A response to Virginia MacKenny's review of Fiona Kirkwood's 'Coats and Coverings' at the NSA
by Frances van Melsen, Curator: Technikon Natal Gallery
Art criticism has always been partial and personal, yet despite the fact that we all know that a review represents one person's viewpoint only, it does affect one's own response to the artwork if it is written by someone who has a sound reputation in both art theory and practice. Virginia MacKenny is recognised as an authoritative voice in the "art world".
For this reason I would like to respond to her recent review of Fiona Kirkwood's exhibition at the NSA Gallery titled 'Coats and Coverings'. MacKenny is entitled to her point of view, but the general tone of the review is dismissive and many statements are superficial and erroneous. My concern is that it could be damaging to the artist and that there are other ways of "seeing" Kirkwood's work.
Point by point therefore:
The suggestion that Kirkwood, an internationally acclaimed artist and one of the pioneers of fibre art in South Africa, could feel "impelled to be relevant" by being "bogged down in socio-political rhetoric" is an attack on her artistic integrity. Her work has always been committed and since she is an artist who is aware of her responsibility not only to herself but to the viewer, her approach to it is serious.
This show should be seen in the context of all her work over the years. Kirkwood's work is about transformation, a spiritual philosophy which informs her life and her creativity. Sociopolitical change is but one aspect of the transformative possibilities inherent in life and in art. The artist's focus on sociopolitical issues, therefore, is not a flirtation with expedient themes with a view to being culturally correct, but an honest identification with the harsh realities of contemporary life in South Africa.
I doubt if the artist would agree to the categorical statement by MacKenny that "Play, not seriousness is Kirkwood's strength". "Play" as manifested in KZN Energy Coat (by the way "pot scourers" are not present) has certainly been an element of her work over the years, manifested through a "playful" use of materials, whimsical and lighthearted themes, and love of bright colours. It is one of her strengths, but her ability to convey a sense of grandeur, mystery, spirituality and tragedy is even more important to an understanding of her work. South African Spirit Coat evokes a monumental presence, an ethereal spirit which is anything but playful. Its power, like that of the Zulu House Coat, derives from the transformation of banal materials (beer can tabs, black plastic, plastic threads) through the masterly manipulation of various fibre techniques into something quite "other". The meaning of this "something other" is grounded in associations related to the materials themselves, the techniques used and also the finished form in all its physicality. Central to the work is an interweaving of organic and synthetic, nature and artifice, life and art, which indicates the dynamic tension and subtlety inherent in most of Kirkwood's work. Such a procedure signifies an intelligent artist who has an acutely holistic sensitivity.
The South African News Coats are not "black and yellow news sellers rainwear" but embody multidimensional meanings referring to anonymity and uniformity. This misinterpretation misses the meaning of Kirkwood's implication that bombardment by the press and media reduce all people to anonymous receptors of a daily dose of drab banality, tragedy and violence.
Despite the playful use of materials (outer surface of condoms and inner surface "lining" of magnified AIDS cells) in Condom Coat, the allusion to protective covering is a serious warning against irresponsible sexual behaviour. In character with all Kirkwood's art making, the work suggests an interplay between outer/inner, pleasure/pain, the evident and the hidden, with the focus on reconciliation. As such, it does not fall in the category of "illustration", "obvious" or "rhetorical".
I would like to add a few thoughts on the critical review:
May it avoid the traps of condescension and hasty judgments.
May it be generous, thoroughly informed and fair.
Above all, may it be encouraging in the presence of authenticity.