Standard Bank Gallery, Johannesburg
30.01.2016 – 26.03.2016
Minnette Vári’s ‘Of Darkness and of Light’, currently on at the Standard Bank Gallery in Johannesburg, is framed as a mid-career survey exhibition. The show covers work dated from the late 90’s to the present day. Vári is a relatively slow producer of work and so the exhibition feels familiar; mostly iconic works with a selection of lesser-known and more recent pieces. This is a quiet show that slowly reveals past works (or ‘surveys’ them), reframed by their current contexts, re-read by current audiences.
From the onset, Minnette Vári’s work has drawn on mythology as an apt vehicle for expressing not only highly political rhetoric, but also deeply personal engagements with her own psyche, physical body and sexuality. Vári is known for her political, anti-Apartheid art that was heavily imbedded in ideas about race and identity. Vári often uses her naked body as a means to weave herself into these mythological themes and back into the present or past. Using video, Vári creates digital collages (notably in the early low-tech days when video collage really was a slow and arduous process) that involve a kind of excavation practice of searching, digging up and then uncovering links, and connections to current situations.
As I walked up the staircase of the gallery, the dramatic installation, Chimera (2001), dominated the reconstructed grand hall. The abandoned space gave me the opportunity to experience the work naïvely. Projected onto four white fabric hangings, the video work engulfs the viewer as white stone figures slowly move around you and the sound of dragged cold stone eerily fills the space. These relief figures are taken from the Voortrekker Monument’s ‘Hall of Heroes’, cut out and digitally collaged together with Vári’s own naked body inserted as the embodiment of a chimera (a fire-breathing monster with a lion’s head, a goat’s body and a serpent’s tail that is found in Greek mythology).
Influenced by her indoctrinated school trips to the Voortrekker Monument as a child, this work seeks to subvert the mythology involved in the construction of this monument and of Afrikaans ideology. Chimera is a quietly aggressive, politically and sexually charged work that expresses Vári’s frustrations with this patriarchal heritage. Vári, dressed as a chimera, shows her genitals to these stone men and women who function as illustrations of Afrikaner heroism. Silently screaming – at one point with the head of a goat – she is not blatantly visible; she remains part of the procession and is never heard. The work is subtle in its manner of communicating this story, unlike Vári’s earlier work, which had a different agenda.
In Alien (1998) and Oracle (1999), for example, Vári appears naked, misshapen, radical, both perpetrator and victim- highly political. Vári has described these early works as dangerous, and perhaps necessarily so as a response to the reality of South Africa during Apartheid. Vári has recently stated that, “I can no longer say that there’s nothing I won’t do. I used to say that, and maybe that is good. But you find your voice.” Walking through the exhibition, you do get a very real sense of the tuning and fine-tuning involved in this process of voice finding and perhaps of maturing too.
Quake (2007), by far my favourite work on the show, speaks unwittingly to the current Syrian humanitarian crisis, in its quietness every bit as challenging as her aggressive, naked, shaved-head of 1998. The timelessness of this work, which nearly a decade later seems more relevant than ever, speaks volumes not only of Vári’s engagement with the world as an artist, but of the relevance of video as a medium. Regardless of the medium’s rapid advancement, this work seems to stand on its own in its beauty, nuanced sensitivity and meditative, repetitious nature.
The apocalyptic scene, at first glance seems to capture the migration of figures away from the city and into the desert. An anonymous city skyline that moves and changes then dissolves as a desert of white noise describes some kind of desolation. The figures, wearing shawls are, upon closer inspection, made up of hundreds of images, constantly moving and morphing- transforming. The work is hypnotising.
This accumulation of work and its insightful title ‘Of Darkness and of Light’, explores not only a development of artistic work but also a deeply personal journey of Minnette Vári. The accompanying catalogue delves into the complexity of Vári’s interest in her own psychology, her flaws, her self, many times played out through her own body. Her constant active engagement with her body as a medium becomes a language that is unique to her. Here ‘Darkness’ seems to allude to the depths of Vári, the darkness within herself and ‘Light’, the possible catharsis of being an artist, ridding the self of the work while still being compelled by it.