Archive: Issue No. 27, November 1999

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Reviews

Thembinkosi Goniwe

Thembinkosi Goniwe
Communications XYZ II (1999)
Video still
Computer manipulated inkjet poster print



Thembinkosi Goniwe

Thembinkosi Goniwe
Face Value: Drum (1999)
Computer manipulated inkjet poster print
150 x 120 cm



Thembinkosi Goniwe

Thembinkosi Goniwe
Face Value: Bona (1999)
Computer manipulated inkjet poster print
150 x 120 cm



CAPE TOWN

Thembinkosi Goniwe
By Sue Williamson

'Ritual', the body of work currently being presented by Thembinkosi Goniwe at the AVA bears all the marks of work prepared for a Masters Degree at the Michaelis School of Fine Art. First of all, there is the subject matter, in which the student generally attacks an aspect of the construction of identity or gender or discrimination, a subject which will always require a number of historical and cultural references. One pictures the student hard at work in the university library researching the subject. Then, there is the student's progress through his or her chosen subject - the earlier work often seeming strained as the student grapples to make the necessary point and get going. In this phase, one can often detect signs of too-direct influences absorbed from lecturers. Then sometimes, as is evident in Goniwe's presentation, near the end there is a breakthrough, light at the end of the tunnel. The student shakes free of the restrictive earlier work and makes it clear that an artist is indeed emerging.

Goniwe's subject is Ulwaluko, the Xhosa male initiation rite in South Africa, in which a youth must be ritually circumscribed and instructed in the ways of manhood in order to be received and perceived as a man. It is a ceremony which, deeply as it is inscribed in the culture, is increasingly being questioned by those who must undergo it. As this is being written, Goniwe is in Philadelphia, preparing to deliver a paper on December 4 on the subject at a conference entitled Art in Service of Constructing Masculinity: Male Initiation in Africa. Part of Goniwe's presentation will be a video in which the artist reenacts the ritual of having the foreskin cut away from the penis, and strong will be the stomachs of the American audience if viewers do not wish to run from their seats rather than witness this moment. The video continues to show the initiate, smeared in the traditional white clay, stretching out his hands to shield his face, gazing in a small mirror, hestitantly undergoing the self doubts and fears which attend this period. It is a powerful re-enactment. Goniwe's video is not on exhibition at the AVA. Instead, blow ups of video stills impressively fill one wall in a strong display which I have little doubt will find its way on to one international exhibition or another within the next year.

On another wall at the AVA are a series of blowups of mock magazine covers, in which the initiate plays cover boy. While these seem to draw too heavily on another African artist, Ike� Ude�'s Cover Girl 1994-5 series, they are nonetheless attractive pieces, well in the contemporary art mode.

Goniwe has undergone his artistic Ulwaluko. So far, so good. It will be interesting to see how he develops.

The show closes November 27

AVA, 35 Church Street
Ph: (021) 424-4348
Fax: (021) 423-2037
E-mail: avaart@iafrica.com
Website: http://www.ava.co.za)
Gallery hours: Mon - Fri, 10am - 5pm, Sat 10am - 12pm

Paul Edmunds

Paul Edmunds
Kernel 1994-99
Plastic
38cm in diameter



Paul Edmunds

Paul Edmunds
Fold (detail) 1999
Cable ties

Click here to see the video footage of the show - 1.1MB or 4.1MB (quicktime)



Paul Edmunds at the Mark Coetzee
By Sue Williamson

"Scale," says Paul Edmunds, "is a measure by which we determine truths and a tool we use to establish limits." Working with the humblest of materials, small objects ordinarily discarded without a thought - the plastic strip which seals a screw-off bottle cap, polythene cable ties and steel pins, Edmunds sets up his own artistic investigation into the idea of scale. The fact that the artist is prepared to invest a limitless energy into working with these materials subverts their worthlessness, forcing a reconsideration.

