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MTN New Contemporaries 2010

Various Artists at KZNSA

By Rike Sitas
15 September - 09 October. 0 Comment(s)
Aluta Continua

Stuart Bird
Aluta Continua, 2010. Soot and masking tape .

The MTN New Contemporaries Award has become a prestigious affair (the bar tab and catering at the recent 2010 celebrations at the KZNSA allegedly exceeding the financial award itself). This is in line with many other corporate-led contemporary art competitions; Standard Bank, ABSA, Spier and others. Corporate entities seem to have found a niche in corporate social investment by marketing themselves through exalted contemporary art events. Heated debates rage across the world about the inherent tensions that exist between corporate capitalism and critical creative practice.

Despite this, these big business entities seem to be leading the support of contemporary arts in South Africa. For the artists involved, being nominated for and possibly winning such awards undoubtedly leads to bigger and better opportunities. For the career artist, awards are markers of success.

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In the context of this tension, and a plethora of essentially individualist artists, the selection of Stuart Bird, Donna Kukama, Mohau Modisakeng and Kemang Wa Lehulere, is an interesting one. All four demonstrate an attempt to move past ‘stroking the inner dolphin’ (Sadie, 2007), and delve instead into unpacking a myriad of social issues in post-apartheid South Africa. Curator extraordinaire, Nontobeko Ntombela, was struck with what she saw as an increasing trend of artists struggling to find a new language of art in the context of post-apartheid South Africa; people grappling with how to express new thinking around the intersection of socio-economic issues (such as race, class, gender) and creative practice. Ultimately this informed her selection criteria, where she found the most exciting work living in the spaces between practices, where artists were integrating different media in their exploration for new cultural, social and visual languages.

It was Ntombela’s curatorial process and decisions that made the show remarkable. The 2010 New Contemporaries Award exhibition read more as a show in entirety than four individual’s artworks. This was not only telling in the surprising collegiality between competitors. If it weren’t for the titles, visitors would have been hard-pressed to distinguish between the different artist’s contributions.

What emerged was a collective of sorts. It was also evident in the judges’ decision to award the show as a whole, an unprecedented opportunity to signal new thinking in corporate art awards. This was vehemently vetoed by MTN, who in the true spirit of capitalist competition demanded a ‘winner takes all’ result. Amongst stiff competition, Kemang wa Lehulere was eventually, and at the 11th hour, awarded the overall prize, largely due to his instrumental involvement in establishing the Gugulective.

The Gugulective, started in 2006, is a network of visual artists working in townships, such as Gugulethu in Cape Town, from which it takes its name. The Gugulective focuses on using art as a catalyst to explore socio-spatial issues of inequality, and also to showcase creative alternatives within township life. It was this broader, collective agenda of Lehulere’s work that finally convinced the judges to pick him.

Lehulere’s work in this exhibition explores storytelling: literally excavating a site, Lehulere uncovers not only cow bones, but a series of narratives of passers-by. The video documenting this process, Ukuguqula iBatyi, is the central and starting point of his installation entitled Remembering the Future of a Hole as a Verb. Surrounding the video, a series of chalked visual and textual narratives adorn the blackboard painted gallery walls. The armless illustrations and snippets of poetry are somewhat haunting, and intensely intimate, referencing the beating of a family member of Lehulere.

Donna Kukama’s installation is the result of two performance pieces. Looking for a Black Cat that is Not There was inspired by a quote by Charles Darwin, and explores stereotypes of the poor and disabled. The performance involved blind people walking around the gallery handing out coins to the audience. A sound piece was created and played back on more than ten music boxes in front of documentation of Kukama’s second performance piece. The Swing (after Fragonard) was inspired by French Rococo painter Fragonard’s painting of the same name. The performance involved erecting a swing in the taxi rank in Johannesburg – the same one where women had recently been assaulted for wearing short skirts. Kukama, dressed in a white dress, swung above the heads of the passers-by and flung R10 notes to the people below. The video documentation is shot from above, and shows people clambering underneath to collect the cash. Although Kukama addresses issues of stereotyping, her work runs the risk of perpetuating the same stereotypes she is trying to subvert.

Stuart Bird’s contribution is largely concerned with critiquing contemporary politics playing out in and about the media in society, as well as engaging inherited ideologies linked to identity. While visitors drank the free booze being ladled out by MTN, Bird was hard at work digging a hole (In the Ring). Dressed in overalls, he excavated the KZNSA garden (much to the horror of some of the youngsters who saw only their playground being unearthed).

Bird touches on notions of race, class and labour. The contents of the hole are wheel-barrowed into the gallery, alongside a collection of neckties entitled Promises Promises. The ties extend the discussion into the realm of the gendered expectations of capitalism. A little further into the gallery hangs a noose, entitled Chip off The Old Block. It is only when one notices the pile of wood chips directly underneath the noose that one realizes that it has been meticulously carved out of a single piece of wood. Bird explains how this piece is a statement against the inheritance of problematic, largely racialised, thinking.

Mohau Modisakeng looks at the role of violence in colonial, apartheid, and now post-apartheid South Africa. Unlike the often literal references to safety and security through barbed wire and security fences, Modisakeng explores the individual’s (mostly masculine) role in perpetuating violence. Qhatha, a series of photographs, references the practice of challenging someone to a fight through either accepting or rejecting a handful of dust; in this case Modisakeng uses oxide. Okapi is a more immediate, though intimate object – a replica of a flick knife often used in street fights, resulting in many deaths both during and post-apartheid, including that of Modisakeng’s brother. Inkohliso consists of a series of large pin badges, installed back to front. Through enlarging and subverting a symbol of struggle, this work is a critique of contemporary politicking and empty promises.

Although remarkable in its exploration of media, coupled with a consideration of contemporary political and social life, essentially what results in this exhibition is a seamlessly curated set of one-liners: a collection of (often surface-level) snapshots of a moment in thought. As we now ‘snack’ media online, between Facebook and ‘lolcats’, so too do we nibble on socio-political messages being explored in contemporary art. All of the artists spoke emphatically about themselves as agents of change through their art practice. Although the comments being offered may have been critical and born out of some degree of complexity, they still remain statements on a gallery wall. By way of example: Bird’s fire-burned words of ‘counter’ and ‘revolution’ entitled A Luta Continua, directly references the rallying cry for broader socio-political struggles happening on a daily basis. Although struggles can be represented on gallery walls, they rarely occur within the confines of middle class urban spaces of the ‘white cube’.

There is a title next to one of the performative works reading ‘performance and residue’. All the artists’ work involved a performance of some kind, this being one of the major challenges of curating the exhibition for Ntombela – what does one leave behind to mark a performance that happened in a moment in time? I think the question needs to be asked not only of the artists nominated, but of South African contemporary art in entirety. If there is a claim to rejoin art and struggle, what is the socio-political residue that can potentially become a catalyst for the kinds of change artists aspire to? How do we as creative practitioners move beyond the witty one-liner? Maybe one solution, as was unanimously suggested by the judges, and squashed by MTN, is to engage the issues directly, in and with the public realm, instead of merely creating new slogans for private walls and corporate collections.