10.02 – 16.03.2018
For his first solo exhibition at Stevenson, the result of a recent month-long residency in Johannesburg, Thierry Oussou has taken as his subject the city itself – or, rather, ‘the visual, aural and psychic impact’ it has had on the artist.
Young though it may be compared to conurbations comprising more venerable urban spaces, Johannesburg is already a storied city. It has spurred novels and films, memoirs and songs by the thousands; it has been theorised, allegorised, celebrated, castigated, rejuvenated. Above all, Joburg has produced (and continues to produce) simulacra, versions of images of itself, by turns diverse and cliché, surprising and familiar, iconographic and iconoclastic. Suffice it to say that the artist who chooses to portray JOHANNESBURG is entering into a dense, perhaps even cluttered, quite often chaotic field of signification – an enormous and ever-growing body of work that amounts to a tradition of sorts, albeit one without a formal set of conventions or a unitary aesthetic.
Denizens of Joburg thus have a certain set of expectations when we walk into an exhibition like this one, which we have been told engages with the place we call home: expectations that are barely conscious, and that we would deny vehemently because they seem too proprietorial (because everyone ‘belongs’ in Joburg but no-one should claim ‘ownership’ of the city – which includes claiming to ‘understand’ it). In the case of Oussou’s ‘Before It Is Completely Gone’, I took a while to realise that my response to the work entailed a quiet but sustained flouting of these expectations.
This modest exhibition – five mixed-media works on paper, all completed in 2018, and an ‘immersive’ sculptural installation – in Stevenson’s reconfigured and slightly smaller Braamfontein gallery space, has the advantage of a relative newcomer’s refreshing perspective. Moreover, while the title of a piece such as On Mandela Bridge might lure us into a realist paradigm (after all, the physical bulk of the bridge imposes itself on anyone entering or exiting the Stevenson premises, which nestle in its shadow; surely, we incorrectly assume, some visual vestige of its steel and concrete structure, lodged in the artist’s mind, must find its way onto the paper), Oussou is not operating in a straightforward representational mode. Or, insofar as he is, we must remember that what is being represented is not simply the visual but the ‘aural and psychic’ too: auditory sense data, the sounds of the city, and the artist’s psychological ‘landscape’ necessarily take on more abstract forms.
There are nonetheless discernible human figures populating Oussou’s reimagined Johannesburg. Who or what are they? There is an anonymity, a ghostliness, to the ragged squares of their faces; their gaunt limbs gesticulate, cajole, control, flail. Are these the subalterns of the city, the forgotten, the helpless? Or are they spritely – spirit-like – shadows from the past, ancestors who have come to remind us and perhaps warn us?
In an interview a few years ago, Oussou affirmed that his interest in the past lies in its capacity to inform our view of contemporary power dynamics: “Forgetting and not being aware of your own history can also be used as a tool of manipulation by politicians.” This explicitly political perspective is turned to good effect in the installation, Ce que nous sommes (That which we are). The process behind this work is described as ‘investigative ambling,’ in which the artist gathered tree branches from parks around Johannesburg and also acquired ‘a variety of wooden chairs and stools – some found, some purchased in city markets, others carved by local artisans.’ Oussou invokes the various political associations one might make with sitting: ‘parliamentarians campaign for seats and nations navigate through the trauma of imposed sovereigns and their thrones.’
The small three-legged stools on display might be seen as a critique of the absurd arrogance of some claims to authority – or do they, like the rough-hewn log benches that complement them, hark back to contexts in which the ‘seat of power’ was, physically and metonymically, a more humble position to occupy? (As an aside: Benin-born Oussou may have different west African traditions in mind, but in South Africa in 2018 it seems necessary to think about the shifting role of ‘traditional leaders’ here. All too often colonial- and apartheid-era stooges, and likewise barriers to equality and progress in the post-apartheid period – think of the Ingonyama Trust Act; the shoring up of support for Jacob Zuma; the recent posturing of Contralesa, the Congress of Traditional Leaders of South Africa, regarding the film Inxeba and the question of land restitution – our country’s ‘traditional leaders’ have departed drastically from the precolonial/decolonial socio-political traditions to which Oussou wistfully alludes.)
