Cover of the new monograph
Review by Virginia MacKenny
The first in a series of books to be published on contemporary South African artists, Wayne Barker's monograph is funky, fun and accessible. At 56 pages, including the reference details at the back, it is short, undaunting and satisfies the need for instant gratification (it can be read in an hour). Using a magazine format, with snippets of the text highlighted to catch the browser's eye, it is packed full of images and is immensely visually appealing. The lay-out evokes Barker's own ad hoc style of sellotaped collage with headings scrawled in in koki; it presents itself as a visual scrapbook of Barker's journey over the last 12 years or so.
In a narrative punctuated by anecdotes and pictures, Barker's development as an artist is chronicled through his days as rebel schoolboy (arrested and expelled for smoking dope) to wayward student (failing art history and notorious for his impersonation of a tennis court) and conscript unfit for duty (in 'passive resistance mode and pretending to be a bit mad'). A new kid on the block when he hit Johannesburg, Barker rejected the niceties of the established art world and founded Fig (Famous International Gallery) as a venue for his own work and other artists on the way to success. By 1992 he'd had a solo at the Everard Read Contemporary and his neo-pop combinations of political comment and urban bric-a-brac had firmly established him - by 1997 he had a work on the 2nd Johannesburg Biennal and was exhibiting internationally.
Described as a prankster and cultural agitator, his own artistic strategies of subversive intervention also fed his curatorial eye - creating shows such as 'Klapperkop' and 'The Laager'. This last was an acclaimed fringe event at the 1st Johannesburg Biennial and succinctly embodied Barker's concerns with the production and presentation of art in a country as conflicted in its history as South Africa.
The fact that he has now become an established artist, albeit still an iconoclastic one, is embodied, ironically, in the choice of Alan Crump for the introduction. Described previously by Barker as being part of a dominant elitist authority of 'patronising white experts' Crump accused Barker of 'playing silly games' and 'shameless self-promotion' when he entered the Standard Bank Drawing Competition in 1990 under both his own name and that of Andrew Moletse (the Moletse piece gaining entry, the Barker failing to do so). Crump now supports Barker and recognises the need for young artists to reject authority such as his own and find alternatives to the system.
Written in an accessible manner, seldom too academic, the format and the text encourage engagement by the reader. The appeal is to a general audience and, although that same audience might be floored by phrases such as the 'traumatic semiotics of cultures', the book is, on the whole, designed to engage and not intimidate. Charl Blignaut's style ranges from the colloquial to the almost poetic; see Blignaut's obviously empathetic description of Barker's escape from authority in Nature's Valley where the 'fragrance of ocean and earth mixed headily with the thrill of flight'. Aside from a lack of labels identifying the artwork directly on the page (you have to search in the tiny text at the back of the book for the titles/details of works) and although the more serious reader may find its anecdotal style lacking in depth with no serious analysis of Barker's work evident, these are minor gripes against a book which winningly promotes not only Barker, but cultural initiatives as a whole.
In a country where art and artists receive so little public recognition, where information in any permanent form on contemporary art is so hard to come by, the producers need to be congratulated for their initiative.
Priced reasonably at R80, the book is available from Exclusives from June 21.
Exerpt from the new 'Bitterkomix'
Exerpt from the new 'Bitterkomix'
Modestly hung on the mezzanine level of the AVA gallery, part of the Bitterkomix exhibition, is a framed certificate awarded to one of the founder artists, Anton Kannemeyer, aka Joe Dog, in 1983. We learn that at Suikerbosrand, Kannemeyer underwent a course run by the Vereeniging for Christelike Hoer Onderwys Skolingkursus in Christian leadership. Subjects: What is discipline? Meeting procedures. Why do we need rules? Principles and techniques of leadership.
The certificate (R19.99, and sold) is hung amongst some of the more hectically pornographic offerings from the group. It is clear that the kind of values which the course attempted to instil in its juvenile charges, the values which attempted to keep young Afrikaners from questioning the authority of Church, patriarchy and State are exactly the ones brought into savage question in the often brilliant Bitterkomix series.
