WHATIFTHEWORLD, Cape Town
16.02 – 28.03.2018
Almost every review of Halter’s work opens with the incident of his birth: Dan Halter, they invariably begin, was born in Zimbabwe. And don’t you forget it. Not that you can, when considering any of his exhibitions. And so, here too: Dan Halter was born in Zimbabwe. His family later left the country in a self-imposed exile after being violently attacked in their home – a gang of thieves, golf clubs, the phrase black and blue. Halter’s work locates itself in this personal narrative, and expands outwards to include among its thematic threads Africa’s colonial histories, revolutionary movements, national identities, and migrants. But always Zimbabwe – as place or idea or imagined home. Indeed, the words Zimbabwe and Zimbabwean appear over forty times in the exhibition’s accompanying handout; a sixteen-page, colour booklet with images of each work and their corresponding wall text; an uncommon addition to an exhibition.
‘Patience Can Cook a Stone’ is an ambitious show, with thirty-eight works across both floors of WHATIFTHEWORLD’s Woodstock gallery. Like Halter’s previous exhibitions, it includes a diverse range of mediums; found objects, sculpture, weaving, printmaking, photography, even textile design. There is the ubiquitous shangaan or Zimbabwe bag, seen in both The Past is a Foreign Country and Bamba Zonke, and the woven paper works that have come to characterize Halter’s practice.
This show lacks the clarity of Halter’s earlier work, and marks a shift from his eloquent conceptualism towards an artistic mode dependent on explanations and some knowledge of the artist’s biography; a research-based practice, a homework aesthetic. Text saturates this exhibition and often the artworks are obscure without the wall texts that accompany them, even inaccessible. This is not to say the texts are not interesting. Indeed, they are intriguing documents on Zimbabwe’s recent history. But what is their relationship to the work exhibited? Do the texts reduce the artworks to illustrations, or are the works strengthened by the insights offered?
Without its wall text, Halter’s The Hard Boiled Egg Index is a curious ensemble of objects; seven semi-precious stone eggs arranged in a cardboard egg tray alongside a small pile of American and Zimbabwean dollar bills. Each egg has a small engraving on it, each a different design element from one of those notes. While the work is visually curious, it is conceptually vague without the explanation of hyperinflation and black-market exchange rates that accompanies it; ‘the Hard Boiled Egg Index,’ the wall text explains, ‘works on the premise that across Africa, US$1 buys around seven eggs.’ The text illuminates the work, but in doing so sharpens its seeming obscurity into a didactic focus; rendering the work an illustration of the text.
To my mind, the two most effective works in the exhibition are also the simplest, and do not rely on accompanying texts. The first, Zimbabwe Will Never Be a Colony Again 2, is a Zanu PF textile with the words Zimbabwe will never eat polony again appliquéd on it. One does not need to know this was a running joke in Zimbabwe to appreciate the humour of this dictum (its sentiments all the more relatable given the current listeriosis crisis). The second, Clothes of the Dead White Man / Where All Problems End, is a large pile of clothes heaped in the centre of the gallery’s upstairs space. The pile dominates the room, both visually and with the musty smell all second-hand clothes share. The work ostensibly comments on the detrimental economic effects of clothes donated to charities that are bailed and sent to African countries. But while the title is darkly humorous, there is something distinctly ominous about the pile; one cannot help think of discarded bodies, even discarded hope, and good gestures turned sour.
Reflecting on these two works, I am reminded of Halter’s first solo exhibition at João Ferreira Gallery in 2005, and the elegance of those early gestures. Works like Exchange (2005), a pool table surrounded by scattered Zimbabwean 2c coins, ten thousand in total. At the time, the value of all those coins came to only R2, the price of a single game. The work speaks of hyperinflation, the cost of leisure and play, and the games of economics and governance. It requires no explanatory text; it speaks alone, and loudly. I am reminded too, of Halter’s Untitled (Zimbabwean Queen of Rave) (2005) from that same exhibition, a video work featuring clips from European clubs and street parties spliced between footage of South African anti-apartheid protests, and set to the synthy beats of Rozalla’s rave anthem Everybody’s Free (To Feel Good). It is a hopeful piece, bouyaunt, insistently optimistic.
Halter’s work has since taken a more pessimistic turn. It has turned too from irreverence and playfulness towards research and historical narratives. ‘There is an overarching thread of violence which snakes through ‘Patience Can Cook a Stone’,’ the press release says of Halter’s exhibition. ‘[He] has by no means abandoned the shrewd interplay between materials and signification for which he is recognised; he has merely channeled it through a slightly darker bent.’
Conceived and produced prior to Robert Mugabe’s displacement from power in November 2017, the works in Halter’s ‘Patience Can Cook A Stone’ are solemn testaments to Zimbabwe’s recent history. A studied seriousness pervades the exhibition; the wall texts an uncertain necessity. Without them, many of the works prove illegible, but with them the same works are limited to a single, reductive reading.
Still, if I could go back in time and revisit the exhibition, I would ignore the wall texts and the press release. I’d forget everything I’d read about the show. Instead, I’d look to see how much the works spoke for themselves, if only in whispers and cryptic phrases, or perhaps speaking together; chanting in a low voice: Dan Halter was born in Zimbabwe, in Zimbabwe, in Zimbabwe, in Zimbabwe.