Stevenson, Cape Town
30.08 – 13.10.2018
As I squeeze through a low and narrow arch-way I wonder if Serge Alain Nitegeka is a body-fascist. That the artist is lean, over six foot and handsome, lends itself to this conclusion. But then, perhaps it’s just me refusing to accept that certain places are just difficult to get into. This sensation extends to the artist’s latest exhibition, ‘Innate Black’. Meaning ‘inborn’, ‘natural’, the adjective ‘innate’ is a no brainer – the artist is from Burundi after all. However, given that innateness, philosophically, is said to originate ‘in the mind’, its usage also supposes that Nitegeka is making a proposition – blackness as an idea.
In this regard, Negritude comes to mind, for what Leopold Senghor proposed in- and through this notion was not only the empirical fact of blackness, but its emotional/psychological/spiritual capacity to restore dignity to those who for over five hundred years have been oppressed. It is Senghor’s notion which has assumed dominance today, and which occupies a central place in a globally resurgent Black Consciousness movement.
Philosophically, however, blackness remains an elusive and gnawing category. “The colour black has no meaning”, Achille Mbembe concludes. “It exists only in reference to the power that invented it, to an infrastructure that supports it and contrasts it with other colours, and, finally, to a world that makes it a name and an axiom”. Context, therefore, is everything when examining a colour or a condition such as ‘Innate Black’.
In Nitegeka’s case, the colour does not possess the political charge typically associated with it. Here, contra Mbembe, ‘black’ is not a mechanism for objectification and degradation. The artist’s refusal of this prevailing axiom is refreshing, for it is rare these days to encounter art which does not appropriate the pathological or messianic power of blackness. This is not surprising, for Nitegeka has persistently elided a prescriptive and ideologically burdened approach. Steeped in Modernism – which the picky amongst us will insist is a political venture – Nitegeka has chosen to foreground art’s abstracted and subtracted investment in colour, pattern, and grid.
Mondrian immediately springs to mind as a direct influence. For what primarily intrigues Nitegeka is the apportioning and blocking of contiguous yet distinctly separable colours. A rich tomato red and yellow meets a cool turquoise blue and white, inter-cut with two-inch thick bars of black. Squares meet diagonal and circular forms. The impact is geometric, diagrammatic, detached. This, after all, is primarily an ideational art, or an art moved by sublimated feeling. There is nothing stridently emotional or dramatic in Nitegeka’s work. In the spirit of Pythagoras, rather, the artist hankers after the eternal rather than the sensible and perishable.
The point between design and art is blurred, as is the inhuman and human, for what Nitegeka is primarily preoccupied with is the idealisation and stylisation of being. It is telling, in this regard, that the artist should block out the windows which would allow for natural light. This is because his exhibition is preeminently a staging. On arrival at the Stevenson Gallery we see that the first entry point has been substantially blocked off, requiring the visitor to crouch before entry. The next portal, slightly taller, but markedly narrower, and arched, requires one to inhale on entry into an orange-red room devoid of art. It is the experience which counts, the red room broken only by one sheet of untreated cream shutter-board.
As for the art works – primarily squared, rectangular, and therefore comparably generic in form – these too are complemented with works constructed in more surprisingly unfamiliar shapes. Curves meet diagonals which, for Gilles Deleuze, are more radical because they are tangential and open-ended. And it is this diagonal movement, even when squared off, which signal the artist’s aspirational impulse. For despite the effect of coolness and detachment – of stylisation – which gives the works their beauty, it is the subtle tensions built into the works – the tension of mobility and grid – which are most deserving of our attention.
Nitgeka’s last solo exhibition at Stevenson also embarked with a deconstruction of the formal gallery structure. The artist, then, broke more crudely through walls and altered conventional points of entry and exit. Here, once again, Nitegeka conceived the exhibition by first altering the environment. To what end? Perhaps to make us rethink the reverential convention which attaches itself to the gallery space? Or, perhaps, to allow for a heightened playfulness in the experience of art therein? Or then again, to foreground the experience of art as a physical, as well as a sensual and cerebral matter?
In the last room there are two hulking black forms which lean, or are delicately poised, against a white wall, the one sculptural work tapering upwards in the form of a single tall black bar. While the structures are static, they invite an awareness of movement. And it is this sensation of being inside a subtly moving world, a geometric world composed of bracketed flows, which gives the exhibition its elan, its spirit, and quietly questing mood. “The essence of a sculpture must enter on tip-toe, as light as animal footprints on snow”, noted Hans Jean Arp, and it is this subtlety, this lightness, which informs Nitegeka’s works. For while they are undoubtedly bold, they are also remarkably sonorous in their quiet.
That Serge Alain Nitegeka is the winner of the 2018 Villa Trust Prize for sculpture is fitting, given not only the quality of the work, but its undoubted affinity with the work of Edoardo Villa, the celebrated Italian-South African Modernist. Nitegeka’s is an art in which clean lines shiver, and in which beauty, while unerringly fixed in place, allows always for wonder. And if one might seek to ponder more deeply the artist’s notion of an ‘Innate Black’, then it is a black seam and flow which is inspired by a project far greater than human oppression. For after Achille Mbembe, it anticipates “a world that is coming, a world before us, one whose destination is universal”.