Ângela Ferreira’s South Facing recently opened at the Johannesburg Art Gallery. Comprising a brief retrospective as well as new works specially commissioned for the site, the exhibition covers a good part of Ferreira’s practice as an artist. Her work is notable for its concern with modernist architectural forms and their intersection with locale, particularly South Africa and Mozambique. Chad Rossouw asks her some questions around form, scale and the creation of meaning.
Chad Rossouw: Your work often mimics fragments of larger architectural forms. What is the significance of form for you? How do these fragments embody the meanings of the larger forms?
Ângela Ferreira: Thinking about the significance of form is a beautiful question for an artist like myself. My relationship with form is complex and nuanced.
I learnt very early on that I was not totally predisposed to works which were exclusively dependent of the exploration of formal qualities as a vehicle for rendering meaning. I studied at Michaelis at the cusp of the late modernist and post-modernist tradition. When I looked at art works where the exploration of form appeared to be the paramount purpose for their existence, I was suspicious of the excessive subjectivity that they fomented and the traces of decorativeness that they displayed. I could be sensitive to the open evocativeness of the form of the work (I am thinking of abstract painting and sculpture for example) but this total openness did not hold my interest very long or allow for the art work to become an engaging and long lasting thinking device. I have always liked works that challenge me to process thoughts. Abstract formalism also did not help to localize the work in a geo-political context which was paramount to my needs at the inception of my practice.
However, this same training in sculpture did offer me the capacity to decipher three-dimensional form. I know that as an artist, no matter how complex the cerebral processes are, my language is essentially visual and that my personal visuality includes three-dimensional form. I am able to ‘read’ three-dimensional form and through it understand the world around me. I am also able to communicate through it, by drawing it and making objects which are carefully designed forms that I hope will appeal to my visual viewer. How do I arrive at the forms that I produce? Do I focus on a whole building or do I render a detail? This varies a lot from project to project. For example, in Maison Tropical (2007) I used many fragments, but in Werdmuller Centre (2010), I tackled the whole huge building.
Many times I find myself stopping to ‘read’ architecture. In my eyes a building firstly presents itself as a large and complex set of three-dimensional forms (The Werdmuller Centre, for example, is tremendously complex and has been abundantly faulted for that). But I also ‘read’ it in its multiple simultaneous languages and disciplines: formal, sociological, anthropological, political, functional, and historical. Once I have selected a building I have something to say about, my first approach to is a formal one. I tend to read it as a critical multidisciplinary sculptor. This of course does not mean the works I produce are guided by a need for formal pleasure. They are all about critically ‘reading’ buildings and drawing from them forms that can reveal that criticality. Sometimes the critically mediated fragment of an architectural form is all you need to conceptually point the viewer to the complexities of a huge building, which in turn point to issues well beyond architecture. That’s what I do with form.
CR: You often pair your work with lens-based imagery. What is the relationship between these and your sculptures?
ÂF: The lens-based imagery, the objects, the drawings, the photomontages or performances are all equally important components in my work, even if sometimes the objects have a larger physical presence or if the lens-based imagery is archival. My work is all about seeing and reading in the interstices of different formats and approaches. Its about constructing meaning in the spaces between the sculptures, drawings, documents, sound, film or photograph and allowing the viewer to build up a complex personal understanding of the issues and implied content therein. The full content of my work is rarely found in the singularity of one image, one sound or one object but rather in the motion and the travelling that the viewer has to do between different components.
As I said before, the sculptural object just does not offer me enough. Its singularity is too modernist and its language is too unisonic for me. I like to search in the in-between spaces of media and formats, and even in the in-between spaces of thoughts. I believe you have a richer experience this way. I often start with an image and then I make drawings and a sculptural object. Immediately after I will feel like I am missing a certain visuality so I will proceed to film, and then go back to drawing. Often the sculptures serve as frames for film footage, as in the case of the For Mozambique series (2008). It also makes sense to show the full breakdown of the thinking process as an integral part of the art work. Its a kind of democratic act of sharing and constructing meaning with the viewer. But the essence is always about reading in the interstices.
This is a long standing experiment that goes back to my work Sites and Services (1992). The minimalist ‘look’ of the sculptures in this project cannot be seen only for itself. They were never conceived to be looked at as abstract modernist sculptures. In fact they were intended as a critique of the emptiness of late modernism. You need to look at the photo component of the work that I made in Khayelitsha which served as starting point for my questioning of this type of non-politicized sculptures. And then you have to travel between the ‘modernist’ sculptures and the meaning of the documentary image of the cement toilet fields of sites and services.
CR: The scale of your work is not quite architectural, but not quite scale model either. Why do you work in this in-between scale?
ÂF: This question of scale often comes up because of my frequent use of architecture as a starting point in the work. When thinking about architecture and scale we tend to oscillate between two reference points: life size which is the actual built structure, and the model which usually points to the realm of planning and wishful thinking. In fact, for me there are other very interesting dimensions in architecture like the drawings and the building processes. I often use the architect’s drawings as the concrete starting points for my own drawings because that is where I can see what the architect was thinking and hoping for. This is very clear in works like Die Vlermuishuis (2006), where I worked with one of Gawie Fagan’s elevation drawings of his house in Camps Bay. And I have always loved building sites. They are sculpture sites also. I love the fact that you have to dig into the earth in order to anchor a structure to start building up. I love the materiality of the building site and I love the scale of it. I have been fascinated with scaffolding for a long time. I used it as a prototype for my method of construction in Entrer dans la mine (2013), and you can see it in the little series of drawings that gives the title to the South Facing exhibition where I depict JAG’s neo-classical (north facing!) facade under construction and covered by scaffolding.
