Archive: Issue No. 26, October 1999

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Nicholas Hales

The invite for Nicholas Hales' show at the Irma Stern Museum


Nicholas Hales at the Irma Stern
By Paul Edmunds

Upon his return to Cape Town, Nicholas Hales was struck by the violent atmosphere which seemed to have permeated the city in his three-year absence. It was in response to this that the current body of work was produced, work that allows the artist to examine his response to physical and psychological violence, and to consider how such a response may or may not ultimately lead to some kind of healing.

Red Cross contains a mix of both the successful and less successful elements of the show. The red cross image is something which already exists in our minds as a symbol. It makes reference to healing as well as to cancelling out or denying. The cross's surface is layered and textural and it is set onto a ground of paint which is both grubby and sterile at the same time. Towards the top of the canvas is a crown-like image scratched into the paint. Aside from its regal connotations, the image is familiar as an element of gang graffiti to Capetonians. A tension is set up between the opposing qualities alluded to by these symbols and the arena in which this is played out. Also scratched into the canvas is a typical view of Cape Town's mountainscape. This seems to me to slacken the tension, to render the play of symbols and surface obsolete and to grant the painting a narrative when a less literal interpretation would have done the job more evocatively.

Hales' painting seems to work best when he uses symbols or images which already exist in our mind as abstract signs to which we can attach specific and sometimes contradictory meaning. These become grist to his mill and their rendering in paint is moving and provocative. When he makes constructions, as in the Box series or in Heart and Two Red Crosses, his work becomes a little heavy-handed and one-dimensional. His use of more literal symbols, like a human silhouette and blood-red paint, seems contrived in opposition to his ability to create a patina of violence, trauma and recovery. His ability as a painter and draughtsperson is never left in doubt, but he seems most effective when the dramas in which he is interested play themselves out in his painting process alone.

Closes October 30
UCT Irma Stern Museum, Cecil Road, Rosebank, Cape Town
Tuesdays - Saturdays, 10am - 5pm
Ph: (021) 685-5686
Fax: (021) 686-7550

Birthe Reinau

Berthe Reinau
Image from Morocco
Photo emulsion on wood

Gavin Beck

Gavin Beck
Quiet Island in Cosmos
Acrylic on board

Birthe Reinau and Gavin Beck at the AVA
By Paul Edmunds

As part of the Shuttle '99 initiative, two Danish artists are showing at the AVA. One expects some excitement from visiting artists, but by and large this work is disappointing. Gavin Beck's oil paintings, all entitled Quiet Island in Cosmos, vary little in composition. A dolmen-like object is painted onto a field in a pot-pourri of painting styles which range from the palette knife-thick to the potato print-thin modes of paint application. For the most part, the colours jar and skid all over the spectrum. Birthe Reinau's multi-media prints are unfortunately flawed by bad drawing, though what is of interest is the layering of different graphic media and modes of representation. The images are mostly figurative and there is a good deal of photoengravure from pictures taken in Morocco and other exotic locations. My money's on the pieces the artist made by covering small rough pieces of plywood with photographic emulsion and exposing them.

On Thursday October 21 at 5.30pm, Caribbean artist Christopher Cozier will be hosting an informal lecture and slide show at the AVA. Cozier, who works in performance and video as well as more traditional media, has exhibited widely and has also studied in the United States. He will be speaking on the issues, challenges and critical choices which face artists living in the post-colonial southern Caribbean. He will be showing slides both of his own work and that of a number of his contemporaries. Entry is free and all are welcome.

Association for Visual Arts, 35 Church Street, Cape Town
Gallery hours: Mon - Fri, 10am to 5pm; Sat 10am - 12pm
Ph: 424-4348
Fax: 423-2037

Juri Senekal

Juri Senekal
at the Idasa Basement Gallery

Roy Mehta

Roy Mehta
at the Centre for Photography Gallery

Dave Southwood

Dave Southwood
Shrapnel 9 1999
Hand-colour prints
1m x 1m

'100xC' - The Cape Town Month of Photography
By Elena Barbisio

The brief for this first Month of Photography was '100XC', where the 100 represented the mythical (but now realised) 100 exhibitions, and the C - well, it could be anything, the Sea, the Century, to See. Professional commercial photographers exhibit beside students, amateurs and seasoned exhibitors and there appears to be a wealth of photographic talent in Cape Town that has never had the opportunity to unleash itself before.

