'.ZA Young Art From South Africa' at Palazzo delle Papesse, Sienna
by Rat Western
Affording internationally recognised, mid-career artists an opportunity to select younger artists for an important exhibition, thereby giving 'the nod' to the younger artists as potential 'successors' is the refreshing concept behind'.ZA Young Art From South Africa', currently on show in Sienna. In addition to making a few of his own choices, curator Lorenzo Fusi enlisted the assistance of five South African artists - Marlene Dumas, Kendell Geers, Berni Searle, Minnette Vári and Sue Williamson - inviting each to put forward three names.
While each curator made selections according to taste – and apparently there was some overlap on the initial lists – the choices made reflect a broad viewpoint on the art of the country, an overview of current tastes and trends.
Fusi, curator of Centro Arte Contemporanea at Palazzo delle Papesse, has long been interested in social and political happenings in South Africa, yet with a modesty not often seen in a European curator, he does not presume to know enough about the complexities of this country to curate a survey show, nor has he set out to create an exhibition of the kind of work a European audience might expect to see from an African country.
He describes '.ZA' as 'a musical composition kept aside in a drawer, waiting for the time to be ripe for it to see the light, rather than a crowd-pleasing, astute initiative that rides the wave of a specific political moment, responding to the market's shallow enthusiasms.'
And indeed '.ZA' reads as an exhibition which has had a lot of thought put into it. While there are some names one would expect to see, the line up does not give the impression of a predictable list of usual suspects.
On exhibition are: Colleen Alborough, Bridget Baker, Zander Blom, Dineo Bopape, Ismail Farouk, Frances Goodman, Simon Gush, Nicholas Hlobo, Moshekwa Langa, Churchill Madikida, Nandipha Mntambo, Zanele Muholi, Ruth Sacks, Sean Slemon, Doreen Southwood, Mikhael Subotzky, Johan Thom, Nontsikelelo 'Lolo' Veleko, James Webb and Ina van Zyl.
While some of the work on show has been exhibited before (in some cases several times) I did not find this problematic as the exhibition has been created for a new audience. I was, however, surprised that more artists did not propose a new work given the level of support and publicity given by Palazzo delle Papesse, but perhaps the artists' own time and the overall budget did not allow for this.
The context of the 15th century Palazzo with its many rooms, some decorated with fifteenth century style frescoes, (painted in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century when the building was acquired by the Bank of Italy) provides an interesting backdrop and lends a new interpretation for many of the works.
Nicholas Hlobo's Umthubi - an installation of thin wooden striplings wired into a circular kraal shape, with a woven mesh of pink ribbons filling the centre area - took on new life in its juxtaposition with the space, a small room with a frescoed ceiling. In context with the almost museum-like space, Umthubi seems to play with the idea of the cultural history diorama – the 'traditional' scenario of the kraal with an alternative history presented in the pink ribbons - very far from my experience of it at Khayelitsha's Lookout Hill during Cape '07 where it felt like a bundle of sticks left in a hall.
Similarly in offering an alternative take on culture and identity, Zanele Muholi's Miss D'vine I plays with the stereotype of the nubile, 'native' maiden in nought but beads seated in the postcard. Muholi's Faces and Phases series reinterpret the themes of countless old paintings hanging in museums everywhere – portraiture, the lovers, a woman at her toilette are explored in black and white photographs of lesbians.
Nandipha Mntambo Sondzela and Intsandvokati present an alternative version to the aging velvet and lace of a medieval bride's trousseau. Her cowhide formed in female shapes represents a different, yet comparable dowry.
Ismail Farouk's various video works were well placed in stairwells and places of threshold around the building provided a soundtrack to the exhibition as a whole. The sounds of voices speaking Zulu, kwaito music and traffic permeate the space and the bustle of the city of Johannesburg is there amongst the frescos and vaulted ceilings.
In balance with the art which speaks about specific South African identities and places there are as many works which dealt with more universal themes.
My favourite of these is Bridget Baker's Blue Collar Girl and The Pilot. Part of this is the physical quality of the quaint old fashioned projector used to show The Pilot and Blue Collar Girl's lambda prints mounted in Diasec, a slick and obviously expensive process, that is enough to make any print artist sick with envy.