Take Kernel. Edmunds started this piece in 1994, working on it an hour a day, using the strips from the sorghum beer lying around on the family farm. Time passed, and the beer began to be bottled in a different container, so Edmunds started using juice and milk bottle strips. In time, these too changed. The piece was set down, and taken up again over the years, the hour spent working in the new collection of strips becoming almost a morning meditation Although none of this history is apparent from the outside, the dense, extraordinarily painstaking intricacy of the surface alerts us to the hundreds of hours spent in making the ball, and because the artist clearly gave the piece that much time, we look at Kernel with a slightly incredulous respect. In our quick-fix, press the button to send the computerised design across the world society, people just don't work this way. That sense of infinite effort in the creation of an object has almost been lost to us. Almost as an afterthought is the eye struck by the work's gaiety and beauty.

Fold is a hanging veil, a lacy, organic yet technological fabric of black and white cable ties connected one to another, a Japanese drawing in plastics. And Cardinal is a glistening little sphere, heavy to hold, of a triple layer of pins. "The processes, images and titles with which I work are ambiguous and multi-referential," says Edwards. "They vacillate between the short lived furl of a cloud and apparently unchanging complexities of a rock surface. The processes used embody both absolute efficiency and challenging diligence."

Click here to see the quicktime movies made from footage of the show - choose between the 1.1MB or 4.1MB movies.

RAM

Opening night visitors listen to RAM's sound installation



RAM at the Mark Coetzee
By Sue Williamson

"As a gardener", says Brian Eno, in a catalogue essay for the RAM sound installation, "I've noticed a number of similarities between gardening and making music. First off, never throw anything away. Everything you've spent time on is worth recycling and putting back into the compost heap. Similarly with music. Often, working on a new piece I'll pull out an almost-forgotten experiment and run it along in the background. I like this layering effect - that the final work should have some personal historical depth and resonance." There is a synchronicity between this approach, between Edmund's work, and between Plans for Greener Structures, the RAM sound installation in the triangular gallery at Mark Coetzee. On opening night, only eight people were allowed into the small space at any one time to experience the gentle cacophany of sounds softly decibelling through a number of car phone speakers set up in different parts of the gallery. RAM is a three person group made up of Ryan Johnson, James Webb and Mark Coleman, and made a kind of diary piece of "especially meaningful sounds", an acoustic map, of past experiences and relationships, creating a "sonic landscape". It's the kind of landscape which, once experienced, one yearns to revisit.

Both shows close November 20.

Jean Brundrit



Jean Brundrit
Jean Brundrit
Black and white photographs from her Dyke Career Calendar series



JOHANNESBURG

'Been there, did that, bought the calendar' - Jean Brundrit's 'Lavender Menace'
By Reney Warrington

Jean Brundit's 'Lavender Menace' is an exhibition of photographs and yet not a photographic exhibition. The crux of the matter is not the technique, composition or tonal values, but the subject. Dykes doing dishes. Dykes doing shopping. Dykes with drills, bikes and certainly no frills. Everyday dykes. "Lesbians with attitudes", as the artist defines dyke.

Most of the images on exhibition are taken from Brundrit's Dyke Career Calendar for the Year 2000. Only 500 copies have been printed, signed and dated, which makes this limited edition work. In other words, get your grubby little paws on a copy, because this calendar will soon be a collector's item.

I will go ahead and dare to use the word "fun" to describe this exhibition. The shots are not styled and posed, the subjects not made up and dressed up, but seemingly photographed at the workplace itself. It appears as if the artist put up a backdrop just about anywhere, stuck a woman in front of it, threw in a baby or a bottle of wine and yelled "Smile!" - something that is certainly not done in conventional portrait photography. What the artist has achieved is an informal, somewhat tongue-in-cheek approach to a sometimes pretentious and, more often than not, serious medium. If the conventional backdrop is used at all, it is done in such a way that the actual environment is still visible. (The same goes for the creases in the black or white piece of cloth used.) This leaves you with a very straightforward and honest portrayal of dykes doin' their thing.