If the injunction to ‘sit down’ is nowadays a rapid-fire social media analysis and dismissal of a problematic public figure (‘Bathabile Dlamini must sit down!’; ‘Steve Hofmeyr must sit down!’), the notes accompanying the exhibition identify a more welcoming gesture in the invitation to ‘take a seat.’ Should this invitation be taken at face value by visitors, I wondered? I tried out one of the sturdier logs and was unsure if some of the other wooden seats would take my weight – the gallery staff politely suggested not – so instead I walked methodically along the narrow path indicated on the floor, hoping to make sense of the branches gathered via the artist’s “investigative ambling” through Johannesburg’s green spaces. Stripped of their leaves, the branches have been broken into sticks and twigs of varying dimensions, and re-arranged: bundled, stacked and piled in some cases, but mostly placed in rows and clusters that seem to suggest a deliberate pattern. This is described as a ‘maze-like structure,’ but it teases us with the promise not of confusion but of clarity – like an aerial view of the city, even a kind of map. I couldn’t help thinking of Gerhard Marx’s 2013 Garden Carpet series, in which plant material is used to create detailed maps of central Jozi.
Insofar as the exhibition’s thematic focal points can be plotted on axes of time (the relationship of the past to the present or future) and of space (Johannesburg), this encourages an approach to the installation that considers the history of trees in the city – also well-trod terrain, in literary, artistic and scholarly terms. What is the arboreal history whose vestiges are on display here? Boasts about Joburg as a ‘man-made forest’ are overworn and tend to neglect the connections between tree-planting and segregationist urban planning; only some areas of the city, it must be emphasised, are dense with foliage. Should we be attempting to discern between the branches of indigenous and exotic trees? Does it matter if we can’t tell the difference? Arguably such binaries are not particularly helpful.
Indeed, the nature of the display is ambiguous. It’s hardly haphazard, as there are very clear markers of careful arrangement: swirls of short twigs, staggered parallels of longer sticks, the odd herringbone or lattice. Yet the overall effect is one of scattered fragments marshalled within set boundaries, alternating pockets of neatness and disarray. If that sounds familiar in the context of Johannesburg, it’s because most accounts of the city attempt to accommodate these two extremes – as implied by the titles of books like Taming the Disorderly City: The Spacial Landscape of Johannesburg (2008) and Unruly Cities? Order/Disorder (2009), in which Joburg features prominently. As the contents of these texts bear out, however, the binaries break down at street level; aspects of life in a city like Johannesburg could equally be presented in the paradoxical terms Oussou employs to describe his composition: “precise yet whimsical”.
When we turn our attention again to the title of this exhibition, a final question lingers: What is it that (sooner or later) will be completely gone?
The mixed media works will live on, be purchased or moved for display elsewhere. The motley collection of sticks and twigs, however, is liable to be broken, discarded or destroyed – and if not, eventually to decay. If these broken bits of wood stand for ‘that which we are,’ as the artist suggests, perhaps this is merely a meditation on the transience of all life forms, and of human lives in particular. We trust that ‘Before It Is Completely Gone’ is not referring to ecological collapse, which would presumably mean the end of Joburg’s trees, or some other apocalyptic fate for the city and its inhabitants. Again, Oussou’s purview is more modest. ‘I agree that changes should happen,’ he has previously affirmed, ‘but I have a desire to document the vanishing before it is completely gone, to keep the trace of the tradition, the imprint of the past in the future.’
Johannesburg is always changing – has always been in flux, in a state of continuous building and demolition, displacement and opportunity, since it was a mining town. Oussou’s contribution to the city’s visual arts ‘tradition’ is, aptly, capturing fleeting traces of the city in a particular moment in time: this time might not be the hoped-for national “new dawn”, but it is where we are, here, now, in Johannesburg, at the start of 2018.