Gallery MOMO, Cape Town
13.09 – 21.10.2017
Gallery MOMO opens with a group show of nineteen of its artists – of which eight were born outside of Africa – titled ‘A Continent Beyond’. The continent has traditionally been shown as other and weak from the colonial viewpoint and the title describes Africa as a separate entity. The shift in perception regarding post-colonial Africa is that of a strong and independent continent, which is emerging out of its ravaged past. Each artist, both on and off the continent, adds their perspective. Stephanie Conradie collages found ceramic trinkets into flower pots in ‘forced removals’ referencing removed bodies, whilst Joël Mpah Dooh’s Untitled mixed media works use identity and religion to explore the self.
The gallery statement says that all the artists on this show have helped define and redefine contemporary African art here and beyond. Curatorially much thought has been put into the placement of works, so that a dialogue is created between them. We are presented with a vision of an Africa that belongs to us all. Three artists who seem to address the issues of African identity and transformation in a post-colonial era are Sethembile Msezane, Ayana Jackson and Coby Kennedy.
Coby Kennedy’s Machete Mandela in Black speaks to change on the African continent in the overthrowing of the apartheid government. Kennedy takes South African street signs and transforms them into an aesthetically violent art work by shaping them to resemble machetes. These are arranged in the shape reminiscent of Zulu spears with a No U-Turn sign centred above them. Street names pertinent to the apartheid struggle are crossed out in red, showing how violence brought about change for a greater good and that there is no going back. I think the artist is asking us to question whether this change has been successful. A New York Times article published in 1990 references a speech Mandela made upon his release from prison, urging all black people in the Natal townships to throw down their machetes and make peace. To me this is represented in this work by the addition of Mandela’s name in the title. Mandela is considered to be the bringer of peace to South Africa. It is up to us now in the present to keep moving forward and build a new continent, is one possible reading of this work.
Sethembile Msezane’s Amanz’ amtoti shows the artist posing as Queen Nandi with Nkandla in the background. The character depicts modernity by showing herself as part of two different cultural worlds in dress and identity. Her face is veiled, but her erect pose is powerful. This work addresses the transformation of women’s role in a modern world from life bearer and domestic goddess to successful business woman and spokesperson for the family. The inclusion of Msezane’s women’s work Strange Fruit, which deals with lynching in America, to me, cements this. Based on a poem by Billie Holiday, red velvet, hair and lace are used to signifies violence done onto these black bodies that were forced to leave their home continent. The use of textiles pre-supposes that these are women and speaks of the hardships that female slaves were subjected to as commodities that were used and traded. When seen in context to the first work however, women that do not follow tradition could be seen to be a threat in the dominant African male culture.
Ayana Jackson takes on various female identities in her composed portrait photographs. By recreating a painterly feel, she evokes nostalgia and empathy for her characters in the viewer. They are shown with dignity and beauty. The three photographs presented Saffronia, Tignon and Sleep to Dream form part of the series ‘Intimate Justice in the Stolen Moment’. All three reference the slave trade and the civil rights war in America. In Tignon intimacy is seen through the two female characters. The title, according the artist, is taken from the head coverings which these wore to differentiate them in society. Saffronia is based on the Nina Simone character in the lyrics to Four Women. Legal sexual violence, as well as segregation and racial discrimination are endured by this woman. In Sleep to Dream, the artist allows her character to have fun and escape this morbid world by dressing up in European dress and using props. I think the artist is implying that all women no matter their history should not be harmed, nor discriminated against and that all deserve to be treasured as one would a painting.
The video performance Falling by Sethembile Msezane represents, for me, the journey in establishing a new continent beyond. The setting is a female bird figure dressed in white lying on a white bed in the middle of the veld. A female black bird appears that could be seen to represent pain and suffering. Both identities are taken on by the artist, who references them as the Zimbabwean soapstone bird, which is housed at Groote Schuur, the former home of Cecil John Rhodes. The bed could symbolise this colonial home, as it is displaced within the veld. The artist explores the idea that there will be no peace until this bird has been returned to Great Zimbabwe. Through a symbolic blessing the black bird takes the white on a journey of reliving the past of Africa which is dominated by violence onto black bodies. Thereafter, the white bird arises to fan the twigs into a fire that devours the bed. This is perhaps symbolic of a cleansing by fire, before peace can be restored or the destruction of the colonial system. I think the artist speaks to dualism in ourselves, as the same body represents both peace and destruction. Perhaps we are being cautioned to proceed carefully and not repeat the mistakes of the past.
We are left with many questions, which is what makes this a good exhibition as we can return to it in search of answers. I think the gallery and curator chose thought provoking works that are not easy to unpack, but certainly are stimulating.
This review was selected for publication from the Art Criticism course for Honours students at UCT’s Michaelis School of Fine Art