Roy Mehta's 'British Coastlines' and Paul Weinberg's 'Kosi Bay' pose an interesting contrast. One is a black and white documentary portrayal of a fishing community in Kosi Bay, while the 'Coastlines' series consists of photographs that Mehta terms "abstracts", showing a particular sensibility to the intimate, close details of the whole picture. These big colour saturated works draw you into their quiet stillness.

The installation 'Close' by Jurie Senekal consists of drawers filled with a single image - intimate close-up photographs of doll's houses. Sometimes you aren't too sure what you are looking at, so the images require time and contemplation, which made me feel as if I was peeping into someone else's drawers.

On the opposite side of quiet and contemplative, Veronique Malherbe's 100xCase Studies/Two Voices is at once frightening and absorbing. The room is dimly lit and a soundtrack plays a child's favorite tune interspersed with the screams of another child. The works are collaborations with families and friends of people who have suffered violence: from kidnappings, murders and rape to abuse. Malherbe's motive for this exhibition was to firstly give a voice to all those lost or missing victims, but more importantly, it was to make the viewer feel real empathy for these victims, rather than the dismissive sympathy normally given to newspaper stories of violence in our society.

Dave Southwood's 'Case' leaves you in awe of how spectacular a carrier of death can be made to look. Each work is a close-up colour portrait of a spent bullet, excavated from a corpse by police forensic pathologists. Once you know this, these beautiful, silent images become something else, something more menacing and sinister.

The festival brings together such diverse and wide-ranging imagery that it would be impossible to mention every single exhibition. Other exhibitions that I went to see are 'Cache' - a group show in which the images of abandoned seaside towns by Svea Josephy made a particular impression - and Terry Kurgan's 'Family Matters', which explores the idea of representation in the family through images of her own children. Commercial photographers Tony Meintjes and Sean Wilson have produced a body of work in which they experiment with all manner of alternative techniques, from Polaroid lifts and transfers to the latest digital printing methods. 'Skerp Draaie - Stills from an Afrikaans Silent Movie' was well worth a visit, as were 'Lines of Sight' by various curators, 'Frozen Realms' by Ilse Olkers, 'Babes' by Tracy Gander, 'Mantaray' by Arnold Erasmus and 'Suburbs in Paradise' by Dale Yudelman.

- Elena Barbisio is a practising photographer and works for the South Africa Centre for Photography.

The exhibitions close at various times. Click here for a full list of shows and venues, or visit the specially designed website at

Beezy Bailey

Beezy Bailey
Louis Botha statue
Click through for full view

Kevin Brand

Kevin Brand
Eduardo Villa sculpture

Roderick Saul

Roderick Saul
General Smuts sculpture

John Nankin

John Nankin
Cecil Rhodes sculpture

Brendan Dickerson

Brendan Dickerson
Rhodes Memorial

P.T.O - Public monuments reconsidered
By Denise Penfold

Heritage Day 1999 saw the "coming out" of the newly formed Section 21 company, Public Eye. With its overriding aim to develop a greater profile for art in South Africa, Public Eye intends to generate and support projects that insert art into the public eye, sparking interest and revitalising public involvement with art and vice versa.

Public Eye has earmarked events that already have a public profile to be the stimulants for the first series of projects. Heritage Day provided the first opportunity with its complex concept of South African heritage. P.T.O. was one of three projects launched on this day.

Co-ordinated by Kevin Brand and Brett Murray, P.T.O. directly engaged with the premises of Heritage Day by offering artists the opportunity to parody, reflect on, subvert or celebrate any public sculptures or monuments. In Cape Town, Mike van Graan, the co-ordinator of the One City Many Cultures Festival, and Delicia Forbes of the Cape Town City Council provided their support for the project, clearing away the ubiquitous "red tape" and giving artists free reign to reversibly alter some of the city's public sculptures for a day.

Beezy Bailey's interaction with General Botha's statue in front of Parliament was the first poke in the public eye as his re-rendering of Botha's identity drew in the TV cameras and a wide range of public responses. The clay skin that the artist added to the bronze figure completely transposed the General's image and set up a provocative symbol of a society in transition.

Images of Cecil John Rhodes were respectively weighed down with sculptural additions that referred to his role as exploiter of the mineral wealth of South Africa and as the darling of British colonial expansion in Africa, in the works by John Nankin and myself. The brick-weighted ropes that John suspended from the statue's neck in the Gardens suggested a ghost-image of the riggings of the early mining enterpises in Kimberley, which made Rhodes one of the wealthiest Western European men of his time. The places inscribed in the heavy pink heart worn by the Rhodes memorial bust of Rhodes name his "true love", a colonial desire for others' land, while other desires are hinted at in the heart's pinkness.

