'States of Emergence', at Warren Siebrits Modern and Contemporary Art
by Sean O'Toole
'States of Emergence' is Johannesburg gallerist Warren Siebrits' coming of age. A former curator at the influential Everard Read Contemporary, circa State of the Art in the early 90s, Siebrits is best remembered for his quirky Metroplex Gallery. Situated in an empty window display, his impromptu gallery showcased important works by the likes of Wopko Jensma, Wayne Barker and Sandile Zulu. His decision to finally open a 'legitimate' gallery, in the old Camouflage space opposite the road from the Goodman, comes at a time when lower Rosebank is being rebuilt and redefined. Not only has David Krut publishing moved in nearby but also a whole host of trendy design studios up the drag have reclaimed the commons after a prolonged lull.
'States of Emergence' is a striking debut. Charting an epoch in South African art, this accomplished unveiling presents works by a host of South African contemporaries, including Kentridge, Alexander, Goldblatt, Magubane and Catherine. Sure it is by no means a groundbreaking exhibition, but then again it never set out to be. Rather 'States of Emergence' is a carefully pieced together group show featuring significant works from the period 1960 to 1990.
A time of zealous nationalism and pained struggle, this show offers a considered appraisal of South African art at a time when lesser galleries in Johannesburg have all been scrambling to piece together ad hoc presentations for the recent Summit. It is aided by the understated use of petty apartheid signage, as well as some unusual album graphics that help suggest the dominant iconography, and ideology, of the era.
The exhibition commences with a series of raw line drawings by Harold Rubin. According to Siebrits, Rubin's Sharpeville portfolio, with its aggressive use of line, was the only attempt by a South African artist at the time to comment on the Sharpeville massacre. The works are striking for their immediate likeness to Goya's Disaster of War, yet distinct for their primitive expressionistic style.
Included in the show are seminal photographic pieces by Jane Alexander, dark and oppressive photographs of her Butcher Boys on location, from 1985, as well as William Kentridge's huge silkscreen Casspirs Full of Love, 1988-89. Identified by Siebrits as a significant work in Kentridge's oeuvre, I personally preferred Kentridge's Industry & Idleness series. For all their rootedness in the inner city suburbia of Bertrams, Kentridge's home during the 80s, the works retain a clarity of focus that somehow transcends their immediate context. The bent figure in Double Shift on Weekends Too, as well as the broken figure begging at the centre of Waiting out the Recession, speaks powerfully of a South Africa still visible on any street corner.
The same sense of currency prevails in Malcolm Payne's Colour Test, 1974, a large-scale reproduction of the artist's apartheid era identity card. Payne's work offers proof that the troubled search for identity, said to be the prevailing concern of today's young artists, is by no means a novel ailment. True, when read in the context of 70s South Africa Payne's work is intentionally 'political', but this by no means limits its significance. The meaning of the standard test for colour-blindness, one Payne inserted into the block where his photograph ought to have been, also seem to possess curious nuances that are not yet fully explicated.
With the exception of Peter Magubane's grainy black and white photographs from the 60s and 70s, and Gavin Jantjies remarkable silk-screens, from his A South African Colouring Book, 1974/75, the show is largely framed around the white liberal response to the epoch it documents. Certainly one is left wondering whether it is fair to leave it to Magubane or Jantjies to represent the full panoply of artistic responses to apartheid by those directly oppressed by it. While undoubtedly a legitimate criticism, it is one I am sure would better deserve an exhibition in its own right as the country looks deeper at the shame of what was.
Closes: end October
Warren Siebrits Modern and Contemporary Art
140 Jan Smuts Avenue, Parkwood, Johannesburg