Kannemeyer spells it out graphically in the final two frames of the back cover of the latest issue of Bitterkomix No 10, launched with the exhibition. The page shows the artist in a Truth and Reconciliation Commission type scenario, entitled Die Hemel Help Ons. (Heaven help us). "Julle het my grootgemaak en geleer on te vrees, te diskrimineer en te haat. Moet ek julle nou sommer net vergewe? Nee, fok dit. Fok dit." (You brought me up and taught me to fear, to discriminate and to hate. And now I must just forgive you? No, fuck that.)
Bitterkomix was launched in 1992 by Kannemeyer and Conrad Botes (Konradski), both students at the University of Stellenbosch at the time, and with the assistance of other key figures like Mark Kannemeyer (Lorcan White) has been coming out more or less annually ever since. The core of the current exhibition consists of original artwork of covers and pages from the current and past issues. The publications and the artists who make up the stories have a dedicated following, and on Saturday morning, numbers of people could be seen reading the framed pages.
While obviously owing something to the underground comic movement in America and cartoonists like Robert Crumb, the Bitterkomix ethos with its particular critical stance towards society and its personal revelations is unique. Hitting out wildly at apartheid targets in early issues, with plenty of emphasis on graphic sex across the colour line, the artists have grown older and the country has changed too, and Bitterkomix No. 10 strikes a more reflective and focussed note. As Botes says, "We have shifted from the dominee and the corporal to looking at ourselves critically". The stories are often based on incidents in the artists' lives, and as such, as in My Pa se Geweer (My Father's Gun) in which Botes recalls his father's suicide threats, are extremely moving without ever descending to the maudlin. A gentler note is struck by contributions from Paddy Bouma.
All of the artists draw exceedingly well, but one must single out Botes with his dramatic brushy style as being a master of the small frame. The work on show is extremely reasonably priced, and will undoubtedly become collectors' items over the years. Not an exhibition to pass by.
Until July 8
Rumour has it that the show got its name not only from the "emerging" artists it showcases, but also from the speed at which it was put together. Fortunately the exhibition retains no evidence of this. It is a tight, well-structured and visually coherent collection of work by diverse artists. Conceptually and visually there is a clean and clear passage all the way through. Most of the artists are young, and their freshness sits right on the surface largely unhampered by their previous lack of exposure and experience. One could be forgiven for thinking that both the curators (Julia Clark, Doreen Southwood and John Murray who also exhibit) and the artists were considerably more experienced than they really are.
One is confronted, on entering the gallery, by works which allude to illness and healing. Lynne Lomofsky's large, grainy black and white pics of her receiving chemotherapy hang opposite Svea Josephy's Family Secrets. These works represent the darker side of this theme, subsequently lightened by Karen Cronje's untitled paper cutouts. Three identical images, which allude to a heart or capillary systems, hang in a row. A viewer is also reminded of a tree, its metaphor of networks and the interdependency of branches and roots, but more interestingly one ponders the process by which this work came about. Was each painstakingly and separately cut out by hand, were they all cut simultaneously by machine? Or, are these pieces the result of some chance eroding process and if so, how is it that they all appear identical?
Thematically the show continues and begins to get a little wackier with Doreen Southwood's Freedom, Hope and Strength - three badge-shaped works made of frames and glass containing carefully arranged patterns of flu-tablets and painkillers. The drugs are diluted and melancholy in colour and the futility of their promises is rendered quite pathetic but still amusing. Tracy Payne's Hydrangeasare at once beautiful and soppy. The heart-rending emotion and delicacy they evoke drips off just like the thin oil paint used in their depiction.
Things take a further turn for the odd with Heath Nash's contribution, which is also very firmly rooted in everyday reality. Using die-cut pieces of card he has constructed a large semi-rigid geometrical structure which hangs from the ceiling, neatly dealing with a difficult corner of the gallery. It is presented in photographs as well which show it in various states of folding, compression and stretching. The work is entitled '90% Chance of Rain', perhaps alluding to its mathematical origins and cloud-like appearance, and hovers enticingly between pure whimsy and total mindfuck. Next to this work John Murray's Oh my God is as much Robert Longo as Tommy Motswai. Three monochromatic drawings of almost comicbook-like women in states of extreme agitation are rendered in exquisite, inflated 3D.
