In 2014, unpublicised, a young black woman approached the statue of Nelson Mandela in Sandton City, stripped naked and rested her head against the bronze mass. With no ‘official’ photographer for the event, no press release nor artist’s statement, the South African public was largely left to its own devices. Through cellphone captured images, comment sections and tweets, the public was both witness and interpreter. The performance, if that is what took place, was both for anyone and no one.
This action is exhibited within ‘The Art of Disruption’ at the Iziko South African National Gallery (ISANG) via the Johannesburg-based blog ‘Miss Milli B’. Poised on a plinth surrounded by photographs, paintings and sculpture, the computer screen scrolls automatically. The digital documentation, taken by bystanders, is resolutely low-fi. So too, is the video cellphone footage of the event. Filmed from inside a nearby restaurant, men’s bemused cackles and commentary overwhelm the soundtrack to Braveheart’s – as she was named by a Twitter user – actions on the eve of Women’s month.
A year later, the statue of Cecil John Rhodes at the University of Cape Town left its plinth for the last time. On her own plinth, in direct opposition to Rhodes, clad in t-barred stilettos and a black leotard, her arms outstretched with hair-extensions fashioned as wings, Sethembile Msezane stood eagle-like, unwavering. The image of Msezane in Chapangu – The Day Rhodes Fell, was widely circulated. Artistically speaking, one could argue that Msezane and ‘Braveheart’ have developed among the most powerfully subversive acts of the last two years. Both clothed and unclothed, each chose her moment, perfectly timed.
‘The Art of Disruption’ aims to encapsulate the spirit of activism in art today. Simultaneously, through a selection of works from ISANG’s permanent collection, the exhibition creates an internal dialogue regarding the trajectory of politically confrontational work in South Africa. Gerard Sekoto’s Sharpeville Massacre, a series of drawings from 1960, offer viewers a witness from exile. Watching from Paris, a city of its own historic disruptions, one can only imagine that Sekoto was forced to deduce the movement of violence from accounts of friends, press, and photographs. The images that emerge from these conjectures, however, illustrate an acute understanding of state repression, even in Sekoto’s absence.
For others, more intimate accounts of change – or the lack thereof – tell us about the cost of activism, and the lament of the old guard, as is evoked by Lawrence Lemaoana’s textiles. His texts ‘I Did Not Join the Struggle To Be Poor’, and ‘Our Freedom Can’t Wait’, speak directly to the protest actions of #feesmustfall which began late last year. The ‘younger’ work on exhibition decidedly displays a growing, irrepressible impatience for transformation in the face of economic and racial disparity.
As has become a well-worn instrument of public museum engagement, a black chalkboard surface covers a portion of the left wall of the exhibition space. It bears feeble observations on the future of the country – ‘ACCEPT JESUS AS YOUR PERSONAL SAVIOUR’ – alongside some more vulnerable offerings on sexual violence against women – ‘How does a person move on?’ On the opposite end of the gallery is Dean Hutton’s fuckwhitepeople wall, chair, and golden boots (2016). The words ‘fuckwhitepeople’ repeat themselves in black and white on wallpaper, and over a school chair.
Rich Boy by Brett Murray, another work from ISANG’s permanent collection, while visually aligned with its exhibiting neighbours, no longer holds the same punch it once did. The use of blackface in today’s context appears distasteful, and thus leaves a new space for the loaded one-liner, a position quickly taken up by the likes of Lemaoana and Hutton. Simphiwe Ndzube’s Raft displays a sophisticated synthesis of the language of resistance, that is resonant of the cohesive debut of Mary Sibande, when she first appeared on the scene some nine years ago.
A microcosm of the current political climate, ‘The Art of Disruptions’ finds a ‘new guard’ of young artists who are unwilling to adhere to the rules of respectability. Their sense of urgency clashes with the slow-moving cogs of bureaucracy, but they have nonetheless caught the nation’s attention. While the exhibition adequately captures the spirit of the current moment, its conventional curation lacks a certain energy that fails to convey the ongoing nature of protest. In this space the work appears archived: an account of protests past, and not, as was intended, a glimpse of present struggles.