Brundrit labels the calendar as a "functional public art work to increase the visibility of dykes in South African society". This novel idea of a lesbian calendar might be up to the challenge, because it breaks away from the stereotypical portrayal of lesbians - said stereotypes being overly butch dykes who would beat the crap out of any man. Or the two big-boobed nymphettes getting it on in a porn video or magazine. Any man's fantasy. In between these stereotypes you have your pretty normal gay woman with a family, job, heartache and joy going about her everyday life. Being a part of this group I know there is a growing frustration amongst these women about not being represented in a fair and truthful way. That is why this calendar could achieve great success. It is representative of a large section of gay women that has thus far not been made visible to society.

Brundrit's calendar depicts an aspect of lesbian life not often heard of or seen. The everyday working class routine of holding down a job and building a career. Something we all have to deal with. A common denominator. This could possibly convince the broader, straight public that we are not freaks, perverts, cat owners or living life as a series of wild orgies where we swing from chandelier to chandelier. On the other hand ...

Ends November 20.

Rembrandt Van Rijn Art Gallery, Market Theatre Precinct, Newtown
Ph: (011) 832-1641
Fax : (011) 834-2057
E-mail: gallery@market.theatre.co.za

- Reney Warrington is a free lance writer who is based in Johannesburg.

Stephan Erasmus



Stephan Erasmus
Stephan Erasmus
The God Prosthetic 1999
Mixed media
Installation details



Stephan Erasmus' 'The God Prosthetic' at the JHB Civic Gallery
By Kathryn Smith

The "body-machine" complex has gained major currency over the last few years, partly because we are teetering on the brink of that increasingly boring turn of the millennium. However, a consciousness that was born in last century's Industrial Revolution, the elision of body and machine that informed machine design then, has reached urgency now. In an age where change is occurring faster than we can think it and most are happy to leave their bodies behind to wallow in the digital duvet of cyberspace, Stephan Erasmus tries to create the perfect human being.

The Civic Gallery has been transformed into two main spaces, screened off with diaphanous white sheeting. Entering the first, one is faced with what looks like the leftovers from hanging the show. A variety of paraphernalia is arranged along the edges of the space. A "studio" type environment has been created along one wall, with a trestle table of smaller (unfinished?) works, collections of cigarette packets and Coke cans (visual diaries of the work process), images of medical aberrations and alchemical equations. Modular sculptural pieces are placed in the centre, cataloguing all manner of banality in the quest for meaning - song titles from an eclectic music collection, dictionary definitions and in the most interesting piece, a collection of tightly coiled "discs" of paper. On closer inspection, these reveal themselves to be cross-sections of rolled up magazines presented in a multi-levelled rack reminiscent of chicken incubators.

Proceeding to the next space, one encounters an installation of test tubes, apparently purposeless but functional electrical wiring, collections of bubbling drip bags and doll parts. The chaos has been cunningly contained in a series of modular structures that again either frame or support Erasmus' viscera. The point of focus is a rather suspicious-looking pod that I expected to burst open any minute and release Arnold Vosloo's techno-mummy. This space is more successful than the first one in that we see the (il)logical conclusion of that prologue. However, the use of hot-pink plastic doll parts seems trite. Small scale, far from humanoid, the reference is presumably to the aspiration to a Barbie code of beauty.

Unfortunately, the "workshop" and "laboratory" environments don't dialogue as successfully as they should. There is a dislocation, almost an indecision, between what is and isn't, or what can and can't be, art. It's all presented as if it wants to be art, but it falls short of the mark. It has to do with an excess, or a lack thereof. There is an excess of ideas, product and paraphernalia that could easily translate into two or three solo exhibitions (his books are fascinating and worthy of their own platform), but on the other hand, if excess is the order of the day, it's not taken far enough. Whether Erasmus succeeds in creating his case for a "god prosthetic", I'm not sure. However, this show should be seen to appreciate Erasmus' work ethic and to ponder the connections between science and art.