The show is, I think, at its weakest following on from here when it collapses into works which have a bit too much "cleverer-than-thou" attitude and cartoon convenience evident in works like Rikus Ferreira's untitled work and the contrived video by Edward Young, Dan Halter and Cameron Platter. Around the corner the pace picks up again with fairly violent photographic images by Thobile Nompunga and Thembinkosi Goniwe. Julia Clark's Cold Comfort presents us with a photographic image of Clifton and Camps Bay beaches dotted with people and backed up against the comfortably populated hillsides. She has constructed a lightbox behind this and repeatedly pierced the image, apparently atop lamp-posts and in the windows of buildings. The work invites a viewer to decipher the pattern behind these piercings, to deconstruct the rationale behind their placement. Clark seems to muse on all the uniformly sized individual spots of warmth and light in a community which often barely knows its next door neighbour. A neat juxtaposition to this is Liza Grobler's Winter. Grobler has knitted a close fitting wool cover for a rather forlorn branching tree stump. The cover provides protection for this pathetic, stunted object but at the same time isolates it from contact with the exterior on which it would naturally thrive.
The exhibition comes full circle here, returning to the idea with which it begins. While the young artists here seem to have left behind the familiar socio-political subject matter of much contemporary South African art, they don't forsake the grand themes of art through the ages. Instead they approach studies of mortality, memory and mutability from a personal, sometimes oblique angle. The curators seem to have successfully chosen works which remain rooted in social reality, personal experience and everyday reality without excluding the potential of humour, quirkiness and emotion.
Closes July 29
Johannesburg art viewers turned out in force at the Goodman Gallery's most recent opening. On offer were works by three artists : Wilma Cruise, Keith Dietrich and Brett Murray.
Cruise's collection of works, entitled 'rapRack' (an anagram of Car Park), is arranged outside in the gallery's parking lot. The exhibition comprises of a collection of roughly hewn figures in ceramic and bronze, sculpted larger than life-size, and a grouping of terracotta heads, similarly hewn, arranged on a scaffolding. Cruise's monolithic figures are, paradoxically, dumb as well as eloquent. Eerily, they communicate their message of scarcely contained psychic chaos.
'Bodies, Traces, Identities', is the title of Dietrich's show, which is housed in the gallery's large central space. Here, the viewer is faced with a collection of geometric grids, each comprising a number of square small scale fragments of paper bearing mini-portraits of anatomic features, rendered in inkjet print and watercolour. Eyes, penises, nipples, mouths, bellies, and other features are laid bare by the artist. This Zen-like exhibition, dealing as it does with the physical traces of intact bodies, marks an attempt to deconstruct notions of the self-contained, self-sufficient individual, so beloved of Western commonsensical discourse, in favour of something more difficult - the possibility that our senses of self are externally manufactured.
In a sense, Brett Murray's 'I Love Africa' deals with similar themes to those explored by his fellow exhibitors. That is, the quest to question, reconfigure, and make manifest issues surrounding questions of both physical and psychological identities, and of the struggle to reconcile these with shifting external realities. Murray differs, however, from Cruise and Dietrich in that his quest is much more obviously grounded in the local South African context, and is altogether less polite. He makes use of humour combined with an in-your-face cynicism and world-weariness, as opposed to Cruise's raw emotive style, or Dietrich's cool analytical one.
Enough has already been written of Murray's Africa sculpture, now happily ensconced in Cape Town's St. George's Mall, to render any further comment unnecessary. Suffice to say that the figure of that offbeat and opportunistic brat, Bart Simpson (together with his equally offbeat relatives) forms a leitmotif of Murray's works on this show. The Simpson characters, as templates of middle class white suburbia, are used by the artist as a vehicle with which to satirise and criticise the absurdities inherent in the local status quo.
