6 Spin Street
Displaying an array of method and media, from Suzanne Duncan’s visceral explorations of body, to Natasha Norman’s layered monotype ‘markscapes’, the group show, ‘Death Speaks’ at 6 Spin Street is an exhibition exploring notions and sensations of death in tactile, poetic and metaphorical senses. In reading the work, perhaps the most interesting departure point is the title itself, in the contentious nature of the claim it proposes.
When we speak about death, every subject matter seems to arise, for anything that was once alive is ultimately subject to the same demise. So while the work in this exhibition does span across varying themes and styles, it is imperative to note, contextually, what is being left out when we are presented with a ‘neutral’ concept like death. Implying some clue into this thought trajectory, the exhibition states that it centers around a 17th century Dutch genre of still life painting called vanitas, a genre whose era seems to match exactly with a significant period of South African colonial history.
This era of painting is characterised by soothing still life compositions depicting objects that symbolise the darkness and solemn inevitability of death. This duality, an exterior attractiveness, contrasted by the interior underlying fear and repulsion of death, provides the central theme of the exhibition.
Alice Toich’s work in the show, in its direct stylistic borrowing from this tradition of still life painting, becomes a contemporary re-understanding of death. Toich examines the object-ness of the personal collection in a diptych that memorialises a loved one. Her intervention with this tradition is in her inclusion of sentimental objects that are unusual in the symbol-world of vanitas, and additionally, the artist disrupts the standard of the oil painting as archival object, by leaving vast areas of the work incomplete- prepared with chalk, but unpainted.
Of course, revisiting historicised moments in art is a useful way to identify contemporary shifts in thinking and seeing, and in South Africa, identifying and pushing these shifts is especially essential. However, the notion that this exhibition explicitly wishes to settle its origin around a 17th Century Dutch genre of ‘death painting’ and happens itself, to be settled virtually atop a graveyard of black slaves, whose fate finds its origin in 17th Century activities of the very same Dutch in South Africa, is an ominous irony. When we claim that ‘death speaks’, I think it is important to raise questions around whose death it is that we are willing to listen to, and whose death we are evoking in an exhibition like this one.
With that said, there are some very interesting moments in the show- moments when the work begins to explore these differences in the tonalities of the dead, operating from an understanding that death can never sound the same, in all its murmurs and shrieks.
Jacob Tetteh-Asong’s miniature wooden coffins engage these complex narratives, discussing the nature of death as differentiated through aesthetics of memorialisation. Tetteh-Asong’s work is based around his father’s profession, which was in creating coffins in shapes and models determined primarily by aspects of the character of those who occupy them. In bringing this particular mode of living and dying into the gallery space, Tetteh-Asong invites his audience to engage with the meaning of this particular death ritual where people are buried according to their careers, passions and passed-down family symbols. In this tradition of the sending off of the dead, we might encounter a fisherwoman or man buried inside a fish coffin, and a businessperson buried in a Porsche.
This honest depiction of the societal notions of difference, where wealth status and class are determinants of the potential of one’s lived legacy, and indeed, play a role in the afterlife, highlights a useful way to think about death. It quickly becomes apparent that as life does, death similarly operates according to social and cultural constructions that remain wholly dependent on their context.
Lady $kollie’s Vroeg ryp, Vroeg rot (early ripe, early rotten) makes a more politicised comment around death, speaking to the nature of a patriarchal society that perceives the ‘prime’ physical body of the woman as her only claim to value. This notion of an early ripening and a quick rot addresses the sexualisation of women, and other bodies that are oppressed through their failure to submit to patriarchal standards of gender and sexuality. In referencing this inhumanity, the work takes on a kind of pessimist-consciousness that throws into question the assumption that an oppressed body within this violent system can ever exist as alive, as truly ‘living’.
The work, a classic kid-at-the-dinner-table sad face, is constructed from individual colour illustrations of innuendo-esque papayas and bananas, and in conjunction with its title, takes on quite a somber dual-reality. Vroeg ryp, Vroeg rot stares down at the rest of the show, asking questions around how gender and sex inevitably inform all of our understandings of life and death.
While no one has conclusive answers to these torturous enquiries, the gloom of the ageing process pervades. The continuous death and new life of the digital age provide Maurice Mbikayi with a departure point for his work. Mbikayi’s Techno Dandy references the contemporary digital wasteland. In making use of USB cords, computer keyboards, mouses, and old digital parts, Mbikayi connects two narratives, that of the fast-paced trajectory of technological innovation and invention, and its underbelly, the exploited workers of the global south, who mine the resources that make this narrative possible. These are workers who are poorly paid and unprotected, they are miners who fall sick, who die and are killed, and who ultimately fund the elitist lifestyle of a small minority.
In choosing to engage artwork within the South African context, we will rarely fail to encounter two stories, similar to those in Mbikayi’s work, wherein one is inevitably far less popular. I think that understanding how these stories connect is really what is at the crux of what we can learn from an exhibition like ‘Death Speaks’. How is it that the disparate narratives of land, of death, of resources, and of power feed into one another? How is it that the death in one story speaks so much louder than the death of the other?