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Archive: Issue No. 45, May 2001

Go to the current edition for SA art News, Reviews & Listings.


22.05.01 Robert Hodgins at João Ferreira
15.05.01 'Reel revolution': Levi's sponsors young filmmakers
08.05.01 John Murray 'Undercover' at Bell-Roberts Contemporary
01.05.01 Dorothee Kreutzfeldt at the SANG reviewed by Paul Edmunds
01.05.01 'In view of you' at the SANG reviewed by Tracy Murinik
01.05.01 Roger Ballen at the AVA
22.05.01 Alan Alborough at the Standard Bank Gallery
22.05.01 Andrew Verster and James Olmesdahl at the NSA
15.05.01 Red Eye @rt's Third Birthday at the DAG
22.05.01 'HotCaviarDogs': Samson Mnisi in New York
15.05.01 'South - Voyages into mutant technologies' in Maputo

Robert Hodgins

Robert Hodgins
Bus Stop, 1998/00
Oil on canvas
122 x 91 cm

Robert Hodgins

Robert Hodgins
Hopalong Meets the Great White Nude, 1999
Oil on canvas
91 x 122 cm


Robert Hodgins at João Ferreira
by Sue Williamson

The remarkable thing about Robert Hodgins is that at the age of 80 he is still painting with the same freshness and innovation as ever, still at the top of his powers, working at full stretch. I cannot think of another artist whose canvases convey so clearly quite what a blessed existence the painter believes he leads. The studio is Hodgins' life, and it is here that he marshals his armoury of brushes and tubes of the most singing colour to portray his favourite subject: humankind, with all its indulgences and foibles. We are shown: businessmen (usually fat, and in striped suits) strutting around importantly or sliding down behind vast desks; cowboys, head on, guns on hip, as seen on television; interiors with open doors and a Bacon-esque scurry of activity (though without the angst) going on in a corner; a fat lady, knees apart, sitting crossly at a bus stop. The darker side of life is not ignored however: at the current show at João Ferreira Fine Art, Dance to the Scaffold, rendered in cold greys with a flash of red, shows a group scuffling in the foreground with a hangman's noose in the rear, and in the masterly The Watchers in the Street, a running figure seeks to evade looming shadows.

Hodgins moves easily from one medium to another, and the work on this show encompasses oils on canvas, monotypes and a single lithograph, Office Renovation. Monotypes are made by painting the image in oils on a sheet of glass or metal, placing paper face downwards onto the sheet, then passing both under the roller of an etching press. In this way, the image is transferred to the paper. Unlike other forms of printmaking, only a single image is made as the paper absorbs most of the ink - thus, 'monotype'. For the monotypes on this show, Hodgins worked with master printer Mark Attwood of the Artists' Press, who rolled the flat dense colour of the backgrounds onto the plates with large rubber rollers, allowing Hodgins to paint on top of this to make the desired image. Look for Am I glad to see you, babe, a monstrous baby with strange emissions, and a classic Hodgins businessman, The Man in a Striped Suit.

Although Hodgins' work has been seen before in group shows in Cape Town, this is the first time the mother city has had the opportunity to see a full exhibition. This is an extraordinary state of affairs, and a telling comment on the divided nature of the South African art world, where economic realities often prevent artists who show regularly internationally from taking their work to another South African city since sales will not justify the expenses involved. Happily, this is not the case here, and red stickers abound. Do not miss this show, a collaboration with Johannesburg's Goodman Gallery. It ends this week.

Opening: Friday, May 04, 6pm
Closing: June 26

João Ferreira Fine Art, 80 Hout Street, Cape Town
Tel: (021) 423-5403 or 082 490-2977
Fax: (021) 423-2136

Matt Hindley and Andrew Frank Matt Hindley and Andrew Frank
Video still

'Reel revolution': Levi's sponsors young filmmakers
by Sue Williamson

Following their sponsorship of artists dressing store windows last year - a programme which included such rising stars as Robin Rhode and Julia Clark - the makers of the world's favourite jeans this year initiated a programme whereby a number of young artists from here and overseas were commissioned to make short films. The interesting results were screened at the Rivet Store on Greenmarket Square in Cape Town on Sunday May 13. There was an unmentioned (to the public) commercial condition to the sponsorship, of course. The film had to include a sighting of a Levi's product. Well, why not? Many of Hollywood's commercial successes derive at least part of their production budget from the carefully casual inclusion of brand name products, but suspecting this in advance at the Levi's screening meant that I, for one, was watching for the appearance of the familiar product to see just how successfully the artists would integrate it.

Cape Town artist and filmmaker Matt Hindley (who has just had a proposal for a new piece accepted by the Worldwide Video Festival in Amsterdam) directed Tando (Love), with Andrew Franks as creative director. A young woman dressed in Vintage Levi's skirt and jacket comes across a sleeping street child. The child awakens, and by the next scene has grown enormous, we're not quite sure why (transformed by love of the clothes, maybe?). The city of Cape Town has become his playground, the cars on the streets and the skyscrapers his toys. He is lord of the city, and, in a role reversal in the final scene, he again meets the young woman, picks her up, and smiles down at her standing on his hand. Hindley and Franks achieved their effects by combining live footage of their actors shot against a green screen with still photos of the cityscape, all put together in the editing suite. Tando, with its theme of the outsider whose enormous size gives him control of the city but who is ultimately gentled by love, is clearly a riff on and homage to the classic movie King Kong.

