'Harbour: The Expression of Containment in Contemporary South African Art' at the KZNSA Gallery
by Peter Machen
It not often that a curatorial narrative of a group show manages to reflect the experiential arc of its curator; all too often group shows tend to be blunt instruments without the capacity for such nuances. Yet in the case it is pertinent that Brenton Maart, the curator of both 'Harbour: The Expression of Containment in Contemporary South African Art', and the gallery in which it is housed, is formerly from Gauteng. He is still, as a relative newcomer to the Durban, arguably negotiating the city and its landscape. This is evident in this exhibition's inquiry into the conceptual frame of the harbour: one gets a sense that Maart is aware of the harbour - and the city with its middle-class suburbs which contain the KZNSA - being itself contained by the ridge which surrounds it and separates it from the broader sprawl of eThekwini.
About a kilometre to the east of the KZNSA Gallery in Bulwer Road lies the Durban Harbour. It is the reason - in the broadest historical sense - why we are here in this multicultural yet segregated city, which clings to the eastern edge of its African shoreline. Were it not for the harbour, we would all - in all likelihood - be somewhere else, be it mere kilometres or entire continents away.
Large cities are often expressive of some kind of gold rush phenomenon, but port cities have a different, more illicit kind of attraction. And because harbours are renewable natural assets, they do not expire; instead their fortunes fluctuate with social and economic forces. It is a sign of the post-9/11 times that Durban Harbour is surrounded by a metal fence, a fence that was not there a decade ago when anyone with only the vaguest of reasons could access the docks. This is to comply with US-dominated tightening of international maritime restriction: now any ship that enters an American harbour may not dock at an unsecured harbour along the way. Thus, the world's harbours, like so many other spaces, are separated from the societies they serve.
These ruminations on the city's port are refracted through the exhibition 'Harbour: The Expression of Containment in Contemporary South African Art', currently on show at the KZNSA. The fence which surrounds the harbour is echoed in Tracey Payne's series of repeated but subtly different images of a refugee behind a wire fence. It is the same kind of fences - not physically but metaphorically - which secure and contain refugees and deportees in South Africa and around the world, and which separates the gated communities of the country from their landscapes and the economically secure from the insecure.
And although Payne casts her series of startling images in obvious terms by titling the series Let Them Go, the frustration, anger and indignation on the face of her protagonist can also be read as a broader protest against the fences that separate and contain us.
The notion of containment alludes to both expression and constraint, voluntary and involuntary. Political scandals, economic crises and race-based violence are often described as needing to be contained. And one of the things that art does is contain - but not in this Orwellian sense. Art frames reality; but it is also the vessel into which both creator and audience pour themselves. Art stores, it separates, it mediates.
Harbours are both parochial and cosmopolitan, and much of the work here references the local without compromising universal appeal. Andrew Verster's Harbour 1838, one of the anchors of the show, consists of a grid of high contrast black and white photostats which have been coloured with acrylic, collectively reconstituting a painting of the harbour in 1838 by an unknown painter. The effect is cryptically beautiful, both hiding and revealing a view of the harbour that no longer exists.
Andries Botha's piece, Empty Spaces Parts 1 and 2, talk of departure. A queue of luggage cast in dark grey polyester resin looks towards a stitched montage of faces rendered in photographic negatives. The piece, which recently showed at the Los Palmos Biennalle, is so visceral, so there, that you want to find a singular reading for it. But instead of allowing that, this physically and figuratively dense work shifts in meaning, encompassing themes of death, absence and (climate) change. Although one knows that a departure from one space always correlates to an arrival somewhere else, in this work there is no sense of return. For this reason it can very easily be read as an elegy to the many South Africans who are , for one reason or another , no longer with us; yet, one could also read it in even darker tones, suggestive of humanity checking out as it were. Except that we have nowhere to go.
If Botha's and Verster's pieces possess a singularity, Jo-anne Bloch's work is about multiplicity, about 'the everything'. Bloch manages - successfully I think - to conflate the plastic and the spiritual. Her collections of multicoloured cultural detritus, gloriously useless objects, reflect both a culture of vacuous consumption and the notion of spiritual transcendence. These works suggest surfeit and overflow, but they are nonetheless contained within their frames and their spaces. Her Rosary and Tara Mantra, long strings of beaded words, reflect the way that the body harbours the universe and the universe the body.
Greg Streak's piece, titled Cradle to Hide from the World (1 of 2 parts), is itself contained in the most constrained corner of the gallery: as such it offers an example of how curation affects the meaning of a work. If the piece - a powder-coated white metal cradle that is also reminiscent of a cage - had been hanging from the centre of the gallery, the effect - and meaning - would have been subtly but substantially different. Like much of Streak's work, it is both beautiful and sinister, balancing the cold and hard with the warm and protective.
In the electric gallery Doung Jahangeer's video work The Magic Word shows a swirl of illuminated dust motes, turned golden against a blood red background. The effect is haunting, as the two dimensions of the video screen flesh out into three dimensions, toying with the viewer's depth of field and inducing a meditative sense of calm, almost bodily disappearance. The dust motes could just as well have been swirls of microlife in the Durban harbor, or even snowflakes, but the fact that they are dust is in itself important, since it is typical of Jahangeer to find intense beauty in the most banal of places.
Clayton Human's work also had a disembodying effect on the viewer but with more sinister overtones, and had the effect, intended or not, of approximating a 21st Century torture environment. you, God and Everyone Else consisted of a small booth in the gallery, the interior of which was covered in pieces of discarded corrugated cardboard and lit with flickering naked bulbs. The staccato rhythms of this flicker reflected the sound design of ambient industrial noise. Strangely bewitching initially, the work soon became oppressive, calling to mind the use of relentless stimulus on renditioned terror suspects in the Cuban bay, another harbour on the other side of an increasingly globalised world.