Brendan Dickerson imprisoned two of the flanking lions at Rhodes Memorial in metal cages, one bearing the legend "From Rape to Curio", giving a new spin to Rhodes' cherished dream of building a railway line that would link the Cape to Cairo, and run the economic engine that would power Britain's extension of itself into Africa.

A number of artists selected public sculptures in the Company Gardens in the centre of Cape Town. Kevin Brand, with help from Mondi, Nampak and Toyota, set up three pyramids made of bales of waste card in front of the National Gallery. The three rough-edged pyramids parody a "Third World" look and provide a counterpoint to the high-tech glass pyramids in front of the Louvre in Paris - a jab at the state of art funding in South Africa. Roderick Sauls transformed the nearby statue of Jan Smuts into a memorial for artists who were never afforded recognition in the "old South Africa", this neat insertion of others' memorials poignantly raising the question of whose heritage is conveyed in public art.

Randy Hartzenberg transferred the sense of wound onto the machine that does the damage, by bandaging medicine bottles to the shaft of the cannon that commemorates dead soldiers. At the entrance to the Gardens, in the alley that separates the statue of Queen Victoria from the old Cultural History Museum, Nadja Daehnke set up an installation which plays off the building's original function as a storehouse of slaves who awaited auction in nearby Spin Street.

Further afield, Paul Edmunds added a text to a site in Three Anchor Bay, marking the significance of the larva-encrusted rocks that drew Darwin to Cape Town. Thwarted by the weather, Strijdom van der Merwe still waits to install his additions to the Taal monument in Paarl.

On the lighter side, Brett Murray's irreverent "stickers", added to the statues of statesmen around the city centre, point to the unquestioning preservation of the past, while Jan van Riebeeck and his wife sported bright red road marker hats and Kevin Brand refreshed Eduardo Villa's infamous red Knot in front of the Civic Centre with a festoon of matching red plastic "Teletubbies" that flickered in the wind, turning the modernist urban sculpture into a sparkling toy.

The photographs documenting the artists' interventions with public sculptures from all of the city centres that formed part of the project will form the basis of a travelling show entitled 'P.T.O' that will open in Cape Town at next year's international symposium on public art titled 'Public Art: Re-imagining the Landscape'. The accompanying catalogue will bring together all of the sculptural interventions that took place on this year's Heritage Day - next year's promises more.

Denise Penfold is a practising artist and lecturer at the Cape Technicon

Mustafa Maluka

Mustafa Maluka
video still from Melanin Millennium: The A-Z Guide to Black Pride

Staking Claims
By Paul Edmunds

The Granary, Buitenkant Street, Cape Town.

September 23-October 6

Many residents of the city would probably agree with you if you were to suggest that living in Cape Town is most acceptable. One might not, however, expect such consensus from an art exhibition entitled "Staking Claims", curated by Emma Bedford, which deals with the notion of living here. This is not to suggest that the exhibition addresses only lightweight issues, but that while some of the issues may be weighty, they are not heavy. And, for the most part, they are not handled in a heavyweight way.

Take for example, Dorothee Kreutzfeldt's large painting Theme for Mary. Repeated images of a woman swinging a pickaxe next to images of a large bell are painted in orange on a yellow field . Kreutzfeld explores existence at a domestic level and from a gender perspective. The work is fraught with the tension of underlying violence, of an acceptable exterior under which rages dis-ease and abuse. The woman is poised repeatedly to strike the bell, to rebel perhaps, but somehow the work is suffused with the potential exhilaration of such an act. Domestic violence, abuse and gender discrimination give birth to this work, but the potential for release and assertion give it life.

Mustafa Maluka, exhibiting in the wonderfully atmospheric cellar space, asserts himself once more as someone to watch. One work is a video entitled Melanin Millennium: The A-Z Guide to Black Pride. In it, we are presented with a simple shot of his upper body and face. He at first removes a shirt and tie, colonial trappings perhaps, and then proceeds, bare-chested, to list all the things of which he is proud as a black man. His mother is 'coloured' and his father Xhosa, and across this mixed identity, he lays claim and claims pride in a vast range of things African. These range from the great Nubian race and the first universities in the world to the inventor of the pencil sharpener and the remote control. He is also proud, we are assured, of his 'luscious lips', which he pouts for us, as well as the extra endowment for which black men are renowned. Pride, it seems, is not only a grave matter of cultural integrity, it is to be enjoyed, flaunted and cut down to size just for the hell of it.