Coincidentally or not, the piece from Stephen Hobbs is even more closely connected to the movie, opening with the scene of the giant gorilla near the top of the Empire State Building. King Kong was also the title of the first great South African jazz musical (it opened in 1959 and led to Miriam Makeba's stardom) about a Soweto boxer who fought his way to fame, a classic way to climb out of the ghetto. Hobbs soon leaves the gorilla to his fate and cuts to soft-focus scenes of two boxers in the ring, superimposing as subtitle the line from the song New York, New York, "if you can make it here" (you can make it anywhere). The boxing scenes are interspersed with still and video shots taken from Hobbs's large collection of Johannesburg street scenes, reflecting banality and chaos - including Jo'burg's own Empire State, Ponte, staging point for numerous suicides. A billboard advertising Levi's flashes by. In the final scene, King Kong the gorilla begins to fall off the Empire State after being buzzed by helicopters. The piece is another verse in Hobbs's epic visual poem about Johannesburg.

British animator Ben MacGregor almost crosses the line into straight commercialism in a piece in which two yellow butterflies flitting around an animated line drawing of a woman leaping about eventually resolve themselves into the stitching patterns on the back pockets of Levi's jeans. Red Bull does this kind of thing better.

The most intense of the offerings is Possessed Jeans by Ada Bligaard of Denmark. Set somewhere in Africa, quick cuts and frenzied drumming lead to a frenetic voodoo dance scene in which the wearer, bare to his Levi's, sheds his jeans. As the jeans come down, magical colours and shapes burst from inside the fabric.

The film compilation will be shown at Levi's stores in Brussels and London, may become a filler for, and will be entered in a long list of film festivals around the world.

John Murray John Murray
The Butcher's Assistant
Oil on canvas

John Murray John Murray
Installation view, Bell-Roberts Gallery

John Murray 'Undercover' at Bell-Roberts Contemporary
by Paul Edmunds

More "out in the open" than "undercover" is how I would describe John Murray's exhibition, but this is not always a bad thing. Murray's second one-person show in as many years comprises a substantial number of new works, some of which closely resemble those of his last show and others which appear to represent a departure. Although I am not sure how the works are situated chronologically, it is the former which I find to be more successful. Altogether though, this is an accessible, beautifully executed showing of work which is quickly impressive but reveals its intelligence more slowly.

Murray's press release suggests that the title 'Undercover' implies that "all is not what it seems to be" and also that the artist has performed some sort of covert reconnaissance in obtaining his material. Perhaps it is this which urges a viewer to look beyond what initially impresses as a graphically strong and visually seductive collection of images. But, if this isn't enough to stir you, Murray's confident use of brush and palette should do the trick.

First greeting the viewer are four full-length portraits of car guards, familiar to any South African. Collectively titled Bright Lights Big City, their characteristic fluorescent pinafores and trendy trainers leap out from the dark register of tertiary colours of which Murray is a master. Each has a sharp, near-white outline which stands out against a plain background. From the faces it is clear that these are, to some degree at least, portraits of people familiar to the artist. It is also clear that the people are not of South African origin. Opposite these figures is a group portrait of five black women attired in turquoise uniforms. The Staff grin happily at the camera. As arresting as the images are, they evoke the negative aspects of "out in the open". There is little room to maneuver; their rendering is harsh, even brash. Perhaps the scale is too challenging and not evocative enough. The images and their politics are clear, but not imbued with the uncertainty I am accustomed to feeling when confronting people performing the work to which Murray alludes.

Along similar lines but altogether more successful are the two portraits entitled Raincoat and The Butcher's Assistant. Hung adjacent to one another, each has the torso of a black man, one wearing a hooded yellow rain-jacket and the other a blood-flecked white hood, characteristically worn by people when they carry animal carcasses. The only visible flesh is each man's face, rendered in such dark tones that features are difficult to discern. But, when you do notice the facial features, it is as though your pupils have adjusted to the darkness, and beautiful and strangely familiar countenances reveal themselves. Set against tonally contrasting backgrounds, the figures bear as much resemblance to ecclesiastical portraits as they do to the Grim Reaper. Murray's handling of paint, tone and colour is flawless. His ability to paint what is both a portrait and also something less specific, to draw the viewer from the comfortable shell of passive consumer into active participant, is admirable.

In Anonymous, Murray assembles a cluster of 20 small, stylistically diverse, portrait-like paintings. Some are almost completely obscured by their painfully dark tones, some are reduced to smears and others are more faithfully naturalistic. Murray plays tonal games, but cleanly delineates each head with a light, opaque colour which is apparently applied afterwards. Each face appears to have been revealed by the parting of its background.

Mindgames is a similar collection of small panels. These reveal Murray's true stylistic schizophrenia, the images ranging from near cartoon to more iconic and illustrative paintings. Each panel wants to be part of a narrative demanding to be decoded. The schematic spraycan, GI Joe and the alarmed cat must somehow be related. Does the plot start with the top-left Popeye-like character as the bottom right panel declaring "The End" seems to suggest? In order to induce these mental gymnastics, Murray's work veers close to illustration here, serving to remind one of his training in Stellenbosch where he came into contact with Conrad Botes and Bitterkomix. In a way Murray probes similar areas of the Afrikaans psyche, albeit much more politely.

