This student review comes from a critical art writing workshop facilitated by Nkule Mabaso at KZNSA Gallery, Durban in January 2019.
KZNSA Gallery, Durban
17.01 – 10.02.2019
‘Mating Birds Vol.2’ is a curatorial essay curated by Gabi Ngcobo, Sumayya Menezes and Zinhle Khumalo currently on show at the KZNSA in Durban. It is based on the book Mating Birds by Lewis Nkosi following the trial of a black man on trial for the alleged rape of a white woman, premised on the Immorality Acts in Apartheid South Africa.
The tactics employed by the curators overturn the white cube gallery culture and aesthetic, which is historically symbolic of upholding the canon of western art and artistic conventions.
When I entered the space, I noticed first that half the gallery was painted black and the other half white- the first ‘fuck you’ to the normative. The viewer is not enclosed, overwhelmed nor consumed by whiteness. On the wall facing the entrance, a timeline of the Immorality Act and the consequences it has had on people such as the number of convictions of each race group are illustrated in chalk: they create a conversation with the artworks and book extracts above it. Written text pieces in chalk serve as statistics of the Immorality Acts, taking on an almost ‘scholarly’ aesthetic. It invoked memories of the blackboards that were used in schooling systems. Objective history is under interrogation: the (mis)education of the youth and types of histories we choose to listen to are instrumental in shaping visions of the future.
An intervention! Text pieces by Simnikiwe Buhlungu- ‘we’re not making this up!’, ‘this we’re not making up!’ and ‘making this up we’re not!’ repetitively screams as a reaffirmation or conversely, an outcry. It pierces the atmosphere and transcends the gallery space beyond its pretentious culture to a place where matters are urgent: the real world.
Inclusivity and exclusivity are foregrounded- of language and of sexualities. A direct extract displayed on the wall from the novel by Lewis Nkosi talks about the word ‘orgies’ not being present in isiZulu. Ramifications of language are made obvious here as it shows that words literally get lost in translation. Speaking in English causes a lot of the original meanings to get dissolved or altered completely and changes the way we understand a term.
On the ground floor, glass library cases – or the ones museums use for specimen– display printed sections of the Immorality Acts amongst journal articles, a map of racially demarcated beaches in Durban and a photograph of the segregated beach. In some cases, there are highlighted sections in pages, scans of books, scans of newspaper clippings.
A constant interruption, scanned and printed book pages from various sources punctuate the artworks. The bookmarks are still there in some cases awarding a human presence to the space. What is important about the inclusion of these texts and excerpts is that it claims ‘lived experience’ as a part of history –and it does not make academia out to be something that is completely divorced from our lives or exclusively existing in ivory towers.
Staring back at the viewer laying in a free-standing case is a photograph holding Zanele Muholi and her white lover, bodies composed in a position reminiscent of a ‘yin and yang’ symbol in Chinese philosophy, known to mean ‘all things exist as inseparable and contradictory opposites.’ The government started targeting the LGBTQIA+ community and an amendment in the act was made toward homosexuals in 1968.
The museum cases create an interesting dynamic parallel to Muholi’s work which, among other things, aims to subvert and reclaim the colonial portraits rendering the black body as ‘specimen’ and ‘objects’ to be ‘studied’ and ‘examined’ during colonization. The cases contain laws, policies and documentation overturning and reversing this notion to put the Immorality Acts and its absurdities under observation and examination.
On the upper floor sealed in another glass case is significant literature from Bessie Head, Lauretta Ngcobo, Zakes Mda, Alan Paton and others speaking out during the Acts of Immorality. It serves as an archive preserving different narratives of histories.
Lady Skollie’s rebellious mural consumes the viewer: it is confrontational and provocative. The painting references rock art and it is painted directly onto the gallery’s walls.
The spatial location of this curatorial essay is suitable to the novel- a contemporary artistic and literary conversation is created out of it. It operates to educate rather than exclude, an invitation to engage. ‘Mating Birds Vol. 2’ is an iconic undertaking, participating in Durban’s history.
I was left with a feeling of urgency. Is this not the point of art: to move?