Archive: Issue No. 87, November 2004

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John Sampson

John Sampson

Languages that are not understood: power and meaning in composition
by Joost Bosland

Indigenous minority issues are explored and the hegemony of English is questioned through an abstract expressionist lens in John Sampson's 'Blown Sand and Mental Fog' at the AVA. After an already rich career as an artist, Sampson turned to the Michaelis School of Fine Art at UCT for training in the early 90s. He obtained his BAFA in 1994, and went on to study in Namibia where he acquired an MA in Theology. According to the press release, the AVA exhibition is Sampson's first show since 1998.

All works on show are digital prints depicting two-dimensional compositions by Sampson, so they are in a sense more like reproductions than originals. This impression is heightened by the works in which Sampson's signature is present on both the print and the depicted surface. One is left guessing at the status of the depicted works - have they been produced as artworks in their own right, or do they exist solely as source material for these pieces?

Most prints are of compositions in sand and paint. Particles in different shades, shapes and sizes are used as pigments to complement paint in what is essentially a painting. Some works were done entirely in sand, and a few are solely paint based. Of the latter, three prints in particular are definite outliers in the show, with a somewhat mediocre late impressionist appearance.

All of the artworks have titles in Khoekhoegowab, the language of the Nama people of southern Namibia. The labels only contain the original title, members of the public not fluent in Khoekhoegowab can refer to a list with translations taped to a pillar in the downstairs area. The titles of the artwork invert the hegemony of English in South African gallery spaces.

The startling and uneasy experience of confronting an art exhibition without having immediate access to the titles is usually reserved for non-English speaking visitors. Sampson provides deprived Anglophones with a chance to feel excluded and marginalised, by moving Khoekhoegowab from the fringe to the centre. The Nama language is highlighted as relevant and useful in a contemporary world, and brought into the mainstream of cultural discourse. If there is one unquestionable achievement of the exhibition, it is this.

It is possible to denounce Sampson's project as a cheap attempt at hijacking minority issues to give a sociopolitical edge to abstract work. The reasons for this choice remain elusive, but Sampson now lives and works in Windhoek and seems deeply familiar with Nama culture. Inevitably, the naming of the art frames the entire exhibition, and poses the question of Nama presence in Sampson's images. Of course, the use of sand as a source of colour reverberates with the desert habitat of the Nama. Furthermore, the formal simplicity of the sand-based works shows affinity with rock-art.

That Sampson has chosen not to overextend his claim on Nama heritage prevents the show from becoming pompous. It is left up to the audience to reflect on the relevance of the titles. Where Sampson could have included documentary material on the Nama, or expressed a political agenda, he lets the prints and their labels speak for themselves. The subtlety of Sampson's claim on Nama culture should be enough to prevent a regurgitation of the entire 'Miscast' debate.

A discernable influence on Sampson's work is abstract expressionism. Rothko's presence is especially strongly felt, for example in works like /Hardab �Am-ai, and X� - /oma. The artist shows respect for the project of art for art's sake, and many compositions work with the very same formal elements as the original abstract expressionists did. Sampson's Khoekhoegowab labels add a sociopolitical dimension to the formalist aesthetic, proposing that modernism is far from dead and just as relevant as ever. In fact, it does the same for pure abstraction that it does for indigenous languages: it moves it to the centre, from its current existence on the fringe.

Sampson's choice to exhibit and sell digital prints of works he has physically created could be motivated by a number of factors. Instead of guessing at his reasons, it is useful to look at its implications. First, it merges the contemporaneity of digital technology with that of the Nama people. In other words, it places the Nama uncompromisingly in the present, resisting and subverting tendencies to regard indigenous peoples as existing in a timeless history. Secondly, it interacts with the abstract expressionists' obsessive quest for flatness of the picture plane.

While using imperfect natural materials like sand, Sampson beats all modernist painters when it comes to the much desired quality of flatness. He shows he knows how to play the game. In a more pragmatic sense, lastly, the digital prints enable Sampson to sell five copies of each work - and then quite possibly the original creation as well. For a full-time artist working on the African continent, such a commercial advantage can be crucial.

Sampson revalues the marginalised cultures of the Nama and the modernists. He firmly places his art in the global discourse of art as political production, yet he resists a forced departure from formalist concerns. Assuming some of the works in paint give insight to his earlier artistic concerns, it would indicate that he is tracing the development of Western painting - from impressionism he moved on to abstract expressionism. His choice of medium, digital print, can be seen as central to his claim on both cultures.

Flatness and contemporaneity are achieved through a singular process, doing justice to both of Sampson's concerns. 'Blown Sand and Mental Fog' is a comprehensive project marked by an astute intertextuality. It is all there.