Ends November 26

JHB Civic Gallery, Civic Theatre, Loveday Street, Braamfontein
Ph: (011) 403-3408
Fax: (011) 403-3412
E-mail: civic@theatrekom.co.za
Website: www.artslink.co.za/civic

(Re)figuring Abstraction

The invite for '(Re)figuring Abstraction'



(Re)figuring Abstraction at the Sandton Civic Gallery
By Kathryn Smith

I was looking forward to this show, primarily because it is the kind of work I usually go out of my way to avoid. The work itself is admirable, even brave in its conviction to be precisely what it is and no more. I enjoyed Regi Bardavid's Inbetween I and II, and Pascual Tarazona's Espacio XX is quietly arresting. However, the show is generally disappointing. It is just the kind of show you'd expect to see at a Sandton gallery - safe, inoffensive and decor-friendly (although the Sandton Civic doesn't usually fall into this category) - and judging by comments in the visitors' book, it was well-received too. But although the works are of a suitably grand scale, there aren't enough of them to create a truly monumental modernist experience.

Ends November 20

Sandton Civic Gallery, corner Rivonia Road and West Street, JHB
Ph: (011) 881-6431

Musah Raymond Hlakathi
Musah Raymond Hlakathi
on 'Outskirts 11'



Elomon Ten Ndlovu
Elomon Ten Ndlovu
on 'Outskirts 11'



'Outskirts II' at the Market Theatre Photo Gallery
By Kathryn Smith

The second and last 'Outskirts' of 1999 at the Market Theatre Gallery may be the last one ever, or at least for a while. Assistant gallery manager and project initiator Storm van Rensburg is moving to Durban to head up the chi-chi NSA gallery from November. A sad occasion, the work presented by Giyani College of Education in the Northern Province did much to lift sagging spirits. On another blue note, however, the college, which is an integral part of the community and involved in significant mural art projects in the area, is in danger of closing down or being absorbed into a larger institution under new education policies. Exhibiting an acute awareness of social issues and personal contexts, the work is strong, rich and resonant. It provides a fitting end (for 1999 anyway) to a project that achieved so much in its efforts to promote awareness and provide exposure for art made outside of the key centres of Cape Town, Durban and Johannesburg.

Closes November 20

Market Theatre Galleries, First floor, Market Theatre complex, corner Bree and Wolhuter streets, Newtown
Ph: (011) 832-1641
E-mail: gallery@market.theatre.co.za

Barend de Wet
Craig Johnson and Keren Ben Zeev



Barend de Wet



'The curators' at the Rembrandt van Rijn Gallery - one night performance
By Kathryn Smith

Sunday 24 October

So, although my expectations of actually seeing Barend de Wet were not met, this turned out to be one of the most inspired events I've attended this year. Barend de Wet did not even enter the city, let alone the building. Instead, the audience was faced with copious amounts of beer in unlabelled bottles nestling in a tub, on a white-clothed table and in stacks of SAB crates. A TV monitor perched high in the gallery corner relayed what a surveillance camera was picking up, and a stage with speakers promised more. Who brewed the beer was a mystery: " Uuh, the curators," I was told, and this information was followed quickly by the tip that there was both a lager and a pilsener to choose from. What would I know anyway? Two third year Wits Fine Arts students, Craig Johnson and Keren Ben Zeev, emerged as those responsible, only after standing up to give us a full lecture about the brewing process, lipsynching to the prerecorded voices of artists Clive van den Berg and Jo Ractliffe respectively.

At a loss for a title for the performance in the planning stages, Barend de Wet was suggested - a title which played itself out to perfection. De Wet's history of appropriating earlier artistic performances, his artistic associations (Peet Pienaar's rugby performances reek of beer-guzzling "manne") and innate ability (and cheek) to raise the basic and banal to the level of art found a home in this eponymous performance. And apparently he doesn't mind a bit. If anything, it's a credit to his achievements. The message was clear: you don't need art theory to "get" beer, and everything is up for consumption. The unsophisticated art of boozing is what openings are really about, anyway, and art should be as entertaining as sport. And since the Bokke had apparently just won a rugby match, Johnson and Ben Zeev's timing was perfect. Cheers.

David Goldblatt
David Goldblatt
KHAKI CLOTHES FOR SALE HERE:
Orania settlement for the Afrikaner Volk.

