Iziko South African National Gallery, Cape Town
‘Home Truths’ curated by Michael Godby and currently on show at iSANG sweeps through time and place, but maintains a tight thematic agenda: the domestic interior in South Africa. This makes it a joy to look at; the boundaries are set, but allow an arena for the interplay of the works. The show also sets up similarities and contrasts between works, leading to surprises and insights, that enriches the individual works. Godby has also produced an accompanying catalogue which elucidates many of the connections and is well worth a read.
With a show of this nature though, one can’t help but think of the omissions and inclusions. The opening room features Lisa Brice’s Make Your Home a Castle, a work that attempts to ironize the paranoia of South African suburbia with domestic objects created out of security mesh. The irony of the work though has paled over time, and it reads more as defensive than critical. Juxtaposed to this work are thoroughly un-ironic views of makeshift shelters in District Six by Jon Riordan, and a township view by David Southwood. While this contrast certainly illuminates the systematic economic inequality that is at the heart of South African politics, it also sets up a dichotomy that feels dated and oddly weighted, between white interior security and the exteriors of black townships.
I was missing the politics of the Shackville protest at UCT where the shack is not a vista to contemplate poverty, but a space to interrupt, disrupt and demand action. Domesticity is related to space is related to land, and these are active and alive conversations. I was immediately put in mind of the Gugulective’s The Building is the Man and kept peering around the corner in the hope of seeing it. It is testament to the power of that particular work that its presence moved with me through the show.
However, this dichotomy is ameliorated somewhat in the course of the show, and the discourse becomes more complex. Sam Nhlengethwa’s Room in a Shack is one of those fine works where the medium and the content come together in a perfect unity. Collage breaks down images and reassembles them into new generative forms. In Nhlengethwa’s room, gingham and tartan push up against newspaper and corrugated cardboard. It suggests a liveliness and potentiality. It sits in stark contrast to the staid creativity evident in David Goldblatt’s A Girl and her Mother at Home, 22 June 1980. A blond girl plays piano watched by her mother, two lapdogs and a cockatoo. There is a sense of inertia and genteel boredom. The expensive curtains are drawn like willful ignorance. This contrast is echoed multiple times in this section of the show, across multiple time periods. Within this context the 17th Century Interior, Looking out on Water by Pieter de Hooch takes on a more ominous reading. One gets a sense that the painting’s analogy between a Dutch sailing ship and the homely interior was meant to emphasize the joys of home with the wealth of trade. However, in a more contemporary view the ship stands as symbol for land grabs, slavery and colonial economics. The domestic bliss then seems a thin veneer over a belly of violence and depredations. This contrapuntal reading spreads out to touch all the paintings in the room.
While the domestic is deeply linked to the political, the show also dwells on the home as the site of intimacy and emotion. The loneliness of Ian Grose’s Colour Separation series is palpable from the restless shifting of the paint, to the single rumpled side of a double bed. A similar sense of presence through absence is evident in Thuli Gamedze’s Untitled (Doorway), where photographs of an intimate space are reinterpreted in the light of the present, a feedback loop between the past and the now.
Within this context of the absent body, the inclusion of a photograph of an empty bed by Zwelethu Mthethwa felt shocking and insensitive. Mthethwa is currently on trial for murdering a sex worker. While the trial is still underway, one cannot but help reading the work in terms of this. A work cannot be read in isolation of the present, and its inclusion felt deeply inappropriate.
However, the value of a show of this nature is that it allows a space for thinking and interpretation, more than a short review can encompass. It is a zone to look at many things that one doesn’t normally see together. Godby’s curation and research opens up that space.