06.08.2015 – 12.09.2015
Thando Mama’s lunchtime lecture in 2006 has stuck with me since I was a wee first year Michaelis student largely because he seemed to be one of the only South African ‘video artists’ when video still felt like a dirty word. Mama’s actual work largely went over my head then, but his contention of its validity as a medium was tremendously exciting. His entry in the 2007 Spier Contemporary was the last I time I encountered his work and – as SA video art has experienced a bit of a boom in the last couple of years – I found myself wondering every so often what became of him. Needless to say, when the AVA announced that a new solo exhibition entitled ‘Of Nationhood/Desolation’ was due to open, my curiosity was piqued.
The exhibition tends to focus more on Mama’s prints than his video work (although his signature low-fi ‘hazy’ video aesthetics are very much present). Thematically, ‘Of Nationhood/Desolation’ is quite a refreshing exhibition. While it tackles the hot button topics of monuments, memorialisation and national identity in contemporary South Africa, old Cecil John is shown the backseat (though his absence does cause him to linger as a spectre, much like in real life). Instead, Mama frames his exhibition around two central motifs: the ‘Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika’ stanzas of the national anthem and the National Monument of the Republic of Ciskei at Ntaba kaNdoda.The exhibition aims to look at whether structures intended to preserve the memory of the past (Xhosa chiefs and Methodist hymns-come-struggle anthems) can serve any meaningful memorialising purpose and whether they are impervious to the erosion of amnesia and shaping of selective histories. For instance, does the Ntaba KaNdoda National Monument actually convey any remembrance of the ‘Xhosa chiefs who died in the clashes with the white colonisers in conflicts for land’? And what of the intense history surrounding Dimbaza (where the monument is located) and the Ciskei Bantustan? Mama looks at the relationship between the monument and the ground on which it is placed in the new video piece Of Nationhood while also forging a relationship between the two by appropriating the monument’s bizarre shape as a visual motif for the arrangements of print installations.
One of these, Remember – Dimbaza (2015) is easily the most accomplished work in the exhibition. Here Mama constructs his own memorial to the estimated 90 graves in the centre of Dimbaza, where the deceased from the first two years of forced relocation between 1967 – 1969 were buried (70 of which were children). The work is comprised of 90 plastic packets filled with soil, referencing the number of dead and the metaphorical connotations of the word ukudimbaza to excavation and uncovering of secrets. It is a well-conceived, concise and poetic gesture which succinctly brings many of the exhibition’s concerns together.
Another successful entry is the tetraptych video installation Desolation I-V (2015) which juxtaposes archival footage of police township raids with various recorded incarnations of Nkosi Sikeleli. While serving as a reminder of the National Anthem’s former struggle credentials as a resistance anthem (one which may or may not have been banned after the Sharpeville massacre of 1960), the work simultaneously reinforces Mama’s contention about the erosion of memory when it comes across as initially perplexing that footage of police brutality is accompanied by ‘that song from the rugby’.
Having said that, it is in discussing the National Anthem that Mama’s engagement with his topic slackens. Mama’s point about it being a ‘mash-up’ of ‘deferred reconciliation’ is completely valid, but the exhibition is not particularly concerned with digging into the history of the components of this mash-up. The history is alluded to in an installation entitled African National Anthem (2015), but the work is flippant and leans too closely on the visual approach of Siemon Allen’s work featuring reproductions of record labels. In fact the labels which Mama used seem to have been drawn from the images accompanying an extensive article by Allen which chronicles the recording history of the South African National Anthem’s components. Either way, the discussion proffered by the work is far more effective when substantiated with a reading of Allen’s text.
Ultimately, the experience of the exhibition is a bit like viewing one of Mama’s videos, some works are conceptually clear and concise (à la Of Nationhood or The Forgotten (2012)) others tend towards being hazy and under-developed (à la Prayer II (2011) and Death of a Messenger (2011)). At times, it does feel like Mama is just dipping his toes in the complexity of the issues that he raises, but it is key that he is raising them of his own accord rather than jumping on a hashtag trend. After a prolonged period of absence from the fine art realm, Thando Mama is in a prime position to expand. ‘Of Nationhood/Desolation’ points towards a number of productive areas where his inquiry can be taken.