At first glance TERRITORIES (sic) at Commune1 is filled with beautifully muted tones sitting against clean lines. Sunstrum’s figures in cool hues, an intersection between bodies and geography, and Nkosi’s paintings, stark and removed from the world with an almost still life quality. The materiality of the space itself, with its balance of wood, glass, concrete and white walls, harmonised with the sound of running water from the courtyard, contributes to the calm. There is a temptation to breeze through the exhibition—to float in, and out again, with a lightness of mind. But the landscapes dealt with here, and their territorial lines, offer far too much complexity for that.
Pamela Phatsimo Sunstrum and Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi have a history. They have collaborated on a number of occasions with their exhibitions being referred to as “joint solo shows”. This sense of their works as independent from each other is strong, with the links between them not immediately apparent. This is true of TERRIRTORIES, where Sunstrum’s curved and multiplicitous works contrast with Nkosi’s often hard, and self-contained lines. There are connections to be found between these works, but the missed connections can be the most obvious and frustrating.
Both sets of works in the show are said to relate in some way to movement. Sunstrum’s more obviously so, through the overlapping figures—a single motion or act captured, palimpsestic, like the double or multiple exposure of film. The sense of movement with Nkosi’s work comes more through the written description of the paintings as a poem cycle—each painting is intended as a self-contained stanza, which collectively build on the central theme of land and boundaries. This is complicated by the fact that Nkosi encourages the viewer to shift the narrative built by her paintings by switching and shifting how to piece them all together, in order to speak to the multiplicity of routes one can take through a gallery space. This is presumably to show that although the theme is consistent, that it is also contentious, with multiple perspectives. This conceptual framework feels at odds with Nkosi’s works, which by and large come across as self-contained, except perhaps for ‘Reconnaissance’ (2015), ‘Strategy’ (2015) and ‘No Man’s Land’ (2015). These are the only smaller canvases in the show and hang near to one another on the top floor. The concept of movement between the two artist’s works is left disconnected, and dissatisfying. It is only through the lens of the title and theme of the show, TERRITORIES, that these works begin to take on a stronger current of meaning.
Using this lens of spatial power and contestation, Sunstrum’s work, through its use of figures, resonates with the disputed landscape of the body, and, in particular, the often gendered quality which accompanies this dynamic. The focus of the watercolours on the figure’s back, uterus, and chest, as a means for carrying strength and power through the landscape seems resistant to a societal narrative of weakness and vulnerability. This gendered reading can be reinforced by the description of the works use of the iconography of the mountains, “Mountains – immense and apparently immutable – have inspired a dual sense of beauty and mortal terror since earliest recorded history.” When understood as representing the disputed landscape of the body this description can be read as a metaphor for female sexuality. To be fair, this perspective is informed by reading against the grain of the given description, rather than being self-evident. Nkosi’s work, by contrast, seems more conventionally masculinised through its iconography of strategy and expedition. It also depicts more enigmatic sites— a covered car, a neo-modern house, a pair of swallows, a cube obstructed. The viewer is left to consider the connections (perhaps of wealth, domineering aesthetics, and migration amongst other things). The paintings depictions have an isolated quality to them—plucked cleanly from their contexts, they seem strange and aloof, robbing them of any intimidation, and perhaps consequently, also their power. Both artists seem to be not only representing elements of spatial power and contestation, but are in fact contributing to the contestation in their own ways.
Despite this common ground, the works do suffer at times from their own opaqueness, and their self-contained nature. This is probably most powerfully combatted by Sunstrum’s site specific drawing ‘Golden Mean’ (2015). This sprawling graphite drawing transcends the otherwise upstairs/downstairs divide of the works, and has a sense of the dynamism of being in-process. It seems to be a counter balance to the number of works being shown by Nkosi (nine to Suntrum’s three, excluding this installation), and the show benefits from a work unconstrained by the limits of a canvas. It provides a visual counterpoint which seems more at ease with its uncertainty than the other works—less eager to be resolved with its own offerings. It engages with the gallery space in a way that the other works don’t, and considering this show is so entangled with spatiality, this piece feels sorely needed.
Whilst it may seem initially placid and aesthetically palatable, TERRITORIES offers some complex challenges for the viewer. These challenges can be constructive and stimulating when weighing and kneading at the subtleties of the show and its meanings, and less so when trying to construct connections, both between Nkosi’s works in the way that she asks, and in finding the parallels between her and Suntrum’s work. The rewards are uneven, but they are there, and certainly make the show worthwhile, even if the audience, and myself, leave with some question marks trailing behind.