02.02 – 01.03.2017
Invisibility is the greatest death that any people can face. The role of art in society cannot be reduced to one of aesthetics as this can be used to facilitate this lethal invisibility of others. Works created by those seeking to position themselves as a-political (or in some ways post-political) act as a way of absolving artists from the role they play in society. Black artists have an even greater responsibility to their society, now more than ever.
Yet it is through art that the invisible can become visible. Within the seemingly safe haven of the gallery space, creatives are given the opportunity to tell their stories when elsewhere such discussions can be easily dismissed as being too radical. Under the guise of creative intrigue, the artist is able to tell the history of a people in few words.
Blessing Ngobeni is one such artist documenting history. The title for the exhibition ‘Masked Reality’ cuts to the marrow of the experience of the black body. As the one enters the sterile walls of the Circa Gallery, one is greeted by screaming figures calling out to the viewer. Yet it is not their mouth that make the sound but the images within the body. His figures can be likened to comic book pages, individual segments tell a story. Blessing relies on a so-called ‘iconography of the oppressed’ within and around each of the segments. A man beating a child in his hands. A breasted figure being pulled apart at the limbs by vicious faces. AK-47s, heads bearing police hats, hands holding placards, pigs heads and cattle horns. These are images that resonate with those living within a constant reality of structural violence.
These works represent a construction of a self that is fundamentally built on its deconstruction. The ‘Masked Reality’ that the exhibition reflects is the everyday struggle that black people perform when they enter into white spaces. They must present themselves as being okay and holding it together. This performance is done whilst on the inside black bodies are screaming, plagued by constant reminders of living in an anti-black world that seeks to silence their pain. The body is thus rendered invisible, as their plight is not acknowledged. Ngobeni, however, presents such pain in seemingly unregulated form.
His story is not one of hope but a lived reality, a black reality, a lived apocalypse. What look like jackals and wolves on his screens are the signifiers of what already is. Ngobeni does not speak of a past that we must lament but of a present that must not be ignored. Beneath the rigid lines and dripping paints are what look like excerpts from Facebook posts. “Four African Girls have created a generator that produces 6 hours of electricity using only a single litre of …” Graffiti writings tell us, “They will never kill us all”.
A new reality is presented beneath the mayhem of his works, one of hope, where the black body is more than just a body but instead an agent of change. The titles of the works reflect this sense of agency. Save This Democracy, Kiss My Ass I, Kiss My Ass II and even Portraits of Lust I, II & III. It is through these words that defiance is portrayed, a sense of hope though the assumption that the democracy that is being inflicted on the black body can even be redeemed.
These layers of black subjectivity seem to culminate in the installation at the center of the exhibition. Here Ngobeni introduces us to the work Queen of the scavengers. We see a parade of pint-sized ebony-skinned dolls dressed in white. Like children of Shembe, dressed in white, they move in static procession towards an unknown goal. Could it be towards a baptism of revolutionary fire or maybe to their own demise? According to the instillation’s title, the figure at the head of the procession must be the Queen. Her hair is black and thickly braided, unlike her successors and she is distinct even in dress from the rest.
Yet we find ourselves questioning who is actually doing the leading. All the dolls are connected by string to a faceless figure hovering above. A hand connects all the strings as if walking this parade. The dolls walk forward, yet this hovering figure holds them back. The installation reflects the contradiction over what it means to have agency as the black body. We are a people living within a democracy. We seemingly proceed forward but what is it that regulates our direction? The hovering figure seems to represent the very bondage of striving to move forward as a black people while remaining tethered to a past. Is it because of history that many black people are unable to move from the dismembered state they still find themselves in?
It is this very history that has created what it means to be black in this current South Africa and it is those very same structures that inhibit how we go about telling this history. Ngobeni has presented us with the contradiction that comes with what it means to make contemporary art. Under a previous regime, the halls and institutions under which we now live were used to create the difficulties that black people now face. Yet it is within these halls that Ngobeni and other artists present and make their works.
The very spaces in which we find ourselves are those which pull the strings regarding how artists will use their agency to tell our history to our descendants. Ngobeni’s work speaks to a disjunction between the democracy promised to South Africans and the version of it we now live in. It also speaks of the agency that is able to deal with these challenges. Yet, before it can do so it must first deal with the spaces in which it chooses to deliver our stories.