The Blue Collar Girl character, given superhero status and trademarked styling, is an 'any woman' who performs a range of tasks, her goal unknown, leaving just the inscription 'Only you Can ©' In Cape Town, Maputo, Valais or Delhi our heroine has the power of the individual - just like everyone else.
James Webb's The Black Passage is a dark textured corridor which the visitor traverses toward the source of a rumbling sound, like a train, but more like blood rushing to the head or an ultrasound. The sound is actually a descent of a miners' cage into the shaft of a gold mine. The duration of the sound and therefore the distance into the earth reminds one theoretically of Tolkien's dwarves who dug 'too deep and too greedily' into the mines of Moria awaking the Balrog. But as an experience the passage is quite soothing and surreal compared with the thoughts surrounding it. It is quite womblike and more like a journey of birth or to a less sinister afterlife than a real descent into the earth.
Because of their transitory nature two performances one by Simon Gush and one by Johan Thom took centre stage for the night of the opening.
Gush presented Serenade, a car (Fusi's) redecorated to resemble a car of the local Polizia. He then requested an Italian actor, dressed in the Polizia uniform, to sit inside the car and sing, through speakers mounted on the car roof, an a capella version of Can't Take my Eyes off of You. The car was placed in the entrance of the Palazzo with the two double volume doors flung open to the street. Passers by were treated to a heavily accented and slightly off key 'I Love you Bay-bee! And if it's quite alright, I Need You, Bay-bee!'
In an entirely different mood, Come in Peace/Go to Pieces Thom's nearly four hour performance, saw two ominous assistants take turns to pour oil and shovel smashed windscreen glass onto the artist's back. Thom, on his knees and bending down in a position of supplication whilst the oil and glass were poured onto his back, would then raise himself at the waist so he was standing on his knees with hands held high above his head in praise or in surrender. The very physical nature of the Italian assistants, with their dark eyes and eyebrows and sharp noses combined with their uniformly shaved heads and matching white overalls, lent a variety of readings to the work. From a clinical Horus and Anubus weighing the soul of the dead, to an inversion of the concentration camp survivor carrying out some bizarre human experiment, the repetitive, inane task is not easily pinned down. As with much of Thom's work I find it difficult to speak about what happened or what these things symbolised as it is far better for one to draw one's own conclusions.
The initial estimate by Thom was that the performance would last two hours, so when it was still in progress nearly four hours later one felt that if Thom stopped it at any point now no-one in the very tense audience would think less off him. But watching these final shovel loads of glass pouring onto the artist's back, and watching him struggle and stumble exhausted to his knees, it became apparent that he needed to finish the pile of glass. Whatever the meaning or lack of meaning in the activity, it would only be complete if he finished what he started.
It was not all well picked and placed however, and for me Zander Blom's Untitled room works and Ina van Zyl's paintings seemed conceptually disparate in quality to much of the show. This is a pity as Blom's work with Avant-Car Guard is interesting and witty but these Untitled works come across like stoner doodles in the corner of the artist's room and not at all in an interesting way. They were well placed in small rooms with ceiling frescos, but the play on Modernist titles, the breaking of the frame and drawing up the wall is not particularly original.
Van Zyl's paintings were equally a disappointment. Their smallish canvases were lost against the expanse of a white wall in an overwhelmingly large space. Purportedly works dealing with notions of shame, they seem more simply studies in shape, form and texture – studies perhaps for something but not something in themselves. These paintings were a bad choice from the artist's body of work. Preferable would have been her watercolours which are far more accomplished and first prize would have been her comic work. Featured in Bitterkomix, van Zyl's comics are by far superior to the rest of her work and it appears as if the paintings were included to make a balance for their medium, a tad underrepresented both on the show and in younger contemporary South African art practice generally.
As an entirety, how often can one say one really enjoyed an exhibition? '.ZA' is a very successful show which presents a very sincere slice of young contemporary South African practice. The artists involved are very fortunate to have enjoyed the level of professionalism employed, which in this country is generally reserved for large scale retrospectives.
Fusi refers to the selection of the artists by their more experienced peers as 'a passing on of the torch.' Whether the chosen ones will run with this torch to pass it on in turn, or let it go out, remains to be seen.
Opens: February 2
Closes: May 4
Palazzo delle Papesse
Via di Città, Siena, Italy
Tel: +39 0577 22071
Fax: +39 0577 42039