Orania, Cape, 25 September 1992
Black and white photograph



David Goldblatt
David Goldblatt
Sculpture by Japhta Masemola, imprisoned on Robben Island from 1963 until 1989 for sabotage, commemorating the first political prisoner on the island, the Khoikhoi chief, Autshumato, exiled there by the Dutch in 1658 and, symbolically by means of the statue's modern "underpants", the most recent political prisoners, those who oppose apartheid.
Maximum Security Prison

16 July 1991



David Goldblatt's 'Structures' at the JAG
by Kathryn Smith

Having enjoyed local and international exposure thus far, this exhibition of elegant and ironic architectural studies eventually makes an appearance in the depressingly empty halls of the Johannesburg Art Gallery. Doubly depressingis that this show is quietly fantastic: broadly accessible yet sophisticated enough for the photographic cogniscenti to immerse themselves for a good hour or so.

A veteran of South African "documentary photography", Goldblatt is to photography what William Kentridge is to "fine art". Both have had shows at MoMA, and both are pretty much household names. And the work of both artists exposes the insidious yet seldom subtle machinations of ideological desire. In a wall text, Goldblatt states: "In our structures we South Africans tend to declare ourselves quite nakedly and sometimes eloquently. Our motives are seldom concealed." Ne'er a truer word was spoken. And Goldblatt uses a neat device in some instances, placing an image shot in the early-mid Eighties alongside one shot at the same location about 10 years later. All images, and provincial locations given in the titles, are pre-1994.

'Structures' is a veritable smorgasbord of phallic extensions, delusions of grandeur and ingenious resolutions to the problems of material shortcomings. For all the apartheid aberrations, there are equally endearing examples of contingency planning. And this is not to sound trite - Goldblatt manages to bypass the sentimental and expose that which was in front of us all along.

I remember some students at art school telling me they hadn't ventured near the JAG, despite being halfway through their fourth year. Do me a favour. One "before-and-after" image I would have liked to see here is an image of the grand old dame crouching nervously in her very real, very naked surrounds of Joubert Park. A poignant and excruciating manifestation of the dichotomies that permeate South African society, the JAG is in a perfect position to be the locus of real education and creative experimentation, and a conduit of this to the community at large. Generally, the arts are experiencing especially lean financial support at the moment (a situation which caused JAGi to be postponed until early next year - ironic, no?) but an audience is a good place to start. But if you're reading this, you already know that. See you there.

Closes 28 November
Johannesburg Art Gallery, Joubert Park, Johannesburg
Ph: (011) 725 3130 or 725 3184/5/6
Fax: (011) 720 6000
E-mail: art@mj.org.za
Tuesday - Sunday 10am - 5pm

William Kentridge



William Kentridge



William Kentridge
William Kentridge
Stereoscope



William Kentridge at the Goodman
by Kathryn Smith

A banner down the outside wall of the Goodman Gallery announces "William Kentridge" in bold black and white, an exterior manifestation of the gallery's celebration of the artist's new film Stereoscope (and palimpsests) and of the drawings used in its making. These drawings are remarkable, giving an insight into the intensive labour required by the process of stop-frame animation. Several of them are annotated down the sides with frame numbers and registration marks, and phantom lines from earlier stages in the narrative sequence give the distinct impression that these are "end products", exhausted yet replete with a richness of what has gone before. But these "palimpsests" are not alone here. Kentridge has extended an already extraordinary oeuvre with more charcoal and pastel drawings executed on pages of textbooks, encyclopaedias and turn-of-the-century Rand Mines ledgers.

"Palimpsest" is defined as "writing material or manuscript on which the original writing has been effaced to make room for a second writing". Kentridge effaces by reasserting himself, grafting his presentness onto history that results in lyrical coexistence and "third" meanings (The Wanting Tenses, executed on pages from a Greek grammar book). An electric blue pastel is his weapon against the endless monochromatic chaos that is Soho's world, imposing metaphoric lines of mis/communication, power and energy. The room of drawings is buttressed on either side by video: a documentary on Kentridge made by a German film company on one side and Stereoscope on the other.

