No Fixed Abode
The New Church Museum, Cape Town
14.08.2014 – 01.11.2014
More people are travelling all over the world, leaving their home countries behind in search of better things and new experiences. Some are forced to move by circumstances beyond their control, while others choose to explore the world and embark on new adventures. On display throughout The New Church are works by contemporary African artists drawn from, but not limited to The New Church’s collection. Informed by the curator, Candice Allison’s, own travels, particularly a stint in Zimbabwe, ‘No Fixed Abode’ is an attempt to stimulate conversation regarding travel and the related ideas of home, nationality and identity.
The artists that are featured in this exhibition have all at some point in their lives lived in an African country and have, for various reasons, travelled to and lived in at least one country that was foreign to them. Although the artworks do not necessarily deal directly with the artists’ own travelling experiences, they are informed by them, exploring different perspectives on what it means to belong somewhere or by implication to belong nowhere or maybe even everywhere.
For many people, including artists, it has become increasingly difficult to pinpoint a specific place that they call home. In bringing together a diverse range of artworks, ‘No Fixed Abode’ illustrates how the traditional notions of home as a safe and concrete haven, neatly demarcated, are being deconstructed and becoming more and more disconnected from place. The notion of home is exposed as an elusive, transient concept, decentred and always in the process of being created.
Inextricably intertwined with these ideas of belonging are questions about being. Is it possible to know who I am if I do not know where I am from and where I am going to? Moshekwa Langa’s video encapsulates these ideas, and on entering the exhibition one is immediately confronted with the incessant chanting sounding from the video – Where do I begin?… Where do I begin?… Where do I begin?…
The awareness of the longing for acceptance and the comfort that comes with belonging to a specific group or place are most persistent in the first three rooms. This longing results in a sense of absence that can be found to underlie most of the works in the exhibition. Fear, the loss of identity and the vulnerability that accompany the isolation caused by displacement and forced migration become tangible in the works on display. Grouped together, Sue Williamson’s Last Supper, Manley Villa (1981/2008) and tell me…..can you dispossess a void (2013) by Dineo Seshee Bopape, address these issues as they pertain to the displacement of people in South Africa, from District Six in particular.
Venturing further to the global and African contexts, the exhibition includes artworks that explore the powerful workings and far reaching consequences of the official borders that demarcate countries, as well as the more abstract boundaries that separate different groups in society. The installation, The ears of the hippo (2013), by Dan Halter is an example that embodies these ideas. Halter emphasised the global nature of this phenomenon of ‘crossing borders’ by repeating the pattern of the made-in-China travel bag that the woman is carrying, in the cloth she is covered in, which was custom made in Scotland.
Exploring these same ideas are the work’s of Athi-Patra Ruga, Misheck Masamvu and Serge Alain Nitegeka, Langa and an installation by Barthélémy Toguo. Grouped together, in an eerily quiet room, the four last mentioned artists further investigate ideas of not fitting into a foreign society and being compelled to comply with statutes one does not necessarily understand or agree with. Highlighted by their size relative to the small room, these works have an aggressive, proud air about them, making the visitor feel like an intruder.
Another underlying theme of the exhibition is brought to the surface by the Gerald Machona video, Vabvakure (2012) and Meschac Gaba’s untitled works. In using discontinued currencies to make objects for use in his video, Machona not only explores the alienation that comes with migration but also draws attention to the fact that economic conditions are often the cause of forced migration. Although Gaba’s works are more subtle and open ended they also refer to economic conditions prevalent in Africa. Vabvakure also subtly references the contentious subject of xenophobia which originates from socioeconomic conditions and the migrant labour system – a theme that might have been explored in more depth, considering that arguments over who belong in South Africa and who do not, turned violent not so long ago.
From an altogether different and more intimate stance, the photographs of Andrialavidrazana’s Echos (from the Indian Ocean) (2012) and the video, Ze (2012-2011) by Berry Bickle, take a closer look at the personal spaces, in these cases urban, that some people call home. Focussing on the interaction between these private spaces with the broader, often global, society, the artists explore the fragmented, hybrid nature of identity in a world where clearly defined borders are contested and becoming vague.
Through the artworks on display, ‘No Fixed Abode’ explores specific ideas that are clearly set out in the introductory text. By the thematic arrangement of artworks the curator created new associations and thereby the visitor is guided in discovering new meanings related to these chosen themes. Ironically by thematically grouping together the artworks in separate rooms, the artworks and the meanings associated with them become bounded, physically and conceptually, to some extent negating the elusive nature of the ideas the exhibition investigates. Within this coherent structuring of the exhibition the relevance of the James Webb’s work, as well as Jacques Coetzer’s Weekend Cathedral (2008) is not clear – although they do contribute to the exhibition as an aesthetically pleasing experience.
No Fixed Abode is a carefully considered and intriguing exhibition that was executed with finesse and precision, successfully creating a safe space wherein complex ideas can be reflected upon.