Churchill Madikida at the Standard Bank Gallery
by Michael Smith
2006's Standard Bank Young Artist Award winner Churchill Madikida is represented in Johannesburg during June and July 2007 through a show at the Standard Bank Gallery. The exhibition is an uneven affair, curated into three sections that cover three major bodies of work: 2003's 'Matters of the Heart', the artist's 2004 exploration of HIV/Aids, and his most recent body of work entitled 'Like Father like Son?' (2006).
While the show is definitely flawed, it is an important one in that it traverses ground of identity exploration in a disarmingly frank and open manner, a welcome relief from the knitted brows and essentialising debates that emerged in the wake of 'Circumcised/Circumscribed' a few years ago.
Madikida takes his cue from Sue Williamson in making art that looks overwhelmingly like documentary. Williamson's 'Better Lives' series from 2003 especially springs to mind here, with Madikida using elements of narrative to allow his concepts to unfold. There is still, however, an as-yet-unresolved tension that occurs between this documentary mode of much of his work and more aestheticised parts.
An example of this is the Virus video. Part of a scarlet-tinged section of the show, in which the artist explores HIV/Aids, this work utilizes fairly extensive digital manipulation to create a trippy take on the issue. The stills that accompany this short loop (it clocks in at just under two minutes) oddly recall late 60s record sleeves. The video projection hints at cellular multiplication, utilizing a Warholian subdivision of the matrix into smaller and smaller units, to the point where these become virtually indistinguishable from pixels enlarged by the projection process. The link to Warhol exists on another level, in the way that Madikida lays veneers of high-key colour and decorative abstraction over a subject that is so serious (think Disaster series). Yet, despite this lofty reference, the work looks like a music video, and not in a good way. It seems at odds with the straight, talking-head style of the videos in Like Father like Son?, or with the more successful Matters of the Heart, which works with minor technical and stylistic intervention. An accompanying series of seven Rorsharsch-style photographic prints entitled Blood on my Hands seems awfully literal. Here a pair of hands doused in blood twists and turns under the camera's gaze; again this seems too superficially aestheticised to deal effectively with either blood phobia or the sense of guilt suggested by the title.
It is in the sculptural installation Status II that this section of the show really kicks into gear. The work combines sex and sickness in a manner reminiscent of many of Bob Flanagan's installation/performance hybrids. Blinking red light rope snakes around a hospital bed and other appropriated hospital furniture, which is in turn covered by bargain-basement red velvet. Trash and tragedy are surprisingly productive bedfellows, as Madikida taps into the desire/fear dichotomy that looms over contemporary South African sexuality. It seems that Madikida's approach works when it is either bare-bones or aesthetically hyperactive.
A pared-down approach informs Like Father like Son?, the work in which he traces his meeting and reuniting with his biological father. The work operates via six small video monitors on which constant and interweaving testimonies from Madikida himself and various other family members loop. With minimal editing, and with their subjects speaking directly to the cameras, these parts begin to add up to something very powerful, even more so for their matter-of-factness. Beyond this section is a recreated lounge area, complete with worn furniture and a small TV on which sections of the video are repeated. This lounge is populated with mugs and t-shirts with family members' faces printed on them, a wry twist of the nuclear family idyll given Madikida's fractured situation.
What concerned me about this show, beyond the minor issues already mentioned, was either Madikida or the curators neglecting to draw any connection between the works dealing with HIV/Aids and the body of work dealing with splintered family. Surely, this area held potential for greater exploration than was offered here.
The result was that one left the show with a sense of incompleteness. It seems that Madikida's formulation of a fully convincing material sense remains elusive, and that his approach is still developing. Given that, I'm not convinced that work like this deserves rewarding at the level at which it is happening.
Opened: June 12
Closes: July 14
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