The New Church Museum, Cape Town
11.05.2015 – 04.23.2016
If ’50/50′ at the New Church Museum claims to be an attempt to make meaning of the repetitions within South African art discourse- repetitions it frames as far less obvious without the use of the narrative nature of photography- it can only be irony that has informed its absolute exclusion of the voices of black women, and black people whose identity is in conflict with systemic patriarchy[i]. If this in itself is not a profound and naturally unconscious repetition of the trajectory of the contemporary South African art scene, I’m not sure what is.
’50/50′ is an exhibition exposing a resolutely patriarchal narrative of the now, with what feels like an underlying incentive to distinguish it from the then in larger South Africa. While being conscious of the site’s choice to function as a museum, rather than a gallery, I cannot help but feel it becomes important to give relevant context to the works in the space, rather than limiting the viewer’s experience to just viewing, because, in effect, this de-contextualisation of work makes it at times unable to transcend its singularity, and fit into an historical narrative that makes sense.
As a result of this gallery-style contextual negligence, we are left with what feels like a contemporary show that has chosen to erase some of the more oppressed bodies and their stories, while simultaneously, and cheekily, asserting the necessity to conscientise visual repetition and to give these repetitions ‘renewed attention’. This ironic beginning immediately centers Goldblatt’s mixed photographic offerings of monuments of colonialism, and uncomfortably intimate stories of Black struggle as its foundational point, emphasising the tired notion of white men, (not to be conflated with notions of male-ness) as the producers of knowledge.
Avant Car Guard, our very own successful bad boy trio of white men, who choose to aptly label themselves through a relatively clever, racist and classist ‘art joke’, give strength to this trajectory. In their photographic/ performance work, Avant Car Guard At J.H. Pierneef’s Grave, 1954, I cannot help but wonder at the inherited epistemological privilege and entitlement that means the act of their bodies jumping upon this racist legacy’s grave seems to be accepted as historically and subversively legitimate in South Africa now.
It felt unfortunate to me that Robin Rhode appeared in relation to this violence, with his A Day In May addressing the very issues entangled with the South African working class, which seem so easily dismissed by our white-cube car guards just next door. This story of competing knowledges runs throughout the exhibition, with Cecil Skotnes’s drawing Robben Island occupying a position that implies that this crude voyeurism of inhumane treatment of Black bodies under apartheid, deserves equal space in relation to the interesting conversation taking place between the mournful depictions of ‘76 by Thoba and Feni. Devoid of historical context, and without conscious effort to subvert this naturalized curatorial positioning, the lived experience of Blackness is once again marginalized by the presence of the observational and learned guilt of conscientised whiteness.
Upstairs, however, I did manage to find two black women. One is a forlorn figure, holding a cake- in a Goldblatt photograph- and the second is depicted as the sum of her eviction notice from her home in District 6 in the eighties, and is claimed as a Sue Williamson work. Rory Bester’s clarion call for ‘renewed attention’ to repetition re-iterates the narrative of black women creativity as reductively and infinitely bound to our various propensities for strength and hardship.
Having to peripherise these thoughts, I found hugely exciting highlights in Hartzenberg’s ‘Bread/water line…’ video piece, as well as in Kambalu’s short and witty loops, both dealing with notions of time, repetition, and pattern that feed the thesis of the exhibition in ways that turn it on its own head.
Hartzenberg’s hopeless and humorous address of his own vulnerability in his unsuccessful task of defeating unceasing ocean (read: societal) patterns, was in neat conversation with Kambalu’s literal embodiment of a clock in ‘Time Piece’, whose pattern and central function is its infinite, unchanging loop.
We might think now on the stillness of Kemang Wa Lehulere’s ‘Reddening of the greens or dog sleep manifesto’ as creating a similar energy of ‘stillness in motion’ through his creation of isolated moments and scenes, that speak motion through their frozenness.
This quiet alludes to a larger story- one we have a feeling might begin, unfold, end, and loop again, much like Hartzenberg’s failing bread mission. In ‘Reddening of the Greens…’, watch dogs, stray dogs, and broken dogs gathered around earth-filled suitcases look sometimes smug, sometimes sad, sometimes angry and longing, but ready to infinitely gaze upon, fight for, or protect the unchanged situation of belonging or un-, embodied in situations of land ownership, visual ownership, knowledge ownership- ownership- in the nation.
So we must ask, when will museum spaces, spaces whose intervention is epistemological, and theoretical, begin to seek to represent something, someone- some infinitely repeated situation- that truly does require South Africa’s attention?
[i] By this, I refer to black women, trans people, non-gender conforming people, and non-gender binary people, who are making work that renders repetitions in patriarchal society obvious. In this sense, the kinds of work that come to mind are the often ambiguous collection-style offerings of Dineo-Sheshee Bopape’s installations that function often through the use of video performances, as well as obscure and near-chaotic arrangements of the mundane object. The performances of Sethembile Msezane that offer the space for the erased pain associated with moments and public holidays dedicated to supposed ‘national’ South African histories would make sense here, exposing the visual repetitions of the invisibilised. What would Mary Sibande’s works, dramatic in their acute focus on working class Black women histories in the nation, add to this conversation? Muholi’s lens that centers the experience of queer bodies, Tony Gum’s explorations around the white-washed nature of capitalist culture- these are voices that speak directly to the repetitions of representational culture in the nation, voices that speak to places, people and histories that do not need ‘renewed attention’, but simply attention itself, especially in spaces framing themselves with the public responsibility of museum-ness.