S'fiso Ka Mkame at the African Art Centre
by Gabi Ngcobo
S'fiso Ka Mkame is not a new name to South African audiences; Durban audiences in particular will know his images from those cell c billboards changing our urban landscapes 'for the city'. Ka Mkame is represented twice on these billboards, either by mistake or intentionally as one of the pioneers of our time.
Ka Mkame rose to prominence in the 80's with his letter series Letters to my Child and Letter to God which commented on the political upheavals of the time. Today his work has shifted and dwells in an ancestral world balanced by sharp comments on the social ills and contradictions of the times, especially in human relationships. This is seen in works like The Moon shall be my Witness and Lament for Sister N, how can you protect me from what I am .
In this exhibition the work that stands out for me is a series of portraits entitled People I have Met. These portraits are created from the leftovers of his scrapings; a technique he has mastered by densely layering his surfaces with oil pastel colours and then, using razors, scraping and creating images, patterns and shapes, giving birth to a layered history of black contemporary issues.
The portraits greet you before you enter the gallery space and serve as an introduction to the characters encountered inside the main space. The striking difference from the rest of the exhibition rests in the sense that these are maybe 'zooming in' on the characters encountered inside.
They can also be seen as unmasked variations on his ancestral spirited masks that, in this exhibition, are placed in a context critically commenting on the colonial trade routes. The masks are seen within patterns at the edge of the paper and are reminiscent of 'African-Print' fabrics, which 'emerged in the 19th century as a Dutch attempt to undercut Indonesian batik production through the mechanisation of the wax-resist process. The Indonesians rejected these fabrics because of the unacceptable quality of their veining and spotting, but these very imperfections found favour on the colonial Gold Coast.' (Picton 1995) The rest, as they say, is history.
The residues are cleverly ironed onto canvas to create portraits of the artist's past encounters. People I have Met I and III are portraits. The serious gaze, concentration and symmetrical placing of the 'sitters' make them seem like official photographs taken for identity documents, a process everyone of us goes through at least once in our lives.
The sensitive manner in which they are delivered is confrontational and they seem to be saying 'see me, identify me, this who I am'. People I have Met IV, V and VI remind me of the kind of pictures taken at DIY passport photo places found in European and American bus and train stations. Here you may find friends packing themselves into the booth to take group photos, recording the happy moment of their meeting or the sad moment of their parting.
In Ka Mkame's 'pictures' the people do not seem necessarily happy. In IV there's a moment of tranquility between two women. One faces the 'lens' and the other is captured in profile, eyes closed.
In V three faces vie for position, one cut off in the middle. Again one set of eyes opens as the other two close, allowing only one person to see or be seen by the lens.
The strong features tell of the pride, the pain, the intimacy and connectedness of their lives. The scratchy surface of the canvas reads likes the surface of old pictures, showing their age, perhaps symbolising a past packed away only to be revisited in those contemplative moments.
Unlike the works inside the gallery which are often loaded with issues, in this series we find ordinary people whose stories of places (physical and mental) they have traveled are etched onto their faces.
Closed: October 24