30.07.2015 – 29.08.2015
A recent double-solo exhibition at Blank Projects in Woodstock, Cape Town, showed the work of two young artists whose practice – although differing greatly in style and execution – delivered captivating approaches to the contemporary as mediated by the past. In the work of South African Cinga Samson and Scottish artist Andrew Gilbert, past and present become intertwined and radically reworked in disquieting and darkly humorous ways. Samson does this through sophisticated parody of Dutch still life paintings and group portraits, and Gilbert through gross exaggeration and satirical, even violent, interference with colonial military and art historic record. Exploring themes of myth, patriarchy and fetishism, the artists engage the representative power of art history within contemporary African histories and realities in ways that may lean toward the transcendent, comical or satirical.
Titled ‘Thirty Pieces of Silver’, Cinga Samson’s exhibition of oil paintings comprises four large (150 x120cm) still lifes, each titled Lord forgive me for my sins, ‘cause here I come; and slightly smaller figure studies of groups or individual darkly robed men which share the title Bestow: to confer or present (an honour, right, or gift). Appearing to reference the Dutch still life genre, Samson’s paintings instead present parodies thereof. The still life genre traditionally seeks to depict the luxurious and bountiful with flourish and brazen display of painterly skill. Samson, in his works, obscures both his subject and his painterly mastery in a beautiful frustration of seeing. His canvases are so laboured as to be concealing. To not see is the subject matter here: to hint and suggest the dark dealings of deceit.
Upon overhearing a few viewers on opening night, it seems that Samson’s figurative studies confound most. The flat, rich picture planes often merge dimly-lit foregrounds with darkened backgrounds. These subtly evoked spaces are punctuated by the white collars, pasty pink-white heads and hands of the figures. Despite being reminiscent of Frans Hals or Rembrandt’s group portraits of burghers or regents, Samson’s robed men seem paranoid instead of confident. Stylistically these works differ considerably from Samson’s mixed-media works exhibited around 2010, which were expressionistic and immediate in their material application. These latest works are highly controlled, polished and classical in technique and iconography. This development has been deliberate, motivated by the artist’s need to complement and reinforce his conceptual shifts.
In these robed, bald figures, the characters of the judge, priest or politician seen drinking, raucously gambling and whoring in 2010 remain, but the settings and tone have altered. The heads barely have features, their eyes, nostrils and mouths rubbed away with brush and fingers. It’s as though membranes of flesh and skin have grown over the figures’ eyes and mouths. Alone or in small groups they huddle and point long fingers. Or they clasp, hold aloft and covet their fetishes: the stems of strelitzia, a sheep’s skull, a pitcher. The viewer is left wondering who they are and what they are discussing in secret in the gloom. Their anxiety becomes that of the viewer – what do they know that I don’t?
Like the staged flowers and fruit, the people represented in Samson’s paintings remind the viewer less of the transitory joys, than a lack, of life. His spectrum of light is very dim: as though the viewer were looking into a darkened space and the high varnished gloss of the surfaces of his paintings obscure what little he does reveal. Although installed in the light, open front room of the gallery, the gallery lights that bounce off the varnished canvasses also fail to illuminate. Wealth, opulence and power are clearly connoted in these paintings, yet seeing and knowing them remain beyond the viewer’s grasp.
The wealth and power that remain out of reach for South Africa’s black majority – even as the spectre of the ‘rainbow nation’ wanes – are subjects that Samson revisits. For him, the works “are driven from a reality that we all face in our own ways”. However, refusing simple binary explanations about the fragility and paranoia of both power and freedom, for Samson, “the works represent something far beyond race. They are more about experiences of being an African in this day”.
In contrast to Samson, Berlin-based Gilbert shows all, including himself in the act of showing. ‘Trophies of the Savages – Idols of Civilisation’, an installation of mixed-media paintings and sculptural works in the tight, slim second gallery room produces the sense of the crowded ethnographic museum or gentlemen’s cabinet of curiosities. Works hit you in the face – literally – as viewers on opening-night, passing with glasses of wine in hand, were hit on the forehead by a nail-ridden carrot dangling from a fetish.
Gilbert’s paintings play with a number of representative formats, genres and spaces: the theatre poster, botanical illustration, formal portrait, bird’s eye views of frontier battlefields and harbour town, depictions of an artist’s studio and collector’s salon. The sculptural works are suggestive of African masks…or is that European avant-garde sculpture inspired by African masks?
With a good dose of satire and distortion, Gilbert’s images rework and re-interpret the European representations of African and British political and art histories – themselves always layers or cycles of simulacra and commodification. Shopping bags and designer shoes wink from cartoon versions of glorious frontier battle scenes or a painting of a poster advertising a Zulu troupe performing in London. In his studio Shaka is finishing a copy of an Emil Nolde for the Basel Art Fair. On closer inspection, the postcolonial face (and six pack) of Shaka is that of actor Henry Cele – who played the role of the Zulu king in the 1980s television series Shaka Zulu.
Easily mistaken for slapdash, Gilbert’s art is a carefully considered deployment of distortion in order to highlight the fact that all representations distort reality. The role of the artist is also satirised and mythologised. This is made clear in the works’ titles and in the comprehensive artist’s statement, the latter composed – we’re told – by “Emperor Andrew’s” official biographer, the Holy Broccoli. The seriousness of historical and artistic tradition is further undercut in his technical approach and selection of media: vegetables, wooden masks, teabags, painted cardboard and synthetic hair extensions held together with string, nails and glue. Gross exaggeration has been used to undermine authority, mirrored in the raw, aggressive and direct (or ‘unworked’) application of materials.
The exhibition’s suggestive title may offer answers, if not through more questions. Gilbert addresses the deceit of historic, colonial power by an over-exposure and an abundance of visual cues. Who are the savages and what is civilisation when the categories and signifiers of each – fine art and ethnographic object, history and myth, sculpture and fetish – are all jumbled up?