Other prominent works include Gregg Smith's series including 9 Acts of Companionship and 9 Acts of Selfless Co-operation. In these and others Smith assures us that, yes, the world is actually okay, mostly we do get on with each other and for the most part our wishes are actually benevolent. He does this with skill and ease and avoids the hackneyed, trite mess such a message could be. The Philani exhibit includes a reconstructed Langa home and photographs of various members of the initiative photographed with each other. There is a wonderful sense of importance and confidence in these presentations. Zwelethu Mthethwa's large photographs of Mbekweni residents in their makeshift homes reveal something quite unexpected. Mthetwa seems to have successfully transcended the traditional artist/subject/viewer relationship. One loses that sense of voyeurism which almost inevitably arises when regarding an experience of life so different from one's own, and one feels as if the 'subject' of the photograph has successfully manipulated your perception of them.

What I really enjoyed about this show was the fresh way in which it addressed what could be pretty heavy weather. It is not only in the choice of works, for I have thought differently of these same works in other contexts, that this difference lies. It seems that they played off each other in a fresh way. Perhaps the tone was subconsciously set by the festival tone of most of the holiday's proceedings. But on second thoughts, our heritage is certainly not an entirely positive and uplifting one. Somehow there is a lighter touch, the work seems not so trapped in the weighty personalities that many of us as artists are responsible for developing. At the same time however, and this is the catch, issues were not glossed over or left in favour of escapism. Rather they were met head on, addressed and deflected in a skillful and sensitive manner which was more than just critical.

David Goldblatt
David Goldblatt
Orania settlement for the Afrikaner Volk

Orania, Cape, 25 September 1992
Black and white photograph

David Goldblatt
David Goldblatt
Sculpture by Japhta Masemola, imprisoned on Robben Island from 1963 until 1989 for sabotage, commemorating the first political prisoner on the island, the Khoikhoi chief, Autshumato, exiled there by the Dutch in 1658 and, symbolically by means of the statue's modern "underpants", the most recent political prisoners, those who oppose apartheid.
Maximum Security Prison

16 July 1991


David Goldblatt's 'Structures' at the JAG
By Kathryn Smith

Having enjoyed local and international exposure thus far, this exhibition of elegant and ironic architectural studies eventually makes an appearance in the depressingly empty halls of the Johannesburg Art Gallery. Doubly depressing is that this show is quietly fantastic: broadly accessible yet sophisticated enough for the photographic cognoscenti to immerse themselves for a good hour or so.

A veteran of South African "documentary photography", Goldblatt is to photography what William Kentridge is to "fine art". Both have had shows at MoMA, and both are pretty much household names. And the work of both artists exposes the insidious yet seldom subtle machinations of ideological desire. In a wall text, Goldblatt states: "In our structures we South Africans tend to declare ourselves quite nakedly and sometimes eloquently. Our motives are seldom concealed." Ne'er a truer word was spoken. And Goldblatt uses a neat device in some instances, placing an image shot in the early to mid 1980s alongside one shot at the same location about 10 years later. All images, and provincial locations given in the titles, are pre-1994.

'Structures' is a veritable smorgasbord of phallic extensions, delusions of grandeur and ingenious resolutions to the problems of material shortcomings. For all the apartheid aberrations, there are equally endearing examples of contingency planning. And this is not to sound trite - Goldblatt manages to bypass the sentimental and expose that which was in front of us all along.

I remember some students at art school telling me they hadn't ventured near the JAG, despite being halfway through their fourth year. Do me a favour. One "before-and-after" image I would have liked to see here is an image of the grand old dame crouching nervously in her very real, very naked surrounds of Joubert Park. A poignant and excruciating manifestation of the dichotomies that permeate South African society, the JAG is in a perfect position to be the locus of real education and creative experimentation, and a conduit of this to the community at large. Generally, the arts are experiencing especially lean financial support at the moment (a situation which caused JAGi to be postponed until early next year - ironic, no?) but an audience is a good place to start. But if you're reading this, you already know that. See you there.

Closes 28 November
Johannesburg Art Gallery, Joubert Park
Ph: (011) 725 3130 or 725 3184/5/6
Fax: (011) 720 6000
Gallery hours: Tuesday - Sunday, 10am - 5pm

William Kentridge

William Kentridge

William Kentridge
William Kentridge

William Kentridge at the Goodman
By Kathryn Smith

A banner down the outside wall of the Goodman Gallery announces "William Kentridge" in bold black and white, an exterior manifestation of the gallery's celebration of the artist's new film Stereoscope (and palimpsests) and of the drawings used in its making. These drawings are remarkable, giving an insight into the intensive labour required by the process of stop-frame animation. Several of them are annotated down the sides with frame numbers and registration marks, and phantom lines from earlier stages in the narrative sequence give the distinct impression that these are "end products", exhausted yet replete with a richness of what has gone before. But these "palimpsests" are not alone here. Kentridge has extended an already extraordinary oeuvre with more charcoal and pastel drawings executed on pages of textbooks, encyclopaedias and turn-of-the-century Rand Mines ledgers.

