Ebony /Curated, Cape Town
01.09.2016 – 29.10.2016
From the outside looking in, Ebony/Curated resembles a small furniture gallery showcasing modern décor and art. Inside this small and intimate gallery space hangs the collage works of Larita Engelbretcht a South African native and art teacher but concealed within this well presented commercial setting are themes of appropriation. Cultural appropriation is anything but unfamiliar in Africa. It begins with the reign of colonial powers dividing and conquering the motherland, reallocating her fruits to benefit colonial agendas. However, the grand theft of African aesthetic begins in the early 1900s. In the beginning of the 20th century renown painters Picasso and Braque would find interest in African art. Each Artist inspired by the abstraction of human form in African mask and sculpture. Thus Cubism is developed. Its philosophies divided into two modes of thought Synthetic and Analytic, providing a precedent for collage art in the Modern and Postmodern era. Cubism’s Synthetic philosophy (synthetic cubism began when artists started adding textures and patterns to their paintings, experimenting with collage using newspaper print and patterned paper”(Tate Museum) resonates throughout Engelbretcht’s series ‘Met Ander Oë’ (Through Different Eyes), a series of photomontages showcasing juxtapositions between African representations and consumer magazine cutouts.
Her works cover the walls of a small one-room gallery space, each being roughly larger than the standard A4 sheet of paper. Each piece is an assemblage of various African masks, architectural forms and an expressive vernacular of cutout painterly gestures. Engelbrecht superimposes larger than life-size images of African masks within an array of architectural forms and solid colors. In Engelbretcht’s photomontages her careful consideration of the arrangement of shapes, tones and textures demonstrates her ability to reference synthetic cubism within her work.
In her piece A Nervous Gerenuk the texture of the Ohure mask contrasts with a square photo of clouds. In order to introduce her own hand within the composition Engelbrecht employs a whimsical series of cutout painterly gestures. However this step isn’t always implemented in her works. What remains constant is the efficacy of her works titles, which allude to various elements of the pieces. In Crybaby an African mask is spatially centered and the most dominant image in the composition. Draping playfully from the squint of the mask’s eyes are arms clenching large shopping bags, which upon further examination resemble teardrops. The mask is taken out of its original, performative context. She directs a satirical performance with these images and as a result, many of the African subjects she borrows find a new purpose, one that parallels with its original function as an object meant for rituals and calling upon ancestors. However, the images remain confusing offering viewers a chance to re-examine their initial response.
Engelbrecht’s representations are recognizable offering the viewer with information to trigger multiple perceptions, many of which are structured by the education of African art in textbooks. When placed amongst consumer magazine cutouts these images lose their autonomous meaning and begin eliciting new interpretations and responses. Her placement of masks into various forms of architecture are allusive references to modernism: A time where African aesthetic inspired 20th century modernism for example the Fang Sculpture. Modernists were inspired by its sophisticated abstraction of the human figure and the integration of form and function. African sculptures abstract form serves a function whether it is storing ritual secrets or ancestral remains.
The images of the mask which she has acquired come from late 20th century catalogs of African Art. The original function of these masks are shorthanded by western perception. During the European colonial period African masks and sculptures were collected and removed from their original context and placed into others; their original function dismantled by museum and gallery settings. Engelbrecht describes her process as “intuitive and restricting”. She isolates African aesthetic by re-contextualizing the images she employs. In doing so her works become arguably ‘shaped by a premeditated understanding of the selected forms while her methods have direct way of opening the consciousness, revealing what the audience is consuming all of time (as Art South Africa put it.) all the while revealing her own consumption of African culture as well.
Collage becomes more than just the marriage of contrasting material, but a philosophical attitude, an aesthetic position linking varying points of view in a non-linear fashion. It’s as if Engelbretcht herself is challenging her viewers to inquire what they are actually seeing. The humorous and ironic quality of each of these pieces renders them more approachable yet still confusing in nature. The audience is forced to develop their own meanings and perspective of the works. This is a process reminiscent of 20th century artist Robert Rauschenberg, who with collage aimed to encourage viewers to consider not only the meaning of the objects, but also the meaning of the juxtapositions between them.
However, whether Engelbretcht aims to find new meanings in her photomontages, the audience is unaware if the artist is attempting to reconcile her affiliation with colonial heritage by circumventing a framework of colonial practice, which at the pinnacle of modern development, contributed to the cultural commodification of Africa. Her appropriation of the African aesthetic in this series combined with the commercial gallery setting contradicts Engelbretcht’s method of critiquing western perspectives. Her pieces are priced and ready for consumption. Thus, without thorough investigation of the artist intentions the viewers might find themselves interrogating Engelbretcht about her practice of appropriation. How the audience perceives Engelbretcht’s actions is indicative of a willingness to accept a practice, which has resulted in the exploitation of centuries of culture.