Mantra, a series of painted metal sentences reading, "I must learn to speak Xhosa" points to the frantic, clumsy, and often comical attempts by post apartheid whites at Africanisation, as does Change is Pain, which depicts the Simpson family growing Afros. Guilt, Guilty, Guiltiest (Bart Simpson roasting over a fire), and Dance Routine of the White Male Psyche articulate guilt and self-flagellation. Shack as Metaphor is probably the most effective and painful work on the show. A metal construction in relief, the work depicts, cartoon-style, the confrontation between a colonial white explorer and the quintessential caricatured "native". The communication exchanged is this: "If your work romanticises poverty, or uses the shack as metaphor...you'll be on my next show in London". Exploitation, cynicism, manipulation, greed - who needs the King Commission...
Ends July 1
Goodman Gallery, 163 Jan Smuts Avenue, Parkwood
Any fans of watercolour out there have their work cut out for them this year. Get your gallery-shoes on, because the Standard Bank Watercolour Festival, hosted in conjunction with the Watercolour Society of South Africa, is coming to nearly every single gallery space out there some time during 2000.
Like I said in the review of 'Stained Paper', watercolour has come into its own of late, and is no longer the sole domain of Sunday painters. And this show is no exception. Billed as the 'young contemporary' exhibition of the festival, there are some surprises, some disappointments and some utterly awesome works on display.
Stephan Erasmus presents a series of small, concertina-folded books each telling a cartoon-style narrative that is not always clear, but engaging in its bizarreness and visual simplicity. Flip Hattingh, who has been extremely quiet on the Johannesburg scene after a wickedly enjoyable solo show a few years back at the now-closed De Villiers Gallery, gives us a tongue-in-cheek African Renaissance, a contemporary reworking of Grant Wood's American Gothic executed in coffee, watercolour and varnish on board.
Michelle Kriek's wall-installation Images from the Past, is intimate and sensitive. Working from Polaroids, Kriek has managed to capture the characteristic luminous, blurry grain of commercial Polaroids, and translate this into oversized re-presentations of the images as watercolour paintings. The small works in box frames record and annotate domestic banalities, personal intimacies and in the bottom image, two of the polaroids themselves, tossed in a bowl.
But it is work by Monica Madeira and Merryn Singer that steal the show. Madeira's monumental installation of three large-scale paintings executed on folded, refolded and flattened-out paper explore our bodily microscopy, which in some parts is painstakingly stitched together. The internal grid, made possible by her regimented folding of the paper, seeks to create order and sense out of the invisible workings of the body, so fundamental to life, but stubbornly invisible without the proper technology. The works are seas of abstract reds and magentas which appear to coalesce in parts, only to diffuse again.
Merryn Singer, known for working with bodily tissues and substances, primarily her own blood, has created a landscape to rival no other I've yet seen. In her own blood, she has painted the hyper-ordinary surrounds of the Apartheid aberration, Vlakplaas. With the possibility of sentimental melodrama so near, she manages to control it firstly on the level of pure aesthetics, and secondly, because of the farm's totally nondescript nature. It simply looks like any other farm. The paper hangs in its box frame, edges furling and contracting like a piece of skin. It's harrowing and sublime.
Pay a visit. Not all the works will change your life, but you won't be disappointed.
Ends June 28.
Wayne Barker at the opening of 'lost and found'.
Meeting Wayne Barker and Claire de Jong is like meeting Performance Art in action. Vaguely reminiscent of vaudeville (he in his straw boater, she with her nail file) the pair engage with running, parallel monologues punctuated with irreverent, yet often trenchant, observations on society. This 'show' seems the result of Claire's contract for Channel 4 in Britain where her life (which now includes Wayne) is constantly under the surveillance of the cameras (check it out at http://www.channel4.com/smarthearts). Unabashed, the couple act out, with a certain theatrical astuteness, their daily lives in front of anyone willing to look.
'Lost and Found', their collaborative exhibition, fills the gallery with large assemblage wall pieces and a square of flotsam and jetsam washed up on the gallery floor - reminiscent of Tony Cragg. The aesthetic is retro; old shoes as from another era, books, their pages yellow and tattered, men in Dick Tracey hats - the vocabulary of nostalgia. Peppered with neon reminders of the big issues in life 'Hunger', 'Forgiveness' and 'Memory', the show might well seem to address the political issues raised by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Instead, however, of the in-your-face political content of Barker's previous work, such as his blow up black doll 'Zulu Lulu' or the adulterated Pierneefs, the work is more personal.