"Palimpsest" is defined as "writing material or manuscript on which the original writing has been effaced to make room for a second writing". Kentridge effaces by reasserting himself, grafting his presentness onto history that results in lyrical coexistence and "third" meanings ('The Wanting Tenses', executed on pages from a Greek grammar book). An electric blue pastel is his weapon against the endless monochromatic chaos that is Soho's world, imposing metaphoric lines of mis/communication, power and energy. The room of drawings is buttressed on either side by video: a documentary on Kentridge made by a German film company on one side and Stereoscope on the other.

Stereoscope opens with a factory scene. A switchboard is tended to by a bustling, ephemeral workforce. A worker inserts a cable, making a connection that sends blue lines hurtling across town. Urban interiors and exteriors are at times interrupted with this energy that is working beneath society's disintegrating fabric. A scraggly black cat acts as a portent, a liminal figure that is able to trangress these boundaries. These scenes in the "substrate" are electric blue on black, the quality of which is reminiscent of X-rays and old medical images of radium photographed by its own glow. Soho is depicted ever behind his desk, generating wealth and losing and gaining objects on different sides of the screen. The two halves of Kentridge's reversed stereoscope don't create volume, they encourage deconstruction. The central line becomes blurred and action continues across the divide. The blue lines turn human figures into numerical ones; images of rioting and well-known scenes from TV news reports on violence in the DRC reach critical mass until the cat turns its tail in on itself, forms a bomb, and explodes.

The word "GIVE" appears on the screen, closely followed by the prefix "FOR". In an interview with Kentridge, Marlaine Tosoni asked about the political implications of what it means to "for/give". Kentridge responded, "What do you have to give in order to be forgiven? Is Soho Eckstein asking to be forgiven? What is the difference between the generosity of giving and the generosity of forgiving?" In his lopsided stereoscope, the artist plays out this "uneasy duality" with these juxtaposed rooms, one being emptied while the other fills up, but both reaching critical mass or "critical void" eventually. His excruciatingly poignant soundtrack achieves its visual equivalent when Soho stands alone in an empty room, his pockets pouring blue water.

Kentridge's multi-layered and complex iconography has reappeared with such frequency and success that it is familiar, even if you have never seen his work live before. He reconciles difficult content with accessible form that allows his work to gain increasing currency precisely because it allows everyone in. Continuing his much-publicised infiltration into the global consciousness (with the release of an incredible CD-Rom and work in just about every major gallery and on every major art event the world can offer), Phaidon Press has recently published a monograph on Kentridge. A CD is being launched featuring the famously melancholy music from his films composed by Philip Miller. Both will be available in the gallery. The staff is expecting a large amount of traffic through the space, including school groups, so it may be wise to call first. But whatever you do, don't miss this show.

October 16 - November 20
Goodman Gallery, 163 Jan Smuts Avenue, Parkwood
Ph: (011) 788-1113

Renier le Roux
Renier le Roux
'Coffe Table Magazine' series 1999


Four artists at new Gallery Voss in Sunnyside
By Kathryn Smith

Venture far enough down a narrow one-way street in Sunnyside, Pretoria, and you'll stumble across Gallery Voss, a gem of a place complete with tea garden and a silver bathroom (I kid you not). Run by artist Desmond Archibald and graphic designer Jeanette Engelbrecht, it opened in June this year. The space is intimate without being too precious, though with typically Pretorian "textured" walls. Currently on (but ending soon) is a four-person show that is surprisingly engaging: Hanneke Benade, Renier le Roux, Zonia Nel and Linda van der Merwe present recent work, most of which was made for this show. Overall, the work is technically accomplished but Le Roux, who received a judge's prize at this year's New Signatures competition, emerges as someone to look out for. Making a wry comment on the current state of affairs, his 'Coffee Table Magazine' series is a favourite. Quietly menacing, bronze-cast AK-47 magazines lie neatly on a table in piles of varying heights. Their arrangement is not that of objects that have been discarded, but are rather "between assignments". He fashions a wooden Gorilla Grip and calls it Apie and a wooden No 13 spanner becomes Sleutel No 13. Chipboard "bricks" holding doors ajar and a wooden security gate complete with lock (Welkom Tuis) will sneak past you if you are not concentrating.

