In his latest book The Practice of Light – A Genealogy of Visual Technologies from Prints to Pixels, Sean Cubitt, proposes that the history of art is actually the history of light. The current portraiture exhibition ‘Continuing Conversations’, on at the UJ Gallery is a furthering of that hypothesis.
This show picks up where the first of this series of exhibitions, ‘Shifting Conversations’, ended. Where ‘Shifting Conversations’ examined themes of colonialism and postcolonialism through the UJ and MTN art collections, this year these two institutions grapple with complexities of the self via the mode of portraiture. The continuing collaboration between these collections has grown to three additional components – a mentorship, an emerging portrait development and an educational programme. This ensured that themes such as the exoticism of the other, identity and body politics and juxtaposition of the manifestations of power could be engaged with in both historical and contemporary ways.
Whilst the history of portraiture’s relationship with power is well documented, when one looks at that history within the scope of a South African context, we begin seeing how a shifting of power dynamics play themselves out on our corner of the Earth. From paintings which date back to 1923 with Johannes Meintjies oil on board painting Vrou Met Huis, to new media works created in 2018 such as the Fixed Flux video installation by Hemali Koosal, this exhibition highlights the way in which the portrait presents differences in the shifting of identity politics within South Africa. Those may be in the guise of gender identity politics, seen in Chris Diedericks’ 1965 silkscreen and linocut work Vir Volk and Vadarland, which depicts two silhouetted men kissing while another man in the foreground is depicted with an expression of confusion. These centered black and white figures are surrounded by purple silkscreened images of the South African coat of arms. Or it may be in the presentation of othering, such as Cecil Skotnes painted and carved wood piece Shaka the King, which gives insight into the ways in which societies and their power have been portrayed. In this instance, the audience is not presented with a real likeness of the Zulu leader but is instead given an emotive likeness to grapple with. This representation is rough, raw, grotesque and even alien, but one which shows how a non-Zulu artist may have chosen to represent this legendary figure. Whilst the hefty form with a split-open torso and exposed entrails gives one an idea of a strong, battle weary and simultaneously vulnerable figure, it is in the animalistic and beast-like representation of this man where questions begin to arise. These are questions which may not have begun surfacing a decade ago – These questions of representation and othering show a shifting in the conversations surrounding how we as individuals choose to be depicted.
This shifting of power dynamics regarding representation is presented strikingly well to viewers with the inclusion of oil paintings of the two Vice Chancellors to be at the helm of the educational institution now known as the University of Johannesburg (formally Technikon of the Witwatersrand). The first of Professor R. Botha by Reshada Crouse in 2003 is a depiction of a white male in his academic robes seated within a nature setting, the second of Botha’s successor Professor Ihron Rensburg also by Crouse in 2017 is of a black man, his academic attire also present along with evidence of a suit worn underneath, here the nature backdrop is replaced with a simpler one with only a hint of the monuments of the Ponte, Brixton, Soweto and Joburg Towers to allude to the unification of the universities campuses and locations. These two works not only depict a shift of racial dynamics in the country, but also draws attention to how and where the ideas of enlightenment were and symbolised in the South African landscape. In the earlier painting nature, comfort and relaxation are entwined with the ideal of success and a farm lifestyle, are in the more contemporary portrait shifted towards an urban mindset, with more emphasis on the dynamic aspects of urban life.
Finally, we arrive at works which question the status quo and closely examine the mode of the portrait by shortening the divide that exists between sitter and artist. The light painting videos of Hemali Koosal, which see her choosing to work with friends rather than complete strangers, are at their simplest form merely paintings with light which accentuate and de-accentuate her sitter’s face. The viewer is presented with a minimal amount of detail, but the subject’s personality seems to linger on screen. This, I attribute to the prevalence of autonomy in this selfie age, which has seen us take ownership of the curation and presentation of ourselves. Lana Combrinck’s Mask reflections on the smiley/self(ie), oil painting and sticker vinyl on mirror is a work which depicts the societal shifting of mindset, from that of the power of our images being in the hands of another. This particular work, with its mirrored surface allows views to be a part of the exhibited work. Instead of seeing this as a reflection of an ego driven society, one could see a work such as this commenting on a society which is no longer satisfied with existing in the shadows but instead insists to be a part of the greater narrative.
While Sean Cubitt’s quote on the history of art being a history of light may have referred to the tangibility of that art creation, such as light first being needed to be brought into caves before those creations could be either created or seen, what this exhibition does is add a layer to that idea by showing how people see themselves in society, while demanding more ownership in how those representations are brought into the light. All of which results in an increase of marginalised members of society stepping out from the shadows to have their stories told more authentically. This exhibition encourages these debates by purposely positioning works together that elicit discussion and questioning.