Taxi-003 Jeremy Wafer
by Virginia McKenny
The Taxi series of books on South African artists is beginning to expand: Jeremy Wafer now follows Wayne Barker, Jo Ractliffe and Samson Mudzunga as the subject of focus. Often better known for his lean and minimalist sculptures, Wafer has also regularly worked in two-dimensions with drawing, architectural blueprints, photographs and digitally manipulated images that tend to elude easy interpretation. It is to this elusiveness that Lola Frost, the author of this volume, applies her attention.
Moving chronologically from the more generalised architectonic fragments, with their references to domes, power stations and hostels, that characterised Wafer's earlier work, to the more overtly Africanised Red Ovals (1998), Border (1998) and Stones (2001), Frost's text plunges the reader straight into complex terrain with little introduction. Characterising Wafer's work as formalised in "system, order and repetition", she soon makes it apparent that Wafer plays with a much greater range of concerns than modernism's minimalist articulation of seriality and materials for their own sake.
Frost alerts the reader to Wafer's social, cultural and political concerns, bringing some fine analysis to the work. The termite mound photographs, for instance, analysed in relation to Ovals and Border, are seen to reveal nature, community and culture. Here borders, in the post-colonial context, become not containers but portals - arenas of transformation. Criticised by some as over-politicising the work, Frost in fact reveals some previously neglected conceptual underpinnings of the work that Wafer, in conversation, is happy to confirm.
Like the other Taxi books, this offering can be read at a sitting and is designed to somehow reflect the artist's oeuvre. Here the images sit leanly on the page with few fancy graphic tricks to distract the reader's eye. The annotation of the images is, however, a little too sparse, giving the title and date of the work but no media or scale. In addition, while some of the images are repeated to support reiteration in the text, in their second incarnation they often lack any annotation at all. The lack of an index does not help. And while Wafer's architectural work is referenced pictorially later in the book (in the French and Dutch sections), there is no written contextualisation of what is becoming an increasingly important aspect of his work.
A problem with the series seems to present itself in terms of situating its readership. Endeavouring to answer the needs of a severely underfed local academic discourse, yet at the same time attempting to provide an introduction to a broader audience, it sometimes falls between two stools. Frost's text at times verges on the obtuse - her language and often convoluted and elliptical form of writing may well daunt the less academic reader.
The educational supplement itself (no longer an optional extra, making the complete package R194) is well considered. Written by Philippa Hobbs, it provides fact files, discussion points, research and writing projects as well as practical assignments to help young artists engage with their world. Supported by images of references that inform Wafer's work such as the amasumpa or "wart-like" designs that occur on traditional pots in the KwaZulu-Natal area, or the scarification marks on skin so often used to create symbolic codes on the bodies of initiates in Africa, the presentation is accessible and stimulating. The only unfortunate element here is the same lack of reference to scale as in the main text and the inclusion, on the final page, of a completely untitled example of one of Wafer's recent manipulations of heraldry which is never explained and is confusingly placed directly above the crest of one of the sponsors for the project.
Despite this, Taxi-003 is another very welcome addition to the writings on contemporary artists in this country.
See ArtThrob Reviews June 2001 for reviews of Taxi-001 Jo Ractliffe and Taxi-002 Samson Mudzunga