Obituary Blues, with its intriguing title, consists of five slightly larger-than-life portraits and once again reveals Murray's uncanny ability to work in a deep and limited register. I'm not sure if it is with any irony, but it is interesting to note that his images are predominantly of black men, whose features his technique is so well equipped to describe.

'Undercover' is as accessible a collection of quality paintings as one is likely to encounter these days. Murray revels as much in Pop as he does in paint, and the result is a fresh, although sometimes predictable look at contemporary South African society. Where his work is underscored with intelligence rather than visual punch, his talent and insight can't but float to the surface. This work, I would argue, is visually most successful too. Murray's technical versatility, his apparent enjoyment of painting coupled with a boldness of approach, results in paintings that are likely to find themselves on a wide variety of walls.

Opening: April 25, 6.30pm
Closing: May 26

Bell-Roberts Contemporary, 199 Loop Street, Cape Town
Tel: (021) 422-1100
Fax: (021) 423-3135
Email: or
Gallery hours: Mon - Fri 8.30am - 5pm, Saturday 10am - 1pm

Dorothee Kreutzfeldt

Dorothee Kreutzfeldt
in view of you

Dorothee Kreutzfeldt at the SANG
by Paul Edmunds

It is difficult to review an artist's work when they have so successfully removed themselves from its presentation and even its production. It is also difficult when the contents thereof are not the artist's own. When this subject matter is simply a recounting of opinions, facts and feelings the work almost defeats any kind of evaluation. Because of the sensitive nature of this content, pronouncing any kind of judgement upon it amounts to a moral engagement. In short, Dorothee Kreutzfeldt is working on a project which eludes many kinds of commentary. Not, however, in the sense that the artist smirks because she is one step ahead of a viewer or critic, but more in the sense that the work challenges, in a poignant fashion, notions of what constitutes art and of what one expects to experience in an art gallery. Even a description of the work's appearance carries little weight, reducing the critique to reportage, but it is produced in a lean and effective way.

Kreutzfeldt, together with a group of artists and researchers, including Jane Appleby, Veronika Klaptocz, Renate Meyer and James Webb has researched and documented several of the series of bomb blasts which occurred in Cape Town from 1998 - 2000. She has investigated the events, the media reports and testimony from victims of those attacks. These have been compiled into five booklets each dealing with one of five incidents she has chosen - the bombing of St. Elmo's in Camp's Bay, the Planet Hollywood bomb, the bomb outside Woodstock Police Station, the bomb outside New York Bagels in Sea Point and the bomb in Main Road Kenilworth. The booklets afford small, indistinct images of the places in which the attacks took place, comments and testimony from witnesses, victims and officials as well as statistics compiled from the events. These are placed on a table in the centre of the room. On the surrounding walls, there is a small picture of each site, the actual area of the blasted obscured by large pixels. Each image is flanked by two small speakers, each of which plays back commentary by victims of a particular bomb attack. This testimony ranges from descriptions of the events, the trauma and healing process which resulted, to speculation about the motivations of the bombings' perpetrators. People speak at length with a remarkable frankness and often a notable degree of self confidence.

Kreutzfeldt has a longstanding interest in the social and historical dynamics that characterise Cape Town, the city where she studied and lived for some time. Her involvement with the Sluice group and with the District Six Sculpture Festival, among other things, is testimony to that. Kreutzfeldt claims that this work "aims to create a space where individual voices and visions can be heard; where experiences of trauma and survival can be testified and witnessed as part of our history and culture". The project's title 'in view of you', questions the relationship between the victims of this trauma, the artist, other residents of the city and the viewers of the work. Responsibility and ownership of the incidents shifts around between parties. Kreutzfeldt explores what languages we have for dealing with such things, what support structures are available and how we take charge of happenings like this which tend to collapse the space between the public and private. Without drawing attention to herself by grand aesthetic and artistic gesture, Kreutzfeldt has managed to create a work which is small and intimate but has a great resonance and which expands confidently into the space around it.

This residency is part of a larger project, entitled 'Fresh', which will see seven young South African artists participating in month-long residencies at the Gallery. It has been funded by the Stichtung Prins Bernhard Cultuurfonds through an award made to Marlene Dumas, and co-ordinated by SANG curator Emma Bedford. Kreutzfeldt is the penultimate participant in the programme.

Opening: April 17
Closing: April 28

South African National Gallery, Government Avenue, Company Gardens, Cape Town
Tel: (021) 465-1628
Fax: (021) 461-0045

Dorothee Kreutzfeldt

Dorothee Kreutzfeldt
in view of you

Dorothee Kreutzfeldt

Dorothee Kreutzfeldt
Tem-tations. Kenilworth. 9 October 2000. 9.10am

Dorothee Kreutzfeldt at the SANG
by Tracy Murinik

What immediately strikes me about my experience of this exhibition is the notable lack of melodrama that pervades the space.

'in view of you' is a deeply considered, simultaneously quiet, uneasy and redemptively humane environment. It is also chilling in its testimony to profound lack of humanity. The exhibition is considered and carefully measured in the physical forms that it takes, in each relationship that it posits and which unfolds, and in the ways it contains/temporarily holds you as a viewer/listener. It evokes unease in its process of unsuspectingly revealing gruesome and gruelling details of urban terror through the details of individual testimonies by immediate survivors of and eyewitnesses to the bomb blasts in Cape Town. It invites comment and engagement by all who visit the space and participate in the re-telling of these stories, simply by either listening or choosing not to. It is insidiously disturbing in this regard.

