Aloerosa', is labelled with a fabulous invented taxonomy that connotes cross-pollination, grafting, and chance self-seeding. These 'delicious monsters' are beautiful. They are bizarre. What are you? I ask, peering, sniffing to catch some scent of new South African belonging. But the question merely reflects in the plants' glass cases, throwing meaning back towards me: funny you should ask that, actually; what are you and what is it that you can make out of where you are, and what can it make out of you?
Sally-Ann Murray lectures in English Studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal where she attained her PhD. She is a much published poet and writer. Her poems have appeared in numerous journals, and have been widely anthologized, most recently in The New Century of South African Poetry (2003, Ad Donker) and Imagination in a Troubled Space (2004, Poetry Salzburg).
Opens: May 15
Closes: July 27
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