Archive: Issue No. 51, November 2001

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Jane Alexander

Jane Alexander
Bom Boys
Fibre glass, oil colour, fabric

DaimlerChrysler Award for Sculpture 2002
by Kathryn Smith

Along with (rare) unanimous agreement on the choice of this year's winner of the DaimlerChrysler Award for Sculpture 2002 - Cape Town-based artist Jane Alexander - other commentary bandying about the smoker-filled foyer of the Indaba Hotel last Thursday went something like "yeah, and the food wasn't bad either - but what is that on the cover of the brochure?"

A planar sculptural form bearing resemblance to a disjointed boat propeller (huh?) or perhaps elements used in car construction (more likely), the object seemed thankfully to exist only in the form of a 3D computer graphic. It certainly did not look like anything a self-respecting nominee for this prestigious and career-boosting art prize could muster.

This is a prize to be coveted. DaimlerChrysler has invested substantially in South African arts and culture with two visual arts prizes and one prize for jazz having been awarded since 1999. They will extend this to cover drama, literature and dance. As their mandate states, "The DaimlerChrysler Award will enable the winner to pursue his or her artistic endeavors undisturbed and without any concern for material well-being for one year." The award will also finance exhibitions in Germany and South Africa that will be accompanied by a bilingual catalogue. The company will also grant winners a three-month stipend in Germany or the US for further study and research.

While members of the media, artworld and corporate sector ruminated over their salmon, sharing last-minute opinions as to the winner, MC Barry Ronge deftly delivered a discussion about the importance of material culture in an emerging economy like South Africa, using the Taliban-led destruction of material culture in Afghanistan as a counterpoint and reminder of what right-wing ideologies can jeopardise of a country's cultural and heritage stock.

In his announcement speech, DaimlerChrysler jurist and director of the Venice Biennale Harald Szeemann said of Alexander: "Her protagonists - a gang of street children known as the Bom Boys - neither look at each other nor at the viewer; they do not ask for acknowledgement and exist in a nowhere land where the difference between victim and perpetrator is blurred and immaterial.

"The street children are presented in a vacuum, which does not allow us to understand whether they are simply gathering or massing with intent. Their diminutive size also makes it possible to think of them as game pieces on a board that are being manipulated.

"Jane Alexander's great proficiency as a sculptor is greatly enhanced by her use of paint, clothing and other materials. Through her photomontages, we enter the desolate world inhabited by her children."

So with all the pomp and ceremony said and done - I had a few words with a publicity-evading Alexander (who was also nominated for the contemporary art prize won by Kay Hassan in 1999/2000) in the foyer and we mutually decided to cancel our scheduled interview for the next morning - it was off to the exhibition which opened without ceremony at the Johannesburg Art Gallery.

Some of Artthrob's readers may remember last year's reports about long-awaited repairs to a flooding JAG and vast sums of money extracted from council to deal with the water damage - some R1.2-million to date. After recent torrential rain and a subsequent call from hysterical Joubert Park Project organisers urging me to come down and witness what the repair job had resulted in, I arrived to find squelching floor tiles, newspapers and paint tins catching leaks and staff with mops moving what was once a small river in the ground floor space. The DaimlerChrysler Award is installed to the right of the JPP exhibition and water-damage aside, still looks a bit shabby.

The downstairs space at the JAG has never been that interesting - long and narrow with a heavy central lighting ´┐Żbuttress' which only really accommodates moving down and up the space, looking at the walls. The JPP redesigned their section with strategically placed dry-walling which has opened the space to a more non-linear experience of the gallery. But it stops at the DaimlerChrysler section.

In order of appearance, visitors will find Langa Magwa's butterflies, animal hide "fingerprints" and oversized bracelets woven in straw and mixed media. The work deals quite obviously with issues of identity and I often find his work simplistic. However, the butterflies start doing more interesting things but should have been hung "scattered", as if having landed on the wall, not controlled in straight clean lines.

Albert Munyai showed about four pieces, including two figures and a drum piece. Munyai was the toast of the audio-visual presentation of the nominees at the awards dinner, with his comment that with every idea or piece of wood he is faced with, he feels as if he becomes pregnant. Why this video, which was pretty well produced, is not being screened in the exhibition space makes no sense. If anyone has seen the Turner Prize, you find half the visitors in the screening room watching artists profiles and the extensive television coverage of the prize then moving back into the space in animated discussion. The placement and lighting of Munyai's work does not do it justice.

It is great to see two excellent sculptural pieces by Joachim Schönfeldt - shown all too seldom in Johannesburg, but then that could have something to do with his comment that "I only make a sculpture about once a decade". He also shows a work in progress and details from a large print called Social Pyramid, but the digital prints are curling at the edges and it's distracting against his polished and seamless carved works.

Claudette Schreuders shows the favourite Ken and Barbie pair, as well as her gravepost pieces from last year's FNB Vita Art prize and one new large-scale work - an oversized protrait bust simply called Olive. It is powerful in its monumental serenity. Moses Seleko delivers his trademark transformed objects - taking everyday things like chairs, barrels or large panels, he uses other found objects to create line and form beneath a covering of tyre rubber or animal hide. The work is aggressive but tactile, with a weight and potency that has to do with what is revealed and concealed.

The one nominee for a sculpture award that puzzled me was Minnette Vári. Her importance on the contemporary art scene is obvious, but unless we are making thin-on-the-ground arguments for video installation as sculpture or the manipulation of digital information in 3D animation as a new kind of sculptural process, then her place in this group is odd. As her work - a two-screen video projection - was not operating, with the excuse from the invigilator that "we weren't shown how to use the equipment", it's difficult to comment, but the catalogue reproductions look promising. Called Chimera, it appears as if she has manipulated the sandstone sculptural friezes in the Voortrekker Monument.

Paul du Toit showed brightly painted figures and protraits constructed from found automotive parts. Not even an ultimately sympathetic article by Chris Roper published in the Mail & Guardian recently can persuade me that Du Toit's work, or his ability to articulate it, is convincing. I appreciate and respect his skill in virtually single-handedly establishing himself as an artist who exhibits extensively and globally, but a good marketing strategy does not for compelling art make.

The DaimlerChrysler is an event that can seriously put our homegrown art on the map, as it were, but I think the car giant would do well to try and access a broader public, spend more on the exhibition installation and education programme and less on swanky dinners at exclusive northern suburbs hotels. And finally, where nominees are concerned, one must ask whether the nomination of young artists like Magwa, Schreuders and perhaps even Vári can do justice to the exhibition schedule and 150-page catalogue - not in terms of the quality of their work, but simply in terms of quantity and representation. In that respect, and in the face of an intense exhibition schedule abroad, the choice of Jane Alexander not only gives the motor mogul a guarantee of astonishing exhibitions, but also rewards one of our biggest contemporary talents for years of contribution to the cultural landscape.