The space itself is minimally arranged: it is clinical, but not austere - a type of investigation room. There is a table in the centre of the small room, scattered with booklets containing collated press cuttings, statistics, commentaries relating to specific bomb blasts that occurred in Cape Town between 1998 and 2000, as well as a notebook inviting comment and observations by visitors. Many have commented - passionately, angrily, humanely and at length.

Ten speakers, mounted at ear-level, have been regularly positioned along the walls. Each soundtrack that emanates is an individual account by a survivor of one of the bombings. Generally the individuals speak both of the immediate trauma of the incident itself as well as of its inevitable aftermath, both psychic and physical. One listens in on interviews that could easily be mistaken for psychotherapy sessions, and in many ways they are. The experience of one's access to these acutely personal accounts is not straight-forwardly voyeuristic though. There is something deeply uncomfortable in feeling a progressive sense of one's own liability around needing to allow the spaces for these stories to be told and described in detail - in a way that does not allow one a comfortable feeling of distance from these traumas and their effect upon the lives of the immediate victims, and in a way that acknowledges how these incidents, as imminent threats to public spaces in the city, infiltrate the broader public psyche as well. Moving away from one narrative in progress to listen to the next is an awkward decision. The act of simply moving through the exhibition as one would any other, the act of collecting and registering moments of interest and appeal and moving on with one's boundaries still mostly intact, feels insufficient, and yet inevitable in this space.

The composite site photographs that appear intermittently between every few speakers, piece together an image of the targeted zones as they exist now (no longer showing any physical evidence of a blast). They provide a vaguely generic context for the sound recordings that play in their proximity, the images losing a sense of detailed specificity in their grainy visual quality. It is the voices around them that unrelentingly offer the detail. This appears to be a critical part of the conception for the entire exhibition space: a progressive investigation into tensions of people living in a city, where the city provides an almost anonymous backdrop where things happen; a piecing together of personal experience beyond the detachment of news stories that report on that urban environment; and the tension of disintegrating boundaries of public space and private existence when private trauma infiltrates a public arena.

Opening: April 17
Closing: April 28

South African National Gallery, Government Avenue, Company Gardens, Cape Town
Tel: (021) 465-1628
Fax: (021) 461-0045

Roger Ballen Roger Ballen
Abattoir worker's wife, 1999
Black and white photograph

Roger Ballen at the AVA
by Lloyd Pollack

'Outland' is both a retrospective of the earlier photographs Roger Ballen published in his photo-essays 'Dorps' (1986) and 'Platteland' (1995), as well as a survey of the new directions his work has taken since then. The AVA show thus surveys the entire body of Ballen's South African work, and traces his evolution from a documentary realist to a subjective fantasist.

Ballen's first images from 'Dorps' portray fragmented vistas of poor Platteland homes. These are seductively beautiful photographs - tender, lyrical and reverential - in which even the humblest object is invested with a homely poetry. With 'Platteland', Ballen first staked out his own particular aesthetic terrain. Although he continues to produce captivating images of children, and affectionate studies of baby domestic animals, he is most closely associated with portraits of a peculiarly disturbing and macabre type.

The human figure remains a staple of Ballen's post 1995 work, but now it is his own psychology that interests him rather than that of his sitters. In typical examples such as the ghoulish Partytime, Ballen unashamedly explores his own subjective fantasies. He and his subjects interact, and use masks and props to improvise dark, fictive scenarios which probe "the nature of chaos and death". These "psychodramas", as Ballen terms them, are bizarre metaphysical charades steeped in absurdity, anguish and enigma. No one could possibly deny that Ballen's black and white photographs are technically and aesthetically consummate. His compositions are magisterial, and his handling of light, texture, tone, form and shape, flawless. However, their beauty is gruelling, for Ballen's images are painful to engage with and prompt revulsion in many viewers.

The subject matter of Ballen's work invites controversy, addressing the uncomfortable theme of "poor whitism", and portraying impoverished rural and urban down-and-outs. Sheltered employment under the old dispensation enabled this ignorant, unskilled class to muddle through, but when apartheid collapsed, affirmative action and economic decline put paid to their prospects. Most survive on the smell of an oil rag, and Ballen unflinchingly portrays them in all their squalor and dereliction. His photographs present them as degraded, demoralised and oppressed by a sense of abandonment and hopelessness.

Most commentators censure Ballen for purveying negative portrayals of white South Africans, particularly Afrikaners, and stigmatise him as an exploitative photographer who abuses the trust of his subjects by stripping them of their dignity and reducing them to vicious caricatures. Much of this criticism is a dishonest attempt to rationalise our shame at what the artist reveals about our society. He exposes our disgraceful inability to tackle the problem of poor whitism, and his portrayals of the embittered casualties of the new South Africa can be seen to demolish the myth that whites form an affluent, politically progressive class. Afrikaners take particularly virulent exception to Ballen's work but their criticisms are off the mark. Ballen depicts but one segment of our population. He has never attempted to construct a microcosm of South African society, and thus to view his work as a general statement about Afrikanerdom or white society is misguided.

