Johannesburg Art Gallery
12.04.2015 – 19.07.2015
Turiya Magadlela’s latest series of work, titled Kaffersheet, expands on her interest in incarcerated black leaders in South African prisons, using as her material correctional service sheeting and orange prisoner overalls to create two- and three-dimensional works. The works sit ominously on and within the walls of the gallery’s silent space, yet seemingly responding to it with the suspended isolation of imprisonment that they so readily signify. The term kaffersheet is a controversial one when broken up, literally translated and seen within a South African context. For Magadlela, however its use is within the context of its traditional use as a Xhosa cloth, usually white or cream and sold at the common fabric shop.
At the entrance of the exhibition is a brief summary of the artist’s work which states that Magadlela ‘juxtaposes the “Kaffersheet” cloth with the prison uniforms and sheeting,’ stretching, folding and stitching the material together in abstract compositions. The summary further states that the works are often titled after ‘historically incarcerated leaders like Kgosi Galeshewe, Langalibalele and Hintsa.’ Interestingly, there are no titles to be found next to works suggesting that either the gallery staff forgot to place them there or that they were purposefully omitted. Either way, and to the artist’s credit, the works still speak volumes. Were there titles, one would have been curious to know more about the name-sakes of the works and how they speak to the artist’s subject of interest, incarcerated black prisoners. This is perhaps an unforeseen mistake but somehow in the deliberate or unintended absence of the titles the works still manage to nudge you towards a deeper engagement and perhaps, a structured speculation. You wonder who formerly wore them, under what conditions and what, if anything, does their new reconstituted nature seek to convey.
Most striking within the exhibition is certainly the installation of prison steel beds that sit stacked in the large room that holds the majority of the works on display. The beds are piled into a structure, bringing to mind the overcrowded nature of prison spaces where multiple bodies can chaotically occupy a single cell and yet they also seem to adhere to a hierarchy – new prisoners sleeping on the floor without beds while the elders occupy beds and even use the prison sheets as curtains to create some level of privacy and mediated distance between themselves and other prisoners.
On close inspection of the work in the exhibition, one can read the print of ‘correctional service’ on the randomly torn and stretched strips. This functions what may be said to be the double effect of both demonstrating where the sheet material comes from. Interestingly, what it also does is to symbolically contradict the layout and structure of the works by Magadlela – a contradiction that ironically finds its depth in the very illusory idea of prisons as places of rehabilitation.
Kaffersheet is currently on exhibition the Johannesburg Art Gallery.