Next up on the gallery calendar is 'Peanut', a show of miniatures that opens on October 21 at 7pm. A glorious place to visit in the summer, to order something from their menu of tasty treats and recline next to the pool in their jungle of a garden. What more could you want?

Marieke Prinsloo
Marieke Prinsloo
Inconcrete in concrete (detail) 1999
Lifesize figures

Installation view
First prize winner, PPC Young Concrete Sculptor Awards 1999

PPC Young Concrete Sculptor awards
By Kathryn Smith

A bit of a straggler on the competition circuit, the PPC Young Concrete Sculptor Awards were presented on Monday October 11 at the Association of Arts, Pretoria. An essential criterion here is that concrete is an element in the finished work. First prize was awarded to Marieke Prinsloo's monumental installation Inconcrete In Concrete, a statuesque group of armless female figures reminiscent of the Chinese terracotta sculptures unearthed near Beijing. Subtle tonal and textural shifts render each figure unique, despite the fact they were cast from an identical mould, and they benefit greatly from the space in which they are installed.

Judges included Andre Naude, Guy du Toit, Claudette Schreuders, Basie Yessel, Beth Harris (PPC) and Nandi Hilliard (adjudicator and gallery manager). With prize money totalling R20 000 and guaranteed inclusion to every single work submitted, this competition should be seriously considered by fine arts students and young artists nationally. Despite an unevenness in quality, the opportunity to show is there.

Angus Taylor

Angus Taylor
Tas en Alwyn 1999
Ht: 30 cm

Angus Taylor at the Open Window
By Kathryn Smith

Angus Taylor's collection of finely worked bronze sculptures, 'Africana and Other Baggage', rests on the right (not right wing) side of African/Afrikaans kitsch. S.A.L. EK? II depicts a kaalgat Voortrekker vrou, kappie and all, sitting astride what we assume to be an aeroplane, but which reappears in other works as a transitional object that is sometimes personal, other times erotic but most often posing an impotent threat. It is reminiscent of an old, strapped leather trunk or a missile of sorts, phallic yet held together with reinforcements as if its future is in jeopardy. Nooientjie van die Onderdorp holds one such object in her hand whilst scratching her rear, while in Swartskaap the object grows legs. Taylor's unique take on gender roles and potency draws one in, partly because his work is so audaciously kitsch.

Ends October 26
Open Window Contemporary Art Gallery, 410 Rigel Avenue, Erasmusrand
Ph: (012) 347-1740

Minette Vari

Minnette Vári
Still from Aliens


Towards-transit, New Visual Languages in South Africa
By Brenda Atkinson

Blauer saal and Serge Ziegler Gallery, Zurich
August 28 - September 25

Quoted in the catalogue introduction for 'Towards-transit', an exhibition of South African art recently staged in Zurich, cultural studies guru Homi Bhabha defines "the moment of transit" as one in which "space and time cross to produce complex figures of difference and identity, past and present, inside and outside, inclusion and exclusion."

Bhabha's quote - juxtaposed in the catalogue with a bizarre praise poem to South African graphic design by self-styled design godfather Garth Walker - aptly summarises the dynamics of the towards-transit exhibition.

Set up as an investigation that 'takes off from the grey areas' of South Africa's transitional cultural and aesthetic languages, the show and its associated conference presented a perplexing mix of contemporary visual art (Berni Searle, Zwelethu Mthethwa, Minnette Vari, Bongi Dhlomo, Stephen Maqashela) graphic design (Walker's IJusi), comic art (Bitterkomix), and archival pop culture material (Drum magazine, portraits from the Bobby Bobson studios). A work by Swiss-Brazilian duo Walter Riedweg and Mauricio Dias, included with the apparent intention of defusing the political problems of an all-South African show, added further confusion to the mix.

It's difficult to consider international exhibitions of "South African art" without sounding a note of resounding ambivalence, particularly when art becomes confused with altruistically conceived but inadequately conceptualised diplomatic agendas. And it seems churlish to criticise foreign arts councils for ploughing enormous sums of money into these efforts, particularly when South Africans themselves seldom organise similar platforms for debate.

But it is not so much the initiative that is unproductive as the framework in which it is so often unpacked. Acknowledging "the dangers inherent in foreign curating", as Kendell Geers has put it; quoting Bhabha's hyper-sophisticated cultural theory; setting up a website, are insufficient deflections of the core problem, which is the presentation of "South African Art" as a discrete phenomenon, a curio, even with all its vibrant internal transition.