Abattoir worker's wife (1999) typifies Ballen's oeuvre. The photographer would argue that his photograph is a piece of artifice in which he seeks to convey a state of mind, rather than reportage documenting the dire circumstances of a particular woman. It is of course impossible to entirely free the kind of sharp-focus photography Ballen practises from the shackles of documentation, for his portraits always record the appearance of a particular person at a particular time in a particular place. Nonetheless he has developed a battery of devices to project his sitters onto a symbolical plane where they become generalised and universal archetypes of loss, desperation, isolation and abandonment. Ballen sees his subjects as beings trapped and immobilised by poverty, ignorance and the perfidies of history. They are an extreme, but their forlorn predicament is emblematic of the plight of man adrift in an absurd universe he cannot control.

Often the beleaguered status of Ballen's subjects emerges from the very set-up which implies conflict between photographer and sitter. The photographer wishes to expose his subject and his subject wishes to resist such exposure. The abattoir worker's wife, in the above-mentioned work, and the beefy young factory employee, in Factory worker with portrait, look as if they had been cornered, and they appear defenceless before the onslaught of Ballen's implacable lens. The boy clings to the photograph of his respectable grandfather as if it is possessed of talismanic properties, while the woman smiles in awkward, self-deprecating apology as she seeks comfort from puppies, helpless as she is. In both photographs Ballen seems to have captured a decisive existential moment. The prying lens nudges the subjects into a realisation of the full extent of their physical and moral destitution.

Ballen portrays his sitters either trapped in a tight corner of a room or frozen with their back to the wall in closely-cropped square compositions that provide the subjects with no means of escape as the camera bears down relentlessly upon them. The cropping of the abattoir worker's wife's scalp and body, seems to further immobilise her, and present her from so close that we invade her body space. Often, as in the portrait of Sergeant de Bruin, the square format of the photograph includes the rectangles formed by bricks or pictures, doorframes, beds and chests of drawers. These form a linear grid that bisects the figures, and firmly pinions them into place. The sitters are frequently further immobilised by being sandwiched between pieces of furniture and the wall in confined areas which deny them all freedom of movement.

Ballen invariably uses flash which cruelly exposes every blemish, and casts strong shadows that tether the sitter to the wall. "The use of direct flash", Ballen comments, "is a way of making a person into someone who can't get away from his own history - from his own shadow."

Electrical cables are another recurrent component of Ballen's compositions, and they have a significant expressive function. Not only do the cables disappear behind the bodies of the sitters and skewer them to the walls, they also function as metaphors of entrapment and recall snares, chains, nets, lassoes and nooses. Additionally they suggest strung puppets, and underline the subjects' impotence as playthings of a malign destiny. In Head below wires the cables not only create an effective piece of abstract linear patterning, they also resemble a thought bubble, and the dangling knots and tangles suggest the ravelled confusions of the sitter's existence.

To claim that Ballen's images are unsympathetic is superficial. The direct gaze that interlocks with ours, and the square, close-up format, produce a sense of confrontation so powerful it dissolves the distance between viewer and sitter, and compels us to acknowledge that these sordid derelicts are "our cousins" as Ballen puts it, and that we bear a responsibility for their abject condition. The abattoir worker's wife may be a prematurely raddled crone, but the horror she arouses is horror at the extent of her deprivation. What we experience is empathy and compassion, not some unholy voyeuristic delectation of her usure and decay.

Even photographs which seemingly degrade their sitters, such as Two men with barbel and Scrap collector holding globe are in reality witty art historical burlesques. The latter parodies the heroic figure of Atlas bearing up the globe, while the former turns the iconography of Tobias, the angel and the fish upside down. Such works satirise the old master tradition and use it to comment ironically on the abjection of the sitters. The intention is always to dramatise their predicament and not to deride it.

Opening: Tuesday, April 17, 6pm
Closing: Saturday, May 05

AVA, 35 Church Street, Cape Town
Tel: (021) 424-7436
Fax: (021) 423-2637
Gallery hours: Tue - Fri, 10am - 5pm, Sat 10am - 12pm

Alan Alborough

Alan Alborough
Installation view, Standard Bank Gallery, 2001

Alan Alborough

Alan Alborough
Installation view, Standard Bank Gallery, 2001


Alan Alborough at the Standard Bank Gallery
by Kathryn Smith

If a touring art exhibition was read like a TV series, we'd unfortunately have reached the end of the Alan Alborough season. And quality viewing it was, too.

The Standard Bank Gallery is not one of my favourite spaces, but for the Standard Bank Young Artist award winner it's a requirement to show there. After poring over the online visitors' book for at least an hour, I was pleased to notice, between the usual graffiti and messages from Alborough's old art teachers, that many comments in the Johannesburg section bemoaned the expensive corporate rag of a carpet.

A note to the gallery: a neutral floor is a good floor. With the unpredictable nature of contemporary art these days, you may well find people looking down more often (as with this show) than at the walls.

A note to readers: the reason people look down is because the work is mostly a floor installation. And although I did sense an air of dejected defeat among a few visitors, I've learnt that the answers seldom come from staring at one's shoes.

You see, the one thing that Alborough's exhibition succeeded in doing, for me anyway, was simultaneously to draw attention to the architecture and interior of this gallery (horror), and then to make me realise that, of all the shows I've seen there, this one tackled its territory with quiet intelligence and stealth.

