Leora Farber in collaboration with Strangelove 'Dis-Location/Re-Location' at the Johannesburg Art Gallery
by Musha Neluheni
It is only February and already a whole host of exhibitions have opened in Johannesburg. While it is early, 'Dis-Location/Re-Location' has to be the most solid and well put together show so far this year. The exhibition is essentially divided into three spaces or stories. The three underlying narratives are of Bertha Marks, a Jewish immigrant from England, Freda Farber, the artist's mother whose family immigrated from Latvia, and that of the artist herself. It is also interesting to note that Carlo Gibson and Ziemek Pater of Strangelove, who assisted Farber in the production of the pieces, are from immigrant descent. As the title suggests the exhibition deals with the ideas of displacement, from Bertha's colonial feelings of displacement, to Farber's own post-colonial, post-apartheid position in South Africa. Farber locates herself within these contexts through the use of hybrid plant matter and the 'feminine' act of sewing. Although it is a compelling show, the complexities of the Bertha/Farber/Farber relationship become almost secondary to the intense visuals of the images themselves. I was left questioning whether this triple narrative was necessary in achieving the greater essence of the exhibition.
The first space consists of the video piece A Room of Her Own, shown alongside the sets that Farber used to create it. The second space is made up of hybrid aloe plants that Farber has constructed from wax and fabric. The final space consists of two rooms of photographs in which Farber interacts with Bertha's home, Zwartkoppies.
In A Room of Her Own, Farber sits in Bertha's room in front the French windows that lead to Bertha's rose garden. She sews aloe leaves around a needle worked rose that seems stitched into her thigh. Farber enacts a pastime that was very common to a Victorian woman, but it becomes a warped, disturbing version of needle point as we watch her pierce her own 'flesh'.
As we watch Farber slowly stitch the leaves, a narrative is recited over music. The voiceover is of Freda Farber detailing her family's move to South Africa, and another voice, the artist reads the letters that Bertha wrote to her husband, Sammy Marks, while he was away on business. The effect of the activity is captivating: one finds oneself transfixed with morbid fascination, not missing a single turn of the needle. The wax roses which formed the wallpaper of Bertha's room start to melt off the walls and litter the floor. Farber seems undeterred by this and continues her task of sewing and grafting. The power of the visuals however, is so compelling that one finds that narrative becomes obsolete, almost like background music. I found myself so engrossed in the sewing and the roses melting that I paid little attention the narrative. There were moments when the crash of a falling rose would disturb the narrative. It was on these occasions that I caught myself having to remember to listen to the voice over.
This process of grafting is continued into the last two rooms where Farber places herself in Bertha's position around Zwartkoppies. The first of these contains indoor photographs, the second photographs set in the outdoors. Farber's character in the first room is in the act of adornment through jewelry, most importantly a cameo. In the second room, she too adorns her body, but with aloes which she pushes into her body, into her bloodstream. These objects form a hybrid, a new being.
In Bertha's bedroom, Farber looks at herself in the mirror and proceeds to imbed a cameo in to her chest. The series of photographs entitled The Ties That Bind Her, depict Bertha as a captive, not only of this room, but of her life. She cannot escape the corset which binds her, nor can she escape this new country which has been made her home. The mirroring of indoor shots with outdoor shots in the next room engages with the idea of displacement that comes with the diaspora. Farber, as Bertha, is in a sense 'the scattered' as she adorns herself with Victorian jewelry and then is overtaken by the indigenous plants in the next room.
Finally in the Aloerosa series in the final room, we find Farber in Bertha's rose garden, grafting indigenous plants into her flesh. As this series continues from Aloerosa: Induction to Aloerosa: Supplantation, the aloe grows within her arm and starts becoming part of her veins. It starts growing out of her chest and her leg and spreads throughout her body. Her corset loosens until the point when we get to Aloerosa: Supplantation and all that is left in the veld is the corset and some aloe plants: her body becomes subsumed into the landscape. The question is: has Bertha's character discarded the corset, the object of her western ideals (the ties that bind her), or has she become the plants that she cultivated? Has she finally become not only the host for this plant, but the plant itself? It seems she has become integrated into this new foreign land.
It is at this moment that I feel one cannot separate the unique connection the duo of Strangelove have with Farber. When Bertha becomes part of the earth, all that is left is the corset they created. What ties these four rooms together is the act of sewing or stitching. Farber stitches the aloes into her skin, into her being. Sewing is the act of mending, but also the act of creating something new. One creates a new garment by sewing it, and in this action, we see the Farber/Strangelove collaboration in its purest form. Through this sewing together of their two art forms, a hybrid is created, one hybrid unlike the strange plants Farber has created in the third room, and also unlike the aloes that take over her vein system in the first and fourth room.
Farber, Pater and Gibson are fundamentally a good fit. The production, which they worked on together, is almost faultless. The garments, without which the show would be lost, are exquisite. The wonderful pairing of the soft and hard in Strangelove's creations seems almost to be about the collaboration between these artists. This pairing of an artist who is depicting something essentially female, with the design team who specialize chiefly in male clothing, manifests particularly well in the pairing of parachute silk and cow hide in the garments.
This is once again a strong body of work by Farber. For Strangelove, who had their first solo exhibition in 2007, this will surely solidify their position as more than just designers.
Musha Neluheni is a Johannesburg-based artist, writer and assistant curator of the Sasol Art Collection.
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