However, when it comes to designing my work, particularly in the three‑dimensional components of the installations, my main concern is sculptural. The objects have to make sense conceptually, spatially and formally. Each work tends to dictate its own set of rules. So for example in Maison Tropicale ( 2007) it was pertinent to reproduce the scale of Jean Prouvé’s prefabricated component parts as 1:1. I wanted to respect Prouve’s design qualities but I wanted to make a critical work about the way his project had been appropriated by the colonial and neo-colonial drive. In other works my decisions on scale may be driven by my need to integrate the work in a specific space. Or, sometimes the viewer actually has to enter the work and interact with it, like in the case of A Tendency to Forget (2015), where you need to climb up stairs and sit inside a little amphitheatre. So in this case the work is huge but still only a ‘model’ of the facade of the building I am referencing. Other times, I use scale to point the viewer to the language of imagination like in Remining (Vault Table) (2016), where I am referring to JAG, by joining the idea of the vaults in the Meyer Pienaar extension with a copper mine pit, metaphorically alluding to the structural, societal and political faults inspired by the use of copper.
CR: Your work often encompasses what I’ll loosely term mixed metaphors, where images and forms with tenuous links are brought together, most notable in Hendrix Cullinan Shaft. How do these metaphors work? What is your intention behind the mild estrangement these cause?
ÂF: There are two important guidelines to keep in mind here: firstly is the fact that I see art as a way of thinking, both for me and for the viewer; and secondly is the question of the function of art which, in my opinion, includes the sparking of imagination. I am trying to understand the world and I am using the the most creative thinking tools that I can possibly access. This means that I am looking for unexpected connections which often arise out of imaginative paths of research and unusual combinations of events. I hope to share this with the viewer.
So, for example, when I began to work on my project about the Cullinan Diamond Mine for a gallery space in London, I wanted to connect the history of that city with the Cullinan diamond which is set into the queen’s crown. But instead I came across the Chiselhurst Caves, a warren of mines and tunnels that became a site of counter-culture in the 60s. The story goes that Hendrix premiered ‘Stone Free’ in this space. I was touched by the connection and ambiguity of Hendrix’s ‘Stone’ and the Cullinan diamond so I decided to pursue the Hendrix lead further. I obviously loved and appreciated his music but I suspected there was further meaning for me. I am interested in rupture and the figure of Hendrix as an African American who had broken the mould fascinated me. I was looking to understand how it came about that such an extraordinary oeuvre appeared in that human being at that time. I wanted to understand the social and political conditions which allowed for such creative rupture. I also believe ambiguity and enigma can open very creative thinking processes. As I pieced together the details of his life and pondered on enigmas which he created I realized that Hendrix’s musical genius had changed the rock music scene forever but mostly that, despite the fact that there was no clear evidence of political intentionality in his work, Hendrix himself was the personification of ‘revolution’ and rupture. This realization was emancipating and inspiring for me!
So, in Hendrix Cullinan Shaft I am loading together two images with great symbolic value: The Cullinan Mine, as a symbol of the political and economic structures that mining sustains in South Africa (including the story of labour exploitation –heightened by the fact that the Marikana events happened whilst I was in the last throes of this work), and the very embodiment of the idea of revolution and liberation.
CR: You seem to be delving into the history of modernism, especially in Africa. What drives you to this particular time and ideology?
ÂF: My interest in the history of modernism in Africa is connected to architecture. I was generally looking at the buildings that testified to the transition from colonial times to independence. Most of the colonial powers invested a lot in architecture during the last days of colonialism. In Africa, some architects were able to work with a sense of experimentation which they had not enjoyed elsewhere. So the buildings were exciting! But I was drawn to the contradictory nature of modernism’s utopic mission, which proposed the improvement of human quality of life, and the fact that it was so easily appropriated by oppressive and autocratic political projects, like colonialism or fascism (Mozambique and Portugal are good examples here). I was also interested in the fact that these modernist buildings were testaments to the processes of Independence and to the first years of utopic nation-building governmental projects. It seemed to me at the time that looking at this very crucial time of transition in Africa might help us decodify some of the persisting problems and difficulties which we experience in the present.
CR: Working at the JAG obviously has its own problems, but also an expansive history. What was your experience working in this location?
ÂF: I am a South African but I have never lived in Johannesburg so I am hardly qualified to answer this question. I understand the issues around the historic and political legacy of JAG are complex (I did some research into this for my ‘South Facing’ exhibition) and I also recognize that the urban conditions in the area where the gallery is situated are fluid and challenging. But the centre of Johannesburg is not unlike the centre of other African cities. From my superficial point of view of regular recent visits to Johannesburg I witnessed much change in areas like Braamfontein, and I like to imagine that change will continue to happen in other areas of the city.
A Mozambican born artist I keep reminding myself that artists from other countries admire and envy the might of the South African art world and its institutions. A recent visit to the National Museum of Art in Maputo brought the disparities to the fore! When compared to the difficulties encountered in Mozambique, the very questioning of JAG’s existence seems either indulgent (South Africans are spoilt already!) or expedient (the government just does not want to spend on culture which it deems useless). JAG is the city’s municipal main gallery and it should function as such. It holds an impressive collection and is part of the history of the city (the good and the bad). It should be respected for where and what it is. It does not put in danger the existence or survival of other large institutions. The city is large enough to encompass much more than it has. Non-commercial spaces like JAG are vital for the survival of art projects which refuse to depend on the ravaging global market. From what I have been able to observe, Johannesburg is already showing signs of the hype of this type of art production. Institutional spaces like JAG can deliver the variety which the city’s art world needs.
But we must also be rigorous. A good gallery today depends mainly on a good program. JAG and the government have a responsibility to deliver this and the public has a responsibility to demand it. In this case it may be worth keeping in mind that it is easy to destroy and very hard to ‘rebuild.’