For those who haven't been there, a ground floor level has two small spaces on either side. At the moment, these house a Bonnie Ntshalintshali retrospective. Moving into an atrium, two enormous wood-panelled staircases swoop you upstairs, only now you have to look over the space across a wide, eye-of-the-hurricane-type central well. A gigantic disc-shaped ceiling with skylights finishes off this central feature, and large wood-panelled columns make their appearance in the gallery space now and again, as huge obstacles to bypass in search of the art. It's a bit like 2001: A Space Odyssey meets Banking Giant on Survivor.

While others have either ignored the space or tried hard to work with it formally, they have, for the most part, had to admit defeat. Alborough has not emerged unscathed, but his passive-aggressive tactics worked as best they could.

If you've followed the course of the show on ArtThrob, you'll be familiar with the processes it involved. The work altered and the show grew as it toured, the installation becoming "site-specific" at each new venue.

Alborough also used his option for a catalogue to produce one of the most comprehensive artist's websites that I've seen. It too has grown with the tour and he plans to publish it on CD-ROM once the final details have been tweaked.

The objects on show lurk in semi-darkness, lit from beneath. Their arrangement, whether encountering the first series at the top of the stairs, or the two systems to the left and right side of the well, is perfectly symmetrical. Pegged, non-woven fabric screens divide the space towards the rear of the gallery, creating an enclosed space that is quite insular. Alongside hang Alborough's corrosion drawings. Numerous reflectors and small, pegged sheets of fabric punctuate the spaces where his sculptures sit.

As I have written elsewhere, you could easily construct these things from stuff you find in the kitchen cupboard or the garage. And that's just the thing. You wouldn't go to all the trouble. But you will be completely taken in and bemused by his ability to alchemise these bits and pieces into shapes that you can only grasp at what they could be - geodesic domes, nuclear reactors, dead circuitry technology, even hot cross buns and parking lots - whatever makes you feel more emotionally and intellectually comfortable in their presence.

His aesthetic seduction entices you - despite yourself - into a space that is implicitly violent and disturbingly alien. It's a bit like rubbernecking around the scene of an accident. Whether you need to find the familiar in these constructions or simply be in their presence, you should still feel comfortable enough with a point Alborough drives home: "If meaning is only recoverable in explanation, this is a failure."

Opening: April 24 at 6.00 pm
Closing: May 26

Standard Bank Gallery, corner Simmonds and Fredericks streets, JHB
Tel: (011) 636-4231
Gallery hours: Monday to Friday 8.00 a.m. - 4.30 p.m.; Saturday 9.00 a.m. - 1.00 p.m.

Andrew Verster

Andrew Verster
Chrysanthemum and Hand, 2001
Oil on canvas


Andrew Verster and James Olmesdahl at the NSA
by Virginia MacKenny

Andrew Verster's latest exhibition at the NSA embraces the decorative more fully than any of his previous exhibitions. Here the last vestiges of the figurative, a few delicately poised hands, flowers and shells, are subsumed into patterned and highly coloured surfaces of glazes, scumbles, impasto, sgraffito, stipples, dots and splodges of paint. Such decorativeness was eschewed by 20th century modernism as "functionless" and the term "decoration" grew to have immensely derogatory connotations. Ironically modernism failed to see the opportunities that the decorative afforded for the exploration of pure formalism which it itself espoused as embodying the essence of art making, nor did it acknowledge that the tradition of the decorative is an ancient one, embracing many purposes in different cultures. One of its primary roles was to create a sense of the sacred and thus it has been used in the great religions of both the East and the West. Embellishment was no frivolous afterthought here, but a way of creating value, imbuing meaning and meditating on the divine.

Inspired overtly by the aesthetic of India and Durban, its mendhi painting, highly coloured saris and bandhini cloths, Verster's exhibition seems to follow on this attentive tradition. More controversially it might be read as yet another form of colonial cultural appropriation. Sarat Maharaj, in a paper on cultural translation, however, sees cultural identity as in a state of continual constitution or "becoming" - a translator's job, therefore, is to engage with this and to avoid "readymade consciousness". To facilitate this, Maharaj suggests a xenophilic response - where the love of the "other" allows for more positive possibilities of exchange. It is here that Verster's work seems to function.

The love of the thing itself - whether it be all things Indian, the curve of a leaf or a Bonnardesque joy in opticality - informs the layerings of these paintings. Works like #53 Bandhini, whose deep blues reveal, through needle-like sgraffito scratches, a glittering yellow substrata, or #1 Chrysanthemum and Hand, where dollops of electric blue fall petal-like on an alizarin velvet surface, provide a sense of the numinous rare in much current art. Not all the works have the same level of conviction; the weakest seem to suffer from a slight "thinness", but the very best are exquisitely tuned. Verster is no stranger to controversy and in an age when most contemporary art is "issue-based", the "decorative" may be Verster's most subversive act yet.

Complementing Verster's show perfectly is newcomer James Olmesdahl's 'Icons of Transfiguration'. Equally "decorative", his sole subject is flowers in vases. Executed entirely in black, white and grey these still-lifes break the expected mould. Lean in imagery, but dense in accretions of paint, here negative space swells and threatens to overwhelm the object. The thick grey matrix of paint menaces slender twigs and sunflower heads become so heavy with paint they droop and seem on the verge of sliding down the canvas. These are not bright, sunny works but brooding, pensive, existential pieces spoilt only by somewhat glitzy silver frames and an occasionally predictable hand.

