Iziko South African National Gallery, Cape Town
23.11 – 14.12.2018
I was initially drawn to reviewing ‘Still Life & Life Drawings – A Moment Captured or Preserved’ at the Iziko South African National Gallery’s Annexe space when I noted the involvement of curator Lonwabo Kilani, freshly-graduated from The Centre for Curating the Archive. Seeing institutional support from Iziko Museums for a young curator at such an early stage of their career was heartening, and I initially speculated that the exhibition may have resulted from an inter-institutional collaboration with Kilani’s prior institution. As it turns out, it is instead an independent curatorial initiative on Kilani’s part.
The works which make up ‘Still Life & Life Drawings – A Moment Captured or Preserved’ are the result of a four day workshop which Kilani conceptualised as a collaborative project amongst the five artists included in the exhibition. The intended thematic prompting was to critique the assumptions and presuppositions embedded in ideas of still lifes and life drawing through a wholesale embracing of collaborative processes.
This communal formula for producing art ensured that participants produced the exhibition as a collective along with the curator – benefiting from the rare opportunity to play and become co-creators. The inclusion of artists in process from beginning to end is the elevation of the making process – demystifying and disrobing the behind the scenes elements of how artworks are brought to realisation.
The sense of playfulness manifested from the get-go. SAY.SAY.LOVE’s collages sampled a whimsical fashion editorial style – especially his humouristic use of a Speedo swimcap, faux hairpieces, sunglasses and such to emulate contemporary streetwear adorning pedestrians in the Company Gardens-complete with cigarette dangling from one of his portrait’s mouths.
Process is foregrounded in Ndikhumbule Ngqinambi’s artwork. In describing his piece, the artist mentions that when audiences visit exhibitions they are traditionally presented with a finished product which is essentially the summary of many steps. Ngqinambi breaks tradition and chooses a long cardboard sheet as his canvas – half of which is covered by a character performing a sequence of movements in which he is throwing a briefcase. He creates a stop-motion animation of sorts in which, by showing the sequence of actions, he reveals the process of creating a resultant action. Ndikhumbule further refers to his depiction as a desire to “Show the audience the back story by animating the process of making art”.
The site specificity in Tazneem Wentzel’s work draws on the colonial history of the Company Gardens. In her deconstruction of ‘Still Life’ – Wentzel’s installation, Recast, combines salt, floral elements and bread moulded into facial features below the sea-like salt surfaces. In her use of foodstuff she invokes “the demarcation of land for food as the earliest boundary between the local population and the VOC”, who were responsible for establishing the Company Gardens in order to “nourish passing Dutch East India ships”. Tazneem’s arts practice primarily takes on the form of work as a member of the collective Burning Museum. The collective has become almost synonymous with site specific wheatpaste artworks. Tazneem’s inclusion of elements like flour and water in the installation can be seen as extending the interpretation of the collective’s favoured medium.
Dathini Mzayiya’s expressive Life Drawing triptych is similarly inspired by life in the Gardens. Mzayiya’s subject is Chuma, an artist who is seen selling portraits, of passersby, from one of the benches. The portraits capture Chuma in the act of listening to something on headphones – an action which comes alive in the exhibition by way of a low cost portable speaker with earphones placed to the side of the large drawing. The media player and its accompanying interview with Chuma on rough-living is a low-fi evolution of what Dathini calls ‘Drawalogy’ – his expansion of the drawing process by studying it’s relation to sound.
The privilege to play without having to pay for it in some way is practically a myth once we leave childhood for most of the working class – something that Thabo Pitso reiterates in his installation which is composed of coloured threads suspended between couches and school desks -effectively mapping the banality of life’s daily routine, a routine inevitably followed by death which Pitso symbolizes with a headboard placed at one end of the installation.
In the application of communal working practices this workshop and exhibition do not completely do away with the tropes of these genres. Instead we find a translation of the uses of conventional means of expression by means of particularly Capetonian and South African vernacular. Through the arrangement of their strong colloquial elements all of the works are designated with an emphasis on contemporary South African concerns.
In its focus on the process, this show turns the exhibition space into a disruptive space of learning – showing that art does not just materialize from thin air but is the product of many processes of work. Although many of the exhibiting artists work in ways that are stylistically familiar to repeat audiences of their work Lonwabo Kilani’s curation acknowledges the urgency for provision of alternative spaces where the making of art is not solely focused on commerce.