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Into the BLACK

Serge Alain Nitegeka at STEVENSON in Johannesburg

By Percy Mabandu
07 August - 12 September. 0 Comment(s)
BLACK SUBJECTS: Still II

Serge Alain Nitegeka
BLACK SUBJECTS: Still II, 2014. Paint and charcoal on wood 244 x 122 x 8 cm each.

In his third solo exhibition ‘Into the BLACK’, Joburg based Burundian artist Serge Alain Nitegeka delves into modern art history's fascination with the colour black. This is however, after a considered walk through the show, only at the surface of what reveals itself to be a series of loaded tributes to the impossible memories of self and ancestry.

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The exhibition’s accompanying notes inform visitors that this body of work is intended as an exploration of formal and philosophical notions of 'blackness'. The artist seeks to align himself with art movements that have placed the colour black at the centre of their concerns. Think here of American Abstract Expressionist of Russian birth: Mark Rothko and his studies of black, like 1964’s black-on-black. Also, Minimalists like Ad Reinhardt's Abstract Painting no. 4 (1961) with it's varying tonal values of black – along with the earlier work of Russian constructivists like Kazimir Malevich, and his The Black Square (1915).

Silence: Studio Study XII

Serge Alain Nitegeka
Silence: Studio Study XII
2014
Paint on wood
182 x 122 x 7.5 cm

However, I contend that there is an unavoidable echo of Piet Mondrian’s flatness of forms, and dynamic tensions by both colours and lines on his picture plains. This tension is usually articulated by a tendency to distil things to basic colour blocks of negative and positive space, plus vertical and horizontal elements. Nitegeka’s project extends these to include curved lines and asymptotes. Perhaps as a way to go beyond Mondrian’s famed vision of representing everything along two binary axis: the positive and the negative, the dynamic and the static, the masculine the feminine. 

In analytic geometry, curved asymptotes can stretch into infinity or what we can esoterically call the unknown, hence the darkness or Nitegeka’s blackness. Works like Barricade I: Studio Study I (2014) easily conform to this kind of reading. Here the artist has reduced his view of the world to a set of lines and colour blocks, which produce variations of positive and negative space. However, a further complication occurs in Black Subjects: Still I (2014) and the triptych, Black Subjects: Still II (2014). Here Nitegeka adapts a formalist approach to a figruative one, including silhouettes of people negotiating their way through his world of lines and shapes. These strangely organic shapes jump out at one in an otherwise inanimate environment. 

Ideas of blackness, which up until this point in the exhibition seemed indulgently abstract, acquire a remarkably human, if somewhat racial or political dimension. These silhouetted figures are presented without individual identities, lost in the maze of varying degrees of black. Devoid of individual personhood, they are left to inhabit the picture plain unknowable. Their humanity is unverifiable. Only their arms, legs and heads are recognisable, their identity can only be confirmed as some kind of primate.

Barricade I: Studio Study II

Serge Alain Nitegeka
Barricade I: Studio Study II
2014
Paint on wood
207 x 127 x 3.5 cm

Nitegeka has also included three portraits into this body of work. These are Self-Portrait I, II and III. Two are portraits of his grandmothers and the other is of himself. These are drawings made from charcoal on plywood. The kind usually used for cargo boxes that criss-cross the world to a myriad of destinations. Some of which never reach them, lost into the unknown, into the black ‘blind’ darkness. Nitegeka’s inclusion of self-portraiture into his theme of blackness or blindness is meaningful, especially so because he portrays his actual forbears as 'self-portraits'.  

The conceit reminds us of Jacques Derrida’s essay ‘Memoirs of the Blind: The Self-Portrait and Other Ruins’, and the thought that all drawing is an attempt at a self-portrait which is impossible to achieve; impossible because the draughtsman is blind to his subject. In Nitegeka’s case, this trope contains a poniant double relevance because he is depicting grandparents who are physically absent from Joburg where he produces their likenesses. This ‘blindness’ is rendered and expressed by the materiality of the grain of the plywood, which, at times, shapes these faces as much as the artist does.

Therefore the self-portrait is never what it calls itself, since it is impossible to draw the self while blind. The artists can never see what is to be drawn if they are blind. So the self-portrait can only appear as a ruin, a prompting to recall what was never there. In this way Nitegeka’s images stand as a constant attempt to recapture a presence out of the darkness of memory. As a Burundian immigrant living in Joburg, he often has to contend with this blank absence or darkness, as expressed in the blackness or colour of art, or of being in the world.