Knowlege of the recent death of Barker's father and brother give the words 'Lost and Found' added poignancy. The show is full of images of salvation; the bible, a life jacket, bread. Blue neon @ signs signal the importance of the life/love-line that e-mail generated between Barker and de Jong. The electronic connections link to the staples of life such as bread and milk but also, on a more ironic level, to Coca-Cola and postcards of black women in ethnic dress. Other 'virtual realities' are conjured up by the presence of Mills and Boon's romantic novels and the remains of books, so cut up, shredded or stuck down that we can only speculate at their narratives. Not losing the iconoclastic touch, a piece entitled The Need references redemption posited in bread rolls and plastic fish.
In the drawings each artist lays claim to their own work. De Jong's curious series of 'join-the-dots' drawings of aloes ask the viewer to make visual connections - remake the pictures as we might in childhood. Small holes burnt through the paper create a poetic fragility; a searching for the image which in one example 'flowers' with tiny bits of coloured tissue thrust through the blackened apertures. Such forms become iconic, emblematic images harking back to times when values seemed more reassuringly stable. It is this sense of a continual search for meaning that seems to imbue the show with its interest. Equally dense with tradition and the kind of throw-away bric-a-brac of our materialist world the exhibition posits a continual reassessment of where we are; geographically, materially, spiritually and emotionally.
Barker's monograph published by Chalkham Press in conjuction with the French Institute was launched at the opening . A review of this will appear in ArtThrob shortly.
Exhibition closes June 23.
N S A Galleries, 166 Bulwer Road, Glenwood, Durban, South Africa, 4001
Jems Robert Koko Bi
Essen Mfon (Ghana)
Mamady Seydi (Senegal)
Enfants de Nuit
Dakar is by all accounts an extraordinary experience, both as a holiday destination and as the locus for DAK'ART 2000. Limiting itself to art from the African continent (with the odd exception) is both its strength and its weakness. While this allows one to form an impression of where and how African art is positioned in global terms, the potential for interaction and exchange afforded by a more international show is lost. Not surprisingly then, the most impressive work, in my opinion, came from artists who have benefited from the broader perspectives gained from travel and interaction across the continent and beyond.
At the International Exhibition of Contemporary African Art mounted at IFAN (the museum) several works stood out. But the work that remains to haunt me is undoubtedly Tracey Rose's video entitled TKO, a boxing term standing for 'technical knockout' which occurs when the referee terminates the match because one fighter is too badly injured to continue. Produced for ArtPace it was achieved by placing the camera inside a punching bag which is being pummeled. The projected image is a profoundly de-stabilising one as it lurches across the screen. The soundtrack, unmistakably a woman's voice, heaving in relation to the blows, builds to a crescendo with increasingly violent punches and then tapers off into a whimper. The experience is distinctly disturbing as one isn't sure who is punching or being punched. But the sense of being trapped in a violent situation is overpowering and inescapable. Like all Rose's work, the video deals with issues of race and gender in ways that challenge and unnerve the viewer. As the ArtPace brochure points out, "Rose effectively positions the viewer as both the aggressor and the target � With this video piece, Rose deconstructs and reconstructs the role of the individual in society, juxtaposing internal/external with personal/social. Rose reminds us of the importance of multiple perspectives, multiple identities and multiple visions in a changing, moving world".
Andries Botha's Kwazulu Natal South Africa 1896 - 1999 featured 7 maps of that area. Drawn on vellum inlaid with human hair and overlaid with texts from various historical documents, they literally presented history as if inscribed on the body. Opposite the panels were 3 video monitors. One screen showed a pathetic dog wandering around a yard while another showed the slaughter of an animal in all its appalling visceral horror. Captured between these two extremes was the poignant slow motion footage of an elderly man caught at the most vulnerable moment of incontinence.
In the opposite corner was the installation of Mounir Fatmi from Morocco. Entitled Liaisons et déplacements, it explored the vicissitudes of migration and alienation. While a video monitor presented endless passersby on Parisian streets giving their understandings of notions of the stranger or foreigner, the exhibition space was dotted with notes in Arabic, faceless portraits of people with labels on their chests and bundles of cabling beautifully taped but connected to nothing. The ubiquitous black travel bags on the floor were ominously as long as body bags.