Stereoscope opens with a factory scene. A switchboard is tended to by a bustling, ephemeral workforce. A worker inserts a cable, making a connection that sends blue lines hurtling across town. Urban interiors and exteriors are at times interrupted with this energy that is working beneath society's disintegrating fabric. A scraggly black cat acts as a portent, a liminal figure that is able to trangress these boundaries. These scenes in the "substrate" are electric blue on black, the quality of which is reminiscent of X-rays and old medical images of radium photographed by its own glow. Soho is depicted ever behind his desk, generating wealth and losing and gaining objects on different sides of the screen. The two halves of Kentridge's reversed stereoscope don't create volume, they encourage deconstruction. The central line becomes blurred and action continues across the divide. The blue lines turn human figures into numerical ones; images of rioting and well-known scenes from TV news reports on violence in the DRC reach critical mass until the cat turns its tail in on itself, forms a bomb, and explodes.

The word "GIVE" appears on the screen, closely followed by the prefix "FOR". In an interview with Kentridge, Marlaine Tosoni asked about the political implications of what it means to "for/give". Kentridge responded, "What do you have to give in order to be forgiven? Is Soho Eckstein asking to be forgiven? What is the difference between the generosity of giving and the generosity of forgiving?" In his lopsided stereoscope, the artist plays out this "uneasy duality" with these juxtaposed rooms, one being emptied while the other fills up, but both reaching critical mass or "critical void" eventually. His excruciatingly poignant soundtrack achieves its visual equivalent when Soho stands alone in an empty room, his pockets pouring blue water.

Kentridge's multi-layered and complex iconography has reappeared with such frequency and success that it is familiar, even if you have never seen his work live before. He reconciles difficult content with accessible form that allows his work to gain increasing currency precisely because it allows everyone in. Continuing his much-publicised infiltration into the global consciousness (with the release of an incredible CD-Rom and work in just about every major gallery and on every major art event the world can offer), Phaidon Press has recently published a monograph on Kentridge. A CD is being launched featuring the famously melancholy music from his films composed by Philip Miller. Both will be available in the gallery. The staff is expecting a large amount of traffic through the space, including school groups, so it may be wise to call first. But whatever you do, don't miss this show.

October 16 - November 20
Goodman Gallery, 163 Jan Smuts Avenue, Parkwood
Ph: (011) 788-1113

Guy du Toit
Guy du Toit
Conversation: A brief illustrated history of objects
Installation view



Guy du Toit
Guy du Toit
Installation detail



Guy du Toit
Guy du Toit
Impreller



PRETORIA

Guy du Toit at the Open Window
By Kathryn Smith

The title of this show is 'Conversation: A brief illustrated history of objects' and the sub-subtitle is 'Patinated bronze sculpture with shadows'. For those familiar with the work of Guy du Toit, the notion of the "shadow" played a crucial, almost primary role in his politically charged work of the late Eighties to early Nineties. Shadows became physical things, usually manifested as two-dimensional sculptural "drawings" incorporated into three-dimensional pieces. In a then-State of Emergency, criminal shadows masqueraded as the government and in Du Toit's work, everyday domestic (read "safe") objects became portents and coded signifiers for something more sinister, particularly so for their apparent banality. A Vita Art Now winner in 1993, Du Toit is a major player in the South African sculptural cosmos and this show is quite surprising in its modesty and "smallness".

"Smallness" refers to the size of the works themselves, which are all wall-mounted and project into the gallery space, but not intrusively so. The opening event itself was also surprisingly small in terms of audience turnout. And the objects are relatively "small" in terms of status - half loaves, domestic animals, natural products and industrial machine parts are humble, but elevated to a status that defies the "found" object in the Dadaist sense. These are not throwaway things, but precious and intimate aspects of a personal universe into which he allows us access. As Wilma Cruise, who opened the exhibition, stated, the conversation that Du Toit refers to seems to be one he is having with himself, trying to redefine his role as an artist where the threats and dangers are no longer as they were a few years ago. It can be argued that these anxieties have been replaced with others, but Du Toit's work seems to be that of a sobered protestor. The object choices are the same, and they still retain their implicit threat, but they are emblematic of a time and a place, and their double edge can only be appreciated as such. Although apparently reserved and very "safe", the objects are immaculately produced and very desirable.