Despite the fact that towards-transit was intended by its organisers, Pro Helvetia, to promote cross-cultural dialogue, the fact is that such forums run the risk of retreading the well-worn and damaging territory of European voyeurism. A curator based in Amsterdam, who briefly visited the towards-transit show, commented to me that Moshekwa Langa was going to be in trouble because he'd strayed too far from his roots. It's mind-boggling that, five years into a post-apartheid South Africa, there are still curators of contemporary art on the international circuit who are trying to sell "South Africa" to viewers as a neatly packaged national deal, one in which black artists are properly in their place as producers of "African" work.

While the organisers of towards-transit were less blunt in their approach, what irks is that South African artists are consigned through such shows to a ghetto of their own, rather than being integrated into international exhibitions which don't focus on race, nationality, or gender. Being relegated to the Blauer saal, on the fourth floor of a building that houses a School for Refugees, is a move that implies a range of assumptions about the marginality of South African artistic production. Flying South African artists to Zurich to argue hotly amongst themselves in the presence of a polite Swiss audience is likewise a debatable endeavour. Add to that an unfocused curatorial exercise disguised as inclusive eclecticism, and what you have is a sweet exercise in international relations that lacks productive and ongoing substance.

South Africa, as a national entity, has been a favourite flavour internationally for some time. Its artistic production has been crated and circulated all over the globe, most often for the consumption of a naively neo-colonial cultural elite. When the flavour fades, South African artists are going to have to stand or fall on the merits of their production, and not on their position in an ideologically charged national niche.

- Brenda Atkinson is an art critic and co-editor of Grey Areas (Chalkham Hill Press) 1999, a compendium of essays on art and gender issues in South Africa

* Readers who are interested in the issues raised in the review above might like to click on to the exhibition website, at to add their voices to the debate.

Paul Stopforth

Paul Stopforth
The Interrogators 1979
Graphite and wax on board
180 X 99cm

Brett Murray

Brett Murray Guilt and Innocence 1960-90 1999
Photographs, frames
Installation detail

Bridget Baker

Bridget Baker
Stitch (detail) 1998-99
18 embroidered running belts, video projections, 'winter green' aromatherapy oil
Installation room, 230 x 280 x 450cm

Sandile Zulu

Sandile Zulu stands in front of his piece at the Museum for African Art

Liberated Voices: Contemporary Art from South Africa
By Tumelo Mosaka

Museum for African Art, New York
September 17 1999 - January 2 2000

Internationally curated exhibitions about South Africa have, thus far in my experience, been actualized as conservative survey shows attempting to represent a broad spectrum of artistic production. For example the exhibition 'Colors 1997' (Germany) and 'Democratic Images' 1998 (Sweden), represented works by a diverse group of artists from the country. These exhibitions seemed to lack the curatorial frame that would present the artworks as part of a broader debate about South African culture rather than limiting it to the phenomena of new democracy. I was not too excited when I heard about the contemporary art exhibition planned for the Museum for African Art in New York. Knowing how conservative the museum is, I was suspicious of their interest and wondered how different the curator's approach to South African contemporary art would be, since the museum's focus until now has been on older and more traditional African art objects.

Last week, the Museum for African Art in New York opened its doors on the exhibition 'Liberated Voices; Contemporary Art from South Africa'. Its aim, according to the press release, was to "highlight the major art trends in the contemporary art practice of South Africa" by presenting over 65 paintings, sculptures, photographs and video installations created post-1994, marking the new democracy in South Africa and engaged in current developments that inform present artistic production. On viewing the exhibition, my previous suspicion was dispelled and replaced by excitement to see both younger and older artists represented in the line up. Surprisingly, this year New York has displayed a number of exhibitions by numerous and diverse South African artists. Currently on view is the postcard exhibition from South Africa at the Axis Gallery in Chelsea, and in February of this year, William Kentridge showed in the Project Room at the Museum of Modern Art. Thus, it seems to be an appropriate time to engage an audience in New York with the struggles and triumphs of South African history and culture.

The museum is situated on Broadway near Houston Street in Manhattan, a very trendy, business and shopping district with a high ratio of upscale commercial galleries dealing in contemporary art. As a repository of African art and artifacts, the Museum for African Art generally seems somewhat displaced in this highly commercialized environment.

From the standpoint of the museum, the initiative of presenting contemporary art from South Africa is an unusual one, and taking on the risk of dealing with material outside their area of expertise has been a transgressive act on their part. In dedicating the entire exhibition space to contemporary South African art, the museum has broadened its scope and become receptive to other issues involving the African continent and particularly contemporary art. Therefore the liberation mentioned in the title also celebrates the institution's progress from its narrow approach towards material culture to a broader mission now encompassing contemporary art. It is also a triumph for contemporary African art, since its legitimacy in the west has been continuously undermined by institutions preferring only to acknowledge the traditional art and artifacts as unique to African tribal expression.

