The essence of the cover song may be located in the sense of heritage that the form harbours, preserves, references and reveals. Like any adaptation, the cover song points to the past and profiles its predecessor. As one of music’s major forms of intertextuality, covers are not only immersed in history, they recognize, recite and reshape the past.
-Deena Weinstein, 1998 from ‘Mapping the Beat: Popular Music and Contemporary Theory’
This article aims to look at the spate of South African exhibitions this year (including exhibitions by Kemang Wa Lehulere, Burning Museum, Athi-Patra Ruga and Lizza Littlewort) which have used acts of quotation, reinterpretation and re-presentation to pay homage or offer pointed critique (sometimes both) to previously existing artworks and artists. The artworks under discussion will be unpacked and sorted according to the ideas of the ‘cover’ and the ‘remix’ (borrowed from music industry terminology). These are not particularly new comparisons, but they do offer a useful way of understanding this recent work.
In his 2002 book Post-production, Nicolas Bourriaud offered up the DJ as his archetypical post-production figure, reconfiguring pre-existing forms and tasked with ‘selecting cultural objects and inserting them into new contexts.’ Building on discussions from the late 80s and early 90s such as Frederic Jameson’s postmodern pastiche and Linda Hutcheon’s idea of parody, Bourriaud draws a distinction between the rave and the rock concert. In his view, the former is linked to his DJ figure, the resourceful repurposer, the latter indicative of the (fallacious) cult of modern unprecedented artistic genius.
From Bourriaud’s DJ we can pinch the notion of the remix, which we will be contrasting with the cover. Exact definitions of these terms tend to fluctuate enormously, remix often just functioning as sexy shorthand for shaking things up a bit (‘Africa Remix’ for instance). For our purposes we will go with the following:
Remix: Isolating and removing specific elements from a pre-existing work (sampling) and using them as raw materials in the production of new works. These new works may differ completely from any connotation associated with the prior work. (Example)
Cover: Recreating an existing work, without using primary elements. Enough of the fundamental form of the earlier work is preserved that the work can be recognised as a recreation although many elements can be shifted to change the reading of the work. (Example)
Both of the above examples could be substituted for a multitude of others and the only motivation for their particular inclusion is that they demonstrate the defining traits of the two terms and that I really like them.
We’ll begin with a series of works incorporating the cover format in order to prompt critical revision of the original works being covered.
Athi-Patra Ruga- ‘Brushing up on Stern’
In July of this year, the Iziko South African National Gallery presented an exhibition titled ‘Brushing up on Stern.’ It comprised the first dedicated showing of Stern’s work in the Iziko Permanent Collections in addition to loans from the various private collections. The goal was to ‘explore the current attraction to her work, as well as earlier antipathy to it’ and was heavily weighted towards works produced by Stern in Zanzibar. Included were three of Athi-Patra Ruga’s tapestries which reinterpret Stern’s paintings, presented as a counterpoint to the exhibition’s positive framing of the work in its historical context.
Ruga’s tapestries constitute covers in the sense that they fundamentally recreate the crux of specific paintings by Stern (the reference works are recognisable), although the iconography is shifted by Ruga to emphasise aspects of Stern’s work which could be considered problematic. For example, The Arab Boy as The Symbol (After Irma Stern) draws attention to notions of the perceived feminising tendencies of the Orientalist gaze (as per Edward Said), where the Western viewpoint emphasises ‘the separateness of the Orient, its eccentricity, its backwardness, its silent indifference, its feminine penetrability.’
The critique of Stern extends that her exotic objectification of nameless Arabic ‘boys’ perpetuates these Orientalist tropes through implying a passive femininity to the subject’s attire and manner. Besides shifting the medium from oil paint to woven tapestry, Ruga’s primary intervention is to depict his reinterpreted Arab boy with a large earring in the shape of Prince’s infamous love symbol (and one time moniker) . The symbol is widely believed to convey a fusion of the biology symbols for male and female, hence denoting a sense of androgyny. Obviously Ruga is not critiquing the idea of androgyny itself (which would be entirely at odds with his practice), but rather the specific gaze perpetuated by Stern.
Another work entitled Portrait of an Indian Woman (After Irma Stern 1936) emphasises the nameless exoticisation in Stern’s Portrait of an Indian Woman by skeletonising the subject’s face. The skull iconography offers numerous interpretations ranging from symbols of universal humanity, to zombifaction, and the infinitely more aggressive othering of the Grindhouse cannibal. The point is that the passive, apathetic stare of Stern’s initial portrait is replaced by angry confrontation that is no longer subject to desire. In a sense, by utilising the cover format, Ruga is annotating Stern’s original piece; the pair are viewed as palimpsest.
Lizza Littlewort- ‘We Live in the Past’
Absurdist Lizza Littlewort’s recent exhibition at 99 Loop reproduced and reinterpreted so-called Golden Age Dutch Master paintings with the intent of drawing attention to the linked underlying structures of colonialism and commerce which led to the VOC becoming the ‘world’s first multinational corporation’ (as the artist put it). While Ruga refers to his works as being ‘after Irma Stern’ Littlewort uses the phrase ‘adapted from.’ In both cases the antecedence of the original is emphasised. This is fundamental to the idea of intertextuality in the cover.
In the accompanying catalogue essay, Niklas Zimmer referred to Littlewort’s process as being one of détournement, defined as being ‘similar to satirical parody, but [employing] more direct reuse or faithful mimicry of the original works rather than constructing a new work which merely alludes strongly to the original.’ For all intents and purposes, this corresponds exactly with the idea of covers as applied here.