In her opening address, Cruise intimated this much. Setting up an unnecessarily condescending "less than/better than" dichotomy, she made crude mention of the fact that in a time where installation, video and photography have become the "cutting-edge" of art along with "all too easily found objects", labour intensive art (ie "real art" like hers and du Toit's) that reveals the mark of the artist's hand seems as appropriate as "arriving at a braaivleis in a wedding dress". I got the impression that the "real artists" amongst us felt cheated by the lesser bunch of upstarts that make up the "contemporary" art scene. To even raise this issue of what is more/less "valid" is somewhat offensive. The show is a strong one, and can be taken as such without entering such self-defeating terrain.

Ends November 27

Open Window Art Academy, 10 Rigel Avenue, Erasmusrand
Ph: 347-1740
Fax: 347-1710
E-mail: gallery@openwindow.co.za
Website: www.openwindow.co.za

Paul Stopforth

Paul Stopforth
The Interrogators 1979
Graphite and wax on board
180 X 99cm



Brett Murray

Brett Murray Guilt and Innocence 1960-90 1999
Photographs, frames
Installation detail



Bridget Baker

Bridget Baker
Stitch (detail) 1998-99
18 embroidered running belts, video projections, 'winter green' aromatherapy oil
Installation room, 230 x 280 x 450cm



Sandile Zulu

Sandile Zulu stands in front of his piece at the Museum for African Art



INTERNATIONAL

Liberated Voices: Contemporary Art from South Africa
by Tumelo Mosaka

Museum for African Art, New York
September 17 1999 - January 2 2000

Internationally curated exhibitions about South Africa have, thus far in my experience, been actualized as conservative survey shows attempting to represent a broad spectrum of artistic production. For example the exhibition 'Colors 1997' (Germany) and 'Democratic Images' 1998 (Sweden), represented works by a diverse group of artists from the country. These exhibitions seemed to lack the curatorial frame that would present the artworks as part of a broader debate about South African culture rather than limiting it to the phenomena of new democracy. I was not too excited when I heard about the contemporary art exhibition planned for the Museum for African Art in New York. Knowing how conservative the museum is, I was suspicious of their interest and wondered how different the curator's approach to South African contemporary art would be, since the museum's focus until now has been on older and more traditional African art objects.

Last week, the Museum for African Art in New York opened its doors on the exhibition 'Liberated Voices; Contemporary Art from South Africa'. Its aim, according to the press release, was to "highlight the major art trends in the contemporary art practice of South Africa" by presenting over 65 paintings, sculptures, photographs and video installations created post-1994, marking the new democracy in South Africa and engaged in current developments that inform present artistic production. On viewing the exhibition, my previous suspicion was dispelled and replaced by excitement to see both younger and older artists represented in the line up. Surprisingly, this year New York has displayed a number of exhibitions by numerous and diverse South African artists. Currently on view is the postcard exhibition from South Africa at the Axis Gallery in Chelsea, and in February of this year, William Kentridge showed in the Project Room at the Museum of Modern Art. Thus, it seems to be an appropriate time to engage an audience in New York with the struggles and triumphs of South African history and culture.

The museum is situated on Broadway near Houston Street in Manhattan, a very trendy, business and shopping district with a high ratio of upscale commercial galleries dealing in contemporary art. As a repository of African art and artifacts, the Museum for African Art generally seems somewhat displaced in this highly commercialized environment.

From the standpoint of the museum, the initiative of presenting contemporary art from South Africa is an unusual one, and taking on the risk of dealing with material outside their area of expertise has been a transgressive act on their part. In dedicating the entire exhibition space to contemporary South African art, the museum has broadened its scope and become receptive to other issues involving the African continent and particularly contemporary art. Therefore the liberation mentioned in the title also celebrates the institution's progress from its narrow approach towards material culture to a broader mission now encompassing contemporary art. It is also a triumph for contemporary African art, since its legitimacy in the west has been continuously undermined by institutions preferring only to acknowledge the traditional art and artifacts as unique to African tribal expression.

