Fiona Kirkwood, Lee Scott-Hempson and Joanne Bloch at the NSA
by Virginia MacKenny
Over 10 years ago Albie Sachs' paper 'Preparing Ourselves for Freedom' (1990) stimulated debate about the dangers of a too narrowly defined arena for art. Fearing political prescriptiveness would impoverish art Sachs provocatively suggested a five-year ban on the statement that "culture is a weapon of the struggle" as a means to encourage wider artistic expression - one that would "expose contradictions and reveal hidden tensions" and allow for ambiguity of response.
Fiona Kirkwood, an artist whose work abounds with socio-political subjects, would do well to consider the implications of statements such as these. In a climate that makes cultural capital out of issue-based work, artists may feel impelled to be "relevant", thereby losing contact with their own strengths. Play, not seriousness, is Kirkwood's strength and it is a pity that in this show it rarely has the chance to shine through.
Bogged down in socio-political rhetoric, works such as Condom Coat (squares of condom packets sewn together), South African News Coats (black and yellow news sellers' rainwear interlaced with collages of film and newspaper headlines) and South African Spirit Coat (surrounded by cut-outs of black and white figures with a map of Africa emblazoned in the middle) merely become illustrative, reinforcing the obvious without taking the viewer into a more complex engagement with the subject. Even the rather beautiful beaded Freedom Cloak, flying flag-like across the gallery wall like an unfurled chasuble, is undermined by a series of cut-out T-shirts with "tortured", "detained" and "exiled" unnamed heroes emblazoned across them, reducing the wide range of human experience to something akin to a political football team. KZN Energy Coat is a rare exception where plastic Slinkies and brightly coloured pot scourers set up an electric retinal agitation provoking, in their transformation, both visual delight and ironic comment.
Lee Scott-Hempson's work suffers a similar variant of the problem. Concerned with the broad endeavour of celebrating the trials and tribulations of being a woman in an Africa full of African idols and fetish statuary, she employs a myriad eye-catching design techniques and devices to animate her work. The pyrotechnics of such display however end up feeling hollow. It is in the smaller details that her strength lies. The energetically painted cockerel on a woman's head in Cosmic Joke is witty and wry, and in Body Landscape I a tiny, delicately painted, framed vignette of two women facing each other arms raised, palm to palm, naked except for their underpants, perfectly captures the intimacy and familiarity between women.
Joanne Bloch's 'Acupuncture' exemplifies work where the small becomes subversively powerful. Drawn from years of collecting, colourful plastic trivia is artfully arranged in boxes. Here the playful nature of the work does not necessarily reduce content. When We Get There, a box frame filled with miniature renditions in plastic of every yuppie's standard attire, including cellphones, watches and CD players, tennis racquets and calculators, represents a world of aspirations.
In a time where the artificial replaces the natural, Bloch's Unnatural History is a veritable landscape of translucent and rubbery replicas of animals and plants. Flamingo swizzle sticks and plastic lizards grace forests of tinsel leaves and plastic ferns. Fake flies, miniature dinosaurs and rubber snakes are all as neatly pinned in place as in any fine entomologist's collection. The brightly coloured throwaways that reflect our consumerism are desirable, yet without apparent value. Visually seductive the works both critique and embrace our materialist world - an ambiguous position that leaves the viewer vacillating between responses, unsure whether the acupuncturist's needle is healing or exposing the wound of our society.
Until November 24
NSA Gallery, 166 Bulwer Road, Glenwood
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