20.09.2014 – 25.10.2014
Goodman Gallery, Cape Town
[Working Title] is an international annual group exhibition in which the Goodman shows artists from Africa and the Diaspora that their curators discuss and admire, but whom the gallery does not represent because of contractual obligations, distance and other practical considerations. The title is a somewhat apologetic appellation for such a ground-breaking, quirkily original show. Vague and indefinite, it smacks of the tentative, provisional and unresolved, and these were the very qualities the organizers sought. Zach Viljoen, principal curator of the Cape Town branch of the Goodman, says the curatorial team endeavored to efface themselves, and avoided imposing any particular direction, or overarching theme, such as race, identity or ethnicity, upon the artists. By refraining from intervention, they hoped that the exhibition would generate its own synergy, and that, in combination, the works would define their own identities, and achieve a serendipitous coincidence of goals. Surprisingly – for the most part – this is precisely what happened.
Although not consciously planned, an underlying unity immediately asserted itself. The works clearly related to each other, and often overlapped in theme, technique and construction. Five of the eight exhibits – the real showstoppers – consist of single videos, sometimes accompanied by small batches of related photographs, paintings or sculptures. The common ground is the artists’ shared preoccupation with fantasy and narrative presented within the framework of a mock-documentary. Because all the videos depart, to varying degrees, from the straight objective record, and become enactments with a strong performative dimension – they blur the borders between fact, faction and pure fiction.
Saya Woolfalk’s ornate extravaganza The Empathics perfectly embodies this collision between reality and imagination. It purports to be a documentary, supposedly produced by the Institute of Empathy in upstate New York in which a preposterous yarn about a band of women who evolve into blossoming, part floral, part human, hybrids is presented as scientific truth. By employing the scholarly apparatus a museologist might devote to an anthropological exhibition, the video almost becomes credible. However this delightful spoof of professorial academic rigor unexpectedly changes direction, and turns into a wacky, visually engrossing, phantasmagoria that blends video, animation, performance, doll-making, ethnographic display and installation into one delirious amalgam. Grave ritualized movements, highly stylized costume and gesture, dance, mime, Yoga asanas, Tantric art, Haitian Voodoo, science fiction, psychedelia, and American Indian pattern and decoration are the heady ingredients that make Woolfalk’s art so spectacular and flamboyant. Her exotic petaled mutants may stem from an alternative universe, but they nevertheless express concepts of race, gender, mutation and hybridity that are entirely pertinent to us – and the artist’s deep seriousness comes disguised as a witty, highfalutin’ leg-pull.
Flights of fancy, make-believe and storytelling all inform Neïl Beloufa’s ‘sci-fi documentary’ Kempinsky – a suite of hand-held cinéma vérité style interviews with men who look straight into the camera as they describe their imaginings about the future in the present tense, so that a fantasticated tomorrow becomes a fait-accompli. Shot by night, with the speakers holding up fluorescent tubes of neon to pick themselves out of the encroaching darkness. The video distils an eerie mood of angst and attrition because of the gap between the men’s Utopian expectations, and the drear reality of their circumstances – mired in poverty in the lush, but desolate, decaying jungle slums that surround Bamako, the capital of Mali, one of the world’s poorest nations.
Light, especially the recurring shots of floodlights, becomes a symbol of progress and the spread of knowledge and wealth, but this does not extend to Mali where the blackness of night, and all it portends of backwardness, ignorance and superstition, continually threatens to engulf the speakers. The hauntingly lovely final shot in which bicycles, scooters and pedestrians traverse a rickety, antiquated bridge over the wide river Niger seems to emphasize that although there is movement, there is no advance. The neon signs advertising the Kempinski chain of luxury hotels hints at an opulence unimaginable in these tristes tropiques.
The literal is similarly avoided in favor of symbol and metaphor in Ishola Akpo’s Les Redresseurs de Calavi which concerns Beninese male vigilantes to whom righting wrongs is purely a matter of force. They are shown at work in the gym as they construct the superb muscular physiques that are the source of their power. Although these self-appointed watchdogs flout the rule of law, and take justice into their own hands, Akpo consistently heroicizes them as sweaty icons of chivalric valor and noblesse. Lifting weights acquires triumphal dimensions, and signifies the shouldering of burdens and the bearing of responsibilities – the men are implicitly compared with aggrandizing mythological archetypes such as Atlas carrying the weight of the world. However this is no Fascist celebration of might as right. Akpo’s paean of praise to these macho titans is purely ironic, and it points up the questionable nature of the ‘justice’ they mete out, and asks whether they are a righteous or a lawless force.
As the artist Bogosi Sekhukhuni was raised completely apart from his father, he sought him out on Facebook, and initiated a string of conversations in which he desperately attempted to forge some link with this unknown parent. His video which is projected on two screens, one showing the father, and the other the son, is constructed of robot generated images derived from the online photographs from the men’s Facebook profile pages. Their talking heads are animated as transcripts of their text conversations are read out in a digitalized voice by computers who deliver the lines without accent or intonation in a toneless drone. The same absence of affect characterizes the disembodied faces which float in limbo separated from their bodies. Apart from blinking eyes and speaking lips, father and son remain totally devoid of any facial expression as they blankly stare straight ahead.
Technology of studied neutrality is used to record the heartbreakingly tentative and halting interaction between father and son, both of whom reach out to each other, but, at the same time, pull back. The video reveals how their responses to each other are warped by inhibition and expectation – reduced to small talk of such resounding Pinteresque banality, that the real theme becomes not what is said but what is left unsaid, all the bottled up emotions and throttled feelings which were never found their way into words. The complete absence of sentiment in the description of this most emotionally fraught of situations emphasizes the tenuousness of the men’s contact and their poignant failure to strike up a rapport.
Zina Saro-Wiwa’s Eaten by the Heart portrays a variety of black couples – straight, gay and lesbian – kissing and canoodling. Seen in head and shoulders, the lovers fill an entire wall where they are blown up many times larger than life size. Outlined against limbo backgrounds, nothing distracts us from their passionately embracing bodies which envelop the viewer, eliminating awareness of all else.
At first the kissing seems so intimate, you feel the discomfort of being forced into the role of a prying Peeping Tom. But when at the end of the sequence, the couple turn around, and acknowledge the viewer, it becomes clear that the video records a performance. Because the content is not real, but staged, and intended to be watched, you view it without moral qualms, or any sense of voyeuristic intrusion, and indeed it is the work’s breezy purity and innocence that make it so enjoyable. Saro-Wiwa avoids the shocking, titillating or pornographic, and maintains a tender and reverent attitude toward the lovemaking which is often gentle and soulful, rather than carnal.
But it is of course a performance. Acting implies imitation, and the piece explores how our ideas of intimacy are shaped by culture. The couples can be seen to model themselves on romantic stereotypes derived from literature, Hollywood movies, TV, popular magazines, advertisements, pop videos and what we are told and what we see for ourselves.
Do modes of intimacy differ in various societies? What is the boundary between the learned and the instinctive, the culturally mediated and the natural and spontaneous? These are the questions Zina Saro-Wiwa so ably addresses?