Berni Searle produced the kind of high impact installation we have come to expect from her (see News in Artthob May issue). On entering the space one's senses were immediately seduced by the pungent aromas of huge amounts of spices gathered in mounds. Above these hung 18 floor-to-ceiling photographs organised into booths so that one looked into compartments that focused alternately on the presence and absence of the female body. Entitled Red, Yellow, Brown: Face to Face, the work garnered her the Minister Of Culture's award. The first prize went to Fatma M'seddi Charfi of Tunisia for her installation featuring thousands of little twisted black figures, regulated in vertical stacks, ordered into filing systems, muffled under batting or writhing on a video monitor.
In terms of photography Zwelethu Mthethwa's large-scale full colour images of people in their homes were the most impressive. Samuel Fosso's photographs were fabulous but hardly what one would expect at a Biennale of contemporary art, dated as they were from 1976 - 77. Essien Mfon's The Amazon's New Clothes, on the other hand, were striking in their frank exposure of the post-mastectomy body as an object of beauty and sensuality.
While the works of Senegalese artists, Mamady Seydi, whose sculptures embodied ancient African proverbs and Soly Cisse whose installation, Temoins de dolueurs, dealt with illness and hospitalisation, were beautiful, if rather obvious, one wonders how they would stand up in an international biennale.
The solo exhibitions of artists selected by various jurors to represent regions on the continent were mounted for the most part at the Galerie Nationale. Kay Hassan, selected by Hans Bogatzke to represent southern Africa, had intended developing an installation around the theme of vision in relation to the circulation of secondhand goods and ideas through the so-called first and third worlds. However, with his crates of spectacles held up in customs he was forced to trawl the streets of Dakar for a substitute artwork. Given his extraordinary sensibility for locating found objects, he discovered, at the eleventh hour, a sidewalk spectacle shop which he installed lock, stock and bifocal in the space. It was, other than the works of the artists who chose to work off-site, the only redeeming feature in a very poor show.
Bili Bidjocka was selected by Simon Njami of Revue Noir. Not only did he choose to undermine the biennale's premise of 'Africaness' by collaborating with Vanessa Obberghen but he challenged preconceptions of ethnicity and fixed identity by working with this artist of Asian descent. Planting 16 flags around the city, each with the double lines of a pause button printed on them, they created Take a Taxi and Go for a Ride. Viewers were invited to do just that: to escape the hermetically sealed art world of the biennale and explore the city of Dakar.
Marc Latamie, selected by Orlando Britto Jinorio, chose to install his work, The Sugar Company, on the Island of Goree, exploring the relationship between that point of departure for the trans-Atlantic slave trade and his native Caribbean. His fleur de lis in pristine granulated sugar lay curled up on the dark dungeon floor of the slave house like a white scorpion. But the installations on either side, one with a caged figure and the other with plastic toy soldiers, were too trite to be effective in that overpowering space.
Beyond the biennale one of the most interesting exhibitions was Enfants de Nuit, produced by Man-Keneen-Ki, an association of Senegalese artists, under Kan-Si, who are working with street children. The venue was cloaked in black plastic and torches were handed out to enable viewers to find their way in the dark. The first space was strewn with mats surrounded by begging bowls where one could sit and read by torchlight the texts which included diary entries and poems. Easle-like structures bearing heart-wrenching photographs of the street children, shot by one another, surrounded the space. A row of monitors screened black and white footage, shot by the 18-year old Papisthione and edited at CICV in conjunction with Pierre Schaeffer, of children inhaling petrol-soaked rags, stoned out of their minds and moving in bizarre slow motion. Outside, stick figures dressed in ragged clothes were labeled with the length of time the original wearer has been on the street. Finally, one emerged into the light, surrounded by a joyous outburst of enormous bright, bold paintings produced by the children. It is perhaps a sad reflection on DAK'ART 2000 that this was one of the most exciting and thought-provoking exhibitions to be seen in Dakar.
The Biennale closed on June 5.