The gallery is divided into two floors, the top consisting predominantly of photographs, paintings and mixed media pieces by Willie Bester, David Koloane, Sue Williamson, Zwelethu Mthethwa, Richman Buthelezi, Samson Mnisi, Brett Murray, Penny Siopis and Thabiso Phokompe. The ground floor begins with installation works by Sandile Zulu, Bridget Baker and wooden sculptures by Claudette Schreuders. The works represented in this exhibition presents different narratives ranging from the personal positions of artists to general social commentary. On entering the upper gallery, we are introduced to the exhibition by Paul Stopforth's The Interrogators (1979). The wax and graphite triptych portrays three special branch officers accused of interrogating student leader Steve Biko. This work introduces the viewer to the brutality and inhumanity of the oppressive apartheid system. The dark faces of the interrogators seem to emerge and float on top of a black background alluding to the mysterious nature of their deeds. The work becomes the preamble for representing the violence and trauma of South Africa pre-1994 while still trapped in the grip of apartheid. Contrary to this politically motivated work, are Zwelethu Mthethwa's colorful interior portraits. His images represent interior spaces of informal housing in Cape Town, Gugulethu. They present the subject in an affirming and confident position that contrasts with their abysmal and abject living conditions. They symbolize a strong conviction of hope and determination in the eyes of the subjects that bely the poverty that surrounds them.

The title 'Liberated Voices' presupposes that in the post-apartheid South Africa since 1994, there is no struggle. It would be na�ve for anybody to think that after decades of apartheid and only four years of burgeoning democracy, the needs of the majority could be met. The works by Richman Buthelezi comment on the awareness and education of environmental issues by using recycled plastic as a medium for his artistic expression. On the other hand, the works of Sue Williamson respond to aspects of attempted social transformation that has currently captured the attention of the public through the proceedings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Her photo-textual montages reflect on the narratives of some of the victims such as Steve Biko, and Amy Biehl, who were both students. The diversity of artists is not only reflected in the works but also in their individual concerns related to material production. The works of the older artists such as David Koloane, Willie Bester, Sue Williamson and Penny Siopis are presented in the first part of the exhibition and reflect on the politics of South Africa much more directly. The younger artists, reflecting personal and social experiences in their country, dominate the entire exhibition.

The curator's approach to this exhibition has been to focus on younger artists. It is not often that young artists are given such a thorough visibility, especially in conventional museum exhibitions. I had expected the same names of artists that have become international brand names to appear, like Kendell Geers and Kay Hassan, but was fortunately surprised. The new names to have emerged are Brett Murray, Samson Mnisi, Thabiso Phokompe, Sandile Zulu, Richman Buthelezi, Bridget Baker and Claudette Schreuders. These artists inject new energies that reflect current thinking by young South Africans who are not necessarily overtly political in their expression but seem to have a deeper interest in the social position of the individual, in this case the artist. Works by Bridget Baker reflect the intimacy of the artist's relationship with her family and friends. In a two-video projection, the left screen shows a close up of Baker's face rising and falling while she runs. She is unaware of the viewer and we see only her side profile. On the adjoining screen, a crowd of marathon runners move towards her. On the projection areas are reflective running belts with biblical quotes and abstracts from her personal diary. The work is titled Stitch, and represents a metaphorical endurance of pain that is a result of a failed relationship. In contrast, Sandile Zulu has presented burnt canvases with burnt grass evoking the violence and brutality pervasive in South Africa and in all society. Through his manipulation of natural resources such as grass and fire, Zulu draws our attention to the potent forces of nature unmasking the potential of violence and aggression latent in nature and humanity. Apartheid in South Africa has been a torch of fire from which the majority of South Africans have been brutalized. The scars left by the flames become signs of pain and suffering that still prevail up to the present day. The process of healing has been slow and an ongoing process that still has a long way to go. To say that we are truly liberated is to ignore the reality of current South Africa. This new democracy, which has been framed as a liberation by many in the west, is merely the first step towards liberation. The works on this exhibition are testament to the process of change that is not only a lesson for South Africa, but also one for all humanity. It has allowed artists to adopt new attitudes towards art making that re-examines and articulate new positions, which artists now have the liberty to explore.

Closes January 2000

Tumelo Mosaka is a South African curator currently based at Bard College in the US

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