'Disguise' at Michael Stevenson
by Tavish McIntosh
Curator Joost Bosland manages to infuse the weighty solemnity of Michael Stevenson's 600 square metre halls with a fresh and youthful take on the act of personal and social representation. His first foray into formal curatorship, 'Disguise: the art of attracting and deflecting attention' proposes disguise as a key metaphor to understanding contemporary art. Bosland's vision gaily traverses terrain from Superman to the African diaspora, from Swan Lake to the Wombles, bringing together a broad spectrum of works to make his point. A welcome addition to the small count of professional curators in Cape Town, one could contend nonetheless that Bosland has been a little over-ambitious with this project.
The misrecognition central to many dramatic plots, the cultish worship of the popular idol, and indeed the everyday acts of self-presentation all contribute to our apprehension of personal and social identity. Candice Breitz's contribution perhaps most ably interrogates the potential of disguise to both hide and simultaneously render the self naked to the onlooker. Her Marilyn Manson Monument, Berlin, June 2007 assembles fans of the infamous faux-satanic rocker in a human tableau. Her interrogation of the cultish nature of celebrity worship looks to the fans, those most enamoured of the star, to interpret their idol.
Flanked by a massive candelabra, the photograph is compositionally dramatic, recalling the gothic theatricality of Manson's persona. Other tableaux by Breitz have featured the fans of Madonna, Prince and Bob Marley. In this monument to Marilyn Manson, the theatricality of the star's self presentation is reflected in the white makeup, the tattoos, piercings, black leathers and goth studs adopted by the fans. Their desire to disguise their own identity by adopting his is evidence of a critical lack at the heart of contemporary identity, but can also - quite paradoxically - be taken as a sign of the ways individuals are able to actively determine their relationship to mass culture.
Facing this work in the show is Steven Cohen's own ghoulish contribution, Golgotha #1, where he takes on the mantle of the businessman - which for Cohen is a form of drag all of its own. Unsurprisingly, he is nonetheless shod with killer heels, in the form of human skulls.
The two major highlights of the show have to be Pieter Hugo's Nollywood portraits and Nandipha Mntambo's self-portraits. In my view Hugo has begun a process of critical reflection on his practise. Although renowned for his contribution to documentary photography, Hugo's work - especially The Hyena Men and the Ghanaian Wild Honey Collectors series - feeds into an image of Africa as savage and exotic. Whilst the images are the result of a negotiation between Hugo and his subject, the evidence of the photographer's role is subsumed by the drama and fascination of the image.
In the Nollywood portraits, Hugo turns his lens on those most able and willing to engage it: actors and actresses. He commissions these artists from the Nollywood film industry (the world's third largest) to present and enact typical scenarios for his camera. Coming after his previous serious documentary series, the images are profoundly disturbing. One starts by assuming that Hugo has gone further than we ever imagined he would: photographing the victims of gunshots, strange religious cults that reinact the crucifixion, suicide stabbings with swords� And suddenly the realisation of Hugo's game dawns. The colours are too bold and brash, the imagery is too patently surreal to be possible.
Hugo has lulled us into a false sense of security, by repeatedly presenting us with what we take as 'the real'. With this series, Hugo takes us back to popular culture in order to reveal the premises of documentary photography and to question our relationship to the products of the industry. Hugo shows the dramas and disguises of self-representation.
After her sculptures that use cowhide as a medium, Mntambo focuses on the volatile relationship between bull and bull-fighter. In Mlwa ne Nkunzi Mntambo steps into her cowhide, but adopts the dramatic gestures of the matador. She is both bullish aggressor and tormented victim, human and animal simultaneously.
This dangerous hybridity is furthered in Mntambo's ominous vision of Europa. In her confrontational photograph, Mntambo stares out at the viewer, her face in the process of transforming into the visage of a bull with horns. In its mythological references, Mntambo picks up the story of Europa who was herself a goddess abducted by Zeus (in the form of a bull). The swift and easy movement between bull/cow, god/goddess and human that occurs in the mythological realms is echoed by Mntambo, but her Europa also traverses the sexual divide, adopting the aspect of the bullish Zeus, rather than being 'ravished' by him. In this, her work continues her unconventional interrogation of relations of power.
In Yinka Shonibare's Odile and Odette two ballerinas - one white and one black - decked out in their identical twee pink tutus exactly mirror each others' dancing, their movements mimicking the other without dissonance or variation. Without the disguise of a backing track, the harsh thumps of their leaps, bounds and pirouettes on the dance floor mix with the repressed gasps for air that the strenuous exercises require, providing a soundtrack that is at odds with the grace of their movements. This more subtle dissonance that echoes the overt colour distinctions of their skin tones uncovers the fallacy of feminine grace personified by the ballerina, and takes the piece beyond the one-liner of self and other.
Despite the various outstanding individual contributions by Breitz, Hugo, Mntambo, Rotimi Fani-Kayode, Yto Barrada and Wim Botha, the show itself seemed somewhat directionless. Without overstating it I would contend that 'disguise' is ultimately too wide and too narrow a theme for Bosland's burgeoning skill as a curator. Whilst Michael Stevenson Gallery has become renowned for curated shows that are aesthetically gripping and conceptually challenging and controlled, and which expose viewers to new faces and refresh the aspect of old favourites, 'Disguise' unfortunately falls down in a number of key facets.
The selection is not controlled with the acumen one expects from a top-notch gallery. Many choices seem predictable, chosen for their status rather than their contribution to disguise as a concept (Siopis, Searle, Schreuders, Goldblatt). The new faces display a disappointing tendency towards repetition, the one-liner, or simply complete lack of skill. The main hall is especially disappointing with Natasja Kensmil's abysmal drawings and Julie Mehetru's aimless prints making one question just what the selection criterion were... By infusing the notion of disguise with his own taste for the popular and irreverent, and kowtowing to the requirements of a commercial gallery to promote its own stable of artists, Bosland has unfortunately mitigated the opportunity to make a profound contribution to the concept of disguise in representation.
Opens: May 15
Closes: July 5
Michael Stevenson Gallery
Buchanan Building, 160 Sir Lowry Road, Woodstock
Tel: (021) 462 1500
Fax: (021) 462 1501
Hours: Mon - Fri 9am - 5pm, Sat 10am - 1pm