Everard Read, Johannesburg
As South Africa uncomfortably works through its muddle mess of Rainbowism and the unfinished business of a colonial and oppressive past, Michael MacGarry’s solo exhibition, ‘Between Rot and Genesis’, exhibited at Everard Read Gallery, Johannesburg, becomes an appropriate interrogation of the complex tensions and force fields that make up post-colonial Africa.
As an aesthetically and conceptually rich exhibition, the value of this show lies in the silent breaks and spaces in between the works that allows the viewer to contemplate the complex themes of colonial power and the ramifications of imperialism on the African continent. MacGarry’s art practice – developed over a decade – focuses primarily on post-colonial African countries and mineral and oil-rich states such as South Africa, Angola and Nigeria and on their colonial histories, contemporary and future narratives that negotiate complex fields of politics and socio-economics.
The title of the show, ‘Between Rot and Genesis,’ captures the inherent tensions deeply imbedded in post-colonial Africa and grapples with the spaces in between binary opposites often associated with African countries, such as progress and regression; corruption and growth and what is uplifting and degrading. From the onset the titles asks us to unravel or, at the very least, think on the space between these complex narratives.
The first artwork one encounters is the large, Calder-like sculptural piece, For Most of Many, Much of the Time, which stands boldly alongside the title of the exhibition. With its tall steel legs and perched with a marble skull indicative of a mechanical body of destruction, the sculpture introduces the presence of the mean-machine that is colonial power that has plummeted African land and resources. To add to the tensions that have come along with colonialism and imperialism, the sculpture’s bullet holes speak directly to the conflict encounters embedded in industrial technology by the West and the scramble for African resources. Easing through the white-cubed space of the gallery, the presence of sovereign nationality, colonial power and conquest over Africa weighs even heavier.
Come to Africa, a large-scale field of cement packs and dried plant, stitched together with cotton thread, and finished with an A4 sized, German airline advert that promotes touring ‘dark’ Africa, reads: ‘Come to Africa before the 20th century beats you to it,’ points to the popular 20th century scramble for Africa and the West’s fetish gaze and spectacle of Africa. Again, the works; New Victoria Africa and African Oil speak directly to Africa’s colonial past. In looking at these artworks, I can’t help but think of the white-saviour complex that comes hand in hand with many developing African nations, which leads me to wonder if MacGarry acknowledges his position as a white male artist speaking to and about the rise and fall of predominantly black African nations at the hands of the West?
Using hybridity as an attempt to question systematic paradigms, MacGarry’s work ‘asks us to reassess our assumptions about what is uplifting and degrading, liberating and confining, progressive and recessive.’ The large scale, two-dimensional works, in particular, draws most distinctly from a Dada aesthetic of assembling and yoking together conceptual ideas. Each work, hung on white walls, was pieced together with found materials such as cement packets, coins, posters, maps and hardened leaves, amongst other things. One feels as though they are encountering vast African landscapes each brought together by foreign conquest and investment and the prospect of a complex and nuanced future that straddles between burden and liberation. Additionally, the use of found objects that may have been discarded and devalued are restored to become part of his artworks, consequently endowing them with ‘life’ beyond its life span. This includes the yellow airplane life jacket placed on a DRC carved mask and a salvaged bench from Marikana hammered with a platinum nail displayed on its side.
The strong linear aesthetics that runs throughout his two and three-dimensional works also become evident in his two award-wining short films: Sea of Ash, a somber video that depicts the story of a lone West African refugee in Italy and Excuse Me While I Disappear, a film located on the streets of unaffordable Chinese-built city of Kilamba Kiaxi near Luanda, Uganda, which a cleaner sweeps.
Bold in presence and captivating in material and form, ‘Between Genesis and Rot’ asks the viewer to rethink post-colonial spaces and contemplate what it means to have powerful non-African countries such as China in Africa and how their social, political and economic interests impact the future of African countries. Concerned with the humanitarian, social, ethical and political costs of progress, colonialism and imperialism, the exhibition becomes a platform to highlight the space of contradiction and the forces accountable for developing and destruction of post-colonial African nations.