Michaelis Galleries, Cape Town
09.08.2015 – 10.09.2015
Collaboratively curated by Nomusa Makhubu and Nkule Mabaso, ‘Fantastic’ is a group exhibition featuring an impressive assortment of local and international artists. The exhibition aims to “re-ignite critical thought about the fantastic in contemporary art and visual culture” and is particularly accomplished as a curatorial undertaking due to its success as both an exhibition and academic project. While there is much to enjoy in the works unto themselves, the essays in the accompanying publication go a long way towards rooting them in the curatorial themes and opening ‘Fantastic’ up as a discussion.
In her enlightening catalogue essay Fantastic Defiance, Makhubu suggests that the exhibition’s conception of ‘fantastic’ is based on Tzvetan Todorov’s suggestion that it constitutes “the dividing line between the uncanny and marvellous” where
The uncanny is presented by situations that seem strange, supernatural or extraordinary but can be explained rationally (illusions), and the marvellous is defined as narratives in which the supernatural remains unexplained, unrationalised and is accepted as such.
The exhibition’s notion of fantastic therefore points to scenarios which can simultaneously be understood either as supernatural or as ‘real life’ situations which are presented allegorically. An excellent example of this is Terence Nance’s video You and I and You (2015). Taken literally, a couple with a small child navigate a road winding through a forest, encountering a number of mystical entities; some dancing in hypnotic rhythm, two residing on thrones in the middle of the road. Soon a red figure covered in feathery leis with an eye on the palm of each hand takes the child from the couple who are then lost and separated in the forest; encountering more bizarre beings. Allegorically, the work could be said to depict a couple dealing emotionally with the loss of their child. This convergent state is where the framing device of the fantastic is located, as the interest lies not with the natural or supernatural specifically, but the ways in which they are read and understood through each other.
Makhubu and Mabaso further demarcate their area of inquiry as representations of the fantastic which “reflect on the normalization and banalization of various forms of violence against the African body”. This has a range of incarnations throughout the exhibition from Kudzanai Chiurai’s reflections on maternal creation and mourning to Jeli Atiku’s performative depiction of history as a figure burdened with skeletons of the past while covered in seeping red bandages which assert the openness of its wounds. Zina Saro-Wiwa’s The Deliverance of Comfort (2010) – one of the exhibition’s highlights – takes a sharply satirical look at the act of exorcising alleged child witches in some parts of rural Nigeria and Africa. Saro-Wiwa’s video incorporates a complex convergence of pop signifiers of witchery (a broom and pointed black hat), Puritanical Salem witch trials, present day Christianity in Nigeria, Paganism and colonial attitudes which aligned superstition with ‘primitive’ naivety (while unironically working under the guise of missionaries).
As the mediums most conducive to conveying the narrative qualities necessary to establish this dichotomous idea of the fantastic, the curators have wisely stuck to photography and video works. The primary exception to this is a sequence of the first 23 pages of Milumbe Haimbe’s upcoming graphic novel The Revolutionist. The extract presents a dystopian future where an entity called the One Consciousness Corporation is attempting to reduce the female body (and particularly the black female body) to redundancy by producing increasingly sophisticated (white) female robots designed to satisfy male desires. In the extract presented, it’s not clear if this redundancy applies to reproduction in addition to sexual gratification, but the excerpt is sufficiently self-contained and works nicely as a counterpoint to Chiurai’s Creation (2012).
This is really where Fantastic’s strength lies, both as a group exhibition and as an academic project. Each piece speaks to the exhibition’s theme in unique ways and the works are not just arranged according to superficial visual connections. The only instance where the overarching concept feels a bit stretched is with Pamela Phatsimo Sunstrum’s video and drawing. Without taking anything away from Sunstrum’s work itself, the absence of body/experiential components causes it to sit on the periphery of the exhibition’s discourse.
Avoiding the temptation to refer to it as a fantastic exhibition, ‘Fantastic’ ranks as the strongest group exhibition in Cape Town this year by some margin and – at this point at least – is a serious contender for exhibition of the year.