WITS Art Museum, Johannesburg
11.24.2015 – 12.06.2015
Things are (finally) moving and changing at WITS. The first most notable and symbolic change being the location of the opening ceremony of the WITS graduation show ‘newworkfifteen’ on Tuesday, November 24. For the first time in fourteen years, and since the building was a dental hospital, the original entrance to the art school building was opened onto Bertha street.
In the form of an opening preamble, Zen Marie began by explaining the school’s alliance with the #feesmustfall protests and the knock-on effects for the students. The protests have shaken the school’s core; the students have instigated a more democratic approach to curating the show, introduced more transparency to the exam process and have even put the money which they have raised into a fund to assist future students to realize their projects. This money would normally go towards catalogue printing and other costs. Instead they opted for a low-fi, unbound catalogue, which is enclosed in a cardboard folder; simple and effective.
Standing outside this old entrance with a growing crowd, I was struck by it’s grandeur, which I have never noticed before. The massive columns and curved façade create a kind of amphitheater, the brutal concrete looking every bit like a dental hospital. There was something about the cold, clinical feel of the space that when combined with the opening performance by Rangoato Mma Tseleng Hlasane (of Keleketla! Library) seemed to capture the fleeting and ephemeral ‘fuck you’ attitude that any art school or gallery could only hope to create. Rangoato stood in silence while a jazzy version of Nkosi Sikelel’ played until he uttered “With this very song where Mandela museum smiles, with this very song right here right now, I declare this exhibition open.”
The opening night exhibition was split among 4 venues: The WITS School of the Arts building, Arthouse, The Point of Order and The WITS Art Museum (WAM) which all opened onto the street, in the heart of trendy Braamfontein. After the opening night, the public was able to view the main part of the show at WAM; the latest addition to WITS Art School, shiny, modern and pristine.
Disappointingly, the show of thirty odd graduating students’ work was crammed into the awkward basement of the museum. Meanwhile another, boring, slightly offensive ‘African art’ exhibition selfishly occupied the rest of the museum’s open, double volume space with its neat glass cases of African historical artifacts. My grudge is not necessarily focused on the content of the museum, but rather at the museum’s disconnect from the revolution happening around it. It couldn’t be more frustrating to me that the museum, the epitome of the Western ethnographic mentality, is so hell bent on displaying African artifacts from a hundred years ago while their own students are making contemporary African art right now, but are banished to the basement. It makes me wonder if we know what an African Museum should look like at all.
Anyway, contextually the work coming out of WITS at the moment – and there are exceptions – steers clear of a hyper-polished “finished product” aesthetic. There is a focus on concept and a sense of reality and everydayness throughout the show. The installations vary from incoherent rooms of stuff and misguided Nicholas Hlobo impersonations to well executed sculptures and conceptual video works. Of the 32 students, there were about 2 painting majors and another 2 printmakers. Three-dimensional sculptural works, gutsy video, performance and installation ruled. It seems video is emerging as a very strong medium for the school, not just in its versatility as a medium, but the quality of the video work and animation was impressive.
Looking at the recent acquisition of lecturers over the past five years one can start to see how the school is re-shaping itself and finding its radical identity with reference to the themes emerging out of the grad show. These intellectual heavyweights, critical minds and artists; Raimi Gbadamosi, Zen Marie, Gabi Ngcobo, Rangoato Hlasane, Dorothee Kreutzfeldt, Juan Orrantia, Donna Kukama and Bettina Malcomess (without disregarding the elders David Andrew, Jeremy Wafer and Walter Oltmann) are the driving force behind WITS’ resurrection.
Winners of the art prize, Kyra Pape and Tshegofatso Mabaso, provide a good representation of the year’s work including video and installation work grounded in reality. Pape’s installation of seemingly organic, lava-like sculptures were surprisingly absorbing. Untitled, is a double sided sculpture, from one angle a black globular meteorite and from another, flat planes or geometric facets. They remind me of a precious stone that has only been partly cut. Quite formal in its approach, unique among the students, the work seems to deal with the human-sculpture relationship through a purely aesthetic, visual language.
Mabaso’s work, which shared the award, was a more personal, historical exploration dealing with ideas around home, language and migration. Excavation 2 is a video work that documents Mabaso’s journey between her parent’s and grandparents’ houses in Limpopo. The video is constantly moving and jumping as the viewer imagines the vehicle slowly navigating the uneven dirt road. The word ‘excavation’ refers to a separate work where Mabaso excavated her grandmother’s yard. There she dug up pieces of glass and roots (non-objects/ non-finds as she describes them) which informed her ‘rhizomatic’ research approach. Included in the show was a text piece of excerpts from three family prayer songs written in her mother tongue. The work confronts the use of language in institutions and the questions around knowledge production in academia. Mabaso’s attempts to monumentalize her everyday; her trips home, her family prayer songs, her language, the junk in her grandmother’s yard, and her family photo albums allow her to write/ re-write something of her life and her history.
Prizes aside, a name to look out for is Matshelane Xhakaza whose work Untitled (Politics/ Zuma) invaded the entire basement space with infectious laughter. The video work re-used the viral video of El Risitas, an Apple engineer, who basically hysterically laughs about the 2015 Macbook’s flaws and how he got promoted regardless. Xhakaza changed the subtitles, instead of laughing at Macbook the man is now appropriated as a shady character hired by Zuma to move money around for him as load shedding strikes. For me this work fully embodies the feeling of the year’s work: brave, resourceful and current.
This was WITS’ 5th run of their graduation show, and it has come a long way since the first attempt, which I was a part of in 2010. The students, after being very involved in the protests, had little time to prepare for this exhibition as the dates for the opening could not be delayed. The work seems to reflect much of the current state of the university; the attempts at using language as a means to de-colonise academia, the everyday approach to art making that favours the found, the concept, the haphazard and the use of the body as not only an act of protest, but an act of art too.