SMITH, Cape Town
25.01 – 24.02.2018
Love? It’s a funny way to start a story; to establish a body of work. Perhaps it’s the next chapter, but love is a temporary feeling too, just as precarious and evasive as the rest of them. Reading through the titles of Banele Khoza’s work in the press release for his third solo exhibition, a wobbly narrative begins to form, chronicled through text-speak and well-trodden truisms. This account – detailing contemporary spaces of intimacy, so many of which begin in the virtual – is too sentimental to be scandalous; a little too general to be autobiographical.
The images that accompany these titles consist, mostly, of figurative works – paintings, drawings and digital prints – depicting nude masculine bodies or loosely rendered faces, reading like the little details of people (lovers?) only half-remembered. There’s a visual and stylistic homogeneity to the work, making each painting and drawing feel like a sketch; part of a process, invoking a sense of working through a particular thought or idea through repetition. Many of these images incorporate text which, like the titles, is diaristic, reflecting on or substantiating the emotional undercurrent of the show.
Khoza is part of a recent spate of contemporary artists working in this confessional register, using his own lived experience as conceptual fodder. There are echoes of Louise Bourgeois, Jean-Michel Basquiat Tracey Emin, Moshekwa Langa and Penny Siopis in the style and tone of the work, which seems in some ways to be a millennial synthesis of the type of art someone born in the ‘90s would have grown up on, twisted into something contemporarily relatable via glancing references to hookup apps and technology in general. Where previously this type of work emerged as a response – or rather, an antidote – to dryly theoretical, or market-ready, typically “masculine” art forms, this time around it feels a little different.
The prevalence of various social media has precipitated a new(ish) popular culture of “sharing”, of hyper-vulnerability, transferring the focus of popular discourse to personal identity and experience. Where the borders between public and private are shifted in everyday life, the confessional in art becomes a commonplace thing – to such an extent that it’s almost expected of artists. In Khoza’s work, this preoccupation with the personal takes on a slightly uncomfortable tone – it seems a little too self-aware (without being self-reflexive), slightly too earnest.
‘LOVE?’ is, broadly, a critique of intimacy in the digital era, foregrounded by Khoza’s own identity as a black queer man – which functions pivotally in his deconstruction of contemporary masculinity. Outside of its images – the nudes, sketches and studies – ‘LOVE?’ attempts to dig into the odd spaces between the corporeal and the virtual, and finds them lacking. Khoza cites the construction of an online presence; the mediated self, as a cause for insecurity in both oneself and others. He says that “we haven’t learnt to objectively consume images”, which leads us to believe online personae to be truth. I’m not sure if I agree, although I get where he’s coming from. It’s hard to describe yourself within a character limit, or with a few images, but it’s equally hard to do it through speech, face to face, or through your art. This sets up a false dichotomy between “real” and “virtual” which relies on a fairly slippery idea of “truth” and “authenticity” as things based firmly irl.
This division is reflected in the work itself, through the imposition of text on to image: it’s a (lopsided) analysis of 1) the online presence – bio, photos, etc; 2) the physical person; and 3) Khoza’s own impression of them, as communicated through the text and the titles. To expect to be able to identify what is “authentic” in the midst of this seems an impossible, and maybe pointless task.
What strikes me as particularly odd is Khoza’s cynical take on love in the digital era in conjunction with his own online presence. Khoza, who has established himself quite firmly as a brand (BKhz), seems to revel in this particular type of virtual self-making. Where any other type of online presence may simply be a mediated version of oneself, the “personal brand” relies on packaging that and making it saleable; predicating one’s entire self and output as a commodity, before anything else. The inclusion of the confessional in this branding is proof of the insidious way in which capitalism devours everything. With the help of neoliberalism, social media and guerrilla advertising, the art object’s commodity value now includes the artist’s identity, and this is where my discomfort in Khoza’s earnestness lies. Here, he’s figured his vulnerability as a product in its own right – which seems at odds with his focus on the “authentic” self.
Granted, it would be unrealistic to expect young artists to only follow established channels such as academic institutions and galleries to get their work seen, especially considering these institutions’ penchant for either erasing or fetishising the identities of queer and black artists. Social media platforms like instagram allow for a more lateral way of exhibiting and selling work, without having to rely on (usually very biased) institutional recognition. What’s weird is how the whole process remains rooted in sales-based hype, fixing the work to its commodity value. Circumventing established commercial structures does not necessarily require the creation of a parallel, smaller market. DIY, extra-institutional spaces which disregard the “rules” of the market entirely can, and do, exist.
Perhaps Khoza isn’t interested in circumventing the market, and is content to push his own brand independently, in the same way a gallery would. Perhaps it’s enough to be seen; to be successful (along a specific metric), at all. Because, in spite of its relationship with the market, Khoza’s work is still saying something, speaking to a perception of contemporary life; representing a black, queer experience of grappling with toxic masculinity in contemporary sexual and intimate interactions; evoking a type of loneliness so specific that it’s valuable simply because of its relatability.