Opening: Tuesday, May 08, 6pm
Closing: May 26

NSA Galleries, 166 Bulwer Road, Glenwood, Durban, South Africa, 4001
Postal address: P.O. Box 37408, Overport, Durban, South Africa, 4067
Tel: (031) 202-2293

Red Eye @rt

The Red Eye @rt logo on Margate beach

Langa Magwa

Langa Magwa
Butterflies 2000-2001
Mixed media

Red Eye @rt's Third Birthday at the DAG
by Virginia MacKenny

Red Eye's third birthday bash did not go off with quite the bang that the pre-publicity had expected, but the street party did continue till late with local tag artists "battling it out" in a graffiti competition in appalling lighting conditions. Most of the work was fairly predictable but it was also fast, slick and sure - these boys should be sponsored with a large public wall somewhere and really challenged (as a start the Durban Art Gallery has promised to display their boards in their foyer). Local DJs, breakdancers and fire performers kept the energy on the street alive, ready for when the folks poured out of the actual gallery.

Part of the problem of the night was, perhaps, keeping some sort of connection going between inside and outside. In the absence of the usual printed programme of times and events, many people complained about wandering around hoping to find what was going on, not sure if they were missing something or not.

A major drawcard for this particular Red Eye was the visual arts. Ironically, given the venue, the visual arts contribution has been weak over recent months, but this time Jo Ractliffe's 1999 Vita award-winning piece provided depth for viewers. Admittedly a little old now, but new to Durban audiences, it was projected on four screens. Its digging dog, worm on a hook, plane wing and gently touched scar, alternating across the screens in different juxtapositions, kept prompting new connections. Surprisingly painful, with minimal means, this work seems to move from sublime abstractions of the sky as seen from the plane to a kind of desparate banality as the dog in harness digs to nowhere and for nothing.

Another highlight was Langa Magwa's presention of his work-in-progress, Butterflies. The DAG succeeded here where other curators have failed. Magwa's butterflies have been taking shape in his studio for quite some time now and everyone has been trying to persuade him to show them. Part of a much bigger scheme, a tempting glimpse of nine butterflies was revealed at Red Eye. Made of cowhide, metal, glass, coloured foil and wood, these are strange creatures indeed. Heavy in material but lightly fantastical, these hybrids float on the wall over smaller skins, each branded with an oversize fingerprint. The surfaces are spotted, speckled and dappled, engaging prints, skin, hide and hair in a fascinating play of identity marking. These works deserve more than a one-night stand.

Durban Art Gallery, 2nd Floor, City Hall, Smith Street, Durban
Box 4085, Durban 4000
Tel: (031) 311 2262
Fax: (031) 311 2273
Gallery hours: Mon-Sat 8h30 - 16h00; Sun 11h00 - 16h00

Samson Mnisi

Samson Mnisi
HotCaviarDogs, 2001
Installation view, Chashama Theatre

Samson Mnisi

Samson Mnisi
'Ancestral Traveling Machine' series

Samson Mnisi

Samson Mnisi
Catching Joh'burg
Video installation

Photos courtesy of CrossPathCulture


'HotCaviarDogs': Samson Mnisi at the Chashama Theatre, NYC
by Laurie Ann Farrell

Exhibition spaces are increasingly transforming into performative spaces. Playing on dramatic lighting, mirrors and a harmonious union of set and art, Samson Mnisi's first solo exhibition in New York City was held in donated space at the Chashama Theatre on 42nd Street in the heart of Times Square. Organised by Mnisi and curated by Cannon Hersey, executive director of CrossPathCulture (CPC), 'HotCaviarDogs' presented three pieces from Mnisi's South African show 'Path=+' along with new pieces created during his CPC residency in New York City. On view from May 7 to 19, the exhibition brought together prints, film and video projection, as well as wall-mounted and free-standing constructions.

Encased in a window display facing out onto 42nd Street, one of the busiest streets in the city, Mnisi showcased a mixed-media construction reminiscent of works made for the 1999 Museum for African Art exhibition 'Liberated Voices: Contemporary Art from South Africa'. Pieces in the 1999 show provided the New York art community with an introduction to Mnisi's complex visual vocabulary. Created from reeds, cloth, pigments, muti and various found objects, Mnisi mined symbols and materials from his own heritage to create works that transcend temporal strife and restriction to reach something and someplace new and dignified.

In 'HotCaviarDogs', Mnisi's window piece and a pair of monoprints in the entry space served as visual cues for the dynamic works housed inside the theatre. Separated into mini-islands of space, Mnisi's earlier allusions to travel and transcendence have been made manifest in a series of 'Primitive Time Machines' and 'Ancestral Traveling Machines'. These vehicles of transport were each situated within a circular base of luminous salt surrounded by a ring of earth. Rising from this base, Mnisi arranged three long sticks into tripod configurations. In the 'Primitive Time Machines' these bamboo sticks were wrapped in papier-mâché coverings and painted rich earth tones. The 'Ancestral Traveling Machines' were more minimal in terms of surface ornamentation with colour trimming added to the branches. Resembling conical housing structures made of mud or hide, and found in many different cultures, these tripod constructions were each lit by intense flood lights. Contrary to the title of these works, there is nothing primitive, or simple about them. Backed by Mnisi's rich investigation of his grandmothers' experiences as inyangas, or traditional healers, his personal evolution from being a leader in Umkhonto weSizwe (armed wing of the African National Congress), supporting himself as a thief, and recreating himself as an artist, Mnisi's works are complex and evade simple description.