The gallery is divided into two floors, the top consisting predominantly of photographs, paintings and mixed media pieces by Willie Bester, David Koloane, Sue Williamson, Zwelethu Mthethwa, Richman Buthelezi, Samson Mnisi, Brett Murray, Penny Siopis and Thabiso Phokompe. The ground floor begins with installation works by Sandile Zulu, Bridget Baker and wooden sculptures by Claudette Schreuders. The works represented in this exhibition presents different narratives ranging from the personal positions of artists to general social commentary. On entering the upper gallery, we are introduced to the exhibition by Paul Stopforth's The Interrogators (1979). The wax and graphite triptych portrays three special branch officers accused of interrogating student leader Steve Biko. This work introduces the viewer to the brutality and inhumanity of the oppressive apartheid system. The dark faces of the interrogators seem to emerge and float on top of a black background alluding to the mysterious nature of their deeds. The work becomes the preamble for representing the violence and trauma of South Africa pre-1994 while still trapped in the grip of apartheid. Contrary to this politically motivated work, are Zwelethu Mthethwa's colorful interior portraits. His images represent interior spaces of informal housing in Cape Town, Gugulethu. They present the subject in an affirming and confident position that contrasts with their abysmal and abject living conditions. They symbolize a strong conviction of hope and determination in the eyes of the subjects that bely the poverty that surrounds them.

The title 'Liberated Voices' presupposes that in the post-apartheid South Africa since 1994, there is no struggle. It would be na�ve for anybody to think that after decades of apartheid and only four years of burgeoning democracy, the needs of the majority could be met. The works by Richman Buthelezi comment on the awareness and education of environmental issues by using recycled plastic as a medium for his artistic expression. On the other hand, the works of Sue Williamson respond to aspects of attempted social transformation that has currently captured the attention of the public through the proceedings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Her photo-textual montages reflect on the narratives of some of the victims such as Steve Biko, and Amy Biehl, who were both students. The diversity of artists is not only reflected in the works but also in their individual concerns related to material production. The works of the older artists such as David Koloane, Willie Bester, Sue Williamson and Penny Siopis are presented in the first part of the exhibition and reflect on the politics of South Africa much more directly. The younger artists, reflecting personal and social experiences in their country, dominate the entire exhibition.

The curator's approach to this exhibition has been to focus on younger artists. It is not often that young artists are given such a thorough visibility, especially in conventional museum exhibitions. I had expected the same names of artists that have become international brand names to appear, like Kendell Geers and Kay Hassan, but was fortunately surprised. The new names to have emerged are Brett Murray, Samson Mnisi, Thabiso Phokompe, Sandile Zulu, Richman Buthelezi, Bridget Baker and Claudette Schreuders. These artists inject new energies that reflect current thinking by young South Africans who are not necessarily overtly political in their expression but seem to have a deeper interest in the social position of the individual, in this case the artist. Works by Bridget Baker reflect the intimacy of the artist's relationship with her family and friends. In a two-video projection, the left screen shows a close up of Baker's face rising and falling while she runs. She is unaware of the viewer and we see only her side profile. On the adjoining screen, a crowd of marathon runners move towards her. On the projection areas are reflective running belts with biblical quotes and abstracts from her personal diary. The work is titled Stitch, and represents a metaphorical endurance of pain that is a result of a failed relationship. In contrast, Sandile Zulu has presented burnt canvases with burnt grass evoking the violence and brutality pervasive in South Africa and in all society. Through his manipulation of natural resources such as grass and fire, Zulu draws our attention to the potent forces of nature unmasking the potential of violence and aggression latent in nature and humanity. Apartheid in South Africa has been a torch of fire from which the majority of South Africans have been brutalized. The scars left by the flames become signs of pain and suffering that still prevail up to the present day. The process of healing has been slow and an ongoing process that still has a long way to go. To say that we are truly liberated is to ignore the reality of current South Africa. This new democracy, which has been framed as a liberation by many in the west, is merely the first step towards liberation. The works on this exhibition are testament to the process of change that is not only a lesson for South Africa, but also one for all humanity. It has allowed artists to adopt new attitudes towards art making that re-examines and articulate new positions, which artists now have the liberty to explore.

Tumelo Mosaka is a South African curator currently based at Bard College in the US




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