Prejudging and misjudging
by Joost Bosland
'Prejuger South Africa' showcases the work of three foreign artists who are completing residencies at the Greatmore Studios in Woodstock. Reem Hassan from Egypt, Karen F Sanders from the USA and Fulvio Bressan from Switzerland each spent three months in Cape Town, and the exhibition is a way to show to the public what they have been doing while they were down here.
The French word prejuger in the title means 'to prejudge', and shares a root with our word 'prejudice'. With the title, the artists wanted to make clear that they realise three months is too short a time in which to come to any conclusions about the country. It suggests that their observations are heavily informed by their preconceived notions, and not necessarily by South African 'reality.' Such a title preempts possible criticism to a large degree - if these artists misrepresent South Africa, they can hide behind their acknowledgement of bias.
The work is exhibited in their individual studios, with the exception of a collaborative installation in which work from each is juxtaposed in a small room in the studio complex. The installation is in one way the centerpiece of the show, and is the only space where the work of the different artists can be seen in relation to each other. At the same time, the nature of installation work separates this part of the exhibition from the individual studio shows.
As part of the installation, Hassan has covered an entire wall with photocopies of newspaper reports about crime, interspersed with faces, also taken from newspapers. On that background she has applied black oil paint in a network of sinuous shapes also found in the work on show in her studio. The use of actual South African newspaper articles complicates the construct of crime as a foreigner's prejudice. Why does Hassan feel the need to underscore her impression with 'facts'?
As the newspaper wall is the only non-abstract work by Hassan in the show, she seems to centralise crime in her own limited construct of South Africa. She explains that it was her fear of crime in South Africa that led to the use of black in her abstract work. In this country, the choice of black as a metaphor for crime is contentious, to say the least. Naïvité on Hassan's part is the most probable explanation for the lapse in judgment.
On the bright side, the inclusion of black in the works in her studio has very little negative resonance, and if the artist intended it to signify crime, she failed. They are colourful, decorative paintings. Bright and often contrasting colours sway across the canvases in organic shapes. Three paintings have a black surface roughly in the shape of a face at the centre, surrounded by bright patterns. I like to believe Hassan was inspired by the colourful African doeks she saw around Cape Town - that would prove that this city has more inspiration to offer than lawbreaking alone.
Highly stylised fences, gates, keys, guard dogs and barbed wire appear as part of Bressan's project on Capetonian street life. His method combines photography with digital manipulation of images. To create the works on show, he went around Cape Town with a camera, taking pictures of scenes of street life that struck him. On these scenes, always prominently featuring people, he digitally superimposed the outlines of fences and the like, with a visually stunning result.
His fascination with street people - including bergies, car guards, community policemen, gangsters, hawkers and playing children - is central to the work he has produced in South Africa. On the wall of his studio, inbetween the digital prints, hangs a blue plastic silhouette of a person pushing a trolley. Everyone is familiar with the character, yet he plays with its significance on several levels. The blue silhouette is holding a piece of cardboard with the 'No Name' brand logo. It links the trolley to the supermarket from which it originated, while simultaneously pointing to the anonymity of these regular extras in the urban theatre.
The anonymity of the stereotyped is a theme present as well in the work of Sanders. In work completed before her Cape Town sojourn, she contrasted images of the black subject with the conventional pictograms of street signage, challenging the ways in which stereotypes reduce and essentialise. Explorations on her studio wall show how she has continued to play with the possibilities of pictograms. She has cut out the images from some pictograms, showing that the image remains recognisable by virtue of its outline. She also plays with the colour of pictograms - white figure on black background, and vice versa.
Actually layering pictograms with photographs represents a new step in her artistic vocabulary, and a work that is both included in the installation and present on her studio wall shows its potential. It is a picture of a black mother holding up her baby, with the outline of a 'baby' pictogram placed over the entire form of the child's image. The same pictogram is repeated in miniature scale throughout the background. From the moment a black child is born, the haunting image seems to say, it can expect to be stereotyped and classified.
The setting and premise situate 'Prejuger' somewhere midway between a regular group show at a gallery and a studio visit. None of the works have titles, at least not yet. The tentative atmosphere shields the artists from criticism. If a work is still in progress, sharp judgments are not yet warranted. Moreover, the title narrows the space for possible criticism even further. Hassan's crime metaphor would have been damning, had she not openly admitted it is based on prejudice. Now we are left with a showcase of work-in-progress, with a variety of work from international artists trying to grasp South Africa. Fun to see, but too tentative for my liking.