Lining the walls of the theatre were a series of constructions that continue Mnisi's mediations between the traditional and the contemporary. For example, a series of wall-mounted works incorporated crosses, triangles, hatch marks and other meaningful marks. Off in one corner of the theatre, Mnisi created a wooden box structure with black and white webs of string extending out to the ground and surrounding walls. Housed within the wooden box installation called Catching Joh'burg played a film by Kefuoe Molapo (King), titled Joh'burg, Joh'burg.

In the opposite corner of the theatre a digital work titled The KenSam was projected onto the wall. This collaboration between Ken Feinstein and Samson Mnisi superimposed Mnisi's graphic symbols over film footage of an ocean. The result was a peaceful blend of imagery that was highly evocative of a spiritual experience.

Exhibitions like 'HotCaviarDogs' provide wonderful fusions between art and experience. Hopefully organisations like CrossPathCulture will continue to showcase talented artists like Mnisi in alternative settings. Moving away from museum spaces allows certain liberties and freedoms and promotes engagement with the art.

In connection with their exhibitions, CrossPathCulture is also hosting a series of art happenings appropriately titled Arty Party. Scheduled for Wednesdays, from 9pm to 1am, these events combine music and art in downtown New York at Lotus, 409 West 14th Street.

Hersey also announced that CrossPathCulture will host 'CrossOver 2', a sequel to their successful production-based art residency programme in Johannesburg, from December 2001 to January 2002. For more information on this and other events in South Africa, email Mnisi at

Phillipe Ledoux

Phillipe Ledoux (aka Dora Longo Bahia)(Brazil)
Feuileton imprecis, 1998
Video still

Stephen Hobbs

Stephen Hobbs
Installation view

'South', curated by José Ferreira, in Maputo
by Kathryn Smith

It is difficult to review an exhibition objectively when the context in which one sees it is infused with other sensations - for me, not just the heady familiarity and strangeness of Maputo, but also having written for the catalogue and following the process closely for about a year. 'South' is not just an exhibition of videos by artists. Artist/curator José Ferreira dedicated some 18 months of research to this project, interrogating public and private video and film archives in countries that have experienced some form of Portuguese influence, either as full-blown colonies or in terms of a less formalised presence that continues today.

An exhibition of video art in flood-ravaged, poverty-stricken Mozambique, you shriek? Is this not the kind of irresponsible, neocolonialist exercise in indulgence that we love to hate? No, it isn't. It's a carefully considered, exquisitely realised project that amply reflects Ferreira's desire for intimate interpretations of memory, trauma, dislocation and exploitation - "artistic creation biased toward the formation of previously unarticulated cultural narratives".

Many of the artists on 'South' were not immediately familiar to a South African audience. (And I imagine even fewer were familiar to Mozambicans). The works originated in South Africa, Angola, Mozambique, Portugal and Brazil. The selection of films seemed fresh - even the more familiar works (Greg Streak's Dreams in Red, Stephen Hobbs's If you can make it here and Ferreira's own Sweeping Maputo) seemed to shift a register in the midst of some pretty radical films, the most interesting of which came from Brazil.

Satisfying both the monitor and big-screen fetishists among us, the exhibition was laid out in "stations" of monitors on stands or the floor, in dialoguing groups or standing alone. Some were placed in intimate proximity, while others seemed to vie for attention from across the room. Headphones prevented sound leakage. Around the corner, there was a small "cinema" area where you could sit and watch a projection (on a loop) of all the films. Catalogues were tied to each chair for ease of reference. This choice of a more public experience versus a more private one worked very well, and made for some interesting scale relationships, as you caught glimpses of the monitors in your peripheral vision.

My favourite piece on the show, Marcopaulo Rolla's Jumping (1999), which sees the artist jumping from two chairs to the floor, trying to exit the picture frame simply by this action (which left him rather bruised post-filming), was on a monitor just alongside the big screen, facing in the same direction. This desperate action, which speaks so much about certain futilities and traumas, was always visible, a neat reminder of what the exhibition was trying to address.

For those unfamiliar with the conceptual terrain of the show, or the semantics of the postcolonial in relation to some pursuits in the contemporary visual arts, Migual Petchkovsky's Ylunga provided a pointer in the right direction. A (black) janitor in a European museum experiences a sort of personal epiphany when an object in the African section of the exhibition wields its power and transforms him into a ritual performer, robe and face paint included. He dances through the night, eventually collapsing in a diorama-type space. Eager Japanese tourists find him asleep, and he eventually exits the museum, barefoot but wearing an expensive suit. Those in tune with the arguments would be forgiven for trying to suppress a yawn, but the film nonetheless maintained a visual lyricism that one couldn't help being seduced by.

Responding to the obvious questions around relevance and significance, Ferreira commented: "This choice of technology is specific in defining and dealing with the impact of media-related imagery in decolonised countries like Mozambique, Angola, South Africa and Brazil." Further to this, we begin to think about how we define the cultural landscapes of such countries as interpreted in media that are so often inaccessible to the economically disadvantaged.

In South Africa, our own artists have had their fair share of criticism for apparently jumping on the "video bandwagon". That aside, 'South' unearths a new line of inquiry for artists working in video and film.

Opening: April 26, 6pm
Closing: May 13

Camões Institute - Portuguese Cultural Centre
720 Julius Nyerere Avenue, Maputo, Mozambique
Tel: +258 1 493 892
Fax: +258 1 498 111