The intent is not just to flippantly reference (pastiche) the earlier work so much as to fundamentally shift the way the prior work is viewed by providing a cipher through which to read it. Littlewort’s The Custodian of History isolates and draws attention to the pompous gait of Andries Stilte in Johannes Cornelisz Verspronck’s Andries Stilte as a Standard Bearer (1640). Not that Mr Stilte necessarily needed any help in being ostentatiously abrasive in his conviction of his own self-supremacy, but this is exactly why his posturing works as a metaphor for colonial versions of history. He is reduced to symbols of rank and wealth, while Littlewort plays on the idea of a standard bearer/custodian. Looking back at Verspronck’s original, one sees not the smug Stilte, but the satin-clad potato of Littlewort’s cover.
Burning Museum- ‘Cover Version’
Burning Museum’s ‘Cover Version’ took place alongside a recent exhibition of George Hallett’s photography at Gallery MOMO, Cape Town. The exhibition extended the collective’s modus operandi of creating enlarged wheat paste collages drawn from significant archives, swapping their usual repository of the Van Kalker Photography Studio archive for Hallett’s own extensive personal library of his photographs used for album covers and African Writers Series book cover designs. Hallett’s imagery was then reconfigured and appropriated to create a new series of imagined book/album covers which ‘revisit the aesthetic of exile with the insight of the post-Marikana epoch.’
My Mercedes is Bigger Than Yours (2015) incorporates the typeface from the cover of Nkem Nwankwo’s 1975 novel of the same name. By implication, Nwankwo’s pointed criticisms of exploitative European businessmen and corrupt politicians (set in 1970s Nigeria in the book) are applied to contemporary South Africa (and particularly post-Marikana South Africa). The imagery juxtaposes Hallett’s photograph of former minister of Arts and Culture Pallo Jordan (taken from the Michael Etherton-edited African Plays for Playing) with one of a soldier from Cyprian Ekwensi’s Survive the Peace. The two figures are set against a bridge in Salt River where Burning Museum have intervened extensively in the past.
The title ‘Cover Version’ serves as a play on the fact that the majority of the works in the exhibition take the form of fictional book and record covers. Within the terms of this article, the works constitute remixes rather than covers in that primary elements (Hallett’s imagery) are reconstituted to produce new works (both the imagined covers and the other pieces in exhibition). In fact, the listed medium of many of the works is “remixed George Hallett book cover” suggesting that this language is consistent with the collective’s intentions. The exhibition’s goals are twofold: pay homage to George Hallett, the African Writers Series of books and jazz/Big Band acts such as The Blue Notes and Brotherhood of Breath and to continue to providing biting commentary on inequality, erasure and injustices in contemporary South Africa.
Kemang Wa Lehulere- ‘History Will Break Your Heart’
As a concluding point, Kemang Wa Lehulere’s Standard Bank Young Artist Award exhibition ‘History Will Break Your Heart’ provides a complex convergence of the ideas underpinning this article. Both of the central terms are recurrent themes in Wa Lehulere’s recent work: the cover’s concept of intertextual wormholes between parallel artworks and the fragmentary repurposing of significant ‘samples’ inherent in the remix. Wa Lehulere uses these as a vehicle to continue his project of uncovering and drawing posthumous attention to forgotten or neglected narratives of significant black South African artists and writers.
In place of the conventional solo presentation typical of the award, he pairs his own new work with a selection of unaltered original artworks by Gladys Mgudlandlu and Ernest Mancoba and a series of chalkboard drawings produced by his aunt Sophie Lehulere (with interventions by Kemang Wa Lehulere). These drawings attempt to recreate Sophie Lehulere’s memories of the painted murals on the walls of Gladys Mgudlandlu’s home from when she (Lehulere) was a teenager. Furthermore there is re-edited footage from an unused interview between Ernest Mancoba and Hans Ulrich Obrist (Where, if not far away, is my place?) and video documentation of a project in progress to restore Mgudlandlu’s wall murals (The Bird Lady in nine layers of time).
In attempting to recreate a prior existing work, Sophie Lehulere’s chalkboard drawings conceptually function as covers. Due to the inadequate nature of memory, these are unlikely to be particularly accurate. Regardless, the intent is there to pay homage to the existence of Mgudlandlu’s original paintings and to approximate a resemblance as closely as possible. Should the current owner of Mgudlandlu’s former residence approve the attempted restoration of the full mural, it will be extremely interesting to see if any of the recalled scenes can be located in the recovered painting. The very fact that a small piece of the mural has been uncovered, a small avian face peering out from the other side of the wormhole, utterly exudes significance and galvanizes the chalk drawings.
Ultimately, this is why the idea of the remix is entirely appropriate to Wa Lehulere’s project, both are activated by the authenticity of the sampled fragments. Indeed, so much of his recent work is about taking a fragment of something meaningful (a patch of lawn removed from Nat Nakasa’s gravesite, Obrist’s unused video footage of Mancoba discussing his alienation, a decontextualized original work by Mgudlandlu) and recontextualising these within the artist’s anachronic space. Wa Lehulere describing this as a ‘collaboration with time’ in a recent walkabout.
In a sense, through incorporating elements of both cover and remix, Wa Lehulere’s exhibition itself moves into the realm of the remix (or DJ Set): History Will Break Your Heart– Kemang Wa Lehulere vs Gladys Mgudlandlu vs Ernest Mancoba. There is a democratising here through which Wa Lehulere eschews the grandeur of ‘Young Artist’, voluntarily sharing the award with Mgudlandlu and Mancoba. In the process, he achieves his goal of asserting that their place in South African art history be recognised.