Whatiftheworld, Cape Town
10.12.2016 – 10.03.2017
Lungiswa Gqunta’s Lawn 1 galvanizes your attention on entering Whatiftheworld’s ‘Negative Space.’ Its coruscating emerald brilliance and crystal sparkle and gleam look ravishing, but disguise an ominous underlying malignity. As one approaches, the pungent odour of petrol alerts you to danger. The acrid fumes pouring forth from the serried masses of smashed Coca Cola bottles are obvious symbols of globalism and Yankee war-mongering, while the intact bases of the ruined bottles, a-brim with ecologically destructive fuel, conjure up alarming associations with Molotov cocktails, the Struggle, and, through their jagged profiles and fragmented shapes, the shattered ruins of a discredited neo-liberal ideology and the damage it has inflicted on our lives, values and environment.
A lawn is a block of land, a site of capital investment and the locus of the Great White Southern African dream of home, prosperity, security and domestic bliss. Walls border the lawns topped by broken glass, electric wires and surveillance devices that protect white homes, whereas turf barely exist in the townships where the dwellings rise from stone and sand, and thus Gqunta points up the increasingly marked economic divisions between the fortressed haves and the unprotected have-nots in our divided country where land and social and economic inequality all remain issue of burning urgency.
The fascination of Lawn 1 lies in the contrast between its jewel-like splendour and its incendiary subtext insinuating crisis and the pent-up rage and frustration that might set pale-faced residential areas ablaze. Gquntu’s chromatic brilliance is eschewed by the five other participating artists, but its threat of imminent insurrection underpins almost all the art which pivots around land and the minerals and crops it yields and the minority to which this wealth accrues. Accordingly the dominant colours are black and earth tones, an astringent palette which eschews sensuality and sets the prevailing mood of shriving and collective mourning for both the uncertain future and the traumatic past.
Measuring 214 by 250 cm and 5 cm in depth, Michele Mathison’s Lost Ground has a grandly commanding presence despite it tragic resonances of mutilation, pain and nostalgia. Originally the term was military parlance designating territory lost to the enemy, and here it alludes to constellation of ideas around Zimbabwean land and livelihood. Using picks, hoes and crowbars, Mathison has furrowed terracotta into jagged patterns of ridges and grooves, creating a majestic sculptural frieze recording the processes of sowing and tilling, and evoking the deep wounds embedded within the collective Zimbabwean psyche.
The very title of Mathison’s sculpture Fissure implies the sunder of land and, the inner cleavages wrought by flight and exile. Fashioned from square steel tubes, these crude implements are arranged in a series of diagonal angles relative to the stone base, so that the whole resembles a rain of javelins. Drawing on Italian Futurism and Muybridge, we see the implement in a continuous sequence of positions so that it appears frozen in space and time as the digging action doggedly proceeds.
As Fissure rises up, so it gains momentum and radiates outward so that it functions as a metaphor for the latent, but explosive, forces of revolt that are a-simmer throughout Southern Africa. As we revolve 360 degrees around the sculpture, so it perpetually reconfigures itself without ever losing its air of an imminent unleashing of powerful forces hitherto held in check.
Dan Halter in collaboration with Oliver Barnett has produced two major subversions from heirloom mealies. With text picked out from mealie kernels Many Mealies don’t make Sadza is a traditional Shona saying implying the absence of vital ingredients, while they tried to bury us, they didn’t know we were seeds echoes a Zapatista slogan. (Emiliano Zapata was the leader of the Mexican peasant revolution (1910-1914) and the impetus for social and agrarian reform which resulted in yet another popular uprising in 1994). While the Shona adage speaks of famine, the Mexican rallying cry implies that repression inevitably foments renewed and intensified resistance.
The exhibition’s title Negative Space works both appositely as a technical term describing void areas, and as a metaphor for an earth despoiled and pillaged of its valuable minerals and crops and often wrested from its original owners. The show deserves a standing ovation because of its tightly curated thematic singlemindedness and unity, and the undeniable brilliance of Gqunta, Mathison and Halter’s contributions.