Walking into ‘About Face’ at Stevenson Gallery, Neo Matloga’s collages meet me. They are distorted faces, eyes, lips, and mouths contorting in all directions. I recognize certain faces beyond the commotion, from Will Smith and Trevor Noah to Steve Biko and James Baldwin. I try to find other faces but the task is futile. These faces are not meant to be seen. The poor, pixelated quality of the images chosen confirms as much. Even the paper they are printed is warped, peeling off the wall, as if begging to be taken down. Matloga says, ‘Here you have the image of the distortion, which was already there in your prejudices or racist gaze.’ Thus, they become more about the looker than the images themselves. In the same room, Wim Botha’s book-sculpted busts avert my gaze, flinging it back at me through dichroic-filtered glass. A self-portrait by Paul Sepuya avoids the self entirely. Tired of flashing lights, Sepuya retreats behind a black veil, reminiscent of the curtains daguerreotype photographers would hide behind during long exposure times. Moshekwa Langa’s portraits, with their red eyes, also seem tired of looking, or being looked at.
Already, it was clear to me that my position as visitor – specifically as a white visitor, who is not South African, and therefore tourist – would be called into question. I felt immediately accused, but in a powerful way. It meant that the works had a life of their own. Perhaps there’s something inherent to portraiture which instills it with the ability to confront, to argue, and to play tricks on the viewer, in a way that abstraction cannot.
I considered writing this review about the gaze, or rather, how artists might manage and manipulate the viewer’s gaze. But then, such a relationship contends that I would only be able to write about my own gaze – my projections, assumptions, associations – which might do a disservice to the multi-faceted audiences artists imagine when they create the work they make. Thus, I wondered what this show might look like if viewers were of no concern. If the works could speak for themselves, what would they say? If the gallery is left empty, how are the works testing and contesting each other? What unintended meanings are created when works look at each other, rather than viewers looking at the work?
Nelly Guambe’s Portrait of Sara Maria is almost entirely lost in darkness. Zanele Muholi’s Bester VIII is on the other side of the wall, also shrouded in darkness, but a lens elegantly circles their piercing and defiant eye, pointed at Guambe’s work, witnessing her, encouraging her not to disappear. Edson Chagas’s masks replace human faces in a play on identification photography — passport photos, mugshots — where the portrait is the domain of state control. Across from these are Deborah Poynton’s hyperrealistic paintings, where (white) models are rendered in high-definition, every wrinkle definable. Chagas’s faces question Deborah Poynton’s. Who has the privilege to be rendered visible?
In the main room, a two-metre high plinth is erected in the centre of the room, bearing another Zanele Muholi. Their face takes up the most space in the room, and a telescopic apparatus gifts Muholi’s figure an otherworldly vision. Paul Sepuya’s Mirror Study reflects Muholi’s sight to what’s behind her, giving her precedent over the room. Pieter Hugo’s subjects do not participate in this vast conversation of perceptions; Hugo explains that many of these subjects are blind or partially sighted. But studio spotlights are reflected in all of their eyes, creating a feedback loop of seeing and therefore being seen. Claudette Schreuders’s sculptures don’t seem to look either. The space where their eyes must be are strangely void. Comically, they play the role of onlooker. Dispersed across the room, they resemble average gallery-goers, casually, silently browsing images in a room full of strangers, asking no questions. Then again, there is a tension between Schreuders’s rendering of Bessie Head and Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi’s Legote (After Grace Matsetsa Legote). I wonder how Bessie Head would write the scene of a South African rhythmic gymnast placing Top 50 in the World Championships.
Mustafa Maluka’s brightly coloured, almost billboard-sized visages survey the room, commanding attention. They are juxtaposed by Mequitta Ahuja’s Birthright on the opposite wall. This painting crops its figure just below the eyes — an anomaly for a show largely about vision. Instead, the figure gingerly plucks an image from a scrapbook, portraying a woman who Ahuja does not know, to whom she might not even be related. Perhaps this serves as a reminder of how easily history can erase context and identity, especially when oppressive powers are afoot.
Steven Cohen’s series features five portraits of the artist in full gothic, carnivalesque makeup. An accompanying poem reads:
when my brother was six years old he said to my mother
“i remember when i was a piece of bread and you ate me” —
that’s what being looked at feels like
Taking viewing-as-consuming literally, one photograph features Cohen with an eyeball between his black-painted lips. Cohen’s heavily-ornamented costumes and performances often incite dialogue about queerness as spectacle, and the feminised queer man as object. But Cohen’s framework for understanding the violence of the gaze is complicated across from Barthélémy Toguo’s Black Lives Matter. Red watercolours depicting Philando Castile, Walter Scott, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Alton Sterling, Akai Gurley, Michael Brown, Rodney King, and Laquan McDonald reveal just how dangerous being ‘looked at’ can be, wherein the gaze is not only disparaging, but deadly.
But, perhaps I have projected too much, despite my attempts to take myself out of it. That’s the price we pay with objects: subjects always step in to name and re-name them. Artworks can challenge their viewers, but our framework for understanding and speaking about art is swayed by identity, language, education, etc. I think about Penny Siopis’s video, Per Kind Permission (Fieldwork). The video is projected onto a loosely-hung canvas in a dark corner. Siopis, back turned, is the canvas. A white-gloved figure paints onto her skin. The first drawing is based off of a somatotype, an archaic scientific taxonomy that was largely used to categorise and discriminate across racial lines. The second drawing comes from a photo Siopis says, ‘Both objectify their subjects, even when the look is kind, the touch tender.’ Taking cue from this piece, perhaps the fixation with objectivity has passed. Rather than trying to see images ‘as they are,’ it would be more interesting to own how we see images, how images come to embody us.